Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not just difficult to distinguish as friends or foes: they are, crucially and strangely, difficult to differentiate from each other. This mistaking of identity is seen within the original text, as when we first meet them Gertrude corrects the King in mistaking “gentle Gertrude” for “gentle Rosencrantz” (2.2.33-4), and from the way the characters seems to share the same voice through indistinct styles of talking. In 2.2 they address the King individually, but nevertheless as a two-in-one entity – speaking as an ‘us’ and for ‘we both’ (II. 27,29) – while elsewhere the lines of either could be delivered as easily by one as by the other. They are inseparable, too, only ever appearing together, and this strangeness is intensified by the fact that they never speak to one another, thus available to be exploited in Stoppard’s absurdist existential tragicomedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The 20th century play demonstrates the comedy of the two seemingly identical characters. Their names are mixed up between not only other characters, but themselves, and their separate identities are further abridged through their names being reduced to “Ros” and “Guil”, exemplifying the problem of distinguishing between friends and enemies and tragedy and comedy. However, this leaves audiences to question why Shakespeare included two interchangeable characters to play what is essentially one part? “Why two salaries?” is Michael Pennington’s point about this odd couple. What is their function, then, as a pair? They perhaps allow visual and dramatic explanation into how we review Hamlet who is stranded in a drama haunted by doubles – rhetorical, textual, theatrical – amid which he seems to be surrounded by other versions of himself, and yet, tragically alone.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s joint role signal something of the corruption of the new regime, which can transform school friends into hirelings with little effort. The only characters they significantly interact with are Claudius and Hamlet, the only two who they must impress either as employees or performers, and they are revealed to be sycophantic in the company of the King (as in the opening dialogue of 3.3 where they speak formally in verse) and bawdy with the Prince (2.2), with whom they speak as equals, in prose. Aside from their ability to soak up sponge-like the speech habits of those with whom they talk, their exchanges with Hamlet suggest that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern function as another pair of foils for the Prince, whose “antic disposition” foils every attempt they make to fathom the source of his recent alteration. Like Polonius, then, they serve to reveal the range and depth of Hamlet’s wit, as well as the “savage side to Hamlet” when evading their invasiveness and in sending them to their deaths in England.
There is something fundamentally menacing about the ways in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern approach Hamlet always as a duo as if Hamlet is being outnumbered in his encounters with them, and so must be doubly sharp, doubly quick witted as a result. By moving and talking always in tandem, we get a powerful sense of how sinister this double act may be. We should not underestimate either the sheer strangeness that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lend to Hamlet. Everything about them seems to generate unease, from their eerie indistinctiveness (actors playing them may have to wear different colours to be distinguished, for example) to their seemingly telepathic ability to act and speak together without communicating directly with one another. Naturally, then, these dramatic twins contribute to the claustrophobia of Hamlet’s world (which is a “prison” to him, as he confessed to them in 2.2. of the folio text), as well as to the dream-like, surreal quality of Hamlet as they stalk the Prince in unison. As much as the Ghost’s terrifying appearance or Ophelia’s bizarrely beautiful drowning, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inform out sense that Hamlet is a play full of ‘bad dreams’ (2.2.253-3)
The visual function of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is perhaps most important to register. When Polonius is about to re-enter 2.2, for example, Hamlet directs his ‘good lads’ to stand beside him, ‘at each ear a hearer’ (2.2.318-19). While this implied stage direction underscores Hamlet’s awareness of them both as spies and eavesdroppers, this balancing of one on either side of him offers us a telling arrangement. It may remind us of the roles played by the ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ angels of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, who may be imagined advising Faustus standing at each ear, whether to continue sin or to repent, for instance, with Faustus unsure which to follow. Just such radical uncertainty is articulated by the speaker of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144 (first published in 1599) who is likewise trapped in a nightmarish love triangle created by his ‘better angel’ and a ‘worser spirit’, while caught in the ‘hell’ of his unproven suspicions that something is going on between them. As a visual arrangement, standing ‘at each ear’ reminds us of how so many relationships in Hamlet are triangular in nature, often leaving Hamlet caught between two alternatives: between Gertrude and Ophelia, Ophelia or Laertes, Laertes or Fortinbras, Fortinbras or the Ghost, the Ghost and Claudius and Claudius or Gertrude. On this basis, too, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could be seen as an emblem of all the dualities and doubles that haunt Hamlet. They become life-size embodiment of a pattern evident throughout the play, whereby our attention is drawn to objects, persons and images are simultaneously distinct and yet difficult to distinguish: uncles and fathers, cousins and sons, mothers and lovers, Hyperions and satyrs, hawks and handsaws, spirits and goblins, pickers and stealers, accidents, murders and suicides. When Horatio describes the Ghost to Hamlet in 1.2. as being ‘like your father’ he makes his point both visually emphatically: ‘These hands are not more like’ he says (1.2.211). Much the same could be said to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
In relation to the play’s recurring fascination with identity, this pair plays an important role. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to embody the regime–defining language of balance and antithesis used by Claudius in the public speeches of 1.2 to justify his uneasy union to his “sometime sister”. Their very names seem to balance across the same hinges of Claudius’s opening rhetoric of ‘green’ and ‘grief’, ‘sister’ and ‘Queen’, ‘mirth’ and ‘dirge’ – and so too Rose–n–crantz and Guild–n–stern. But as characters they also visually and physically mirror the play’s recurring use of the ‘one-through-two’ figure of speech known as hendiadys, where two words are coupled to serve in the place of one (being joined in the middle by ‘and’), and which dominates the language patterns of Hamlet in a way unique among Shakespeare’s dramatic words, bequeathing to it a ‘perception of doubleness in everything’ (Wright). Hendiadys can be seen (and heard), for example, in the Prince’s ‘book and volume of my brain’ (1.5.103), and in his class to “Angels and ministers of grace” to defend him (1.4.39), or in Horatio’s description of Hamlet’s ‘wild and whirling words’ (1.5.132). As George T. Wright has shown, it is hardly a linguistic trait limited to Hamlet either, who nevertheless has a habit of doubling what he says through repetition, as in “My tables! My tables!” and “very like, very like” (1.5.107, 1.2.238). As with all the other rhetorical couplings in the play, from Hamlet’s opening quip on ‘kin’ and ‘kind’ (1.2.65) to the most famous antithesis in the English language – “To be or not to be” (3.1.55) – Shakespeare’s deployment of hendiadys in Hamlet seems designed to disturb and complicate perceptions both in and of the play’s actions. As Wright puts it: “hendiadys, far from explaining mysteries, establishes them”, primarily because it offers “not merely amplification or intensification” as a rhetorical device, “but an interweaving, sometimes a muddling of meanings”. In this way, all of Hamlet’s rhetorical doublings – from an oxymoron and antithesis to hendiadys and the simple pun – offer a stylistic means of underlining the play’s themes of anxiety, bafflement, disjunction in Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the visible component of this ‘anxiety, bafflement, disjunction. They are a visual hendiadys: a duo impossible to separate and between whom it becomes difficult to distinguish true from false, friend from foe, reality from representation. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are “mirrors” that distort the “reality they pretend to reproduce” and whose unheimlich togetherness (like Claudius’ marriage to his “sometimes sister”) mocks normal unions of entities. This odd couple stand, then, neither in the margins of Hamlet’s structures of meaning nor at the periphery of our experiences of the play: the remain at the core of both.