Being sent for by Claudius to spy on Hamlet, Shakespeare’s characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear to jump at the opportunity to do so. Their subsequent actions, such as reporting to Claudius, being servile with Hamlet up to such a degree that Hamlet himself sees through their actions, only prove to contribute towards the final conflict between Hamlet and the murderer of his father. In the end, their lack of knowledge about the letter they bring to England, does not appear to diminish their part in the game of intrigue Claudius plays, and the readers are satisfied both of them receive their righteous punishment. Thus, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two halves of a one treacherous whole, serve as part of Claudius’ trap to get rid of Hamlet, and these two are all too eager to earn their money for it.
When they first enter the stage, they do so together and are as well greeted by Hamlet together, by both their names: “Welcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” (Shakespeare II.ii.1). This, along with the fact that they rarely appear alone throughout the course of the play, but mostly together, hints at the idea that they do not even exist without each other, and as such, they both act as one individual, ready to betray Hamlet by following the king’s orders. They use the pronouns we and us frequently, as if they are both interchangeable, thinking, deciding and replying for each other, and it seems that Hamlet himself views them as one merged entity from his school days.
As a result, at first, Hamlet welcomes them as his dear friends, though their real purpose of visit becomes all too evident to him, when they begin to exhibit a suspicious amount of servitude and curiosity as to his affairs. His sees through their guise and realizes they are nothing more but paid squealers, sent by Claudius. As their intelligence can hardly be a match to Hamlet’s, their dishonesty is paired only by their incompetence. They do not manage to get any information out of Hamlet and their reports to Claudius are as empty of valuable facts as their heads: “Where the dead body is bestow’d, my lord,/ We cannot get from him” (Shakespeare IV.iii.13-14). This allows Hamlet to mock them frequently, and to finally reveal what he truly thinks of them and their endeavor, by dismissing them in Act III, comparing them with fanged adders in whom he shall place no trust: “my two schoolfellows,/ Whom I will trust as I will adders fang’s” (Shakespeare III.iv.202-203). Thus, their employment is evident and Hamlet knows how to dispose of them.
Interestingly enough, while Hamlet finds it difficult to assume a course of action when it comes to facing Claudius, he appears not to have any such issue when dealing with these two traitors. He believes that the only just retribution for their dishonesty and treachery is death, so he arranges for their execution in England, stating indifferently that since they loved their employment so much, “They are not near my conscience” (Shakespeare V.ii.58). And, with this, he closes the chapter that involves the two of them, only to hear the news in what is now a renowned phrase, that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” (Shakespeare V.ii.355).
Consequently, Claudius seems to have chosen highly inadequate spies to extract information from Hamlet, as they do not manage to do anything worth the money they were promised. Their lack of dimension, sentiment and personality mars them as flat characters who neither do anything worth mentioning in the play, nor are remembered after their death at the hands of the object of their treachery.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1st ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.