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 question of role-playing as reality. Ros and Guil are controlled by the action of Shakespeare’s play; yet they remain under the illusion that they have choices to make and debate whether to go home or see how events transpire and whether to go to England with Hamlet. Inevitably, despite their fears and doubts and hesitations, they act as the moment demands, in accordance with the Shakespearean script.
This behavior by the main characters, many critics have pointed out, is heavily influenced by Samuel Beckett’s En attendant Godot (pb. 1952, pr. 1953; Waiting for Godot, 1954). Beckett’s play is also set in a “place without visible character,” as Stoppard describes it; features two somewhat pathetic figures waiting for some outside person to enter their lives and give them meaning; and explores issues of identity, fate, and probability. Stoppard clearly means for his audience to recognize and enjoy this parallel with Waiting for Godot and to allow the resonances of one work to inform the other. In Waiting for Godot, Gogo and Didi play word games to pass the time as they wait for Godot, who apparently will come and provide a purpose for their wait. In much the same way, Ros and Guil flip a coin endlessly as they wait for the characters of Hamlet to enter and give their lives purpose. Since Ros and Guil seem “modern,” the audience is led to consider what has happened to drama and philosophy in the period from Shakespeare’s time to their own. The confident, eloquent, and grand in Hamlet has become uncertain, banal, and trivial, with a concern not with heroes and kings but rather with trying to make sense of anything at all. Ros and Guil question whether anyone is watching them at all—even the fact of an audience is brought into doubt. Death is the only certainty. Because of its blend of absurdist humor, metaphysical inquiry, and literary allusion , the play’s literary and dramatic precursors are often identified as T. S. Eliot and Luigi Pirandello, writers who define modernist...
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