Although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are presumably unrelated, they nevertheless appear to the audience as dramatic twins, whose names, faces and speaking parts are interchangeable. As such, they could be seen as emblematic of the play’s tendency to generate other kinds of twins, not just in the rhetorical figures and tropes that categorise the drama’s language, but in the way the plot twins names and destinies e.g. old and young Hamlet, old and young Fortinbras etc. This drive towards doubles extends beyond the play as it characterises the textual history of Hamlet, based on another revenge tragedy of the same name. The play thus comes to us as an echo of another Hamlet, and so remains one of an original pair, an only twin, or a fatherless play, with the parent drama remaining a ghostly presence hovering around Shakespeare’s later reinvention of it.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remind us how deliberately, as a tragedy, Hamlet slips into another dramatic identity (its generic twin) – a comedy. The place audiences are most likely to find two characters who are practically indistinguishable from one another in face and voice is not a revenge tragedy by an “errors” play such as Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors or Twelfth Night, the plotting of which works primarily through the farcical confusion and madness generated by having two characters who look and sound identical. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have a similar effect, drawing our attention to issues of identity and individuality, and adding to the sense of Hamlet as a distorted comedy, in which other characters too have their stock comical roles twisted into traffic forms: Polonius as the old man (senex), Ophelia as the marriageable girl (virgo) and both Hamlet and Laertes as versions of the young man (adulescens).
Despite the thematic similarities between Hamlet and Twelfth Night (madness, mistakes, jesters, farce, marriages, mourning, homosocial bonds, family ties, friendships and deceptions), the key to Hamlet’s tragedy is his singularity. Whereas The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night resolve their confusions through the final, wondrous moment of reunion, where (as if by some miracle) the twins meet again, leaving the other on-stage characters to undergo anagnorisis and understanding, no such ending is available to Hamlet: no catharsis is released. When Hamlet does meet his twin, his recognition scene if transformed into something both poignant yet macabre, occurring in the graveyard of 5.1 where Hamlet is suddenly reunited with his last double – the dead fool, Yorick – whose skull he contemplates as if it were a mirror filled with his own dark reflections. Hamlet’s words signal complex, twinned emotions at this point, of wonder and of nostalgia but also of disgust, as he declares, “I knew him, Horatio. A/ fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” before casting aside this reeking memento mori with no more than a “Pah!”. Perhaps what makes his moment with Yorick’s smile so memorable, and so profound, is the same moving and unsettling quality which characterises Hamlet as a tragedy. For what we engage with in Hamlet is the existential loneliness of a long-standing joke: of a man who remains, tragically, an only twin.