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...
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