The Tragedy of Hamlet argues that homosocial relationships are not true friendships and can help support corrupt institutions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who embody homosocial relationships in the play, serve as a counterpoint to the true Neo-Platonic friendship represented by Horatio. Because they favor passion over reason, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unable to become individuals. They are instead a gross parody of Neo-Platonic friendship, so close to each other they have lost all individuality. Their relationship is not an expression of their virtue as Hamlet and Horatio’s is. Hamlet and Horatio remain individuals, opposed to the corrupt Danish Court while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern choose to become the faceless tools of patriarchy. By rejecting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet rejects the passions that dominate his relationship with them.
Table of Contents:
Hamlet, a drama invested in exploring the struggles of the individual, also provides a compelling commentary on homosocial relationships. Comparing Hamlet’s relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to his relationship with Horatio yields valuable insights on Renaissance ideas of male friendship and homosocial behavior. While the Neo-Platonic relationship which Hamlet and Horatio share is a positive force in the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s relationship with Hamlet and one another is superficial and is channeled through Claudius, the head of a corrupt patriarchy. When Hamlet rejects Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he rejects Denmark’s patriarchal system that relies on homosociality. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the false friends who are enmeshed in the social hierarchies of the court, use their homosocial intimacy with Hamlet for their advantage; Horatio, the faithful friend with no interest in the Danish court, remains loyal to Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern embody the homosocial tension in the play. They are not representative of true friendship as Horatio is. In fact, they are Horatio’s opposite in every way, including the fact that there are two of them. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern embody “friendship in its more general sense” and therefore are presented not as “two distinct individuals but as a pair expressing plurality” (Grove, “The Beaten Way of Friendship” 119). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s “plurality” serves as a constant reminder of homosocial relationships. One never appears without the other (a fact that differentiates them from Hamlet and Horatio who often appear on stage separately). Although they are drawn to Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern show more loyalty to authority and themselves than to their friend.
Shakespeare’s Critique of Homosocial Relationships
A compelling argument for studying Hamlet’s relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is the fact that it appears to be completely Shakespeare’s invention. Through the relations of these characters, Shakespeare adds a critique of homosocial relationships that is not present in past versions of the Hamlet legend. Not one of the previous versions of the legend features Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as Hamlet’s old friends. Instead, the other versions of the legend simply include two henchmen of the king who escort Hamlet to England (Hunt 13-30). The introduction of false friends to the Hamlet legend balances what would otherwise be an overtly favorable presentation of homosociality, given Hamlet’s true friendship with Horatio. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern show that Horatio’s Neo-Platonic relationship with Hamlet is not a typical homosocial relationship but higher and purer form of male friendship. The addition of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the story, however, is not universally accepted as a good one. Tom Stoppard famously presented them as hapless clowns, shoved into a plot they cannot comprehend, in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Stoppard and Popkin) while Laurence Olivier eliminated them altogether from his famed 1948 film version of Hamlet (Olivier). But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are neither clueless bunglers nor superfluous characters. They are self-interested courtiers looking to advance themselves in court society. By making Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hamlet’s old friends, Shakespeare calls attention to the way casual homosocial relationships support patriarchy and diverge from the standards of true friendship.
The Tragedy of Hamlet argues that homosocial relationships are a threat to true friendships and can help support corrupt institutions. Homosocial relationships are based in men’s superficial attraction toward one another while true friendships are grounded in a Neo-Platonic spiritual connection. Because they favor superficial relationships, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unable to become individuals. They are instead a gross parody of the spiritual Neo-Platonic friendship, so close to each other they have lost all individuality. Their relationship is not an expression of their virtue as Hamlet and Horatio’s is. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s relationship is superficial and fittingly, they have become physically similar. The superficial aspects that contribute to their appearance are nearly identical. In contrast, Hamlet and Horatio are what Michel de Montaigne calls a case of “one soul in two bodies” (143). They possess similar thoughts, beliefs, and values but could not be physically mistaken for one another. They remain individuals, opposed to the corrupt Danish court while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern choose to become the faceless tools of patriarchy.
The Homosocial Love Triangle
The fact that Hamlet is friends with both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern makes their relationship resemble an all-male version of Eve Sedgwick’s love triangle model of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The absence of women in the Hamlet-Rosencrantz-Guildenstern triangle indicates the homosocial desire that is the basis for their relationship. In the strictest sense of male homosociality “women are merely the vehicles by which men breed more men, for the gratification of other men” (Sedgwick 33). This distorted view of society is borne out by Hamlet’s initial rejection of Ophelia, shortly after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet him. When Hamlet imagines Ophelia as a “breeder of sinners” he indulges in the misogyny Sedgwick links with homosocial behavior (3.1.132). Hamlet rejects heterosexual love in favor of homosocial relationships, hoping they will prove more reliable. When Hamlet exclaims that man “delights not me, no, nor women neither, though by / your smiling you seem to say so” Rosencrantz replies that “there was no such stuff in [his] thoughts” (2.2.332-36). “No such stuff” indeed. Rosencrantz (and Guildenstern’s) world is defined by homosocial desire. The only concerns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have are rooted in advancing themselves in the all-male hierarchy of the court using their relationships with other men, including each other. Hamlet briefly enters this “of men for men” world seeking an escape from his disillusionment. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, however, cannot renew Hamlet’s faith in mankind.
Although Hamlet’s relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is not an exact replica of the love triangle in the sonnets as Sedgwick describes it, there are significant similarities between the two. In both cases “there is a related asymmetry of powers and energies” and in both cases there “is also the suggestion of a one-way route from point to point on the triangle: angels may turn fiend” or friends false “but there is no suggestion” that redemption may occur (Sedgwick 31). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lack the power or initiative of Hamlet and when they prove false, they show no signs of turning back. Hamlet’s vow to trust them as he would “adders fanged” demonstrates his belief in their innate treachery (3.4.226). Having sided with Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reveal their true motives and for Hamlet there is no going back. The “angels” have indeed “turned fiend.” Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern enjoy one another’s company, as evidenced by their cheerful meeting, but there the bond ends. The homosocial relationship of these young men is truly only “skin deep,” as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern clearly demonstrate.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s relationship with Hamlet is not one of thought but one of pleasure. Hamlet’s reference to them as his “schoolfellows” does not necessarily indicate that the pair are even students at Wittenberg with him (3.4.225). In the Renaissance, the term “schoolfellows” was only “sometimes applied to one’s colleague at the university” (“schoolfellow, n.”). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might just as easily have been Hamlet’s companions in some earlier educational setting. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may be students at Wittenberg, but, even if this is so, they spend more time discussing theater than theology. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are clearly familiar enough with Hamlet’s theatergoing to know which players he took “delight in” (2.2.351). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are able to deliver Hamlet a full report of the doings of the stage. They can positively say the tragedians Hamlet likes do not “grow rusty” and that child-players are in “fashion,” indicating that the pair are frequent theatergoers (2.2.360-65). Their familiarity with the theater far exceeds their familiarity with philosophy. When Hamlet tries to engage in serious philosophical musings in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s presence, he breaks off and protests that he “cannot / reason” (2.2.284-85). While Hamlet’s mental distress may be partly to blame, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not help his rational processes. Their witty retorts make for amusing banter but when Hamlet tries to piece their speech into a philosophical framework, he fails. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern proclaim “ambition” to be a “shadow”; while Hamlet tries to rationalize this statement, he can only come to the illogical conclusion that “beggars” are “bodies” and “monarchs and outstretched heroes the beggars’ shadows” (2.2.280-85). It is not Hamlet’s reason, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s faulty logic and meaningless witticisms that are to blame. They are not men of thought like Hamlet is.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s Similarities
From their introduction, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are presented as nearly identical, highlighting their lack of individuality and the superficial nature of their relationships. Their similarity makes it difficult for both the audience and other characters to tell the pair apart. When Claudius and Gertrude thank Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he says “Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern” while Gertrude adds “Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz” (2.2.35-36). Not surprisingly, in many performances including Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film version of Hamlet, these lines are interpreted as indicators that Claudius has confused the two and Gertrude has corrected his error (Branagh). Whether the lines are taken to mean Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are mistaken for each other or not, they invoke the interchangeability of the two characters. They do not behave and are not valued as individuals. Always entering and exiting together, their plurality forces others to treat them copies of one another. Rather than assert their individuality, they willingly become cogs in the machinery of Renaissance patriarchy.
Homosocial Relationships at Court
By obeying Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern demonstrate the importance of homosocial relationships in supporting the patriarchy of the court. Sedgwick’s suggestion that homosocial relationships could involve “men-promoting-the-interests-of-men” is born out in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s service for Claudius (Sedgwick 2-3). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fit into a larger framework of male-dominated court society. This society encourages male friendships for social advancement. Rather than value their friendship with Hamlet as an end in itself, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take advantage of their mutual familiarity with the young prince. Seeing their relationship with the prince as a means of climbing higher in the hierarchy at court, they willingly take the role among the “ten thousand lesser things” that are “mortised and adjoined” to the Claudius (3.3.20-21). The pair transition smoothly from friends of Hamlet to pawns of Claudius, creating yet another “love triangle.”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reveal themselves to be calculatedly pursuing not just Claudius’ will but also their own advancement, actively supporting the patriarchy that enslaves them. On hearing that rendering Claudius service will prompt “such thanks / As fits a king’s remembrance,” the pair make their motives quite clear (II.2.25-26). They respond not as concerned friends but as groveling mercenaries prepared to do whatever they must to earn their reward. Rosencrantz, in what seems an uncharacteristically shrewd answer, replies that Claudius and Gertrude could easily put their “dread pleasures more into command / Than to entreaty” (II.2.29-30). Rosencrantz’s reply demonstrates his recognition of his role as a servant to the King and his surprise at the suspicious way in which the King and Queen have asked him and Guildenstern for help. It is clear from Claudius’s rhetoric in the first scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he is more concerned for himself than for Hamlet’s welfare and presents his request of the pair’s services more as an affair of state but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respond willingly to his requests. Claudius informs them that “the need” he has “to use” them was the cause of his “hasty sending” for them (II.2.3-4). Claudius’ choice of the word “use” reveals his utilitarian motives. He is using Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as he would tools and this need “to use” them overrides his purported desire to “see” them (II.2.2). Claudius’ language in this greeting casts sinister shadows on what might otherwise seem a kind and compassionate venture, alerting the audience, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, that his motives are not necessarily pure. Guildenstern’s assurance that they “give up [themselves] in full bent” and “lay [their] service” at Claudius and Gertrude’s “feet / to be commanded” shows where his loyalties lie (II.2.32-34). He and Guildenstern realize that they are being asked to betray Hamlet but, under the pressures of society and patriarchy, they willingly become Claudius’s tools in the hopes of personal advancement. Casual homosocial relationships within the court system are the only kind they seem to understand. They show neither comprehension nor compassion for Hamlet’s plight, focusing instead on his social position.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s first encounter with Hamlet proves their loyalties lie not with him but with Claudius. When they first meet Hamlet, they refuse to be honest with him. They cheerfully banter with him, trying to lure him out of his depression rather than probing at its cause. Hamlet has to draw their reason for coming out of them. Even after Hamlet directly states, “I know the good king and queen have sent for you,” the two still try to dodge the issue (II.2.304.) They do not extend Hamlet the same love or honesty he extends them. When Hamlet tells them Claudius and Gertrude “are deceived,” he alerts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to his feigned madness so that he will not deceive them (2.2.399-400). He does this, even after they have been dishonest with him. Rather than actively help Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern simply rely on his goodwill, doing nothing to reciprocate it, even after he demonstrates his own trust in them. They are so concerned with pursuing Claudius’ agenda that they fail to offer Hamlet anything approaching genuine concern. In their report to Claudius, they claim that Hamlet “with a crafty madness keeps aloof” while they attempt to obtain a “confession” (III.1.7-8). Their language resembles more the language of interrogators or spies than the language of concerned friends.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail to understand or sympathize with their friend, blinded as they are by their desire for self-promotion. Hamlet’s complaint that he lacks “advancement” falls on unsympathetic ears (3.2.368). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail to comprehend Hamlet’s frustration, focusing on nothing more than his role in court society, failing to see beyond the literal meaning of Hamlet’s words. Rather than probe deeper, the pair only view Hamlet’s situation on a superficial level. By their understanding anyone who “has the voice of the King himself” has no reason to be troubled (3.2.37). This, of course, is because they themselves desire the rewards of the king above all else. There are no other values they consider.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain ignorant of the darker underside of patriarchy, blindly embracing their role as servants. Rather than question Claudius and Gertrude’s puzzling choice of “entreaty,” they render service “in full bent.” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “show no sign of reflection before or after” they choose to ally with Claudius (Frye, 112). Seeking to advance their own position at court, they render unquestioning obedience, willingly ignoring Hamlet’s plight. Rather than directly confront Hamlet’s depression, they simply observe his behavior and report back to Claudius. Rosencrantz highlights the lack of reciprocity in their relationship with Hamlet when he exclaims: “My lord, you once did love me” (III.2.292). In this statement lies the central problem in their relationship. Hamlet “once did love” them. He is the active force in the relationship. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the passive receivers of his love. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not now and never did love Hamlet any more than they now love Claudius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern rely on the homosocial love of their superiors in order to advance themselves. They do not seek to love or understand their superiors. Even when they are warned of the fact that Claudius is using them, they do not pause. Hamlet’s accusation that Rosencrantz is a “sponge… that soaks up the king’s countenance, his rewards, his / authorities” does not lead them to reconsider their actions (4.2.10-15). From their first appearance, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern use deceit and manipulation to pursue Claudius’s agenda, voluntarily aiding his regime. Without Claudius’s asking them to help him after the “Mousetrap” scene, Guildenstern affirms “We will ourselves provide” (3.3.8). Guildenstern’s offer is ironic indeed. He and Rosencrantz have literally given their “selves” to Claudius. They have sacrificed their individuality and agency by choosing to take their places as disposable members of the Danish court’s male hierarchy. They actively pursue reward by throwing their services at Claudius’ “feet to be commanded” before he even tells them what to do.
By giving themselves up “in full bent” to Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lose their agency, becoming nothing more than their material selves governed by Claudius’ will. Guildenstern’s reference to the “many many bodies” that “live and feed upon” Claudius is an apt description of his own relationship with the King (3.3.10-11). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the very “bodies” that “live and feed upon” the King. Their imagination of the King as a host sustaining his subjects is a projection of their own relationship with Claudius as they serve him in pursuit of a “king’s remembrance.” Hamlet’s analysis of their relationship with Claudius employs similar imagery. He imagines Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as morsels of spongy food “first mouthed” and “last swallowed” (4.2.18-19). Again, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are tied to Claudius, but here, Claudius feeds on them, in a metaphor that makes an eerie bookend to Guildenstern’s description of those who “live and feed upon” the King. Hamlet sees what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have missed, that they are being used by Claudius, led on by the promise of reward, but will be ultimately consumed by the corrupt patriarchy they serve.
Just as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern act as extensions of Claudius’s will, their deaths become an extension of Hamlet’s revenge upon Claudius. They are executed before Hamlet kills Claudius but Shakespeare chooses to delay the revelation of their fate until after the deaths of Claudius and Hamlet when the English ambassador utters the words “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” (5.2.340). Thus, the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make up both the beginning and end of Hamlet’s revenge on Claudius. In death as in life, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain Claudius’ accessories. Their choice to side with patriarchy in order to exploit their homosocial connections defines them. They lose all individuality and their deaths are even denied the centerpiece status of the deaths of Claudius and his court.
Horatio and Hamlet: The Ideal of Masculine Friendship
Horatio’s pure friendship with Hamlet is a stark contrast to the superficial relationship Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have with the young prince. Horatio’s friendship is not based upon either “pleasure or profit,” the twin forces that Montaigne deems the motives behind most friendships such as the one Hamlet shares with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Montaigne 136). Instead, Horatio remains a true friend and a shining exception to general expectations of male friendships. His relationship with Hamlet is Neo-Platonic rather than homosocial.
As a scholar, Horatio is uniquely suited to be Hamlet’s friend. First, he is removed from the intrigues of court and is able to recognize their relative unimportance compared to friendship. Second, Horatio’s studies have exposed him to Neo-Platonic thought. This immersion in Neo-Platonism prompts Horatio to value friendship with Hamlet over social success or political alignment. The bond between Hamlet and Horatio is an expression of ideal masculine friendship, based in Neo-Platonism. It is telling that Horatio’s first line is “A piece of him” (1.1.24). Although the most obvious meaning is that only part of Horatio is present due to the cold, “in a deeper sense… Horatio is indeed ‘a piece of him,’ of Hamlet” (Grove “Alter Ego” 128). Horatio is metaphorically a part of Hamlet, according to Renaissance notions of true male friendship.
Hamlet and Horatio’s relationship is the kind of ideal friendship that Michel de Montaigne describes in his essay “Of Friendship.” Montaigne’s essay records the tenets of Neo-Platonist arguments about the nature of friendship. He writes that in a perfect male friendship “souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again” (Montaigne 139). This system of thought imagines the spirit as the highest, most virtuous part of a human being. The highest and purest friendship, therefore, is a union of souls. In this union of souls the two men join so that they are, as Montaigne describes it, “one soul in two bodies” (141). Hamlet’s language demonstrates that he and Horatio have this kind of relationship. When he first greets Horatio, the young prince exclaims “Horatio – or I do forget myself!” (1.2.167). For Hamlet to forget Horatio, he would have to forget himself. Hamlet and Horatio are one.
As Hamlet suggests, a union of souls was deemed a rare kind of friendship. Montaigne asserts that the average friendship is merely the result of “pleasure or profit, by public or private needs”; these friendships, he argues, are “less beautiful and noble” (Montaigne 136). Most friends, therefore, are not true friends. Montaigne laments that his perfect friendship was “so entire and so perfect that certainly you will hardly read of the like, and among men of today you see no trace of it in practice” (136). This insistence upon the rarity of the ideal friendship is a key part of its valorization for Montaigne. He writes that “nothing is extreme that can be matched” (142). The proverbial man in a thousand may be hard to find, but when he is found, he will be a true and perfect friend because of his rarity. Horatio is a rare man, ideally suited to be Hamlet’s friend in part because he is not controlled by his place in society, “he is a scholar detached from concern for acquiring power at court” (Frye, 111). He is an individual whose loyalties and priorities are based upon his own reason; the true friend cannot have divided loyalties.
The care that Hamlet and Horatio have for one another is plain, even in the minutest discussion. When Horatio proclaims Hamlets speech to be “but wild and whirling words,” Hamlet promptly apologizes and Horatio responds there is “no offense” (1.5.148-51). This brief exchange demonstrates the genuine care the friends have for each other. Even in the throes of shock, Hamlet is able to consider Horatio’s feelings. Horatio does the same for Hamlet. In his first scene with Hamlet, Horatio shows his genuine concern for his friend’s feelings. In Horatio’s case, Hamlet requests honesty from his friend as well as sympathy for his anguish over his father’s death and his mother’s hasty remarriage. When Horatio claims he came to Elsinore to see his “father’s funeral,” Hamlet begs Horatio “do not mock me” because he believes “it was to see my mother’s wedding” (1.2.183-84). Hamlet’s bitter response is a result not of his distrust of Horatio but of his realization that Horatio is trying to spare his feelings. Horatio’s response that Hamlet’s mother’s wedding “followed hard upon” his father’s funeral indicates that Horatio clearly understands the source of Hamlet’s grief and is willing to acknowledge the issue (1.2.186). Hamlet understands the tact with which Horatio is approaching him and knows Horatio will understand his anger. Because of the closeness of their souls, these friends have a perfect understanding of one another that goes deeper than words.
Although Horatio and Hamlet spend little time articulating why they became friends, this does not in any way call the sincerity of their friendship into question. Montaigne himself was reticent on the matter of what drew him to his friend. He simply writes that he loved his friend “Because it was he, because it was I”; beyond this, any reason for Montaigne’s love “cannot be expressed” (139). The mutual love and respect between these two men arises from their spirits and their virtue. The possibility for erotic love was denied in the Neo-Platonic ideal. Montaigne deemed such relationships between men “justly abhorred by our morality” (138). Reason, rather than passion was the criterion for the ideal male friendship. It is no accident that Horatio’s name contains the word “ratio” which was used in the Renaissance to mean “the faculty of logical or discursive reasoning” (“ratio, n.”). This ability to reason is the quality in Horatio that makes him an ideal friend. Early on, Horatio’s association with learning and reason is made plain. “Thou art a scholar” Marcellus reminds him as they face the Ghost in the opening scene of the play (1.1.49). Horatio’s defining quality is his ability to reason, it is what makes him love Hamlet and what makes Hamlet love him.
Hamlet’s Rejection of Passion
The Neo-Platonic emphasis on reason over passion and spirit over body is evident in Hamlet’s relationship with Horatio. Hamlet makes the kind of relationships he wishes to form clear:
Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee. (3.2.76-78)
The language of this passage indicates Hamlet’s rejection of “passion” and desire. Rather than advocating homosocial desire in relationships, Hamlet is “reiterating commonplaces of amicitia, the humanist doctrine of friendship between like-minded, virtuous men” (Hanson 205). Horatio’s ability to reason is a key factor in their relationship. Hamlet tells Horatio that there are “more things in heaven and earth… than are dreamt in [his] philosophy,” (1.5.187-88). This serves as a reminder that Horatio’s philosophy is important in their relationship. Hamlet knows of Horatio’s reluctance to “let belief” in the Ghost “take hold of him” because Horatio’s beliefs and values are important to him (1.1.29). Hamlet values reason over passion as the basis for a relationship. Horatio, a man defined by reason, is the ideal choice for Hamlet. Hamlet fears his “imaginations” which he claims are “foul” and needs a man he can trust to help him judge correctly (3.2.88). During the “Mousetrap” scene, he asks Horatio to watch Claudius’s reaction so that later they may “both [their] judgments join / In censure of his seeming” (3.2.91-92). This demonstrates the great faith Hamlet has in Horatio’s judgment. Montaigne’s willingness to entrust himself to his friend “more readily than to [himself]” is mirrored in Hamlet’s request (Montaigne 140). Hamlet knows Horatio completely; he can trust Horatio’s judgment even better than his own. He chooses Horatio over Rosencrantz and Guildenstern because of Horatio’s reverence for rational thought.
In his rejection of homosocial relationships, Hamlet is not homophobic. Rather, this rejection is a part of his overall rejection of all human passions (including those for heterosexual love, revenge, and fear) in favor of reason. Hamlet rejects Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the same way he rejects Ophelia. To her he says, “I did love you once” (3.1.125). This line is echoed in Rosencrantz’s plea “you once did love me.” Shakespeare equates Hamlet’s passionate relationship with Ophelia and the relationship Hamlet shares with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In both cases, Hamlet holds more authority and functions as the active force in the relationship. Ophelia, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern all fail Hamlet by setting their relationships with patriarchal authority figures above their relationship with him. Ophelia runs to her father after Hamlet bursts into her “closet” (2.1.87). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern run to Claudius for direction after nearly every encounter with Hamlet. In both cases, the so-called friends turn to sources of patriarchal authority rather than their friend. In both cases, Hamlet is betrayed, leading him to reject the relationship. “Man delights not” Hamlet, “no, nor women neither.” All forms of passionate relationships have failed him. Horatio, by contrast, never discusses Hamlet or their relationship with anyone else. A true friend, Horatio neither needs nor wants a higher source of authority to guide him in his friendship with Hamlet.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern value loyalty to their king, Horatio to his friend. He and Hamlet are the kind of friends Montaigne describes as “friends more than citizens, friends more than friends or enemies of their country” (Montaigne 139). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, on the other hand, prove greater friends to their monarch and their own desires for power. The choices the young men make are mirror opposites of one another. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern agree to spy on their friend for their king. During the “Mousetrap” scene, Horatio agrees to spy on his king for his friend. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “provide” themselves to aid Claudius even before they know what he will ask them to do. Horatio agrees to grant Hamlet’s “one poor request” with his reply “What is’t my lord? We will” (1.5.158-59). Without even knowing what is asked of them, these young men pledge their support. While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pledge obedience to authority in exchange for reward, Horatio pledges obedience to Hamlet for their friendship’s sake. He neither desires nor expects any compensation for the services he renders Hamlet.
By the standards of Neo-Platonism, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot possibly be Hamlet’s true friends. When Gertrude exclaims that she is certain “two men there is not living / To whom he more adheres,” she exposes the root of the problem (2.2.20-21). Hamlet cannot share this kind of special relationship with “two men.” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s “plurality” disqualifies them from being his true friends. Montaigne writes that “perfect friendship… is indivisible” (141). A plurality of true friendships is impossible. Gertrude attempts to gloss over this inherent failing by collectively referring to the two as a unit, saying “two men there is.” By using the word “is,” Gertrude treats Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a unit, denying them individuality. This effort is a definite attempt to reconcile Neo-Platonism with casual homosocial relationships but it fails horribly, highlighting the very problem it attempts to correct. “Common friendship can be divided up” but the kind of perfect friendship Gertrude imagines cannot (Montaigne 141). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot both share a perfect friendship with Hamlet because there are two of them. Hamlet has a perfect friendship with Horatio while his “common friendship” with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is “divided up” between them, as their friendship is divided with him, Claudius, and each other. They have chosen to engage in entangling homosocial bonds and these split loyalties make it impossible for them to properly value any one bond. The foundation of Hamlet’s friendship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is fundamentally faulty.
While Hamlet and Horatio’s relationship is founded on their shared philosophical and spiritual outlooks, Hamlet’s relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is built upon mere chance. When Hamlet affirms that there is indeed “a divinity that shapes our ends,” Horatio concurs that it is “certain” (5.2.11-14). Hamlet’s link to Horatio is a spiritual and philosophical one. Both are students at the university in Wittenberg and have similar beliefs. On the other hand, when Hamlet greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he makes it clear the “divinity that shapes” their end is none other than Lady Fortune. The first topic of discussion between the friends is their relationship to fortune. Hamlet’s proclamation that Fortune “is a strumpet” highlights the fickleness of the force that is central to their relationship (2.2.254). Hamlet’s relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is defined not by God but by fortune. Merely because Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were “of so young days brought up with” Hamlet, they are counted his friends (2.2.11). The coincidence of their youth and their shared taste in entertainment was the reason they were first thrown together. They are what Montaigne calls “nothing but acquaintanceships and familiarities formed by some chance or convenience” (39). Chance threw these friends together, and chance may just as easily tear them apart. Hamlet’s distrust of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is, therefore, a result of the nature of their relationship. Montaigne advises a man to love an ordinary friend “‘as if you are to hate him some day’” (140). Knowing as he does that their friendship is founded not on ideology but on mutual attraction and convenience, Hamlet has every reason to distrust the pair.
The fact that Hamlet shares a more “common” friendship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern than he does with Horatio does not make Hamlet’s decision to reject Rosencrantz and Guildenstern easy. Hamlet is clearly upset at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s betrayal. “Call me what instrument you will, though you can / fret me you cannot play upon me” the young prince warns them (3.2.401-2). Hamlet’s anger and hurt are clear. The fact that the passage is written in prose rather than verse shows the extreme emotion which overruns Hamlet’s normally polished rhythms of speech. His acceptance of the fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can “fret” him shows that their behavior does indeed hurt him. The emotional distance that he seeks to achieve when he proclaims them “not near” his “conscience” is difficult to reach as his outburst demonstrates (5.2.65). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s superficial approach to friendship with Hamlet injures him and stands a perfect foil for Horatio’s approach to friendship.
The Superficial vs. the Spiritual
Instances abound in Hamlet that demonstrate the association of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with the superficial and Horatio with the spiritual. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern greet Hamlet, their primary objective is to “draw him on to pleasures” (2.2.15). These “pleasures” are worldly entertainments. While it is unlikely Shakespeare felt Hamlet’s enjoyment of the players was wrong, it is clear that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern use this entertainment as a means of pursuing their own selfish goals. Even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s names denote superficiality. The “rose” is a flower associated with passion and ornamentation. The “guild” is a “confraternity, brotherhood, or association formed for the mutual aid and protection of its members” (“guild/gild, n.”). In other words, a guild is an association of men who join together out of “convenience.” Further, the word guild alludes to the word “gild” meaning to “cover entirely or partially with a thin layer of gold” (“gild, v.1”). Thus, Guildenstern’s name also invokes a process of ornamentation by which a base substance can be made to appear more valuable than it actually is. Both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s names highlight the true nature of their relationship with Hamlet. They come not as friends but as spies and tempters, luring Hamlet out of his “crafty madness” in order to advance themselves. On the other hand, Horatio chooses to act as Hamlet’s councilor. “If your mind dislike anything, obey it” he advises the young prince (5.2.231). Hamlet shares Horatio’s preoccupation with the mind. He implores Horatio to employ “the very comment of thy soul” when determining Claudius’ guilt (3.2.84). The value of their friendship arises from their valuing the mind and spirit over the body. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s remedy for Hamlet’s melancholy is an attempt to distract him so that they can profit by discovering the cause of his unhappiness while Horatio shows genuine concern for his friend’s wellbeing.
Horatio, the scholar, is able to maintain his individuality in the face of court intrigues, actively choosing to remain loyal to his friend while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sacrifice their freedom and friendship with Hamlet in exchange for advancement in court society. Horatio’s choice to be Hamlet’s ally sets him apart from the royal court. In the wake of the final act’s violence, Horatio judges himself “more an Antique Roman than a Dane.” His proclamation reveals he has chosen to embrace an ideology apart from the immediate demands of his role as a subject to the king, siding with Hamlet who might well be taken at this point as a traitor (5.2.374). He holds his unique friendship with Hamlet an end of itself, rather than a means to an end as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do. While Hamlet extends friendship and trust to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they do little of their own free will to help him. When Hamlet questions them on their motives for coming, they reluctantly admit they were “sent for” (2.2.310-15). This highlights their servile position and lack of initiative. Horatio, by contrast says he “came” (1.2.183). Horatio comes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are “sent for.” Horatio is a free individual; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern choose to remain bound to the rules governing court society. Rather than visit Hamlet first, the pair first consult with Claudius and Gertrude, indicating their true allegiance.
Because of their entanglement in the homosocial world, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain the mere appendages of patriarchal authority. Their behavior may be politically expedient but through their unquestioning loyalty to Claudius, they allow themselves to be manipulated by the very system they help to support. They blindly “soak up” the socially and politically acceptable way of viewing the world around them. Their conclusion that the King sighs “with a general groan” is the result, not of careful consideration but of the absorption of Renaissance political orthodoxy (3.3.24). Ultimately, this blind loyalty turns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern against their friend. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain ignorant of the deeper meanings behind the events at court, a fact of which Hamlet is all too aware. After being sent to find Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern confront him and fail to see that what Hamlet says is “madness, yet there is method in’t” (II.2.198). They do not recognize the state of Hamlet’s soul as Horatio does because they do not know it or understand it. Their link to Hamlet is physical rather than spiritual and their deception shows “how unworthy a thing” they consider Hamlet (3.2.393). Failing to properly value Hamlet or see his uniqueness, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make themselves Claudius’s puppets in the hopes of self-promotion.
Homosocial desire as imagined in Hamlet is a dangerous force. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern shamelessly use their homosocial familiarity with Hamlet for their own advantage. Hamlet’s tragic error is not his discarding of his former friends, it is ever trusting passion over reason in the first place. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern abuse his friendship at every turn. They presume to know him well enough to use him by playing on his emotional attachment to them. Horatio, on the other hand, demonstrates the value in Neo-Platonic relationships. His idealistic love for Hamlet makes him a true friend for the prince. He and Hamlet share a bond not polluted by passion or self-interest. Neither seeks to gain anything more from their friendship than friendship itself. Through these relationships, Shakespeare explores the possible dangers and benefits of male friendship. Horatio’s faith in virtue as the basis for his friendship with Hamlet helps him to maintain it under even the most trying circumstances. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s shallow friendship with Hamlet, on the other hand, is easily destroyed. Their choices make them betray the one man at court who “once did love” them.
- Branagh, Kenneth, dir. Hamlet. Columbia Pictures, 1996. DVD.
- Frye, Roland Mushat. “Thinkers and Non-Thinkers” The Renaissance Hamlet: Issues and Responses in 1600. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984. 111-113. Print.
- “Gild, v.1” OED Online. Oxford University Press, 2013. Web. 13 April 2013.
- Grove, Victor. “Alter Ego.” Hamlet: The Drama of Modern Man. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2004. 127-34. Print.
- Grove, Victor. “The Beaten Way of Friendship.” Hamlet: The Drama of Modern Man. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2004. 119-25. Print.
- “guild/gild, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, 2013. Web. 13 April 2013.
- Hanson, Elizabeth. “Fellow Students: Hamlet, Horatio, and the Early Modern University.” Shakespeare Quarterly. 62.2 (2011): 205-29. Print.
- Hunt, Marvin W. “The Prehistory of Hamlet.” Looking for Hamlet. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. 13-30. Print.
- Montaigne, Michele. “On Friendship.” The Complete Essays of Montaigne. Trans. Donald M. Frame. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. 135-44. Print.
- Olivier, Laurence, dir. Hamlet. Rank Film Distributors, 1948. DVD.
- "Ratio, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, 2013. Web. 13 April 2013.
- “Schoolfellow, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, 2013. Web. 13 April 2013.
- Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Print.
- Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Print.
- Stoppard, Tom, and Henry Popkin. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. New York: Grove Press, 2002. Print.