Rosencrantz and Guildenstern  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are fictional characters, a pair of courtiers appearing in William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet. They are also major characters in Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and W. S. Gilbert's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were common Danish family names of the 16th century; records of the Danish royal coronation of 1596 show that one tenth of the aristocrats participating bore the one or the other name.


Shakespeare's Hamlet

In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern first appear in Act II, Scene 2, where they attempt to place themselves in the confidence of Prince Hamlet, their childhood friend. The smooth and courtly language they employ immediately establishes them as sycophants. In reality, however, they serve as spies for the corrupt King Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, who usurped the throne and constantly attempts to check his nephew. Hamlet welcomes them as "excellent good friends", but, seeing through their guise, comments that they won't "deal justly" with him about their mission. Realising that he lacks allies except for Horatio, Hamlet gives a well-known speech on depression to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

In Act III, Hamlet drops the pretense of friendship, coldly dismissing the two in Scene 2 by his only use of the royal "we" in the play. To his mother, he comments in Scene 4 that "I will trust [them] as I will adders fang’d".

When Hamlet kills Polonius, Claudius recruits Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to escort Hamlet to England, providing them with a letter for the King of England instructing him to have Hamlet killed. Along the journey, the distrustful Hamlet finds and rewrites the letter instructing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be killed instead. When their ship is attacked by pirates, Hamlet returns to Denmark, leaving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to go to their deaths; he comments in Act V, Scene 2 that "They are not near my conscience; their defeat / Does by their own insinuation grow". Ambassadors returning later report that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead."

As agents of the corruption infecting the court, the two toadies contribute to setting up the confrontation between Hamlet and Claudius. The poet expects the audience to appreciate the poetic justice of their deaths: while they are very likely ignorant of the deadly contents of the letter they carry to England, and are to that extent innocent victims of Hamlet's retaliation, they are seen as having received the just deserts for their participation in Claudius's intrigues. The courtiers always appear as a pair, except in editions following the First Folio text, where Guildenstern enters four lines after Rosencrantz in Act IV, Scene 3.

Gilbert's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Gilbert's play is a comedy in which Rosencrantz plots with his friend Guildenstern to get rid of Hamlet, so that Rosencrantz can marry his beloved, Ophelia. They discover that Claudius has written a play. The king's literary work is so embarrassingly bad that Claudius has decreed that anyone who mentions it must be executed. They obtain the manuscript and convince Hamlet to perform it. When he does, Claudius decrees that he must die, but is eventually persuaded to banish him to England. Rosencrantz and Ophelia can now be together.

Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (film)

As the protagonists of Stoppard's play and film, they are confused by the events of Hamlet and seem unaware of their role in the larger drama. The play is primarily a comedy, but they often stumble upon deep philosophical truths through their nonsensical ramblings. In the movie, Rosencrantz invents the hamburger, and rediscovers gravity and volume displacement, among other things. The characters depart from their epiphanies as quickly as they come to them.

At times, one appears to be more enlightened than the other; however this light is traded off throughout the course of the drama. Stoppard also littered his play with jokes referring to the common thespian tendency to swap Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the midst of the play, because the characters are basically identical. He does this by making Rosencrantz and Guildenstern unsure of who is who, as well as having the other players (Claudius, Hamlet, Gertrude) refer to them frequently by the wrong names. Because of Dead's similarity to Waiting for Godot, Rosencrantz is sometimes compared with Estragon (one of the tramps who was "waiting" for Godot), who shares his dim perception of reality, while Guildenstern parallels Vladimir, who shares his analytical perception.

Other portrayals

  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the names of important characters in Square Co. (currently Square-Enix) Vagrant Story videogame. Rosencrantz is a mercenary and Guildenstern is the game's main antagonist.
  • The characters of Royce and Aldo in the Doctor Who serial Warriors' Gate are based on Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
  • Two treacherous ferrets named Rosencrass and Guildenswine appear in Garry Kilworth's Welkin Weasels series.
  • Rosencrantz is the pseudonym of a renowned Austrian performance artist.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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