Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

by Tom Stoppard

Start Free Trial

What is the major dramatic question answered at the climax of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a play by Tom Stoppard that premiered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1966. Its protagonists are two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet, the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This choice of protagonists seems to reflect the seminal line from Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock":

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two ...

In other words, these are supporting characters whose very existence is simply intended to fill in the stories of other people. Stoppard, by making them protagonists, raises a question of existence and metatheater.

In terms of metatheater, making an audience aware explicitly of the nature of minor characters makes viewers question the nature of theater itself. Characters are artificial constructs whose theatricality and unreality is highlighted by the lack of continuity in their narratives. Unlike real people, these characters seem to have no story or existence until they are paraded onto stage to support the narrative of the protagonist. The emphasis on what happens behind the scenes and between their appearances in the plot does what is called "breaking the fourth wall" or constantly reminded the audience of the performance's nature as a performance.

On a deeper level, this makes the audience think about the nature of people in reality. We only encounter others in brief intervals. For example, we might have relatives we see only on holidays or friends we only encounter occasionally in real life or on social media. In a sense, we are all protagonists of our own lives and other people are supporting characters within them. This play reminds us that what we might see as "supporting charterers" have fully realized lives outside our own and that our own realities are only "real" to them when we appear on their mental stages.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The play is Tom Stoppard's absurdist take on Hamlet. The two men spend most of the play waiting and trying to figure out why they were sent for. It is modeled largely on Waiting for Godot. The courtiers are largely passive bystanders with minimal agency. In all these respects, the play cannot be said to have a climax in the traditional Aristotelian dramatic sense. Stoppard uses the two characters to encourage the audience to ponder, as they do, the meaning of life. In this, it is existentialist as well as absurdist.

The audience also knows, as the two men do not, that they will be killed. Claudius has manipulated them, and Hamlet has tricked them. When they open the doctored letter, they find this out. Guildenstern's question can be considered the central one.

But why? Was it all for this? Who are we that so much should converge on our little deaths? Who are we?

The player tells them:

You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That is enough.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The relationship between the audience and the players is also investigated. I believe that Stoppard is focusing on both the role of fate but also the problem of art. The artist/player/playwright is forever looking to provoke the audience into thought. The audience is not just a stakeholder in the value of the art but perhaps creates the restrictions of the capacity of art to move them. The quote, “The audience knows what to expect and that is all they are prepared to believe,” demonstrates the box the artist is in. Stoppard is confronting the restrictions of art by placing the responsibility on the audience. The moment would be greater, the lesson larger, the art more deeply moving if the audience would budge more. The power of plays is described in “The Mouse Trap” within “Hamlet”. “The play IS the thing…”

Art that merely entertains and gives the audience what it desires is no more than a prolonged tickle. Stoppard\'s describes the actors as prostitutes to make this point.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

I would say that Fate is the dramatic question if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, and it is that question that follows and leads the story. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have to die. They die in Hamlet, and for the story to make any sense, the have to die in Stoppards play as well. Even though they, and Stoppard as well, try to avoid their deaths, the audience is aware that it is going to happen. It has to, it is fate. And when the Player says in their dress rehearsal for The Murder of Gonzago that "everyone who is marked for death dies," Guildenstern asks, "Who decides?" and the Player responds, "Decides? It is written.''

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial