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.