Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
A lithograph of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the flute scene from Hamlet by Eugène Delacroix
Creator William Shakespeare
Play Hamlet

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are characters in William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet. They are childhood friends of Hamlet, summoned by King Claudius to distract the prince from his apparent madness and if possible to ascertain the cause of it. The characters were revived in W. S. Gilbert's satire, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and as the alienated heroes of Tom Stoppard's absurdist play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Rosencrantz ("rosary") and Gyldenstjerne/Gyllenstierna ("golden star") were names of Danish (and Swedish) noble families of the 16th century; records of the Danish royal coronation of 1596 show that one tenth of the aristocrats participating bore one or the other name.[1] James Voelkel suggests that the characters were named after Frederick Rosenkrantz and Knud Gyldenstierne (cousins of Tycho Brahe), who had visited England in 1592.[2]

Shakespeare's Hamlet[edit]

The majority of characters in Hamlet have classical names, in contrast to the "particularly Danish" ones of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The names were common in the court of Frederick II and Christian IV, and also at the University of Wittenberg, an institution where Hamlet is mentioned as having studied (he refers to them as "my two schoolfellows").[3]

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[1] who are really serving 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.[1] Realising that he lacks allies except for Horatio, Hamlet gives the speech "What a piece of work is a man" to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.[1]

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. (They are apparently unaware of what is in the letter, though Shakespeare never explicitly tells so.) Along the journey, the distrustful Hamlet finds and rewrites the letter, instructing the executioner to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead. When their ship is attacked by pirates, Hamlet returns to Denmark, leaving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to die; 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 contribute to setting up the confrontation between Hamlet and Claudius.[1] Shakespeare expects the audience to appreciate the poetic justice of their deaths:[1] 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 their just deserts for their participation in Claudius's intrigues.[1] 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.[1]

Gilbert's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern[edit]

W. S. Gilbert's play (1874) is a comedy in which Rosencrantz plots with his friend Guildenstern to get rid of Hamlet, so that Rosencrantz can marry 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[edit]

As the protagonists of Tom 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 discovers gravity and volume displacement, among other things. The characters depart from their epiphanies as quickly as they come to them.

At times, one appears more enlightened than the other—but they trade this enlightenment back and forth throughout the drama. Stoppard also littered his play with jokes that refer 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 the play's similarity to Waiting for Godot, Rosencrantz is sometimes compared to Estragon (one of the tramps who wait for Godot), and who shares his dim perception of reality, while Guildenstern parallels Vladimir, who shares his analytical perception.[original research?]

Other portrayals[edit]

  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the names of important characters in the Square Co. (currently Square-Enix) video game Vagrant Story. Rosencrantz is a mercenary and Guildenstern is the game's main antagonist.
  • Two treacherous ferrets named Rosencrass and Guildenswine appear in Garry Kilworth's Welkin Weasels series.
  • In the 2011 film Gnomeo and Juliet the moving company that separated the two flamingoes was listed as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the truck.
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead is a 2009 American independent film written and directed by Jordan Galland. The film's title refers to a fictitious play-within-the-movie, which is a comic reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and its aftermath.[4]
  • In the episode "Tales from the Public Domain" of The Simpsons, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are parodied by Lenny and Carl as Rosencarl and Guildenlenny
  • Similarly, in the 1983 movie Strange Brew, the characters Bob and Doug McKenzie (portrayed respectively by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) are modeled on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a plot loosely based on Hamlet.
  • In the movie Princess Diaries 2: A Royal Engagement, Princess Mia's friend Lily addresses two of the palace maids as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
  • Dutch author Annie M.G. Schmidt used Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the names of two prominent pet cats in her radio play / novel "Ibbeltje", dated 1961.
  • Rosenberg and Goldstein from the Harold & Kumar film series are named after them.
  • Gozencrantz and Rildenstern from the Yogscast - Yoglabs YouTube series are named after them.
  • Ben Rosenstern and Jerry Guildencrantz from the BBC Two comedy W1A are named after them.[5]
  • In the Archie Comics Mega Man series detective agents "Roslyn Krantz" and "Gil D. Stern" are named in reference to the two Hamlet characters.
  • Rosencrantz and C. from the Israeli comedy sketch "Hayehudim Ba'im"
  • A 1978 episode of The Rockford Files is entitled "Rosendahl and Gilda Stern Are Dead." In the episode, a doctor named Rosenfeld along with a nurse named Gilda Stern are murdered by a mobster for their part in leaving him crippled after a botched hip transplant.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Boyce, Charles (2005). Critical Companion to William Shakespeare: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work. Facts On File, Inc. p. 154. ISBN 0-8160-5373-1. 
  2. ^ Voelkel, James (1999). Johannes Kepler and the new astronomy. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 53. ISBN 0-19-515021-X. 
  3. ^ Harold Jenkins (1982). "Longer Notes". Hamlet. Arden Shakespeare. Meuthen. p. 422. ISBN 0-416-17920-7. 
  4. ^ Official film website
  5. ^