Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

by Tom Stoppard

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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...

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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 concerns.

More than one critic has pointed out that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a long play in which almost nothing happens: The only real “action” is in the brief interruptions by members of the main play and when Ros and Guil board a ship to travel to England and to their deaths. Yet the play seems full of incident, with much coming and going, much speculation about location and time, and many time-consuming activities, such as the flipping of coins. As the first of what Stoppard calls his “high comedies of ideas,” this play, like Hamlet, raises questions about illusion and reality, about sanity and insanity, about what is relative and what is absolute. It has also been termed a highly intellectual comedy, yet rather surprisingly one that has enjoyed wide popular appeal in Great Britain, the United States, and beyond. As the work that made Stoppard’s reputation, it continues to be the object of anthologies and critiques.


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In nondescript surroundings, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern gamble at tossing coins. Rosencrantz keeps winning but remains calm about his unusual lucky streak. Guildenstern reflects uneasily about this apparent suspension of the laws of probability, which causes him to begin questioning the nature of the reality into which he and Rosencrantz are plunged. They have no memory of past events, except for a vague recollection of having been sent for. Dismayed at being unable to account for themselves or their situation, they feels stranded and without direction.

Their speculations are interrupted by the arrival of a band of motley players on their way to the Danish court. The principal player greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enthusiastically, for he hopes they will pay for a performance. The Player informs them that his company does on stage what other people do off stage. Guildenstern is offended by this suggestion of a lewd performance. He requests that the players perform something more traditional.

Hamlet and Ophelia pass by; Hamlet is disheveled and Ophelia distraught. They are followed by Claudius and Gertrude, who seem to know who the courtiers are but are unable to distinguish between them. Claudius tells them that Hamlet is transformed and that they are to “glean” what afflicts him. Gertrude promises them a royal reward. The king’s adviser, Polonius, tells Claudius and Gertrude that he knows the cause of Hamlet’s lunacy.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are disquieted by all this activity. Guildenstern remarks that they are caught up in events beyond their comprehension. Guildenstern pretends to be Hamlet while Rosencrantz practices the art of “gleaning.” Then they overhear Hamlet telling Polonius that he can be the same age as Hamlet if he can walk backward like a crab. Polonius leaves in a state of confusion. Hamlet greets them as two old friends, but he, too, confuses their identities. They attempt to “delve” into the cause of Hamlet’s lunacy but discover nothing except that Hamlet can tell a hawk from a handsaw when the wind is southerly. Hamlet leaves the courtiers and then returns with the tragedians and Polonius. Hamlet plans to have the players enact “The Murder of Gonzago” for the Danish court. The Player leaves to study the extra lines written by Hamlet.

After Claudius and Gertrude question Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and discover that they were unsuccessful as spies, they determine that Polonius is to spy on Hamlet and Ophelia. Claudius decides that he must send Hamlet to England. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are completely confused by the events they witness. The tragedians rehearse the play to be performed before the court, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, though without realizing it, witness an enactment of their own fate, death at the hands of the king of England.

Claudius is displeased by the play. On the way to hide the body of the murdered Polonius, Hamlet drags the corpse past Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Then Claudius gives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the task of escorting Hamlet to England. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves on board a ship headed for England. Guildenstern summarizes their situation: They are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bearing a letter from one king to another and they are taking Hamlet to England. They rehearse their audience with the king of England and in the process discover that the letter given to them by Claudius condemns Hamlet to death. Once again, they are terribly disconcerted.

They hear music coming from barrels on the ship’s deck and discover that the tragedians are on board as well. The Player tells them the play offended the king. Guildenstern struggles to discover a pattern in these events. Pirates attack the ship. After the skirmish, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discover that Hamlet is missing. Having a letter to the English king but no Hamlet makes them very uneasy. Once again, they rehearse their audience with the king of England. When they come to the part about the letter, they discover that the letter condemns not Hamlet, but them, to death. Guildenstern is enraged by the senselessness of their situation and by the Player’s calm reaction to their impending deaths. He snatches up the Player’s dagger and stabs him in the throat. The Player dies in a theatrical manner. The tragedians, who are watching with interest, applaud with enthusiasm. The befuddled Guildenstern examines the Player’s dagger and discovers that it has a retractable blade. The Player modestly evaluates his performance as merely competent, informing the courtiers that enactments of death, not death itself, are all that people really believe in. Resigned to his fate, a weary Guildenstern reflects that death is essentially absence. Rosencrantz declares that he is relieved to be done with it. With these words, he disappears. Still puzzled by the circumstances of his existence, Guildenstern ceases to exist. The ambassador from England returns to the Danish court and announces that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”