Hamlet’s Plan

Somebody help me walk through the timeline in Hamlet’s trip to England.

1) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been assigned the task of accompanying Hamlet to England.

2) R&G have in their possession a letter that says, “Dear King of England, please kill Hamlet.”

3) Neither Hamlet nor R&G know the contents of the letter.

4) Hamlet steals the letter, opens it, and learns what it says.  So he alters it (writes a new letter?)  suggesting that, instead, “the bearers should be put to death.”

5) The pirates attack, and Hamlet goes off with them  (to later be released).

6) R&G,  having lost Hamlet and never knowing what was in the letter in the first place, continue on to England and their ultimate demise.

So here’s my question.  Hamlet didn’t know the pirates were coming, right?  So then what was his plan with the altered letter?  Did he plan to go on to England and stand in front of the king when the letter was read, only to laugh at the expression on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s faces as they are hauled off to the chopping block?

The reason I ask is that I’m left wondering why he so almost gleefully sent them off to die, and whether there were other options.  When he rewrote the letter he assumed that he was basically a prisoner of Claudius’ mercenaries and that he would be brought all the way before the king of England.  Therefore he needed to alter the letter to say something different.  That makes sense.  Couldn’t he have had them imprisoned?  Or something else?

What do you think, does this act (and his subsequent dismissal of his guilt) show that Hamlet’s gone off the deep end at this point?  Remember that his treatment of Polonius wasn’t much better, dragging his corpse through the castle.  Is Hamlet just doing what it takes to survive?  Or is he killing everyone in his way (except the person he’s supposed to kill)?

9 thoughts on “Hamlet’s Plan

  1. Maybe Hamlet is afraid they have a back up plan just in case the King of England doesn't want to murder Hamlet. We know that the pair met with the King and talked about Hamlet. Hamlet may also feel portrayed by his two friends.

    I do like your idea that Hamlet may be killing everyone expect the one person he needs to.

  2. He comments on their deaths when he tells Horatio the story (and exactly how he changed the letter). He doesn't just have them executed, but sent to Hell ("not shriving time allowed"), & basically says they should have known better than to come between him & Claudius; their "baser natures" not being equipped for it. Whether all this makes him crazy is a judgment call. I still love the guy <3

  3. You know, anonymous, I never made that connection – that Hamlet's specific order for "no shriving time" is a deliberate desire to send them to hell. This seems a clear indication that he's "avenging by proxy", doing to them what was done to his own father.

    I wonder … was he doing the same thing with Polonius, by not allowing him a proper burial?

  4. "I wonder … was he doing the same thing with Polonius, by not allowing him a proper burial?"

    It was Claudius, not Hamlet, who felt the need to bury Polonius "hugger-mugger".


    In a rush to get ready for work now. Back later.

  5. J! You haven't left us!!

    How do we rationalize what Hamlet did to Polonius? Did he really think that he was going to get away with it? Was he sane enough to think, "I know, I'll do what an insane person would do!" Did proper burial for Polonius ever enter his mind? Even when admitting to the hiding place Hamlet even suggests that he'll eventually rot and start to smell, which certainly suggests that he couldn't care less what happens to Polonius' eternal spirit.

  6. Perhaps Shakespeare has Hamlet change the letter the way he does just so he can get in the line "hoist with their own petard." Sort of an Elizabethan equivalent of a Bugs Bunny line.


  7. Carl,
    I imagine it wouldn't be the first time he twisted the plot just so he could display his wit with the language.

    Hamlet clearly tells Claudius where the body is. It's not a complicated riddle. And I seriously doubt he hides it thinking it can't be found. He's stalling for time. I think he's acting completely on reflex at first (what would you do in such a situation? The s**t has hit the fan, so to speak) and also attempting to keep up the "antic disposition" ruse.
    Remember, he despises Claudius for obvious reasons and will bate him to the ends of the earth with whatever subject is convenient. Polonius is gone–what's done is done and can't be reversed.
    I don't think Hamlet is concerned with anyone's eternal spirit, with the exception of his father's–and perhaps his own. Obviously,he's in quite a bit of trouble and in survival mode at this particular juncture. He's desperate for what to do. No going back NOW.
    Oh…and he's just seen a ghost–again. What to do? What would you do?

    I think too often we saddle Hamlet with sort of somehow writing the play himself. Then the analytical questions come fast and furious as to why and what. But it's also happening TO him. His ability to control fate is no more facile than our own.

  8. To the first question, a question:

    All R&G have been doing since they showed up is spying on him, betraying him, and lying to him.
    Some "friends".

    Does Hamlet know for a fact that R&G don't know what's in the letter? Does he know that Claudius has not taken them into his confidence somehow?

    Like so many surrounding Hamlet, they CAN'T BE TRUSTED.
    Wouldn't it be at least highly probable, in your estimation, that they know exactly what's going on? They ALWAYS know more than Hamlet, until he ferrets it out of them. Even if asked, would he expect them to tell the truth–about THIS? This is life and death now, not a game at court–or a "play".

  9. That's a good question. It's entirely possible he doesn't have any real plan but thinks that what he's doing is more likely to end up with him alive than leaving the letter as it is. (I would argue that he doesn't have especially good planning skills in general.) Alternatively, if we're going with an interpretation in which Hamlet is in fact mad, then that explains this lack of foresight.

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