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 theatrical devices, and the fascinating central idea--common to most of his later plays as well--have caused him to be recognized, along with Harold Pinter, as one of Great Britain’s preeminent living playwrights.
Brassell, Tim. Tom Stoppard: An Assessment. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. An excellent discussion of Stoppard’s themes that includes a chapter on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Corballis, Richard. Stoppard: The Mystery and the Clockwork. Oxford: Amber Lane Press, 1984. Corballis suggests that, with the death of tragedy in the twentieth century, Hamlet had to be redefined and that Guildenstern is the existential hero.
Hunter, Jim. Tom Stoppard’s Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1982. Hunter discusses Stoppard’s work from the perspective of staging, playing, talking, and thinking. Also provides a study guide with page references to listed discussions.
Jenkins, Anthony. The Theatre of Tom Stoppard. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Thematic interpretations of Stoppard’s work, with an interesting discussion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead that explores their plight as a game where the rules are not understood by all the players.
Schlueter, Jane. Metafictional Characters in Modern Drama. Columbia: Columbia University Press, 1979. Includes the chapter “Stoppard’s Moon and Birdboot, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” an excellent discussion of the way in which Stoppard handles characters who move between different fictive realities.