Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 941
Tom Stoppard’s plays revolutionized twentieth century theater with their combination of comic wit and serious themes. His first major dramatic work, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, was first performed on April 11, 1966, at the Old Vic Theatre in London, by the National Theatre Company. That same year, the work received the Play and Players Award for best new play in England, and in 1968 it received the Antoinette Perry (Tony) Award for best play and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play. In the years that followed, Stoppard’s work ranged from a collaboration with Terry Gilliam (of Monty Python fame) on the screenplay of Brazil (1985, Los Angeles Critics Circle Award for best original screenplay) to screen adaptations of works by Vladimir Nabokov, Graham Greene, and E. L. Doctorow. A prolific and brilliant writer, Stoppard also continued to write plays, including Travesties (1974) and The Real Thing (1982).
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two courtiers summoned by Claudius to spy on Hamlet, bear to the English king the order for their own execution. As characters, they remain undefined, functioning in tandem as ciphers for a sort of banal treachery, their services purchased by the promise of reward. As spies they prove clumsy and inept. As foils for Hamlet, they are beheaded by the English king. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard turns Hamlet inside out by retelling the story from the courtiers’ point of view, a very different one indeed. The Player reminds the confused courtiers that there is a design in all art, a finality toward which all events point. This is appropriate for the characters in Hamlet, who sweep across the stage with a sense of sureness and identity, but it totally bewilders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who have no memory of the past nor comprehension of the future. Although they struggle to make sense of their situation, for them existence is episodic and without pattern. The vaguely menacing Player informs them that all events lead to death, “the bad end unhappily, the good unluckily.” In response to Guildenstern’s inquiry, “Who decides?” the Player responds, “It is written.” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unaware of their fictive existence. They must fill in the time between their brief appearances in Hamlet until they meet death at the hands of the English king. Thus they are seen tossing coins on the road to Elsinore. When they encounter the tragedians on their way to court, it is as part of the Hamlet script, which defines and controls them.
Stoppard imparts individual quirks of character to the virtually indistinguishable Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Shakespeare’s play. The simple and uninquiring Rosencrantz and the perpetually perplexed Guildenstern charm the audience. Their efforts to extricate themselves from a situation beyond their comprehension engenders uncomfortable laughter, for the audience is aware of their fate and the futility of their situation. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern engage the audience’s sympathy because they have ceased to be nonentities; moreover, their plight mirrors the confused alienation present in much of modern life. It is this realization that contributes to the poignancy of the announcement of their deaths by the English ambassador at the end of Stoppard’s play, which is in sharp contrast to the feelings engendered by their deaths in Hamlet. Stoppard gives the existential dilemma a new twist. For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, essence precedes existence. The course of their lives is predetermined; consequently, choosing between alternatives is meaningless. For them, alternatives do not really exist. Guildenstern is vaguely aware that the reality they inhabit is of a different order when the tossed coin invariably comes up heads in defiance of the laws of probability. The Player, who provides the bridge between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, understands the situation perfectly. He was through all this before, his memory of events unimpeded by a scripted death. He knows not only the fictional nature of his existence but also the fate of the doomed courtiers. The unfortunate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern mistake themselves for real people, which is why their search for meaning elicits sympathy from an audience that shares the Player’s knowledge of the senseless deaths awaiting them.
Unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the audience exists in a reality where choice appears to affect outcome. Knowing that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unaware that they share a predetermined end suggests the notion that humankind might be in the same boat, a metaphor that Stoppard employs in the third act. Because they are free to move about and improvise on board the boat that bears them to England, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern share the illusion of freedom as they move toward their rendezvous with death.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead contradicts Arthur Miller’s contention that attention must be paid to the tragedy of the common man. Stoppard’s play suggests that the ennobling qualities of tragedy may be limited to principal characters. Hamlet goes to his death secure in the knowledge that he acted within the scope of a provident deity. However, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cease to exist without having acquired the wisdom of experience or the dignity of meaning. For Stoppard their comic search for meaning within an incomprehensible context more closely parallels the human condition than does the dramatic death of a tragic hero. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern simply cease to exist, the audience is moved by their absence, for Stoppard endows them with a humanity that transcends the pointlessness of their existence. In this sense their fictive lives parallel Stoppard’s work, wherein comedy is to be taken seriously, and tragedy is leavened with comic wit.
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