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Hamlet's Murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

From Ten more plays of Shakespeare. Stopford A. Brooke.

In slaying Polonius, he has at last overstepped the bounds which held him back from blood. He will not be squeamish again, and he proves that soon by handing over Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death.

I cannot quite get over that affair. I believe there are critics who, desirous, in contradiction to Shakespeare, to prove that Hamlet was prompt and resolute in action, folk who seem to imagine that Hamlet was a real character, and not made by Shakespeare, aver that when he rewrote the letter, and sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death, and himself escaped on board the pirate ship, he showed quick resolve passing into immediate action. But he had meant all along to hoist these engineers with their own petard, if he proved them traitors.

It is also said he proved by this his intellectual sharpness, his clear brain; proved that he was a man not of impulsive but of calculating action. I only see in it the cunning almost of a madman. That action of his -- an action of treachery and of mean treachery -- is so apart from the rest of his magnanimous character, that, if ever Hamlet passed the limit between feigned and real madness, he seems to me to have passed it then. The punishment he inflicted on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was far too heavy for their guilt -- the sort of punishment which just reasoning would not have imposed. The event does not prove Hamlet's clearness of intellect, but on the contrary. At no other point of the play does he act in this unintelligent, unmoral way.

It is said in excuse of Hamlet's conduct here, that the age in which he lived was savage, and human life of no importance. That is true ; but Hamlet, as Shakespeare made him, was not of that age. He is not naturally fond of blood or war, of drink or feasting, of such treachery, for ambition's sake, as the King's. He does not belong to this crew; nay, it was part of Shakespeare's idea to place in the closest contact with them this young man who differed at every point from them, to whom they were naturally repugnant, and to work out his drama within that outline.

This action of Hamlet's with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is not in harmony with Shakespeare's conception, nor with the rest of his drawing of Hamlet. 1 I am told that there are those who call it heroic, in a vain endeavour to make a hero out of Hamlet. I hope a hero is built on other lines. It is still more absurd, as I believe some American has done, to make him heroic because he leaps into Ophelia's grave in rivalry of Laertes' sorrow, or because he kills the King, when not to kill him were ridiculous. I do not care where Shakespeare got this episode; it is a blot on the play.

1. Moreover, it is a mistake in art to link Hamlet up with the King in a treacherous and murderous action. He is for the moment hand in hand with the King; and Shakespeare should not have done this. Moreover the act is not in Hamlet's character.

How to cite this article:
Brooke, Stopford A. Ten more plays of Shakespeare . New York: H. Holt and company, 1913. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2013. < >.


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