Hamlet is an Asshole

When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern first meet Hamlet in his eponymous play, he says with great delight, “My excellent good friends! How dost thou, / Guildenstern? Ah, Rosencrantz! Good lads, / how do ye both?” Apart from the opening line (My excellent good friends!) this does not strike me as wonderful poetry, but I am no Shakespearean scholar. Nevertheless, I can certainly tell that this is rubbish compared to the opening of Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York; / And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.” [1] It is even rubbish compared to other parts of Hamlet—soon after these lines, he writes some of his most beautiful verse, “What a piece of work is a man! / How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, / in form and moving how express and admirable, / in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like / a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! / And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man / delights not me.” But the point is not that the lines that Hamlet greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with are bad. The point is that there is no hint of irony.[2] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are childhood friends, and while Hamlet may not, at that moment, delight in “man,” he most clearly does delight in seeing his old friends.

As we all know, the King gives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a sealed royal document to give to the King of England when they go there with Hamlet. Hamlet, however, in a typically ridiculous Shakespearean plot twist, escapes from the trip by bribing some pirates, but not before stealing the document and replacing it with a facsimle. He had found out that the letter said that the King of England should kill Hamlet. In response, Hamlet wrote a letter telling the King of England to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He explains this to Horatio in Act 5, Scene 2: “An earnest conjuration from the king, / As England was his faithful tributary, / As love between them like the palm might flourish, / As peace should still her wheaten garland wear / And stand a comma ‘tween their amities, / many such-like ‘As’es of great charge, / That, on the view and knowing of these contents, / Without debatement further, more or less, / He should the bearers put to sudden death, / Not shriving-time allow’d.”

If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern knew what the letter said (or even had some idea), Hamlet might be forgiving for acting as he did. But we know that these two men were completely honest. First, there is no indication in the play that they knew the letter to the King of England commanded him to kill Hamlet. Second, if they had know, they certainly wouldn’t have delivered the letter to the King after Hamlet ran away. So Hamlet had absolutely no cause for killing his “Excellent good friends!” Instead, he could have simply destroyed the letter or replaced it with one that requested something benign. But he instead choose to have his friends killed—successfully we learn at the end of Act 5, Scene 2 when the English Ambassador arrives to announces, “The sight is dismal; / And our affairs from England come too late: / The ears are senseless that should give us hearing, / To tell him his commandment is fulfill’d, / That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead: / Where should we have our thanks?”

Thus, I say: Hamlet was not a hero; Hamlet was not an anti-hero; Hamlet was an asshole.[3]

[1] Kenneth Branagh (and I mean this literally) is the best Shakespearean actor who ever existed. Shakespeare does not deserve him. Listen to him perform this speech in the “video” below:

[2] In Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film, Hamlet’s reading of these lines is not so clear. Branagh speaks them with some suspicion. However, his suspicion seems to dissipate after Gildenstern admits, “My lord, we were sent for.” This reading by Reece Dinsdale as Gildenstern is the best I have seen, and it dispels any indication that Rosencrantz and Gildenstern mean any ill to Hamlet. It is Hamlet who mistreats them (and pretty much everyone else in the play, Ophelia most cruelly).

[3] Note also that when Hamlet traps the king using the players, they are forced to flee the castle for fear of their very lives. It is reasonable to assume that they were not paid for their performance either. Here is another example of Hamlet using innocents without a thought to the consequences on them.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Hamlet is an Asshole

  1. Between the time he originally greeted them and the time he switched the letter, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had lost his favor due to their continued loyalty to the king and in their watching over him and staying in his business. He addresses this directly to them in the middle of the play when he ask them to play the recorder and in their decline,then goes on to liken it to the fact that they are trying to play him.

    As they continually suck the Kings #%#% they continually lose favor with Hamlet and are more and more seen as the enemy in their association to Claudius. No doubt his friends were in a rough spot though, as if they deny Claudius there could also be serious repercussions. As insightful as Hamlet was he should have had some empathy for this catch 22 situation and at the least spared them death, nonetheless it is natural they should lose his favor throughout the play. Hamlet doesn’t take #%#@ from anyone. Not somebody you want to #%@% over. WWHD?

  2. @thequest101 – Excellent points. However, I think it is all an apologia for Hamlet. Despite what he says to R&G on their first meeting, Hamlet [i]does[/i] appear to be crazy. In fact, even his initial claim to being sane strikes me as pretty nutty:

    I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is
    Southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.

    Also, the flute scene doesn’t help. The way it is pretty much always played has Hamlet in such a rage that, again, they would wonder of his sanity.

    But I accept your argument. R&G are morally ambiguous. Their situation seems very clear to me though. You are called by the parent of a school friend and told he’s crazy. "Can you come and help?" Of course you can! You get there and sure enough, he’s acting crazy. What do you do? Probably what the parent requests.

    Of course, Tom Stoppard puts this all on its head. But while I dearly love his play, his take is most definitely not in the text of [i]Hamlet[/i].

    PS: WWHD? Kill everyone, apparently.

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