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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' - Are they "Half Men"?

Updated on May 27, 2015

Is there any justification for the description of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as 'half-men'?

Why might they be 'half-men'?

There are a number of reasons why Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet's supposedly closest friends, might be described as 'half-men'. Some of the evidence is in the vocabulary and actions given to them by Shakespeare.

For the term 'half-men' to make sense, the audience would have to consider ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’ to be one individual ~ one entity. Is this the case?

One should ask how far they behave in an identical manner.

For example, do they act alike and together?

Furthermore, would it would make any difference to the play, if all of their lines were to be given to just one of them?

Shakespeare's Birthplace. Stratford Upon Avon. Copyright Tricia Mason 2010
Shakespeare's Birthplace. Stratford Upon Avon. Copyright Tricia Mason 2010

First Meeting

The first time that the audience of 'Hamlet' meets these two men is in Act 2, Scene 2. They enter, together, and are greeted, together, by the king: 'Welcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern'. Unless the actor playing the king makes a point of looking at each, individually, as he says their names, the audience will not know which one is which.

The king then states that they have been sent for, with haste, because: 'we have to use you'. The queen confirms that they are needed for: 'the supply and profit of our hope'. The two men do not discuss this, but respond positively, and immediately, on each other's behalf. They use the words 'we' and 'us'. At this stage, one might assume that they already knew what was expected of them and, as these were the king's orders, that they had no choice but to obey ~ indeed Rosencrantz says as much. Thus, if they knew what was expected of them, and had no choice in the matter, then speaking on each other's behalf might be expected, but, even so, it is still to see them acting almost as one individual.

Shortly after this discussion they exit ~ together. However, before they go, the king says: 'Thanks Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern', while the queen says 'Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz.' Depending on how this is played, it can indicate that one or other ~ or both ~ of the royals do not know which man is which. Either way, the almost identical repetition, but with the names in different positions, tends to indicate that these characters are interchangeable.


Later in the Act, the two men meet up with Hamlet. They may not have had much choice in their responses to the king, but, with Hamlet, the audience will expect that matters should be different. They have all been close friends since their youth, apparently. Do the two men still act as one, and speak as if with one voice?

What is Hamlet's response to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? ~ He treats them as a single unit.

After Hamlet mentions each by name, he asks after the two of them, as a unit: 'how do you both?' And they respond, as a unit. Guildenstern says, on behalf of both of them: 'Happy in that we are not over happy ... we are not the very button.' When Hamlet states that Denmark is a prison, Rosencrantz also replies with the plural: 'We think not so'.

Only once, does either check with the other, before responding on his behalf. In this scene, when Hamlet demands to know if they were sent for, Rosencrantz asks Guildenstern: 'What say you?', before Guildenstern replies 'we were sent for'.

Only rarely do they use the term 'I' rather than 'we' and, in this particular scene, Rosencrantz does say: 'I hold ambition of so airy and light a quality ...' and 'I think that their inhibition ...'

They entered this scene, together, which is not surprising, since they had come to Denmark, together, on orders, to see Hamlet. They exit together, not necessarily of their own choice, since Hamlet dismisses them: 'My good friends, I'll leave you till night.' At this stage, their entering and exiting together is probably no more than might be expected, but does it continue?

Act 3

In Act 3, scene 1, they, again, enter together. When the king and queen are asking for their opinion of Hamlet, they finish each other's sentences, and the discussion would be little different if this were just one character responding. Here is an example:

Queen: Did he receive you well?

Rosencrantz: Most like a gentleman

Guildenstern: But with much forcing of his disposition

Rosencrantz: Niggard of question, but of our demands

Most free in reply.

After the conversation, they leave ~ again together.

In Act 3, scene 2, Guildenstern refers only to himself, when he brings a message to Hamlet, telling him: 'your mother .. hath sent me to you'. However, the two have entered, once again, together, and Rosencrantz also bears the same message: 'she desires to speak with you ...'.

Act 4

In the following act, when Claudius tells the two men to accompany Hamlet to England, they both respond with speeches that could have been made by either one of them ~ indeed the two could have been joined together as one. The confirmatory response that they give, though it is spoken by only Rosencrantz, is, once more, a joint one ~ 'we will haste us'. Then they then exit ~ together.

In Act 4, scene 1, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are on stage only long enough for Claudius to issue orders for them to find Hamlet and the body of Polonius, and in scene 2 they are attempting to carry out these orders. They enter and exit, together. By scene three, Hamlet has been found, and for the first time in the play, Rosencrantz arrives on stage minus Guildenstern. However, when responding to the king's question about Polonius, Rosencrantz replies in the plural, saying that, where Hamlet has hidden the body, 'we cannot get from him'. In scene 4, Rosencrantz again enters without his friend. Guildenstern, having been with Rosencrantz on every occasion previous to this, does not appear at all in these two scenes ~ and it does not affect the action at all.

They are next heard of ~ as a twosome ~ in scene 6, when Hamlet, having escaped from his one-time friends, mentions them in a letter to Horatio.

Act 5

Then in Act 5, scene 2, Hamlet tells Horatio how he discovered that the documents, which they held, contained orders for his execution in England. It does not say which of them held the package containing the orders ~ indeed their names are not even mentioned in the scene ~ Hamlet simply says that he 'grop'd I to find them' and that he found 'their packet'. They are being referred to as a single, nameless, entity. Hamlet's response to his discovery was to change the order, telling the English king that he should those 'bearers put to sudden death, no shriving time allowed'. In Act 5, scene 2, an English ambassador arrives at the Danish court to say that 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.' One presumes that they died together. Their final exit, from the play, is as one.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead - Tom Stoppard

"Excellent Good Friends"

When they first enter, together (of course) as Hamlet's 'excellent good friends ... good lads' (Hamlet) and the 'two men there is not living to whom he more adhered' (Gertrude) the audience may expect two devoted and intellectual individuals, a little like Hamlet, perhaps. If so, then the audience is to be disappointed. They turn out to be traitors to Hamlet, who finally arrest him and agree to take him to his death. In turn, Hamlet grows irritated and angry with them, and finally sends them to their death. In spite of Hamlet's concerns about causing his hated uncle's death, he seems to have no qualms about causing the deaths of these 'good friends'. They seem to have little dimension, emotion or personality. They are almost always together, talking for each other, but rarely to each other, obeying orders, which hurt their close friend, without thought or discussion. The audience must wonder how Hamlet could ever have 'adhered' himself to them.

The actual names

One wonders if Shakespeare originally intended this to be one minor character, but, on hearing these actual names ~ 'Rosencrantz' and 'Guildenstern' ~ at court, liked the poetry of the words and decided to use them for this one character, splitting his lines between them. Perhaps, in the latter part of Act 4, whoever was recording the play for posterity, omitted to add the second person, and that is why only one of them ~ Rosencrantz ~ appears. The lack of Guildenstern seems strange as, until then, the two have only ever appeared on stage together. This may also explain Rosencrantz 's use of the pronoun 'I' in Act 2.

Linguistically, their names are important. 'Rosencrantz' and 'Guildenstern' each have three syllables, of equal length, with the stress on the first one. The second syllables of each name rhyme: 'sen' and 'den'. Within the patterns of language, that Shakespeare uses, the names are interchangeable. Indeed, there would be no obvious difference to the ear, if one were to say 'Rosenstern' and 'Guildenkrantz'. The two names are, in effect, equal to each other ~ tending to make the two men seem indistinguishable from each other.

Their names have a similar sound quality. They arrive in Denmark together, spend almost all their time together, leave Denmark together and die together. Their deaths are announced together ~ and no-one cares. It would make little or no difference if their lines were exchanged, or if only one person were to speak their lines. There is little interchange of conversation between them. We do not become aware of any real character traits for either of them, and none which identify them as individuals. They act as one ~ obeying the king, and betraying Hamlet ~ without discussion or consideration. They merely respond to orders, like Voltemand and Cornelius, yet they are supposed to be the closest friends of the prince.

Even Less Than 'Half-Men'

Between them, 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern' barely make up one individual. Even if Shakespeare had, indeed, made these two into just one character, the viewer would have been disappointed at the lack of depth. Consequently, the description "half men" may, indeed, be justified for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead' is a quote from Hamlet and also a play by Tom Stoppard. It is a farce, first staged in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1966.

These two minor characters from Shakespeare's play become the focal characters of Stoppard's play. A film of the same name was released in 1991.



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    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      6 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi Ata1515 :)

      Not long ago, I decided to study A'Level English Literature for fun ~ hence the in-depth Shakespeare.

      I really enjoyed it.

      Thanks for your comment :)

    • ata1515 profile image


      6 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

      That's really interesting. I have enjoyed many of Shakespeare's plays, but never looked in depth at them before.

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      8 years ago from The English Midlands

      Yes, Suki, I think that you are right there :)

    • Suki C profile image

      Barbara C 

      8 years ago from Andalucia, Spain

      Maybe it's time that some of these names came back - all it would take is for a soap opera to name one of its characters Desdemona or Malvolio & it'd take off!

      Mind you - I suppose the Beckhams already made a start with Romeo :)

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      8 years ago from The English Midlands

      Helo Suki. Thank you for your comment :)

      I am no expert, so I cannot give definitive answers, I'm afraid :).

      However, I do know that some of these stories were in existence before Shakespeare wrote his versions ~ so the names were already there: eg Amleth, Romeus, Giullietta.

      Also, I think I read that there was a tendency, at the time, to choose names that came from ~ or sounded as if they came from ~ Italy, which was fashionable, because it was going through a renaissance of the arts.

      'Rosencrantz' and 'Guildenstern' were real names that Shakespeare heard at court.

      And some names go in and out of fashion, of course. Shakespeare's own son was named Hamnet, which isn't heard these days ~ and maybe wasn't then ~ but his daughters were Susanna and Judith, and there are still a few of those about.

    • Suki C profile image

      Barbara C 

      8 years ago from Andalucia, Spain

      Interesting & thought provoking

      Given your interest in the language & the origins of words maybe you could help me - I often wonder just where Shakespeare came up with so many of his names and why so few are in use today - you rarely hear hear of an Othello or Goneril these days!

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      8 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hello Eric.

      Thanks for your comment :)

      Yes, I really enjoyed 'Hamlet'.

      I went to see the David Tennant version in Stratford ~ brilliant!

    • EricDenby profile image


      8 years ago from east lansing, michigan

      Great post. You seem to really dig on the Hamlet. I look forward to reading more of your hubs.

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      8 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hhmm. Maybe. He was quite cruel to Ophelia, when he thought that he couldn't trust her, and to his mother, too. But can you imagine what he would have done if Horatio had died!? Yet these were his best friends, supposedly, and he deliberately & uncaringly sent them to their deaths. Horatio seems started by this behaviour. I don't know. But I think that this is why we are left thinking about these two nonentities.

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 

      8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      It's been a long time since I've thought a lot about Hamlet, but I'm guessing that the prince was so disturbed and distracted by his father's death that he was developing a one-track mind and didn't have the time or inclination to think about his dear friends. It's very common for people to forget everything else when they are greatly upset about a specific thing, especially when it deals with life and death.

    • Trish_M profile imageAUTHOR

      Tricia Mason 

      8 years ago from The English Midlands

      Hi William. :)

      Thanks for that speedy response!

      Yes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could be described as 'nonmen', but, I agree, they do play on the mind, and I think that it is because they are actually described, by Hamlet, as his 'excellent good friends'. And Gertrude, the mother to whom Hamlet seems close, claims that 'two men there is not living to whom he more adhered'. Yet he seems to feel nothing, knowing that he has sent them to their deaths.

      Admittedly, they were carrying his death warrant, but they may not have known what was in the document. They don't come over as being very bright and they seemed to think that Claudies was doing the right thing for poor bewildered Hamlet.

      Hamlet, though, is bright, and throughout the play one feels sympathy for him. He finds it difficult to kill his father's murderer, which, in that day and age, would have been considered the right thing to do, I think. Yet he suffers no pangs at having his 'excellent good friends' executed, with no time for shriving.

      I can't get my head around that. I am trying to work out Shakespeare's intentions. What is the audience meant to think, I wonder???

    • William F. Torpey profile image

      William F Torpey 

      8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

      Very interesting, Trish_M. It's amazing how much interest Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have attracted in Shakespeare's "Hamlet" considering their secondary role in the play. They somehow play on one's mind although they seem to me to be simply a writer's device to show some characteristics of the prince's personality and to bring the plot along. Half men? Maybe, but maybe just nonmen. Thumbs up.


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