Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had been fellow-students of
Hamlet at Wittenberg, and were much beloved by him. "Good
gentlemen," says the Queen,
he hath much talk'd of you;
And, sure I am, two men there are not living
To whom he more adheres. -- II. ii. 19.
They are received with cordiality by the Prince, and are entertained without reserve until he perceives they have been corrupted by the King. They are typical of men whose inclinations are good, but who lack character to follow those inclinations. They cannot even practice villainy with success. "You were sent for," says Hamlet, "and there is a kind of confession in your looks, which your modesties have not craft enough to colour." They commit no actual crime in the play, and are apparently no worse than the society in which they move.
Hamlet tells Rosencrantz that he "soaks up"
the king's countenance, his rewards, his authorities; he keeps
them, like an ape doth nuts, in the corner of his jaw; first
mouthed, to be last swallowed: when he needs what you have
gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you shall be dry
again, IV. ii. 17.
They are fools more than they are knaves, but Shakespeare knows that folly is often more harmful than knavery. When
death is meted out to them as a punishment for their base servility, Hamlet satisfies himself with the reflection,
Why, man, they did make love to this employment;
They are not near my conscience; their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow. -- V. ii. 57.
He feels no compunction at their fate, and though their punishment is severe, they leave the world no poorer for their loss.
"Wilhelm Meister translates Hamlet and adapts it for the
stage; a difficulty arises in finding characters to fill all the parts,
and Serlo, the stage manager, suggests that Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern should be compressed into one. 'Heaven preserve me from all such curtailments!' answered Wilhelm, 'they destroy at once the sense and the effect. What these two persons are and do, it is impossible to represent by one. In such small matters, we discover Shakespeare's greatness. These soft approaches, this smirking and bowing, this assenting, wheedling, flattering, this whisking agility, this wagging of the tail, this
allness and emptiness, this legal knavery, this ineptitude and insipidity, -- how can they be expressed by a single man? There ought to be at least a dozen of these people, if they could be had: for it is only in society that they are anything; they are society itself, and Shakespeare showed no little wisdom and discernment in bringing in a pair of them.'" -- Goethe.
How to cite this article:
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Eds. F. A. Purcell and L. M. Somers. Chicago: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1916. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2013. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/rosencrantz.html >.
Points to Ponder ... "Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to be of about the same age as Hamlet. How then do they come to be at Wittenberg? I had thought that this question might be answered in the following way. If 'the city' is Wittenberg, Shakespeare would regard it as a place like London, and we might suppose that Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were living there, though they had ceased to be students. But this can hardly be true of Horatio, who, when he (to spare Hamlet's feelings) talks of being 'a truant,' must mean a truant from his University." A. C. Bradley. Read on...