Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

May 9, 2006

I directed Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for my MFA thesis three years ago; it's hard to get those two characters out of my head. For that production, my priority was making them three-dimensional, human characters. Balancing Stoppard's brilliant intellectual wordplay with genuine heart. Hamlet in that play is a machine, a trap from which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to escape.

They're not the same characters in Shakespeare, of course. I still want to make them three-dimensional, human characters, but now their context is entirely different. They know why they're at Elsinore, and they remember their friendship with Hamlet. They grew up with him, and a close reading of the text suggests that Hamlet is much closer with these two than he ever was with Horatio. Horatio becomes Hamlet's friend over the course of the play. Hamlet pushes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern away.

The line that really stood out for me when I first started thinking through this production was Hamlet's line about knowing a hawk from a handsaw. It's at the end of the first conversation he has with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, after he's gotten them to admit that they were sent for. As soon as they admit this, Hamlet launches into his "What a piece of work is a man" speech — exposing his unhappiness to his friends without revealing its cause. They tell him about the players, and in the last moments before Polonius enters Hamlet says

Gentlemen, you are welcome to Elsinore. Your hands, come then. You are welcome. But my uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived.

GUIL: In what, my dear lord?

HAM: I am but mad north-northwest. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

What is Hamlet doing here? Part of the antic disposition is allowing himself to say things that wouldn't otherwise be appropriate, including direct insults to Polonius and the King. Seeming nonsequiters and hidden messages are also common, and this at first glance seems to be one or the other. But now I think Hamlet is almost straightforwardly telling his best friends that he is not mad after all, that he's merely acting mad — as a way to get them on his side against the King. Once he realizes they are reporting to Claudius, he knows he can't tell them the whole truth. But they are still his best friends, and he sees an opportunity to find a couple of allies. Unfortunately for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet then gets caught up in the plotting around the play, and they don't manage to earn his trust before falling into the trap he springs on them.

That's Hamlet's point of view. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern famously don't have a lot to go on in this play. They have no idea that Claudius murdered Old Hamlet. They don't know about the Ghost. At first, they have no reason to doubt that Hamlet is actually suffering from mental illness — and no reason to doubt the King's word that he has sent for them out of concern for Hamlet's well-being. From their point of view, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are just trying to help their old friend.

The line that kills me is from Rosencrantz, just after the mousetrap: "My lord, you once did love me." So similar to "I did love you once," "Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so," with Ophelia. As with Ophelia, Hamlet pushes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern away. They are part of the world, part of the change that Claudius represents. Ophelia is linked with Gertrude in Hamlet's mind by virtue of her womanhood; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are linked to the King by their service to him. In trying to deny that change, Hamlet denies his closest friends.

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One Response to “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern”


  1. […] My goal here was to set up a strong relationship between Hamlet and his old friends — see this post on my analysis of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and this post about directing this scene. […]


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