So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to’t.
Why, man, they did make love to this employment.
They are not near my conscience; their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow.
Act 5, Scene 2
“Both your majesties might, by the sovereign power you have of us, put your dread pleasures more into command than to entreaty.”
Guildenstern was surprised both by Rosencrantz’s words and by his tone, though perhaps the latter was subtle enough to be missed by those who did not know him well. His friend had been hard pushed to hide his reluctance throughout the voyage, though he would not explain its origin; but to express it so openly, and in such company, was incomprehensible.
“But we both obey and here give up ourselves in the full bent, to lay our service freely at your feet to be commanded,” Guildenstern hurried to smooth past the moment.
He was, he could only admit, awed by the King and Queen – by both their riches and their softly spoken majesty. Years had dulled Hamlet’s ability to impress; he had forgotten what breed of man he was. Here, this royalty it brought home.
“... bring these gentlemen where Hamlet is,” the Queen commanded, gracing him with a warm smile.
“Heavens make our presence and our practices pleasant and helpful to him,” he reassured her as they were ushered from the room.
Rosencrantz’s footsteps were slower and within a few paces he had fallen behind their guide. Guildenstern lingered to take this last opportunity for a privately spoken word.
“Will you still not tell me what ailment this is?” he asked in a whisper.
Rosencrantz hesitated before answering, his expression serious.
“I am less certain of our welcome here than you, I fear our lord Hamlet will be ill-disposed to friendly greetings.”
“My most dear lord,” Rosencrantz’s words sounded uncertain even to his own ears. They had argued before they parted and he was not certain how far that shadow would fall. Or what state he would find Hamlet in.
“My excellent good friends. How dost thou, Guildenstern?” As Hamlet spoke, he wondered for a moment if he were to be ignored, but then Hamlet turned to him with a warm, private smile. “Ah, Rosencrantz. Good lads, how do you both?”
“As the indifferent children of the earth.”
The conversation was light and playful and though Hamlet seemed pale and spread thin, lit darkly by some inner passion, his mood was good. His demeanour was friendly for all his talk of prisons. They could almost be again in Wittenberg.
“Why then, your ambition makes it one; 'tis too narrow for your mind,” Rosencrantz chided him, his tongue too quick, his realisation too late of what he had spoken.
It flew too close to the mark and as he said it Hamlet met his eyes. Sharp. His words had developed edges and when he spoke next of his bad dreams, Rosencrantz was not sure whether it was a plea for help, a confession, or a challenge.
“Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream,” Guildenstern had not noticed the change in the atmosphere, though he had no reason to watch for it and Hamlet only spared him a passing glance before turning back to Rosencrantz.
“A dream itself is but a shadow.” That, at least was clear, a challenge.
“Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a quality, that it is but a shadow’s shadow.” It was the best Rosencrantz could do as an apology for a crime he had never committed.
He had found Hamlet, wreathed in misery, curled in despair, upon his own bed, a letter crumpled amidst the covers. There had been something bleak and terrible in the prince’s eyes as he had nodded his permission for him to read it.
It was a brief missive, blunt to his own eyes, though perhaps flowered words would have been wrong when attached to such ill news.
Rosencrantz had sat down heavily on his bed, uncertain of what to say. For all his fine speeches and philosophising, there were never any words when he needed them.
“Time will ease this, Hamlet.” It had been a pitiful sentiment, one he had endured himself once. The look of disgust he received in return felt well earned.
“My father dead and my uncle crowned in my stead. Which of these should sweet father time mend?”
“The latter surely, my lord. This letter promises as much; you shall be your uncle’s heir.”
“My lord? I am no man’s lord, nor like to be.”
Rosencrantz had been stalled for a moment; he knew Hamlet’s moods better than his own and knew that he could not argue with him when he was so lost in himself. Only Hamlet could guide himself out of that maze.
“Will you go to Elsinore?”
“It seems I have little choice in the matter.”
Rosencrantz had never feared Hamlet, for all the tempestuous arguments, had known him to be better than violent passions. But there was something in Hamlet’s voice that had made cold fingers clench against his heart. He was scared for the first time.
“I should come with you. To Elsinore.”
“To Elsinore?” The look that Hamlet had given him was hard and Rosencrantz had felt his fear deepening. “My Lord? What foul ambition is this?”
“My... I understand you not.”
“Understand? You understand too clearly and I at last see the truth,” Hamlet had moved towards him with a dark glitter in his eyes and Rosencrantz had instinctively moved back, freeing himself from the bed. “I can see what you would take me for. What you would make of me!”
“No, my lord.” The words had spilled from him, intended to appease.
Hamlet had leapt from the bed, hands clutching Rosencrantz’s throat, pinning him against the wall.
“My lord,” he had mocked. “My lords – all lords and ladies and advancements. You have sought only your own gains in this enterprise. Ambition lies deep in you like the stench of rotten meat.”
His face had pressed against Rosencrantz’s, nose pressing into his cheek. Body shuddering. Then Hamlet had released one gasping sob and thrown him to the ground. For a long moment, Rosencrantz had not moved, and the only sound was their ragged breathing. They had been like ships caught in a storm, sea-tossed.
Rosencrantz had touched his head gently and found blood on his fingers. He had looked up and found Hamlet, frozen. The prince’s eyes had been scared and then he had fled.
“But, in the beaten way of friendship, what makes you at Elsinore?” Hamlet asked. He seemed more scattered, as if his mind was leaping between thoughts. Between suspicions.
“To visit you, my lord, no other occasion.” Rosencrantz had no idea if he would be believed.
Hamlet seemed to collapse, just for a moment, to withdraw into himself. He seemed suddenly old, in indefinable ways that escaped Rosencrantz’s understanding.
“Beggar that I am, I am even poor in thanks; but I thank you: and sure, dear friends, my thanks are too dear a halfpenny,” Hamlet moved closer to him, Guildenstern all but forgotten, and he could see the prince’s hand uncertainly reaching for him. But then he stopped and stepped back sharply. Hamlet had not touched him since their parting in Wittenberg.
“Were you not sent for?” Hamlet demanded. “Is it your own inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come, deal justly with me: come, come; nay, speak.”
Guildenstern caught his eye, concern evident and Rosencrantz feared Hamlet might be lost.
Rosencrantz hesitated, the corridor stretching away from him, Hamlet’s voice echoing along it. He had been searching the palace for him, eager for a moment alone at last, but now that he was close to him there was a deep chasm in his stomach. Fear gnawing at him.
“...the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty what it is to a bawd, than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness. This was sometime a paradox, but now the time fives it proof.
Perhaps it was just the fear that he might find Hamlet alone, ranting at an empty room.
“Ay truly, for I did love you once.”
The fear shifted into something more jealous.
“Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.”
Although their introductions had been brief, Rosencrantz recognised Ophelia’s voice. He had imagined them kindred spirits. And when Hamlet spoke next, it was as if he were throwing him against the wall again.
“You should not have believed me, for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock, but we shall relish of it. I loved you not.”
When they at last found Hamlet, he was half wild – like a dog who with gentle coaxing, might return to it’s master’s hand, or, with a hollow, howl might flee into the wild darkness. His hands were still blood stained and he held them before him like something wondrous.
“These pickers and stealers,” he muttered to himself, though earlier, in another lifetime, he had said it to Rosencrantz.
“My lord, you once did love me,” he had told Hamlet, feeling little more than a pale shadow of Ophelia.
“And do still, by these pickers and stealers,” Hamlet had said it lightly then, an afterthought, and then he had not touched him.
Now, though, Hamlet lingered on the words and gazed on his hands as if they were things unknown to him. Slowly he moved closer and Rosencrantz had to fight the urge to flinch away as he pressed those still crusted hands to his neck, moving up to cradle his cheeks. It had a familiar feel to it.
It felt a little like hope, for the King had mentioned England, and free from the prison of Denmark, he spied a chance for them all. A return to something better.
The light that had spilled through the window was soft, though Rosencrantz had to admit that his mind was caught between truth and poetry. The softness of the light had been merely an echo of the softness of Hamlet’s fingers drawing lazy patterns upon his bare skin.
It had been a dreaming sort of world, one to be half forgotten once the day returned. One where all questions could be asked and forgiven.
“Do you love me, Hamlet?” he had murmured and the prince had laughed, pressing a kiss to his chest.
He had pushed himself upwards, so that he could look Rosencrantz in the eyes and had carefully took his face between his hands, one placed upon each cheek. He had held him like that the first time he had kissed him.
“Dearly, my lord,” Hamlet had whispered with a grin.
For a moment they stood like that, Rosencrantz fighting urges of despair and loss and fear and flight. Aware of the guards watching them. Of Guildenstern and his confusion. Aware that what he said next might be a turning point for them all, and knowing he could hesitate no longer.
“What have you done, my lord, with the dead body?”
Hamlet laughed harshly and flung him away, sending him backwards into Guildenstern’s arms.
“Compounded it to dust, wherein ‘tis kin,” he told them manically.
The others stepped backwards, unwilling to respond, to risk the taint of madness, and they looked to him as if it was his responsibility. As if Hamlet was his responsibility and, in a strange way, he was. Though he was ranting now and lunatic, there were shadows of the man he had held.
“Do not believe it?” Hamlet warned him, stepping closer, threateningly.
“Believe what?” That you loved me once? The words echoed silent and unsaid in his mind.
“That I can keep your counsel and not my own? Besides to be demanded of a sponge – what replication should be made by the son of a king?”
It was a slap, a challenge, a warning. It hurt more deeply than Hamlet could know.
“Take you me for a sponge, my lord?”
“Ay, sir, that soaks up the King’s countenance, his rewards, his authorities. But such officers do the King best service in the end: he keeps them, like an ape, in the corner of his jaw, first mouthed to be last swallowed. When he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you shall be dry again.”
That same damned ambition. Rosencrantz shook his head slowly.
“I understand you not, my lord.”
My sea-gown scarfed about me, in the dark
Groped I to find out them, had my desire,
Fingered their packet, and in fine withdrew
To mine own room again, making so bold
(My fears forgetting manners) to unseal
Their grand commission...
Hamlet’s hand clenched around the letter, crumpling it within his fingers, the words are burnt upon his soul. Behind him on the bed Rosencrantz slept sweetly, their breaths still lingered together, as if even guilt could not touch him.
He had lain in his arms unhaunted by the future his hands held. The missive he bore. Hamlet’s death written in a fine hand.
Hamlet rose slowly from the bed, the boat shifting beneath it and Rosencrantz stirring with it. He turned for a moment, gazing at the boy he might have once loved, though now it was hard to remember. Leaning down he pressed a kiss to his cheek, feeling Rosencrantz’s smile, and then he left.
To write out futures of his own.
The ears are senseless that should give us hearing,
To tell him his commandment is fulfilled,
That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.
Where should we have our thanks?
Act 2, Scene 2