Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The title Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a direct quotation from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601; pb. 1603), a line delivered by the English ambassador to Horatio at the close of the play. In Shakespeare’s play it is but a minor detail, one of the many threads of the play brought to a close at the end of major events. In Stoppard’s play it is of major significance, for it marks the death of the main characters. Stoppard’s play depicts the “offstage lives” of Hamlet’s boyhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and demonstrates how they might feel about being used as pawns who are ultimately executed with no understanding of the reason. As minor literary characters they of course have no lives apart from their roles in Hamlet, and this lack allows Stoppard to use them as ideal representatives of modern absurdist-existentialist protagonists—empty, “flat” characters who are uncertain of their identity and their purpose and who thus speculate endlessly about what they should do next. Their only moments of sharp definition come when the characters from Hamlet sweep on stage, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern briefly speak the lines and act the parts created for them by Shakespeare.
Meanwhile Hamlet, Gertrude, Claudius, and the other members of the court go about the serious business of Hamlet offstage, and “Ros” and “Guil,” as they are called in Stoppard’s work, are left to their own trivial devices, such as flipping coins, arguing with the players who put on the play-within-the-play, and alternately disagreeing and making up. Their behavior raises questions about actors and acting and about the nature of reality: Are these characters more “real” when engaged in the fictive role Shakespeare created for two actors to play or when existing “on their own” outside the context of his play? Ros, Guil, and the “Players” discuss the importance of blood, love, and rhetoric in a play and the...
(The entire section is 827 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In nondescript surroundings, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern gamble at tossing coins. Rosencrantz keeps winning but remains calm about his unusual lucky streak. Guildenstern reflects uneasily about this apparent suspension of the laws of probability, which causes him to begin questioning the nature of the reality into which he and Rosencrantz are plunged. They have no memory of past events, except for a vague recollection of having been sent for. Dismayed at being unable to account for themselves or their situation, they feels stranded and without direction.
Their speculations are interrupted by the arrival of a band of motley players on their way to the Danish court. The principal player greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enthusiastically, for he hopes they will pay for a performance. The Player informs them that his company does on stage what other people do off stage. Guildenstern is offended by this suggestion of a lewd performance. He requests that the players perform something more traditional.
Hamlet and Ophelia pass by; Hamlet is disheveled and Ophelia distraught. They are followed by Claudius and Gertrude, who seem to know who the courtiers are but are unable to distinguish between them. Claudius tells them that Hamlet is transformed and that they are to “glean” what afflicts him. Gertrude promises them a royal reward. The king’s adviser, Polonius, tells Claudius and Gertrude that he knows the cause of Hamlet’s lunacy.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are disquieted by all this activity. Guildenstern remarks that they are caught up in events beyond their comprehension. Guildenstern pretends to be Hamlet while Rosencrantz practices the art of “gleaning.” Then they overhear Hamlet telling Polonius that he can be the same age as Hamlet if he can walk backward like a crab. Polonius leaves in a state of confusion. Hamlet greets them as two old friends, but he, too, confuses their identities. They attempt to “delve” into the cause of...
(The entire section is 811 words.)