Critical Context

All Tom Stoppard’s plays are examinations of philosophical issues. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (pr. 1966, pb. 1967) employs minor characters from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. 1600-1601) to depict the role of human beings in a drama over which they have little control. In Jumpers (pr., pb. 1972), a team of philosophers combine their intellectual acumen with gymnastics. Travesties (pr. 1974, pb. 1975) brings together novelist James Joyce, revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, and Dadaist Tristan Tzara to debate the role of art and the nature of reality. Hapgood resembles these and other Stoppard plays in examining the relativity of truth and the use of language to attempt to construct a cogent system of meaning, and it combines these intellectual concerns with the scrutiny of the nature of love from The Real Thing (pr., pb. 1982). Although the ending of Hapgood is more ambiguous than that of The Real Thing, it also implies that love is capable of conquering all.

Stoppard always draws upon the conventions of other literary and show-business forms, from vaudeville and melodrama to mysteries and drawing-room comedies. In Hapgood, he examines and parodies the literature of espionage. The byzantine twists of plot owe a considerable debt to the complex machinations of John le Carre’s spy novels (though a few reviewers observed that Stoppard also borrows from the more mundane whodunit world of Agatha Christie). Stoppard delights in the clichés of espionage, even to having Kerner, an avid reader of spy fiction, comment on them. While recognizing that the moral ambiguity of this milieu allows him to create a new approach to the traditional philosophical concerns of his plays, Stoppard also sees that spying has the farcical elements necessary to making Hapgood as entertaining as it is intellectually stimulating.