Hamlet Friends

In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince Hamlet replaces the letter that
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are carrying to England with a forgery of his own
making, thus sending these two men to their deaths. He does this without giving
it a second thought and never suffers from any guilt or remorse for his actions.

Considering that these two men were friends from his youth, this would at first
glance seem to reflect poorly on his character. However, one must consider
carefully the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern before passing judgment
on Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sent for by the King and Queen to
spy on Hamlet and learn why he “puts on this confusion” (III, i.2).

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While some are fooled by Hamlet’s act of insanity, the king is not. He is
convinced that it is an act and, being a sly man himself, he suspects that
Hamlet is up to something. Having obtained the throne through deceit and murder,
he believes Hamlet capable of the same. While King Claudius is evil, he is not a
fool and he would never have sent for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern if they were
such close friends of Hamlet. They are even told outright that they will be
rewarded for their efforts (II, ii. 21-6). The very fact that they undertake
this task for the king is proof enough of their lack of love and loyalty toward
Hamlet. Despite their actions, Prince Hamlet gives them ample opportunity to
show their loyalty by admitting that they were sent for and why. By showing so
much reluctance, they show themselves to be allied with the king. Hamlet asks
them to “be even and direct with me, whether you were sent for or no.”
But after this direct question, Rosencrantz still looks at Guildenstern and asks
if they should tell the truth (II, ii. 303-5). There is no reason to believe
that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have the conviction that Prince Hamlet is
indeed insane. When they report back to the king, they refer to Hamlet’s actions
as a “crafty madness” used to mislead them concerning “his true
state” (III, i. 6-8). They openly discuss Hamlet’s actions and motives with
the king, once again showing their true alliance. Later, when the king decides
to send Hamlet to England guarded by these men, they affirm his actions and any
future actions that may be carried out toward Hamlet. They know that Hamlet is
fully aware of their alliance with the king and therefore their lives have value
only as long as the king lives. “The cease of majesty dies not alone, but
like a gulf doth draw what’s near it with it” (III, iii, 16-8). Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern were present when Hamlet spoke to the head player about adding
a few lines to the play “The Murder of Gonzago.” They did not actually
hear what those lines were to be, but surely they could not help but realize
that the king’s anger during the play was probably related to the changes Hamlet
made. When the king rose in anger and left, he was followed by everyone except
Hamlet and Horatio. Hamlet, of course, was not concerned for the king, since he
knew the cause of his anger. Horatio’s heart was turned toward Hamlet, so he
also remained behind. Had Rosencrantz and Guildenstern been loyal to Hamlet,
they would have remained behind also, but ambition sent them after the man who
held the throne. When they do return, they pretend great love toward Hamlet,
only to be rebuked as liars. Hamlet is fully aware of their schemes to
manipulate him and tells them they show little respect for him in their attempts
to do so. “Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me” (III,ii.

371-2)! They think they can pluck the right strings and Hamlet will open his
whole heart to them, but Hamlet is no insane fool. He reads them in ways that
they are unable to read him. After Hamlet confronts his mother, the queen, he
reveals to her that he is fully aware of the danger that Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern represent to him. They are no longer childhood friends, but rather
“adders fanged.” They are involved in a conspiracy to destroy Hamlet
and he will see them “hoist with (their) own petar.” Not only does he
intend to outsmart these meddling fools, but he will relish it as well. “O,
’tis most sweet…” (III, iv. 225-32). Hamlet at one time was slow to
avenge his father’s death for fear of being deceived. He wanted to make sure of
King Claudius’ guilt before drawing his blood. However, once he was convinced of
that guilt, he saw the guilt of those closest to the king as well. He shrugged
off the accidental killing of Polonius as his due for meddling into affairs not
of his concern and then lightly planned the deaths of Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern for the same offense. When next Hamlet meets up with Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern, he no longer shows them any courtesy, but instead mocks them
just as he mocks the king. His contempt for them shows that he now views them as
the enemy. He calls them sponges that are out to “soak up the king’s
countenance, his rewards, his authorities.” Then he warns them what their
end will be. When the king is through with them, he will squeeze them out again
and they will once again be dry (IV, ii. 16-21). Either Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern are too foolish to understand this comparison or they are to
foolish to heed Hamlet’s warning. Either way, they are indeed fools and they die
a fool’s death in the end. They carry in the form of a letter, the king’s
command to have Hamlet beheaded upon his arrival in England. Hamlet switches the
letter with a forgery and seals it with a likeness of the king’s seal. The new
letter orders the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, thus they handcarry
their own death sentences to their executioners. A poetic justice is served to
these unfaithful “friends.”


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