Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In William Shakespeare’s HAMLET, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are ordinary gentlemen of the court, spying, fawning, and never really performing any action. In Stoppard’s play, they are quintessentially modern men, impotent and averse to action, updated and somewhat more intelligent versions of Didi and Gogo in Samuel Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT.

Thrust into a complicated situation that they do not understand, they are torn between opposing factions--Claudius, Gertrude, and Polonius versus Hamlet. The play’s action follows that of its source, but always from the perspective of these two characters.

HAMLET’s principals, who in Stoppard’s play speak only lines taken from Shakespeare’s original dialogue, here are seen as supporting characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s lives, yet they are the ones involved in important actions, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are mere pawns, never able to understand what they are doing or why. Sometimes they even forget which of them is which.

They are not helped in their dilemma by a troupe of players also from Shakespeare’s original play but with their function and character greatly expanded. Through them, Stoppard explores questions of reality and the meaning of death.

To give themselves the impression that they exist and can accomplish something, the title characters engage in constant, almost dizzying wordplay, for which Stoppard is noted. This, his striking...

(The entire section is 441 words.)