In Shakespeare's play Hamlet (which you can read online), Hamlet is on a voyage with his two friends, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, to give a letter to a foreign ruler. However, Hamlet discovers that the letter they are carrying orders the foreign ruler to put him (Hamlet) to death. So Hamlet changes the letter so that it asks for Guildenstern and Rosencrantz to be put to death, and then leaves the boat to return home.

However, this seems a little bit unfair to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. For one thing, they didn't write the letter--Claudius did (the letter had the king's seal). For another, as far as I can tell there isn't any evidence that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz knew about the contents of the letter.

When asked about this, Hamlet tells Horatio that:

Why, man, they did make love to this employment;
They are not near my conscience; their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow:
'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensed points
Of mighty opposites.

Which, again, I don't really think is fair. There's no evidence that "they did make love to this employment," and saying that its "dangerous when the baser nature [Guildenstern and Rosencrantz] comes Between the pass and fell incensed points Of mighty opposites [Hamlet and Claudius]" seems pretentious rather than a valid moral explanation.

Am I missing something here? Do Guildenstern and Rosencrantz deserve their deaths?

  • 6
    Why do you think Hamlet's words reflect Shakespeare's opinions?
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 3, 2017 at 17:06
  • 1
    @PeterShor ...I think that?
    – user111
    Dec 17, 2017 at 23:35
  • "deserves' got nothin' to do with it" "They had it coming - we all have it coming"
    – Pete
    Jan 23 at 10:58

3 Answers 3


Whether you think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deserve to die depends to some extent on the moral framework you use. When writing Hamlet, Shakespeare was working in the tradition of the revenge tragedy (although the play is almost an anti-revenge tragedy) and he was using a story that ultimately goes back to a Nordic tradition. So there are several moral frameworks you can use:

  1. The moral framework of the Nordic tradition where the story originates (but to which Shakespeare probably had no access).
  2. The moral framework of the age of Saxo Grammaticus(c. 1150 – c. 1220). Saxo's Gesta Danorum contains the story of the downfall of Amleth, Prince of Denmark.
  3. The moral framework of the age of François de Belleforest, whose Histoires tragiques contains a translation of Saxo's Amleth story (1570).
  4. The moral framework of Shakespeare's own age, which presumably also produced a now lost Ur-Hamlet that is often attributed to Thomas Kyd. (There are also many similarities between Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare's Hamlet, such as a ghost, madness, and a play-within-the-play.)
  5. The moral framework of our own age, let's say of early 21st-century Western Europe.

So here we go:

  1. In the old Nordic tradition, e.g. the Hrólfs saga kraka, which may have influenced Saxo, violence and revenge often require little "justification" and can easily lead to a cycle of violence. Family feuds and the quest for revenge are common themes in e.g. Old Norse literature.
  2. In Saxo's version of the story, Amleth feigns madness to shield himself from his uncle Fengo or Fengi, who has killed his father Horwendil and married his mother Gerutha (Amleth's father and mother, of course; this isn't Oedipus). Fengo gets suspicious and sends Amleth to England with two escorts (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Shakespeare's version). The two escorts are carrying a letter instructing the King of England to immediately kill Amleth. Amleth discovers the letter and replaces it with another one ordering the execution of the two escorts and asking for the hand of an English princess in marriage. (There are a number of important differences between Saxo's and Shakespeare's versions. For example, in Saxo's version, Fengo's guilt is known from the start, and there is no ghost demanding vengeance.) In Saxo's version, Amleth's revenge does not depend on overcoming moral or psychological barriers, but on overcoming barriers that are of a practical nature. The same appears to apply to Amleth's plotting of the death of his two escorts. It is not a matter of "justification" but what you can get away with.
  3. Shakespeare may have known Saxo's version only through François de Belleforest's version and/or through the hypothetical Ur-Hamlet. For simplicity's sake, I will treat de Belleforest, the Ur-Hamlet and Shakespeare's Hamlet (written in 1600–1601) as belonging to the same period. For moral views on revenge, I'll refer to Francis Bacon's essay "Of Revenge". Bacon's essay starts with the following words: "Revenge is a kind of wild justice; which the more man's nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out. For as for the first wrong, it doth but offend the law; but the revenge of that wrong putteth the law out of office." This reflects a totally different view on social order than Saxo's story. But the next sentences have greater relevance to Hamlet's plot against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (my emphasis):

Certainly, in taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince's part to pardon. And Solomon, I am sure, saith, "It is the glory of a man to pass by an offence."

"Prince" here means "ruler", not "the king's son". Nevertheless, based on Bacon's condemnation of revenge, Hamlet should have devised a different way to extricate himself from Claudius's plot, and Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's deaths are not justified.

  1. Finally, there's early 21st century Europe, where I live. Within this framework, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not deserve to die for carrying a letter, the contents of which they do not know (III.iii.1-25 mention the stability of the kingdom as a reason for sending Hamlet away), or for spying on Hamlet on behalf of Claudius (which Hamlet truly hates, especially from former schoolfriends; see IV.ii).

So whether Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "deserve" to die depends on whether you look at it from a medieval point of view (including Saxo Grammaticus) or not. We can find a condemnation of revenge both in the English Renaissance and in our own age.

However, Hamlet's plot against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is probably not so much a question of whether it can be justified, as an illustration of something else: that Hamlet can kill on the spur of the moment or when he sees his own life in danger (Polonius; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (see V.II.29ff: "Being thus be-netted round with villainies/..."); and finally Claudius) but not when he has time to think about what the consequences are (e.g. he does not kill Claudius during his prayers, because the King would then die repentant and go to heaven).

  • 1
    Hmmm. I almost forgot about the bounty bc of christmas. I ended up giving the bounty to you, because I think your answer does a better job capturing the moral ambiguilty of the scene. I did upvote both answers because they both are backed up to the extent that answers need to be to get an upvote from me. However, I wouldn't say that I find either satisfactory. I'm not saying that this answer needs to be improved-- I upvoted it -- but that there is a lot more that can (and should) be said about this scene.
    – user111
    Dec 25, 2017 at 18:55
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    Having had a chance to reread the answer, I have some feedback. First, the final paragraph is a key insight; it deserves to be the center of your answer rather than being tacked on at the end as an afterthought. Second, I would consider the historical analysis you do here to be a weakness rather than a strength. No society at any point in time has had a unified consensus on morality; we would have debates about things like civil rights if that was the case. But this answer talks about morality in terms of historical absolutes "people believed x in this time period".
    – user111
    Dec 26, 2017 at 13:55
  • I do find the comparison between the different versions of the story to be valuable because it illustrates how Shakespeare added moral ambiguity to the story (which perhaps is why his version of the story is remembered). So my feedback is to refocus this answer on how hamlet plans/deliberated these killings, and support that with a comparison of the different versions of the play.
    – user111
    Dec 26, 2017 at 14:00
  • With regard to "unified consensus on morality": this is neither assumed nor necessary, since I look only at certain works from those periods. A dominant view on revenge, as opposed to a "unified consensus on morality", is sufficient. Nevertheless, I'll look into the question again. In addition, I found the historical perspective important because modern readers tend to project (at least part of) their moral judgements onto older works, which results in an inconsistent moral view on those works.
    – Tsundoku
    Dec 26, 2017 at 14:06
  • As i mentioned, I do find your comparative analysis of different works to be valuable. I wouldnt say the same for how you claim each work is a product of the "dominant view of revenge at the time." I'm not against the use of history in answers about literature, but if you want to approach this question from a historical perspective, that would mean finding the debate, not the "dominant view", and placing hamlet in the context of that debate.
    – user111
    Dec 26, 2017 at 14:15

Hamlet was never very close with these two, and accuses them immediately: "I know the good king and queen have sent for you." Unlike his real friend Horatio, they have no reason to come to the hinterlands of Denmark other than to spy for Claudius.

The two come and go with the king and queen to the play which Hamlet stages, and then they bring the message from Gertrude that she wants to see him after it. It's pretty obvious that they are working for Claudius at least, and Hamlet knows Claudius killed his father. So they share in his evil to some degree.

He finally accuses them of lying to him and trying to manipulate him, like playing a recorder:

HAMLET: 'Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with
your lingers and thumb, give it breath with your
mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music.
Look you, these are the stops.

GUILDENSTERN: But these cannot I command to any utterance of
harmony; I have not the skill.

HAMLET: Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of
me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know
my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my
mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to
the top of my compass: and there is much music,
excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot
you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am
easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what
instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you
cannot play upon me.

He says it again after he kills Polonius, and Claudius sends them to him to find Polonius's body:

ROSENCRANTZ: Take you me for a sponge, my lord?

HAMLET: Ay, sir, that soaks up the king's countenance, his
rewards, his authorities. But such officers do the
king best service in the end: he keeps them, like
an ape, in the corner of his jaw; first mouthed, to
be last swallowed: when he needs what you have
gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you
shall be dry again.

Claudius sends Hamlet off with the two, and on "a plain in Denmark" they run into Prince Fortinbras of Norway and some of his soldiers. Fortinbras is attacking a little chunk of Poland purely because it's "supposed" to belong to Norway ("Truly to speak, and with no addition,/ We go to gain a little patch of ground/ That hath in it no profit but the name.") and the captain of the group tells Hamlet that 20,000 men may die in the fight.

Hamlet feels prodded morally by the willingness of twenty thousand men to die for a useless patch of ground, and realizes that he has to go back to Denmark and avenge his father's murder: "O, from this time forth,/My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!"

So he boards the ship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in this frame of mind. When he secretly reads the letter signed by Claudius which orders his execution, he doesn't know if R&G are in on the execution plot, but he knows that they are working for the king. He has to escape one way or another. It's not pleasant, but he figures that if they're going to throw in their lot with an incestuous murderer, they deserve whatever they get. So he rewrites the letter to send them to their deaths.

It wasn't that they showed up and innocently accompanied him on the ship; they've been actively reporting on him to Claudius for a chunk of the play, and trying to manipulate him for the king's nefarious ends, and Hamlet knows it.

  • 1
    I've always assumed Hamlet had been on good terms with R&G in the past, even though he's immediately suspicious. Their first interaction (fortune's cap/privates we/etc.) sounds like the ribald joking of close friends. Presumably, that's why Claudius thought to send for them. Dec 5, 2017 at 17:55

The deaths of Hamlet's friends are another step in the dissolution of Hamlet's character. He in unable to bear the burden of avenging his father and consequently causes the deaths of innocents: Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes, and his mother. His actions are in direct contrast to Laertes comment, " I'll kill him in a churchyard," and Fortinbras making war for a piece of land that would not be large enough to bury the soldiers lost to capture it. Hamlet is a character confronted by an overwhelming burden, but it was a burden that he couldn't bear; and as a result, caused the deaths stated above,

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    There is an answer to the question buried in here (where you refer to G&R as "innocents"), but it's not very clear. Could you edit your post to explain more thoroughly your conclusion that they were innocents and didn't deserve to die?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Dec 27, 2017 at 18:34