These characters appear in William Shakespeare's play, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, first performed some time between 1599 and 1602. They also appear in Tom Stoppard's 1966 play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
While Hamlet is frequently alluded to in the works of Harry Turtledove, these characters are probably most relevant, within the same, for their role in the Stoppard play, and are most directly addressed by Turtledove in his short story, "We Haven't Got There Yet". Scenes from Hamlet also figure in the plot of Ruled Britannia, although with somewhat less importance. In The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, Turtledove jokingly endorses the popular fringe notion that Francis Bacon was the "true author" of Hamlet.
At the beginning of the play, Hamlet has just returned to Elsinore, the palace of Denmark, from the University of Wittenberg, where he is a student. The occasion for his return is not a happy one: His father has died suddenly. His uncle, Claudius, has succeeded to the throne, and married his mother, Gertrude. Hamlet deeply resents Claudius' seizure of both his father's throne and his father's wife, and is especially scandalized by how soon the marriage occurred after his father's death.
Toward the end of the first act, his father's ghost appears before Hamlet and explains that, since he was killed before he had had the chance to receive the grace of extreme unction, he went before God still in a state of sin, and was punished accordingly. (Though Hamlet was written when Anglicanism was the state-sponsored religion of England, this bit of theology is consistent with contemporary Catholic teachings on Purgatory and the Sacrament of Last Rites. This among other instances has led to some speculation that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic.) The ghost also reveals that his death was caused not by a snakebite but by murder, and Claudius was the killer. He demands that Hamlet avenge his death by slaying his successor.
Hamlet is deeply rattled by the apparition and spends several weeks of inactivity, wondering whether the apparition was in fact his father's ghost or an attempt by the devil to lure Hamlet into the commission of a mortal sin, the murder of an innocent man. He eventually confirms his father's ghost's story by hiring actors to perform a play, The Murder of Gonzago, in which a monarch is murdered just as the ghost claimed to have been, and observing Claudius' reaction, then eavesdropping on Claudius's prayers of repentance after the king abruptly leaves the production.
While Claudius is in prayer, Hamlet has the opportunity to kill him, but decides not to, fearing that, if Claudius dies in the middle of prayerful repentance, God will forgive him his sins and grant him a higher place in the afterlife than He did for Hamlet's father.
Hamlet continues to look for opportunities to slay Clauius in the midst of some sin or scandal, but Claudius has become aware of this and begins looking for ways to kill Hamlet as well. He attempts to send Hamlet as an ambassador to England with sealed orders, which will instruct the English to execute their bearer; but Hamlet escapes this by convincing his former friends, Claudius' agents Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to deliver the orders instead.
Hamlet returns to Denmark and is saddened to learn of the death of his love interest, Ophelia. Claudius easily persuades Ophelia's surviving brother, Laertes, to challenge Hamlet to a duel, and gives Laertes a secretly-poisoned fencing foil. Hamlet and Laertes's fencing leads to both of them being mortally wounded by the poisoned sword and Laertes betraying Claudius by explaining how the king had planned to kill him with the sword, and how both young men were now doomed. On learning of this, Hamlet, now in possession of the poisoned blade, declares "The tip's envenomed, too? Then venom, do thy work!" and stabs Claudius with it, dooming his uncle to suffer the same fate. He also forces Claudius to drink from a poisoned goblet of wine which had recently killed Gertrude, declaring "Take this, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane!" This additional poison accelerates Claudius' death and allows Hamlet to live to see him die. Hamlet then claims the crown of Denmark, declares that it shall pass to the Norwegian warlord Fortinbras upon his imminent death, instructs his friend Horatio to remain alive (Horatio had intended suicide) and tell the world what happened in Elsinore, and then dies.
Throughout most of the play Hamlet's behavior is extremely erratic, and the other characters wonder whether he has become insane, but have no hard evidence one way or the other. This is also true of audiences, and the debate over Hamlet's sanity has continued unresolved in literary circles for centuries.
Hamlet in Ruled Britannia
When Lord Westmorland's Men performed Prince of Denmark, the role of Hamlet was played by Richard Burbage. His interpretation of the prince was well-received by London's theater-goers and fueled the debate over the character's sanity.
That debate captured the imagination even of playwrights comparable in talent to Shakespeare himself, including Christopher Marlowe and Lope de Vega. Shakespeare did not enlighten his colleagues on the question.
Hamlet in "We Haven't Got There Yet"
Within the context of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Prince Hamlet had very little to do until the final act, which incorporated the climax of Shakespeare's work Hamlet. As the performance proceeded, it occurred to Shakespeare that Hamlet was in much the same boat as the title characters. The only difference was that Hamlet was better written.
Hamlet in The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump
Allusions to an analog of Prince Hamlet occur in this novel, but appear to be inconsistent.
In the middle of the novel, David Fisher recites a quotation from Francis Bacon's iconic play Prosciutto, which appears to be largely the same play as the OTL Shakespeare's Hamlet. It is implied that Prosciutto is also the name of the main character, however an earlier passage in the novel attributes one of Hamlet's key lines to a person named Atheling the Wise, without explanation..
Due to this ambiguity, an in-universe description of the fictional-within-the-fiction character is not feasible.
King Claudius is the antagonist from William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. He is the brother of King Hamlet, second husband to Gertrude and uncle to Prince Hamlet. He obtained the throne by murdering his own brother with poison and then marrying the late king's widow.
Claudius is seen at the beginning of the play to be a capable monarch as he deals diplomatically with such issues as the military threat from Norway and Hamlet's depression. It is not until the appearance of King Hamlet's ghost that it is revealed that Claudius may have poisoned the old king in his sleep in order to usurp both his throne and his wife (confirmed in Act III scene 3, when Claudius confesses his sins to God).
Despite his remorse, the King still seeks Hamlet's death in an effort to save both his throne and his life.
When Laertes seeks revenge for his father Polonius' death at Hamlet's hands, Claudius develops an elaborate scheme to deal with Hamlet once and for all. He arranges a fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes, but plots with Laertes to poison his foil and give Hamlet a poisoned drink. The king's plan fails; Queen Gertrude drinks from the poisoned chalice instead of Hamlet and dies, and Hamlet, after being struck by the poisoned foil, captures the same sword and strikes Laertes. As Norway's army, led by young Prince Fortinbras, surrounds the castle, Hamlet finally exacts his revenge and slays the king by stabbing him and then forcing him to drink the very poison that Claudius had intended for Hamlet.
Within the context of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Claudius' role is limited to the first two acts. His appearances are taken directly from those scenes in Hamlet where he interacts with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Claudius in "We Haven't Got There Yet"
While viewing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, William Shakespeare was mildly amused when Claudius first appeared on stage and seemed to confuse Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The character spoke the lines Shakespeare wrote for him.
Upon meeting the actors after the play, Shakespeare noticed the actor who played Claudius, so confident and self-assured on the stage, was bewildered and lost when trying to explain what had happened to his company.
In William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, Gertrude is Hamlet's mother and Queen of Denmark. Her relationship with Hamlet is somewhat turbulent, since he resents her for marrying her husband's brother Claudius after he murdered the King (young Hamlet's father, King Hamlet). Gertrude reveals no guilt in her marriage with Claudius after the recent murder of her husband, and Hamlet begins to show signs of jealousy toward Claudius.The immediacy of her second marriage suggests that there may be some question as to whether or not she was involved in the murder. Her actions are often suspect, particularly because, according to Hamlet, she scarcely mourned her husband's death before marrying Claudius.
In Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Gertrude's role is smaller, limited to those instances where her character interacts with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Shakespeare's original.
Gertrude in "We Haven't Got There Yet"
In the 1606 production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead performed by a group of time-lost actors, Gertrude was portrayed by a woman named Jessica. William Shakespeare attended a performance, and was surprised that a female character was being played by a woman, rather than a young boy as was the custom. Later, when Shakespeare went back stage to congratulate the company, he was astonished to learn that they were from four centuries into the future. Jessica further vexed him by reciting a sonnet that Shakespeare had yet to write.
Gertrude in Ruled Britannia
A passing reference is made to a scene where Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, but his mother cannot. This scene is found in the play Hamlet. However, as none of the characters are called by name, and the title of the play is different, "Gertrude" may have been called something different in that timeline.
King Hamlet appears as a Ghost three times in the play, and is discussed at other times.
The Ghost appears first to a soldier named Bernardo and a scholar named Horatio. The men draw their swords and stand in fear, and Horatio asks the Ghost to speak its secret. It is about to do so when interrupted by the break of day. The soldiers explain that the Ghost, which resembles the late King in full armour, had appeared at least twice before at the same place and hour.
The next night, Prince Hamlet, at Horatio's urging, stays up to watch for the Ghost. At midnight, it appears, and beckons Hamlet to follow, which he does alone. The Ghost describes his wanderings on the earth, and his harrowing life in purgatory, since he died without receiving the last rites. He tells young Hamlet that he was poisoned by Claudius and asks the prince to avenge his death. Prince Hamlet returns to his friends and has them swear on his sword to keep what they have seen a secret. When they resist, the ghost utters the words "Swear" and "Swear on the sword", from below the stage, until his friends agree.
Prince Hamlet retains suspicious that the apparition may be a demon pretending to be King Hamlet, in order to cause the murder of an innocent Claudius. Then he sees the latter's guilty reaction to The Murder of Gonzago, at which point he is convinced that the ghost told the truth.
In the third and final appearance, Hamlet is confronted by the ghost in his mother's closet, and is rebuked for not carrying out his revenge and for disobeying in talking with Gertrude. Hamlet fearfully apologizes. Gertrude, however, cannot see the ghost, and thinks Hamlet is mad, asking why he stares and talks to nothing. In this scene, the ghost is described as being in his nightgown.
King Hamlet is also described in the play as a warrior who led Denmark's forces to victory against Norway, and personally defeated its King in hand-to-hand combat.
King Hamlet in Ruled Britannia
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a pair of fictional courtiers appearing in William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet. The two are major characters in Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and W. S. Gilbert's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern first appear in Act II, Scene 2, where they attempt to place themselves in the confidence of Prince Hamlet, their childhood friend. In reality, however, they serve as spies for King Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, who usurped the throne, murdered Hamlet's father, and married Hamlet's mother. Hamlet sees through their guise, however.
When Hamlet kills Polonius, Claudius recruits Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to escort Hamlet to England, providing them with a letter for the King of England instructing him to have Hamlet killed. Along the journey, the distrustful Hamlet finds and rewrites the letter instructing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be killed instead. When their ship is attacked by pirates, Hamlet returns to Denmark, leaving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to go to their deaths. Ambassadors returning later report that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead."
In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, they serve as protagonists. However, they are essentially helpless, confused by the events of Hamlet and unaware of their role in the larger drama. The play is primarily a comedy, but they often stumble upon deep philosophical truths through their nonsensical ramblings, often coming close to breaking the fourth wall. The characters depart from their epiphanies as quickly as they come to them.
Unlike other characters in Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear to be entirely Shakespeare's creations, having no analogs in the original legend. Their names were some of the most common surnames in Denmark in the late 16th century.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in "We Haven't Got There Yet"
In 1606, William Shakespeare was appalled to learn that a group of actors were performing a play featuring his creations Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The two characters mentioned in the title were characters in Shakespeare's own Hamlet. Shakespeare attended the first performance, and, while very puzzled by the style of the play, he nonetheless warmed to it. He was particularly amused by how both men seemed interchangeable and inert. As the play went on, he came to understand just how little he'd developed the characters, and that perhaps was in and of itself a tragic thing.
Later, when he met the actors backstage, the actors who played Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were both confrontational and cagey about their origins. When the actress who played Gertrude, a woman named Jessica, quoted a sonnet to Shakespeare that he had not yet written, he fled, and suddenly found much to pity about the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
- Shakespearean References in Turtledove's Work, which include many more trivial references to these characters in both Turtledove's and Laura Frankos' work.
- The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, p. 270.
- Ibid., p. 23.