Though minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were given new life in Tom Stoppard’s famous 1966 play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. In this fantastic meta-fictional satire, Stoppard illuminates the importance (and hilarity) of having seemingly ordinary and clueless characters become integral to a plot developments and the pathos of a story. Science fiction and fantasy certainly has its share of Rosencrantz and Guildensterns, those seemingly hapless characters with little to no agency who are nonetheless absolutely essential. Here are five of my favorites.
Bo & Mac (Babylon 5 “A View from the Galley”)
Babylon 5 was known primarily for its ongoing story, making a stand-alone episode something of an endangered species. Yet, here in its final season, was this quiet story from the perspective of two of the space station’s maintenance workers. Frequently in adventure-based science fiction like Babylon 5 we’re rarely shown what the everyday people are doing, something that was remedied in this installment. Neither Bo nor Mac have an exact idea as to what happens out side of Babylon 5 but do find themselves unwittingly caught up in the action when Captain Sheridan instructs them to put Delenn into an escape pod. Though Delenn talks them out of this, for a brief moment a serious decision involving the fate of a major character was put into the hands of a couple of “nobodies.” Though not the most explosive episode of B5, this Harlan Ellison/J. Michael Straczynski story demonstrated one of the strengths of the show. The real people were real people.
Sito, Lavelle, Taurik, and Ogawa (Star Trek: TNG “Lower Decks.”)
In this standout episode of The Next Generation, we’re treated to the hopes and dreams of a four of Starfleet’s less-than-famous officers. Unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, these characters know what they want, even if their trajectories are less in focus than our lead characters. The character of Sito is a unique one here insofar as she was spun-off from a previous episode in which she was complicit to Wesley Crusher’s crappy stunt at Starfleet academy. Seeing as Wesley is something of directionless character with no agency to begin with, you’d think a character who merely supported him in a random episode would be even less interesting. And yet, the potential for Sito’s story is mined extremely well and her whole biography is thoroughly incorporated with the rest of the crew convincingly. “Lower Decks” reminds us that these “red shirt” guys might be in the background, but they’re alive!
Merry & Pippin (Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings)
Initially portrayed as humorous, almost perpetually drunk characters, Merry and Pippin unwittingly become integral to the overall story of Lord of the Rings. Unlike Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin don’t make a very clear proactive decision to go along on this journey, but rather tag along with Sam and Frodo out of some kind of loyalty which isn’t depicted.( At least not as deeply as Sam’s loyalty.) And yet, it is Merry and Pippin who witness Boromir’s attempt at redemption. They’re also the ones who make contact with the Ents and end up standing up to Denethor in Gondor in the third book. For a couple of guys who seemed just want to kick back some pints, they end up becoming epic heroes, and eventually surpass their Rosencrantz and Guildenstern status.
C-3PO & R2-D2 (Star Wars Episodes I-VI)
Though George Lucas has frequently cited the inspiration for C-3PO and R2-D2 as firmly lying with Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, everyone’s two favorite droids certainly have a lot in common with Stoppard’s interpretation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This becomes particularly true when one looks at Threepio and Artoo in the much derided prequel trilogy. If you think of the growing madness of Anakin as an analog for Hamlet, then the connection becomes totally clear. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the droids are constantly being sent for and called for, seemingly without their consent nor desire. And yet, the entirety of Star Wars wouldn’t happen if it weren’t for their existence. Are they put to the death like their Shakespearean counterparts? No, but when you consider memory erasure, severed limbs, severed heads, and Artoo getting blown up in episode IV, it’s pretty much the same difference.
The Various Companions of the Doctor (Doctor Who)
From fans to writers like Steven Moffat and Russell T. Davies, the assertion that the stories on Doctor Who are often the stories of the companions seems to be fairly true. However, the show is about the Doctor, meaning that we see also see his story through the eyes of Ian and Barbara, or Peri, or Rose, or Amy and Rory, or Wilf. Who were these people before he picked them up? What was their story before? Really, it doesn’t matter. It only really matters when they’re with the Doctor. They may not always end up dead like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but after they depart their stories are often tragic. Also, if the Doctor is like Hamlet (he is a little nuts) then aren’t the companions simply there to cheer him up and keep him from going too far? Have they not — like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—been “sent for” to make sure he doesn’t go totally bonkers? Luckily, the narrative of Doctor Who is not as hardcore of a tragedy as Hamlet, as it seems these Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns are succeeding in keeping their Prince of Time in check. Most of the time anyway.
What about you dear readers? Who are your favorite SFF Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns?
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. The Shakespeare character he most identifies with is Feste.