Gilbert and Sullivan Archive

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

A Tragic Episode, in Three Tabloids, founded on an Old Danish Legend

by W. S. Gilbert


Interior of KING CLAUDIUS' palace. CLAUDIUS discovered seated in a gloomy attitude. QUEEN GERTRUDE on a stool at his feet, consoling him.

Nay, be not sad, my lord!
Sad, loved Queen?
If by an effort of the will I could
Annul the ever-present Past -- disperse
The gaunt and gloomy ghosts of bygone deeds,
Or bind them with imperishable chains
In caverns of the past incarcerate,
Then could I smile again -- but not till then!
QUEENOh, my dear lord!
If aught there be that gives thy soul unrest,
Tell it to me.
Well loved and faithful wife,
Tender companion of my faltering life,
Yes, I can trust thee! Listen, then, to me:
Many years since -- when but a headstrong lad --
QUEEN (Interested)
I wrote a five-act tragedy.
A play, writ by a king --
And such a King!
CLAUDIUSFinds ready market. It was read at once,
But ere 'twas read, accepted. Then the Press
Teemed with porpentous import. Elsinore
Was duly placarded by willing hands;
We know that walls have ears -- I gave them tongues --
And they were eloquent with promises.
The day approached -- all Denmark stood agape.
Arrangements were devised at once by which
Seats might be booked a twelvemonth in advance.
The first night came.
And did the play succeed?
In one sense, yes.
Oh, I was sure of it!
CLAUDIUS A farce was given to play the people in --
My tragedy succeeded that. That's all!
And how long did it run?
About ten minutes.
Ere the first act had traced one-half its course
The curtain fell, never to rise again!
And did the people hiss?
No -- worse than that --
They laughed. Sick with the shame that covered me,
I knelt down, palsied, in my private box,
And prayed the hearsed and catacombed dead
Might quit their vaults and claim me for their own!
QUEENWas it, my lord, so very, very bad?
CLAUDIUSNot to deceive my trusting Queen, it was.
QUEENAnd when the play failed, didst thou take no steps
To set thyself right with the world?
I did.
The acts were five -- though by five acts too long,
I wrote an Act by way of epilogue --
An act by which the penalty of death
Was meted out to all who sneered at it.
The play was not good -- but the punishment
Of those that laughed at it was capital.
QUEENThink on't no more, my lord. Now mark me well:
To cheer our son, whose solitary tastes
And tendency to long soliloquy
Have much alarmed us, I, unknown to thee,
Have sent for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern --
Two merry knaves, kin to Polonius,
Who will devise such revels in our Court --
Such antic schemes of harmless merriment --
As shall abstract his meditative mind
From sad employment. Claudius, who can tell
But that they may divert my lord as well?


Ah, they are here!


My homage to the Queen!


ROSENCRANTZ (Kneeling)    In hot obedience to the Royal 'hest
We have arrived, prepared to do our best.
QUEENWe welcome you to Court. Our Chamberlain
Shall see that you are suitably deposed.
Here is his daughter. She will hear your will
And see that it receives fair countenance.

Exeunt KING and QUEEN, lovingly. Enter OPHELIA.

OPHELIA (Delighted and surprised)
Ophelia!  (Both embrace her)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!
This meeting likes me much. We have not met
Since we were babies!
The Queen hath summoned us,
And I have come in a half-hearted hope
That I may claim once more my baby-love!
Alas, I am betrothed!
Betrothed? To whom?
To Hamlet!
Oh, incomprehensible!
OPHELIA (Demurely)
Thou lovest Hamlet?
Nay, I said not so--
I said we were betrothed.
And what's he like?
OPHELIA Alike for no two seasons at a time.
Sometimes he's tall -- sometimes he's very short --
Now with black hair -- now with a flaxen wig --
Sometimes with an English accent -- then a French --
Then English with a strong provincial "burr."
Once an American, and once a Jew --
But Danish never, take him how you will!
And strange to say, whate'er his tongue may be,
Whether he's dark or flaxen -- English -- French --
Though we're in Denmark, A.D. ten-six-two--
He always dresses as King James the First!
Oh, he is surely mad!
Well, there again
Opinion is divided. Some men hold
That he's the sanest, far, of all sane men --
Some that he's really sane, but shamming mad --
Some that he's really mad, but shamming sane --
Some that he will be mad, some that he was
Some that he couldn't be. But on the whole
(As far as I can make out what they mean)
The favourite theory's somewhat like this:
Hamlet is idiotically sane
With lucid intervals of lunacy
ROSENCRANTZWe must devise some plan to stop this match!
GUILDENSTERNStay! Many years ago, King Claudius
Was guilty of a five act tragedy.
The play was damned, and none may mention it
Under the pain of death. We might contrive
To make him play this piece before the King,
And take the consequence.
For every copy was destroyed.
But one --
My father's!
In his capacity
As our Lord Chamberlain* he has one copy. I
This night, when all the Court is drowned in sleep,
Will creep with stealthy foot into his den
And there abstract the precious manuscript!

*(ALL bow reverentially at mention of this functionary)

GUILDENSTERNThe plan is well conceived! But take good heed,
Your father may detect you.
Oh dear, no.
My father spends his long official days
In reading all the rubbishing new plays.
From ten to four at work he may be found:
And then -- my father sleeps exceeding sound!




QUEENHave you as yet planned aught that may relieve
Our poor afflicted son's despondency?
ROSENCRANTZMadam, we've lost no time. Already we
Are getting up some Court theatricals
In which the prince will play a leading part.
QUEENThat's well-bethought -- it will divert his mind.
But soft -- he comes.
How gloomily he stalks,
Starts -- looks around -- then, as if reassured,
Rumples his hair and rolls his glassy eyes!
QUEEN (Appalled)  That means -- he's going to soliloquize!
Prevent this, gentlemen, by any means!
We will, but how?
Anticipate his points,
And follow out his argument for him;
Thus will you cut the ground from 'neath his feet
And leave him naught to say.
We will! We will! (They kneel)
QUEENA mother's blessing be upon you, sirs! (Exit)
ROSENCRANTZ (Both rising)Now, Guildenstern, apply thee to this task.

Music. Enter HAMLET. He stalks to chair, throws himself into it.

To be -- or not to be!
Yes, that's the question --
Whether he's bravest who will cut his throat
Rather than suffer all --
Or suffer all
Rather than cut his throat?
HAMLET (Annoyed at interruption, says, "Go away -- go away," then resumes)
To die -- to sleep --
ROSENCRANTZIt's nothing more -- Death is but sleep spun out --
(ROSENCRANTZ offers him a dagger)
Why hesitate?
The only question is
Between the choice of deaths, which death to choose.
(GUILDENSTERN offers a revolver)
HAMLET (In great terror)Do take those dreadful things away. They make
My blood run cold. Go away -- go away!
They turn aside. HAMLET continues.
To sleep, perchance to --
That's very true. I never dream myself.
But Guildenstern dreams all night long out loud.
GUILDENSTERN (Coming down and kneeling)
With blushes, sir, I do confess it true!
HAMLETThis question, gentlemen, concerns me not.
(Resumes) For who would bear the whips and scorns of time --
ROSENCRANTZ (As if guessing a riddle)Who'd bear the whips and scorns? Now let me see.
GUILDENSTERN (Same business)
Who'd bear them, eh?
Who'd bear the scorns of time?
ROSENCRANTZ (Correcting him)
The whips and scorns
The whips and scorns, of course.
(HAMLET about to protest) (GUILDENSTERN continues)
Don't tell us -- let us guess -- the whips of time?
HAMLETOh, sirs, this interruption likes us not.
I pray you give it up.
My lord, we do
We cannot tell who bears those whips and scorns.
HAMLET (Not heeding them, resumes)But that the dread of something after death --
ROSENCRANTZThat's true -- post mortem and the coroner --
Felo-de-se -- cross roads at twelve p.m. --
And then the forfeited life policy --
HAMLET (really angry)
Exceedingly unpleasant.
It must be patent to the merest dunce
Three persons can't soliloquize at once!

HAMLET retires and throws himself on dais, as if buried in soliloquy. Enter OPHELIA, white with terror, holding a heavy manuscript.

OPHELIA (In stage whisper)
I've found the manuscript,
But never put me to such work again!
ROSENCRANTZWhy, what has happened that you tremble so?
OPHELIALast night I stole down from my room alone
And sought my father's den. I entered it!
The clock struck twelve, and then -- oh, horrible!
From chest and cabinet there issued forth
The mouldy spectres of five thousand plays,
All dead and gone -- and many of them damned!
I shook with horror! They encompassed me,
Chattering forth the scenes and parts of scenes
Which my poor father wisely had cut out.
Oh, horrible -- oh, 'twas most horrible! (Covering her face)
OPHELIA (Severely)
What was't they uttered?
I decline to say.
The more I heard the more convinced was I
My father acted most judiciously;
Let that suffice thee.
Give me, then, the play,
OPHELIA (Crossing to him)
And I'll submit it to the Prince.
But stay,
Do not appear to urge him -- hold him back,
Or he'll decline to play the piece -- I know him.
HAMLETWhy what's that? (Rises and comes down.)
GUILDENSTERNWe have been looking through some dozen plays
To find one suited to our company.
This is, my lord, a five-act tragedy.
'Tis called "Gonzago" -- but it will not serve --
'Tis very long.
Is there a part for me?
OPHELIAThere is, my lord, a most important part --
A mad Archbishop who becomes a Jew
To spite his diocese.
That's very good!
ROSENCRANTZ (Turning over the pages)Here you go mad -- and then soliloquize;
Here you are the same again -- and then you don't;
Then, later on, you stab your aunt, because --
Well, I can't tell you why you stab your aunt,
But still -- you stab her.
That is quite enough.
ROSENCRANTZThen you become the leader of a troop
Of Greek banditti -- and soliloquize --
After a long and undisturbed career
Of murder (tempered by soliloquy)
You see the sin and folly of your ways
And offer to resume your diocese;
But, just too late -- for, terrible to tell,
As you're repenting (in soliloquy)
The Bench of Bishops seize you unawares
And blow you from a gun!

During this HAMLET has acted in pantimome the scenes described

HAMLET (Excitedly)That's excellent.
That's very good indeed -- we'll play this piece!

(Taking manuscript from ROSENCRANTZ)

OPHELIABut, pray consider -- all the other parts
Are insignificant.
What matters that?
We'll play this piece.
The plot's impossible,
And all the dialogue bombastic stuff.
HAMLETI tell you, sir, that we will play this piece.
Bestir yourselves about it, and engage
All the most fairly famed tragedians
To play the small parts -- as tragedians should.
A mad Archbishop! Yes, that's very good!

(Picture. HAMLET, reading the ms. with limelight on him. ROSENCRANTZ at entrance, OPHELIA at entrance.)


March. Enter procession.

The KING sits, the QUEEN on his left, OPHELIA on his right, ROSENCRANTZ stands above her, GUILDENSTERN and POLONIUS behind the KING and QUEEN; the COURTIERS right and left.

QUEENA fair good morrow to you, Rosencrantz.
How march the Royal revels?
ROSENCRANTZLamely, madam, lamely, like a one-legged duck. The Prince
has discovered a strange play. He hath called it, "A
right Reckoning Long Delayed."
CLAUDIUSAnd of what fashion is the Prince's play?
ROSENCRANTZ'Tis an excellent poor tragedy, my lord -- a thing of
shreds and patches welded into a form that hath mass
without consistency, like an ill-built villa.
QUEENBut sir, you should have used your best endeavours
To wean his phantasy from such a play.
ROSENCRANTZMadam, I did, and with some success, for he now seeth the
absurdity of its tragical catastrophes, and laughs at it
as freely as we do. So, albeit, the poor author had
hoped to have drawn tears of sympathy, the Prince has
resolved to present it as a piece of pompous folly
intended to excite no loftier emotion than laughter and
surprise. Here comes the Royal Tragedian with his troop.


HAMLETGood morrow, sir. This is our company of players. They have
come to town to do honour and add completeness to our revels.
CLAUDIUSGood sirs, we welcome you to Elsinore.
Prepare you now -- we are agog to taste
This intellectual treat in store for us.
HAMLETWe are ready, sir. But, before we begin, I would speak a
word to you who are to play this piece. I have chosen
this play in the face of sturdy opposition from my well-
esteemed friends, who were for playing a piece with less
bombastic fury and more frolic.  (Addresses KING)
But I have thought this a fit play to be presented by
reason of that very pedantical bombast and windy
obtrusive rhetorick that they do rightly despise. For
I hold that there is no such antick fellow as your
bombastical hero who doth so earnestly spout forth
his folly as to make his hearers believe that he in unconscious
of all incongruity; whereas, he who doth so mark, label,
and underscore his antick speeches as to show that he
is alive to their absurdity seemeth to utter them under
protest, and to take part with his audience against
himself. (Turning to PLAYERS) For which reason, I pray
you, let there be no huge red noses, nor extravagant
monstrous wigs, nor coarse men garbed as women, in this
comi-tragedy; for such things are as much as to say,
"I am a comick fellow -- I pray you laugh at me, and hold
what I say to be cleverly ridiculous." Such labelling of
humour is an impertinence to your audience, for it seemeth
to imply that they are unable to recognize a joke unless
it be pointed out to them. I pray you avoid it.

Slight applause which HAMLET acknowledges

FIRST PLAYERSir, we are beholden to you for your good counsels. But
we would urge upon your consideration that we are
accomplished players, who have spent many years in learning
our profession; and we would venture to suggest that
it would better befit your lordship to confine yourself
to such matters as your lordship may be likely to
understand. We, on our part, may have our own ideas
as to the duties of heirs-apparent; but it would ill
become us to air them before your lordship, who may be
resonably supposed to understand such matters more
perfectly than your very humble servants.

ALL applaud vigorously. HAMLET about to explode in anger. KING interrupts him. HAMLET thinks better of it and angrily beckons PLAYERS to follow him. He and they exeunt.

CLAUDIUSCome, let us take our places. Gather round
That all may see this fooling. Here's a chair
In which I shall find room to roll about
When laughter takes possession of my soul.
Now we are ready.

Enter on platform a loving couple. Applause.

Shouldst thou prove faithless?
If I do
Then let the world forget to woo (Kneeling)
The mountaintops bow down in fears,
The midday sun dissolve in tears,
And outraged nature, pale and bent,
Fall prostrate in bewilderment!

ALL titter through this -- breaking into a laugh at the end, the KING enjoying it more than anyone.

OPHELIATruly, sir, I hope he will prove faithful, lest
we should all be involved in this catastrophe!
CLAUDIUS (Laughing)Much, indeed, depends upon his constancy. I am
sure he hath all our prayers, gentlemen!
(To ROSENCRANTZ) Is this play well known?
ROSENCRANTZ (Advancing)It is not, my lord. (Turns back to OPHELIA)
CLAUDIUSHa! I seem to have met with these lines before. Go on.
SHEHark, dost thou hear those trumpets and those drums?
Thy hated rival, stern Gonzago, comes!

Exeunt loving COUPLE. Laughter, as before.

QUEENAnd wherefore cometh Gonzago?
ROSENCRANTZHe cometh here to woo!
QUEENCannot he woo without an orchestra at his elbow? A fico
for such wooing, say I!
CLAUDIUS (Rather alarmed, aside to ROSENCRANTZ) Who is Gonzago?
ROSENCRANTZHe's a mad Archbishop of Elsinore. 'Tis a most
ridiculous and mirthful character -- and the more so for
that the poor author had hoped to have appalled you
with his tragical end.

ROSENCRANTZ returns to OPHELIA. During this, the KING has shown that he has recognized his tragedy. He is horrified at discovery.

Enter HAMLET as Archbishop, with a robe and mitre. ALL laugh and applaud except the KING, who is miserable.

HAMLETFree from the cares of Church and State,
I come to wreak my love and hate.
Love whirls me to the lofty skies --
Hate drags me where dark Pluto lies!

ALL laugh except KING.

QUEENMarry, but he must have a nice time of it between them!
Oh, sir, this passeth the bounds of ridicule, and to think
that these lines were to have drawn our tears!
OPHELIATruly, mine eyes run with tears, but they are begotten
of laughter.
HAMLETGently, gently. Spare your ridicule, lest you have
none left for the later scenes. The tragedy is full of
such windy fooling. You shall hear more anon. There
are five acts of this!

ALL groan. HAMLET resumes.

For two great ends I daily fume --
The altar and the deadly tomb.
How can I live in such a state
And hold my Arch-Episcopate?
ROSENCRANTZ (Exhausted with laughter) Oh, my lord -- I pray you end this,
or I shall die with laughter!
QUEEN (Ditto)Did mortal ever hear such metrical folly! Stop it,
my good lord, or I shall assuredly do myself some injury.
OPHELIA (Ditto)Oh, sir, prythee have mercy on us -- we have laughed till
we can laugh no more!
HAMLETThe drollest scene is coming now. Listen.
(ALL start.)
Stop, I say -- cast off those mummeries!
HAMLET (Takes off robes)
Come hither, Hamlet!
Why, what ails you, sir?
CLAUDIUS (With suppressed fury)
Knowst thou who wrote this play?
Not I, indeed
Nor do I care to know!
I wrote this play --
To mention it is death, by Denmark's law!
QUEEN (Kneeling)Oh, spare him, for he is mine only child!
CLAUDIUSBoth shall together perish!

CLAUDIUS draw dagger. QUEEN endeavours to restrain him.

HAMLET (On his knees)Hold thine hand!
I can't bear death -- I'm a philosopher!
CLAUDIUSThat's true. But how shall we dispose of him?

ALL puzzled.

OPHELIA (Suddenly)A thought!
There is a certain isle beyond the sea
Where dwell a cultured race -- compared with whom
We are but poor brain-blind barbarians;
'Tis known as Engle-land. Oh, send him there!
If but the half of what I've heard of them be true
They will enshrine him on their great good hearts,
And men will rise or sink in good esteem
According as they worship him, or slight him!
CLAUDIUSWell, we're dull dogs in Denmark. It may be
That we've misjudged him. If such a race there be --
(There may be -- I am not a well-read man)
They're welcome to his philosophic brain --
So, Hamlet, get thee gone -- and don't come back again!

CLAUDIUS crosses to right. HAMLET, who is delighted at the suggestion, crosses to QUEEN and embraces her. He then embraces OPHELIA, who receives his kiss with marked coldness. Then he turns up onto platform and strikes an attitude, exclaiming, "To Engle-land!" At the same moment, ROSENCRANTZ embraces OPHELIA. Picture.


Contributed to the Gilbert and Sullivan Archive by David Jedlinsky.

Page created 2 May 1998