Themes and Meanings
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a seriocomic meditation on life, death, language, the theater, and free will. The play itself becomes a metaphor for life as its two principal characters struggle to find their way through its maze of events, lacking any memory of what has gone before and drawn inexorably toward their own deaths. Like all characters, their actions are predetermined by the playwright’s wishes, and they find themselves unable to perform any action that breaks with the dramatic flow of the plot—in their case, that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Their first memory coincides with the first mention of their names in Hamlet and when they are not active participants in a scene from that play, they exist in a kind of limbo, where they search with increasing despair for the reasons behind their situation—that is to say, for the meaning of their lives.
At the end of their baffling journey lies their death, as inevitable for them (because of the course of Hamlet’s plot) as it is in each human life. Hints of their death appear throughout the play, beginning with its title and Tom Stoppard’s assumption of familiarity with Hamlet on the part of the audience. For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves, the foreshadowings are less overt, but still unmistakable. During his first encounter with The Player, Guildenstern correctly interprets the actor as the harbinger of his own doom:It could have...
(The entire section is 474 words.)