Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

by Tom Stoppard

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What makes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead a satire?

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Tom Stoppard’s play is a satire both of the Elizabethan world of Shakespeare and the contemporary world in which he lived and wrote. Skillfully crafting a dramatic work that combines elements of Shakespearean tragedy and of absurdism a la Samuel Beckett, Stoppard developed a new type of theatrical work by inverting the importance of the characters.

Taking as its title a partial line from Hamlet, Stoppard’s play begins with an impossible premise. In his work, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are obviously alive, as they are constantly conversing with each other. Establishing this paradox, however, allows Stoppard makes his characters raise related existential questions: What is the meaning of life and death? How do we know that we are, in fact, alive? Stoppard’s often-acknowledged debt is to the most fundamental absurdist work, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The two courtiers spend much of the play waiting around to learn why they are there and if they are going anywhere. As the humor in his play is more pronounced, it is evident that he is satirizing Beckett’s more serious contemplation of human purpose.

Because the audience knows Hamlet, they know how the two men’s lives end. Much of the black humor derives from this knowledge, as they pose questions about their fate—questions that the audience can answer. While both characters and audience continually want to know why the men were sent for, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must seem to be genuinely ignorant even as the audience can wonder at Shakespeare’s original intention. Stoppard has created a satire of Shakespearean-era drama, with its unnecessarily complicated plots. The lapses of logic in Shakespeare’s plot, such as the clumsiness of using the pair as a device to extract information from Hamlet, are accentuated by Stoppard’s emphasizing them.

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Satire, in literature and rhetoric, ridicules some thing through the use of irony, exaggeration, or comedy.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters who appear in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. At the end of the play they both die, victims of the purges that befall most of the story's characters. Tom Stoppard invokes and reimagines Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by displaying them as the central characters of the story.

Unlike the dramatic Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead shows the duo engaged in exaggerated and humorous actions and activities. More specifically, they are shown in such dull and routine activities that the lack of action or purpose in their existence is underscored to a ridiculous level, thereby highlighting Shakespeare's creation of them as merely two-dimensional, background characters.

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The purpose of satire is to point out human flaws in a humorous way in order to instruct and possibly change humanity.  In this case, the subject of the satire is man's willingness to just do what he is told without questioning it or without making good choices for himself.  The play has an overarching theme of existentialism, and that philiosophy of life states that man must choose to act and take actions that are for the betterment of self and/or society.  If a person fails to choose and fails to act, then he is considered existentially dead.  Just breathing and going along through life with active action is not truly being alive, it is mere existence. 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are considered existentially dead and Stoppard uses humor to make his point.  These men are confused, don't really know why they were called, they only came because they were called in the first place, and even when they seem to be able to make a choice for themselves, they don't-- they let their fate happen to them rather than making a new ending for themselves.  In this play, they read the re-write of the letter for England and learn that they will be put death in England, but they don't do anything to stop it.  Stoppard is illustrating through this negative example how to live -- live better than these two characters do.  Along the way to this message, Stoppard has many jokes at their expense and that is part of the satire as well.  One of the most important "jokes" is that the Player seems to know everything about them (because he lives on at the end of Shakespeare's Hamlet) and he taunts them with that throughout the play -- unbeknownst to them even until the last pages.  The play uses silly humor/jokes, bawdy humor with the players, and deep philosophical statements all in an effort for the audience to see how to better examine their own lives and how they live them.


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