Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

by Tom Stoppard

Start Free Trial

Characters Discussed

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 387


Rosencrantz, a well-dressed Elizabethan courtier, with hat, cloak, stick, and all, carrying a large leather moneybag and waiting for something, or someone, for reasons that he does not seem to understand. He and his comrade, Guildenstern, are enough alike to be confused with each other. In fact, he introduces himself as Guildenstern, not noticing the error until his companion calls a brief conference with him. In part, he, with Guildenstern, seems to mark time while waiting for a messenger who will advise him as to his function in the plot of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. A favorite pastime is witty word games, but they are played with an urgency that suggests that, rather than being fun, they are more a way of avoiding despair. Commissioned by Claudius, he only understands that his job, along with Guildenstern, is to learn something about Hamlet’s strange behavior. He, practicing with Guildenstern, arrives at one approach by which to confront Hamlet and to inquire why he is behaving so oddly. As a result of a trick by Hamlet, whom Claudius meant to have executed, Rosencrantz is condemned to die.


Guildenstern, another Elizabethan courtier, well dressed with hat, cloak, and stick, and also carrying a large leather moneybag and waiting for something, or someone, for reasons that he does not seem to understand. He and Rosencrantz are so much alike that no distinguishing characteristics can be described for either. He pretends to be Hamlet so that Rosencrantz can try out an approach of inquiry into the reasons for the prince’s odd behavior. Like Rosencrantz, as the result of a trick by Hamlet, whom Claudius meant to have executed, Guildenstern is condemned to die.

The Player

The Player, a spokesperson for the tragedians. His conversations with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern expose him (and, by proximity, all the tragedians) as having few principles, a lack not shared by the two gentlemen. Guildenstern sees him as a “comic pornographer and a rabble of prostitutes.”

The Tragedians

The Tragedians, a troupe of six traveling actors, including Alfred, a small boy, and the Player. There is a drummer, a horn player, and a flutist; one other moves the cart of props. They are on the way to the royal court, where they will be commissioned by Hamlet to play a drama of his design.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 178

In Stoppard's play, Guildenstern is the more philosophical and intellectual of the two courtiers who double as minor characters in Shakespeare's play and major characters in Stoppard's. The opening sequence of coin tossing vexes Guildenstern because he craves order and predictability in the universe. The apparent violation of probability in coin tossing drives him to seek an explanation but he attempts to remain calm when no satisfactory answers arise. He has a wry sense of humor, can be quite sarcastic, and is resilient, though he is also quick to anger and subject to panic or despondency when he finally feels overwhelmed. Guildenstern likes to hear himself talk and often rambles at length, sometimes without making a lot of sense. He frequently uses parables and analogies to attempt to understand the mysteries that confront him and he likes verbal games as a way of working things out. Wary and nervous, he likes to stay in control and questions more than his friend, Rosencrantz, whom he often badgers but ultimately is trying to protect and support with optimism whenever possible.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 281

Rosencrantz is a minor character in Shakespeare' s Hamlet and one of the two major characters in Stoppard's unusual version of Shakespeare's story. In Shakespeare's play, Rosencrantz is one of Hamlet's university friends from Wittenberg....

(This entire section contains 281 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also 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

With Guildenstern, he is summoned by King Claudius to come to Denmark because Hamlet, after returning to Denmark for his father's funeral and his mother's wedding, began acting quite strangely. Rosencrantz helps Guildenstern spy on Hamlet for Claudius and then is assigned with his friend to take Hamlet to England after Hamlet kills Polonius. When Hamlet returns to England, he reports to his friend Horatio that on the ship to England he discovered Claudius' s letter ordering his death. He substituted a letter ordering the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and escaped the ship when pirates attacked it. InHamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are such nondescript characters that Claudius and his queen Gertrude can't distinguish between them.

In Stoppard's play, Rosencrantz is the more timid of the two courtiers and considerably less reflective and philosophical than his friend, Guildenstern. At the beginning of the play Rosencrantz is winning on every toss of the "heads or tails" game and is embarrassed to be taking so much money from his friend but is either oblivious or unconcerned about how unusual this streak of "heads" might be. He is relatively unreflective, naive, innocent, even simple-minded and slow intellectually. He often ''tunes out'' when Guildenstern rambles in his philosophical talk but he is very sensitive and concerned about his friend's unhappiness. Usually, he doesn't question as much as Guildenstern, but when he understands their situation he generally feels more overwhelmed. However, when he senses approaching death, Rosencrantz is quietly resigned.

Other Characters

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511

Alfred Alfred is a Stoppard invention who does not appear in Shakespeare's play. Alfred is a small boy, one of the six tragedians, who is highlighted in Stoppard's play because he is forced to play the feminine roles in drag and finds his cross-dressing very humiliating.

Ambassador The Ambassador from England appears in both plays but only at the end to announce that the orders to execute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been carried out.

Claudius In Shakespeare's play, Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, secretly murders Hamlet's father, marries Hamlet's mother, and sends for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to gather information on Hamlet's behavior as Hamlet mopes around the court. After Hamlet kills Polonius, Claudius orders Hamlet escorted to England by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, where orders in a sealed letter are supposed to have Hamlet killed.

Gertrude In both Shakespeare's and Stoppard's plays, Gertrude is Hamlet's mother and the new wife of King Claudius.

Hamlet The hero of Shakespeare's tragedy, Hamlet is a relatively minor character in Stoppard's play, where he drifts in and out performing actions and speaking lines from his classic role as the melancholy Dane. In Stoppard's play, Hamlet is eventually portrayed more playfully as he lounges in a deck chair.

Horatio Horatio is Hamlet's best friend in Shakespeare's play. In Stoppard's comedy he exists only to deliver the last speech of the play.

Ophelia Ophelia is the daughter of Polonius, who is one of the King's counselors in Hamlet. Ophelia is Hamlet's "girlfriend" in both Shakespeare's and Stoppard's plays. Almost all of her Shakespearean lines are omitted in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as she mimes most of her scenes.

The Player If the Player has a counterpart in Shakespeare's play, he is the actor who performs the Pyrrhus speech for Hamlet in Act II, scene ii. In Stoppard's play this character is the leader of the wandering troupe of actors who perform The Murder of Gonzago and a major character because he speaks so clearly and forcefully about reality and theatrical illusion. Proud of his acting craft but frustrated by his lack of financial success and his dependence on audience, the Player is self-assured, intense, but also sad. Like Guildenstern, the Player is philosophical but he is also practical, pragmatic, and resilient. A man experienced in the ways of the world, the Player accepts uncertainty more easily than anyone else in the play.

Polonius In both Shakespeare's and Stoppard's plays, Polonius is the father of Ophelia and is killed by Hamlet when Hamlet mistakes him for the King. Polonius is portrayed in both plays as old, garrulous, and occasionally foolish.

Soldier In both plays a soldier talks with Hamlet and identifies the Norwegian military commander, Fortinbras, as he marches his troops across Denmark toward Poland. Hamlet admires Fortinbras for his bravery and Fortinbras succeeds to the throne in Denmark after both Claudius and Hamlet die.

Tragedians The tragedians who perform The Murder of Gonzago in Hamlet are more child-like and playful in Stoppard's comedy, where they play musical instruments as well as miming their roles in The Murder of Gonzago.




Critical Essays