LitStaff Pick: Favorite Characters from Shakespeare

On Rosencrantz and Guildensternoldman-roth

If Hamlet is the Tom Cruise of Denmark, then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the proverbial Akbar and Jeff in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

Here we have two would-be schoolyard friends of Hamlet ingratiating themselves into the graces of the young prince all the while actually being employed as spies by Hamlet’s corrupt uncle Claudius, the usurper to the throne of Denmark.

While Hamlet welcomes these two as good friends, he begins to see both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as amateur sycophants for his corrupt uncle Claudius.

At some point (as the story unfolds), Hamlet kills Polonius. Claudius, being fed up with his nephew, employs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to escort Hamlet to England. In the plan, they are carrying a dispatch instructing the King of England to kill the bearer of the letter.

Simple as the plan is, Hamlet jumps ship before these two arrive. And, rather than open the message from Claudius, they deliver it and meet their untimely end.

We hear this through a conversation between Horatio and Hamlet in Act V, Scene II.

Horatio: So, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go

Hamlet: Why, man, they did make love to this employment; they are not near my conscience

You have to admire their chutzpah in the absence of genuine intelligence, and it is here the genuine comedy (albeit morbid to this writer) can be found. It’s the original just desserts for friends bound by ulterior motives. And, it’s kind of sad, really. These two characters (near mirrors of one another) seem highly incapable for making their own decisions, and thus appear to kind of float in whatever direction they are pointed.

It’s these lessons: be good to your friends, and take control of your destiny before it takes control of you.

These two background characters later inspired Tom Stoppard’s work, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

-TR Woodruff

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