Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  They are unusual as characters in a Shakespeare play as he has created them as one character in the form of two people.

That would appear not to make sense but they are similar, as a literary device, to Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – always appearing together and indistinguishable from each other. Shakespeare does not wish to have a fully rounded sycophantic character commissioned by the king to spy on Hamlet but rather to show that such men without character are two a penny in the corrupt court of Denmark, all of them currying favour with the king, all indistinguishable from each other. They are part of the spreading corruption created by Claudius drawing everyone into his orbit.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on stage with blue background, face forward with arms around each others shoulders

Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

There are many such men and they are all the same – indistinguishable from each other. And indeed, he makes this point very strongly in Act 2 Scene 2 when they share their statement of service to Claudius in a sucking-up speech, as though they were one person. Claudius, thanks them with ‘Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern,’ and the queen, Gertrude follows with ‘Thanks Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz,’ emphasising their co-joined nature.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are fellow students of Hamlet at the University at Wittenberg. Claudius, suspicious and afraid of the young prince whose father he has murdered, whose mother he has married and whose throne he has stolen, fearing the action that Hamlet may take against him, sends for them to spy on the young prince.

Hamlet welcomes them warmly, appreciating their visit, until he realises that they have been sent for to spy on him and report back to the king. That results in some of the play’s most amusing moments as he goads them and ties them up in knots as they seek to throw him off the scent.

The two spies are ultimately unsuccessful in their mission and it is part of their anonymity that they are ineffective and feeble.

After Hamlet has killed Polonius Claudius detemines to get rid of Hamlet. He decides to send him to England on a spurious ‘diplomatic mission’, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern accompanying him. He gives them a letter to the English king, requesting that he put Hamlet to death. While onboard Hamlet discovers that and changes the letter to request the execution of the pair instead. He is rescued by pirates and the two spies sail on to their deaths.

That seems a very cruel way to deal with his fellow students but audiences can appreciate the irony. That also fits in with one of the play’s main themes – that the corruption collapses as those who plot and scheme fall into the traps they have set. It would be difficult to sympathise with them because they are not characters that we care about. The irony of their fate is almost amusing, horrifying as it is. The impact of such a death would be different if it were to happen to a sympathetic character.

In the style of a box set sequel, Tom Stoppard made his name in 1966 with a play called ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead’, where he expands upon the exploits of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in an absurdist tragicomedy set in Denmark.

Top Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Quotes

Rosencrantz. Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a quality that
it is but a shadow’s shadow.


Rosencrantz. The single and peculiar life is bound
With all the strength and armour of the mind
To keep itself from noyance; but much more
That spirit upon whose weal depends and rests
The lives of many. The cesse of majesty
Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw
What’s near it with it. It is a massy wheel,
Fix’d on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortis’d and adjoin’d; which when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boist’rous ruin. Never alone
Did the king sigh, but with a general groan. 3,3

Nay, their endeavor keeps in the wonted
pace. But there is, sir, an aerie of children, little
eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are
most tyrannically clapped for ‘t. These are now the
fashion and so berattle the common stages (so they
call them) that many wearing rapiers are afraid
of goose quills and dare scarce come thither.

(act 5, scene 2))

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