Stoppard's Themes of Uncertainty and Confusion

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1876

The twentieth century could easily be summed up as an Age of Uncertainty. When it began, nearly one hundred years ago, religious certitude was already eroding, and the process has continued steadily as we approach the twenty-first century, leaving many more human beings unsure about the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving divine being who guarantees the order and rationality of the universe. Two unprecedented world wars and the unleashing of atomic weapons have even made us uncertain about the continued existence of the planet. And the highly influential Freud has subtly contributed to our uncertainty with his essential message that much of what motivates us remains below the surface of our normal awareness. Perhaps most paradoxically, science, the paragon of certainty, has dominated the twentieth century, but as its discoveries advance our knowledge on both telescopic and microscopic scales science also reveals how much more we don't know and thus adds to our collective sense of uncertainty. From large issues to small, from public policy to personal lives, from those who are highly educated to those who are not, a feeling of uncertainty has come to typify our age.

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This sensitivity to uncertainty may very well account in part for the enormous and continued appeal of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead because Stoppard's play focuses quite comically and movingly on this very issue. It is ultimately a play about ordinary people overwhelmed by confusion and uncertainty. In fact, in an interview with Giles Gordon in 1968, Stoppard explains that the genesis of the play came from his interest in the way Rosencrantz and Guildenstern "end up dead without really, as far as any textual evidence goes, knowing why. Hamlet's assumption that they were privy to Claudius's plot is entirely gratuitous. As far as their involvement in Shakespeare's text is concerned they are told very little about what is going on and much of what they are told isn't true. So I see them much more clearly as a couple of bewildered innocents rather than a couple of henchmen, which is the usual way they are depicted in productions of Hamlet."

This tale of "bewildered innocents" begins on the day they have been summoned by a king's messenger to appear at the Danish court. The messenger gave them no explanations or directions, simply orders, and their first encounter with King Claudius leaves them not much more enlightened. Speakers of colloquial prose in Stoppard's story, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are bombarded with Claudius's Elizabethan rhetoric and Stoppard's humor in this opening confrontation with the Hamlet world includes the ordinary person's admission that much of this Shakespearean language can seem incomprehensible. That it seems so to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is obvious. As soon as the Hamlet characters have left, Rosencrantz wails, "I want to go home" and Guildenstern attempts to calm him by saying, "Don't let them confuse you," even though he is as confused and uncertain as his friend. After stuttering his reassurances to Rosencrantz, Guildenstern asks, "Has it ever happened to you that all of a sudden and for no reason at all you haven't the faintest idea how to spell the word— 'wife'—or 'house'—because when you write it down you just can't remember ever having seen those letters in that order before...?" All of us have probably had this quirky experience of uncertainty and Stoppard's evocation of it helps the audience identify with his beleaguered heroes. Rosencrantz says, nostalgically, "I remember when there were no questions" and Guildenstern responds with, "There were always questions. To exchange one set for another is no great matter." And Rosencrantz perhaps responds for a twentieth-century audience when he concludes, "Answers, yes. There were answers to everything." The concept of God was once the answer to everything, but with that concept in question in the modern world, nothing, not even science or technology, has come to take its place.

Guildenstern responds to his friend's nostalgic memories of certitude by pointing out that all of the answers now are "plausible, without being instinctive." In other words, in the modern world (the world of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) probability replaces certitude as the ontological coin of the realm—what human beings can count on as being true. Guildenstern goes on to say that "all your life you live so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye," which recalls his "unicorn" speech and the notion that what we regard as "real" is simply what's familiar—"reality, the name we give to the common experience.'' After their first meeting with Claudius and the Danish court, the certainty that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feel is very minimal—"that much is certain—we came." Ironically, however, Guildenstern's continued attempt to reassure his friend in this pivotal scene leads him to stumble across the only certainty that is available to all human beings—the certainty of one's own mortality. Guildenstern says, reassuringly, "The only beginning is birth and the only end is death—if you can't count on that, what can you count on?" Thus Stoppard brings his investigation of uncertainty home to his audience. On the practical level in the lives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the questions without answers are questions like "why were we sent for, what are we supposed to do, where's Hamlet, what should we say to him, what's his problem, and where are we going now?'' As these fictional characters struggle comically with an uncertainty that seems to govern in small matters, they are gradually being drawn to their deaths and it is in their deaths that the audience can fully share their concern for uncertainty. Few of us will engage in and experience the uncertainties of power politics, but all of us will face, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the uncertainties we feel about our own mortality.

All of this concern for certainty and uncertainty is clear from the beginning of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead when, in one of the play's most striking and important images the coin tossing game defies the laws of probability. When over 100 coin tosses turn up a consecutive run of "heads" rather than the customary mixture of "heads" and "tails,'' Guildenstern is disturbed because the run is not "normal" or what humans are accustomed to. He has been thrust into a world he does not feel certain about. Ironically, the run of "heads" has produced a kind of certainty ("heads" turns up every time) but Guildenstern can't trust this certainty because it defies what he is familiar with. As he recalls their previous coin-tossing, he recalls that the familiar uncertainty in their game, the "luck'' or randomness of the "heads" and "tails," came out to a roughly 50/50 percentage that created a new kind of certainty. Just as "the sun came up about as often as it went down, in the long run, ... a coin showed heads about as often as it showed tails."

After the coin-tossing game introduces the issue of uncertainty, the addition of the tragedians and especially the Player reinforces the theme and makes it much more explicit. To some extent out of necessity, the tragedians live more easily with uncertainty . They are out of fashion theatrically and must be ready to perform whatever an audience will pay to see. They also make their livelihood improvising and blurring the distinction between illusion and reality, so they have more toleration for uncertainty about reality. When Guildenstern complains about their uncertainty in Act II, the Player says, "Uncertainty is the normal state. You're nobody special." His advice is to "Relax. Respond ... Act natural ... Everything has to be taken on trust; truth is only that which is taken to be true. It's the currency of living. There may be nothing behind it, but it doesn't make any difference so long as it is honored."

The tragedians also serve to connect the issue of uncertainty to the question of mortality. Their expertise is in portraying death and they are relatively more comfortable with the certainty of mortality. They even felt casual enough with it to attempt using the actual execution of one of their actors on stage when the action in one of their plays called for a hanging. As the Player understates it quite simply near the end of the play, "In our experience, most things end in death." They also understand from their experience portraying death on stage that human beings believe more in the familiar illusion of mortality than they do the frightening actuality of it. When Guildenstern says,"You die so many times; how can you expect them to believe in your death," the Player responds, "on the contrary, it's the only kind they do believe. They're conditioned to it." He understands that given the human denial of their own mortality, fictive experiences are the only way to create "a thin beam of light that, seen at the right angle, can crack the shell of mortality."

As it winds down to its conclusion, Stoppard's play focuses on this relationship between fictive death, real mortality, and the question of uncertainty. Early in the play the audience shares a feeling of uncertainty with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when they are as much baffled by the results of the coin-tossing game, the eccentricities of the tragedians, and perhaps even by the rapid-fire Elizabethan verse of the Hamlet characters. During these periods of the play, the audience develops an empathy for the two heroes, identifying with their confusion and lack of certainty. But late in Act II, the tragedians present their version of The Murder of Gonzago and predict quite explicitly how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will die: "a twist of fate and cunning has put into their hands a letter that seals their deaths." At this point, even if they don't know the Hamlet story, the audience must accept the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But Rosencrantz "does not quite understand'' what he has witnessed and finally says, "yes, I'm afraid you're quite wrong. You must have mistaken me for someone else." More aware but equally denying, Guildenstern simply gets angry and challenges the Player: "you!— What do you know about death!" However, the audience is implicated in this denial as well, for it is a metaphor for their own refusal to accept the most certain thing in their lives. As the Player tells about his experience with the actor in his troupe actually hanged on stage during a performance, he paints a picture of an audience that could not accept real death in a place where they had become accustomed to fictive death—"audiences know what to expect, and that is all that they are prepared to believe in." From this point until the end of the play, Stoppard's audience is forced to watch fictive characters acting out the denial of their mortality. At the same time, the audience is invited to compare its own attitude toward the certainty of death with the one demonstrated by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. When the play is over, they have witnessed yet another pair of fictive deaths and maybe have advanced ever so slightly toward being prepared for their own.

Source: Terry Nienhuis, in an essay for Drama for Students, Gale, 1997
Nienhuis is an associate professor of English at Western Carolina University

Tom Stoppard's Lighted March

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1903

At the top of his form, Tom Stoppard writes tragicomedies or comic ironies. Stoppard's top form has given us Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967) and Arcadia (1993), contenders for the finest postwar English-language drama, and in neither case generic comedy, since comedy includes importantly a limited, socially satisfying resolution over and above the laughs. Because the recent brilliance of Arcadia happily implies that Stoppard may give us much more, I do not think of these two plays as bookends enclosing his life's work. At the same time, however, a close look will provide a useful awareness of Stoppard's dramatic structures and methods as well as of his preoccupations as a man of his century, his extraordinary sense of humor, and his commitment to the history of ideas as humanity's river.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (hereafter R&GAD ) gets a big and essential head start from the fact that Hamlet tends to be more or less a part of the cultural equipment of anyone reading or seeing R&GAD. Indeed, I can only suppose that Stoppard's play must be confusing or even incomprehensible to one who has not heard of the Shakespeare tragedy.

As a writer of the 1960's, Stoppard in this play was also indebted to Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Like Beckett's Gogo and Didi, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters among history's dramatis personae. Their puzzled, funny, painful, perhaps not hopeless search is for meanings, answers, causes, reasons. They spend their time, like many moderns, not deriving answers but playing the game of "Questions." Also like Didi and Gogo, one of them is weaker than the other, and they encounter Shakespeare's troupe of players where Beckett's pair meet Pozzo and Lucky. Both couples wait to find out what it's all about. Beckett's couple hope that Godot will turn up as promised (they seem to recall) and will explain things. Stoppard's team remember being "sent for'' in the dark of night by a faceless messenger from court, told to report to the king, and made to cool their heels while agonizing over what they're meant to be and do, and where they will end up. The condition of all four resembles that of Sartre's existential loner, or indeed that of the early medieval bird flying from an unknown place of origin through a lighted mead-hall to an unknown destination. Each couple wants to know the significance of the relatively lighted interval.

Another debt is to the make-believe realm of Jean Genet's The Balcony and, farther back, the plays of Pirandello. For Stoppard is out to dissolve any fourth wall, any notion that art and life are distinct. R&GAD insists, frighteningly and delightfully, that art is life, illusion is reality, the mirror gives us whatever truth may be, acting is the way it is. For the imagination generating this play, as implicitly for the metafictions of the 1960's—I think especially of Dons Lessing's The Golden Notebook, Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, and John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman—Hamlet's famous soliloquy is reworded by implication to read "to seem or not to seem." We are to forget about "to be," about objective facts or truth on any significant level.

All of this abstraction barely suggests, of course, the brilliant dramaturgy with which Stoppard delights our eyes and ears in the theater. To start, we might remember that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are such walk-on characters in Shakespeare's play as to be omitted altogether by some directors trying to save time. These two appear only seven times in Hamlet. Stoppard upends Shakespeare by putting these walk-ons at center stage, from which they are virtually never absent. The effect created is that Hamlet appears to be going on in the wings of Stoppard's play and intrudes only seven times on R&GAD. A couple of not-too-bright Oxbridge (or Heidelberg) undergraduates on a bare Beckettian stage speak 1960's colloquial prose except where Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, Gertrude and Company drop in from time to time to speak Shakespeare's blank verse at and with them.

R&GAD operates from the premise that "all the world's a stage." To drive home this point Stoppard makes strategic use of the Player and his troupe, who play a small, if necessary, part in Hamlet. Early on the Player recognizes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as "fellow artists." Neither they nor the audience know at the time precisely what the Player means, but we all gradually learn, as Hamlet does, that "thinking makes it so."

On several occasions the Player explains and demonstrates that what we see constitutes the real for us. When Guildenstern grows impatient with what he regards as the frivolous pretense of these actors, and cries out in desperation that they only pretend to die but can know nothing of real death, of ceasing to be, he seizes the Player's dagger and stabs him with it. At that moment, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, the troupers, and the entire audience are hushed and staring at the fallen Player. When the Player then rises to the applause of his fellows he has clearly proven his point about the truth of seeming-to-be. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and the audience have been smitten with Stoppard's thesis and we all share the realization that we are "fellow artists" inevitably in that we spend our lives constructing our own meanings. The fourth wall is gone and we and the other actors are one in the human condition.

But what is this renowned human condition? In this play we must work at Stoppard's definition by juggling Calvin, Saint Augustine, and Sartre. In other words, the familiar issue of determinism vs. free will underlies this play and keeps it percolating in our heads long after the performance.

The principal manifestation of this age-old debate occurs after the Player informs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that the troupe members are not free to "decide" what they perform, for "It is written." "The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means." Then in about one page he paraphrases what seems to be The Murder of Gonzago, the play within the play of Hamlet, which is the play within Stoppard's play. As both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fear, however, and as we viewers realize, the Player is actually paraphrasing Shakespeare's play, from the murdering of Hamlet's father right through to the final switching of letters that culminates in the king of England's killing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

This occasion frightens Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, combined as it is with their operating almost totally in the dark and with their play-opening experience of watching 94 consecutive coins violate the law of probability by coming up heads. But it engenders more than fear in the audience. We know, of course, that Stoppard's title marks his limitations: he cannot change the outcome that has been"written'' by Shakespeare. That much is determined.

Beyond Stoppard's being confined by his predecessor, however, lie a number of similar questions about artist-creators and their creatures. How did Shakespeare alter his source? Who authored Shakespeare? In what sense is Stoppard "written"? Can we clearly separate Shakespeare's source from him as maker of Hamlet, or are artist and artifact inevitably blended and blurred, as in the case of Stoppard's choosing to have his Player create the play that turns out to be Shakespeare's Hamlet, featuring the Player and Stoppard's title-figures? Where do the mirrors and the onionskin layers of seeming begin and end? Perhaps finally (if such an adverb applies here), we in the audience want to know whether we are as doomed, as "written," as Calvin and the Player assert and as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feel.

This sense of doom descends at the end of Stoppard's play, which, as always, coincides in some sense with Shakespeare's. Just as Stoppard anticipates Shakespeare by having the Player invent Hamlet, so he alters Hamlet by having Rosencrantz and Guildenstern read Claudius's letter condemning Hamlet to death, choose not to inform Hamlet of this command, and then read and decline to act upon Hamlet's substituted letter ordering their own deaths. In these ways some elbow-room is given for variations or choices within fixed limits, but outcomes are nonetheless determined as "written."

In view of such tight metaphysical or theological confinement, how are we to read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's final attitude, and what is to be our own attitude? An answer may be attempted in two parts.

First, ambiguity coats the term "final attitude," for, inasmuch as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are artifacts, they do not end. They are potentially susceptible to as much literary analysis and criticism as is Hamlet. Indeed, Stoppard is having a good time with the whole critical industry, present company included. For the play suggests an additional layer of applied significance for every reader or viewer who takes in R&GAD and tries to make it mean. Thus the play, like Hamlet or anything else created, will go on acquiring significance indefinitely. So much for finality, then, at least aesthetically.

Second, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and we would seem to be restricted to a certain few conclusions. We can accept the plain deterministic reading of all creation and creatures. Rosencrantz seems to take this view and to be glad to know at last where the royal ship, beyond his control, is taking him. He likes certitude and is tired. Guildenstern's "Now you see me, now you—" [blackout] appears to comment on anyone's quick mead-hall flight between darknesses. It is hard to know whether he is suggesting a view of his own demise or is remarking on the wondrous technical expression of snuffing it.

Or perhaps we can join the Player in an acceptance of whatever creative leeway is available to us, and enjoy such limited freedom within our cages. Augustine's view would be that, although we cannot work it out rationally without religious faith, the Creator's knowing our outcome and our choosing it are not contradictory. We simply cannot know the mind of God, and we err gravely if we assume that mind to function as ours does.

The only other option would seem to be Sartre's. That is, if we cannot know anything of what lies outside the mead-hall, then in effect nothing lies outside it and we had better attend to the business of making choices for the only life we can be sure of. Therein, says Sartre famously, we will find and exercise the only meaningful freedom, to which we are condemned.

Obviously Stoppard does not twist our arms to force us into buying one of these views in isolation from the others. He does, however, force us to consider or reconsider all of them. More strikingly, as he dissolves the form-content dichotomy, he creates an illusion of oneness, of ultimate inseparability, among life on stage, life in the wings, and life out front. Whatever this life is, we are clearly all in it together, mirrors and all, jokes or no jokes. We laugh a great deal at Stoppard's humorous ingenuity, but we eventually experience our modern middle-class human unity with Elizabethan-Danish royalty and two movingly klunky courtiers. We're all afraid to die, especially without being sure of why we've lived. In the end do we submit fatalistically to our death, or do we freely choose to embrace it? And how are we to contemplate and—in Stoppard's case—express the difference?

Source: Joseph Hynes, "Tom Stoppard's Lighted March" in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 71, no. 4, Autumn, 1995, pp. 643-47

Review of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1030

It is not only Hamlet who dies in Hamlet. They also serve who only stand and wait. Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which opened last night at the Alvin Theater, is a very funny play about death. Very funny, very brilliant, very chilling; it has the dust of thought about it and the particles glitter excitingly in the theatrical air.

Mr. Stoppard uses as the basis for his play a very simple yet telling proposition; namely that although to Hamlet those twin-stemmed courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are of slight importance, and that to an audience of Shakespeare's play they are little but functionaries lent some color by a fairly dilatory playwright, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are very important indeed to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

This then is the play of Hamlet not seen through the eyes of Hamlet, or Claudius, or Ophelia or Gertrude, but a worm's-eye view of tragedy seen from the bewildered standpoint of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

We first see them on a deserted highway. They have been summoned to the King's palace; they do not understand why. They are tossing coins to pass the time of day. The ordinary laws of chance appear to have been suspended. Perhaps they have been. Destiny that has already marked out Hamlet for such a splendid, purple satin death, is keeping a skimpy little piece of mauve bunting for poor Guildenstem and gentle Rosencrantz. They are about to get caught up in the action of a play.

Their conversation, full of Elizabethan school logic and flashes of metaphysical wit, is amusing but deliberately fatuous. Rosencrantz and Guildenstem are fools. When you come to think of it, they would have to be. Otherwise they might have been Hamlet.

As they talk, the suspicion crosses the mind (it is a play where you are encouraged to stand outside the action and let suspicions, thoughts, glimmers and insights criss-cross your understanding) that Mr. Stoppard is not only paraphrasing Hamlet, but also throwing in a paraphrase of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot for good measure. For this is antic lunacy with a sad, wry purpose.

Like Beckett's tramps, these two silly, rather likable Elizabethan courtiers are trying to get through life with a little human dignity and perhaps here and there a splinter of comprehension. They play games with each other and constantly question not their past (probably only heroes can afford that luxury) but their present and their future. Especially their future.

On the road they meet the strolling players, also, of course, for the plot is a mousetrap seen from the other side of the cheese, on the road to Elsinore. The leading Player, a charming, honest and sinister man, invites the two to participate in a strolling play. They, with scruples, refuse, but in fact they cannot refuse—because in life this precisely is what they have done.

Mr. Stoppard seems to see the action of his play unfolding like a juicy onion with strange layers of existence protectively wrapped around one another. There are plays here within plays—and Mr. Stoppard never lets us forget that his courtiers are not only characters in a life, but also characters in a play. They are modest—they admit that they are only supporting players. But they do want to see something of the script everyone else is working from.

It is one, of Mr. Stoppard's cleverest conceits of stage craft that the actors re-enacting the performance of Hamlet that is, in effect, dovetailed into the main section of the play, use only Shakespeare's words. Thus while they are waiting in the tattered, drafty ante-chamber of the palace for something to happen, we in the audience know what is happening on the other side of the stage. As one of them says, "Every exit is an entry somewhere else."

Finally reduced to the terminal shrifts of unbelief, it seems that Rosencrantz and Guildenstem realize that the only way they can find their identity is in their "little deaths." Although on the final, fateful boat they discover the letter committing them to summary execution in England, they go forward to death, glad, even relieved.

It is impossible to re-create the fascinating verbal tension of the play—Mr. Stoppard takes an Elizabethan pleasure in the sound of his own actors—or the ideas, suggestive, tantalizing that erupt through its texture. Nor, even most unfortunately, can I suggest the happy, zany humor or even the lovely figures of speech, such as calling something "like two blind men looting a bazaar for their own portraits." All this is something you must see and hear for yourself.

When the play had its first professional production in London in April of this year it was staged by the British National Theater, and to an extent this version has been reproduced here by its original and brilliant director, Derek Goldby. Helped by the tatterdemalion glories of Desmond Heeley's setting, the richness of his costumes, and Richard Pilbrow's tactfully imaginative lighting, the play looks very similar. But whereas the supporting players in London—the Hamlet, Claudius and the rest—could well have played their roles in Shakespeare as well as in Stoppard, here there is understandably less strength.

However, the mime roles or the players (expertly devised by Claude Chagrin) are superbly done, Paul Hecht is remarkably good as the chief Player (although I would have welcomed a touch more menace) and Brian Murray and John Wood provide virtuoso portrayals as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Mr. Murray, blandly exuding a supreme lack of confidence, and Mr. Wood, disturbed, perhaps more intellectually than viscerally, play against each other like tennis singles champions. And luckily this is a game where neither needs to win and both can share the trophy.

This is a most remarkable and thrilling play. In one bound Mr. Stoppard is asking to be considered as among the finest English-speaking writers of our stage, for this is a work of fascinating distinction. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern LIVE!

Source: Clive Barnes, in a review of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1967) in On Stage: Selected Theater Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp. 500-02.

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead