Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1093
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead focuses on two minor characters from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c.1600-1601) and presents their dilemma at finding themselves trapped in a series of dramatic events over which they have no control. Act 1 opens with the two “passing the time in a place without any visible character.” They are tossing coins, Rosencrantz calling heads and Guildenstern tails, and Rosencrantz’s purse is already stuffed with the coins he has won when the story begins. As toss after toss comes up heads, Guildenstern concludes that the law of probability is no longer in effect and speculates with some anxiety on what the cause of this strange phenomenon may be. Rosencrantz is less worried by the situation; he is, after all, winning. As the two engage in exchanges marked by witty and elaborate wordplay, it becomes apparent that neither can remember an existence prior to their awakening earlier that day, when a messenger from King Claudius summoned them to Elsinore.
As they stand paralyzed by indecision over what their course of action should be, they are overtaken on the road by a group of strolling players, who offer their services to the pair for a fee. The two soon realize, however, that the “services” to which their spokesman, The Player, refers are sexual rather than theatrical. As The Player explains, “It costs little to watch, and little more if you happen to get caught up in the action, if that’s your taste and times being what they are.” Guildenstern is struck with a sense of foreboding by the idea of getting caught up in the action and implies that the actors are heralds of his own death. He persuades the actors to bet double or nothing with him on a series of coin tosses and by betting “heads” wins from them the price of a performance. The Player offers him the troupe’s young boy, Alfred, for his pleasure, but Guildenstern demands an actual play; the actors are preparing to comply when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves suddenly transported to Elsinore.
They are welcomed by King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, who ask them to speak with their longtime friend, Hamlet, the Queen’s son, and undertake to discover what has caused the marked change in his behavior. Left to themselves, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern confess that they are baffled and frightened by the scene in which they find themselves, having as they do no recollection of anything prior to that day. In an attempt to prepare for their encounter with Hamlet they act out the probable scene to come, with Guildenstern pretending to be the Prince. The pair quickly realize Hamlet’s situation—his father dead, his mother remarried to his uncle, and his own position as heir to the throne usurped by that same uncle— and resolve to uncover his true feelings through careful questioning. The act ends as Hamlet greets them.
Act 2, which is interwoven with brief scenes from Hamlet, begins as the pair conclude their conversation with the Prince, the actual scene from Shakespeare’s play presumably having occurred in the interim. As Hamlet leaves with Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern admit that their plan to question him has failed miserably and they are as puzzled as ever by their dilemma. The acting troupe arrives, and The Player expresses his anger at being abandoned by the pair in mid-performance. When Guildenstern seeks advice from him on how he and Rosencrantz should proceed, The Player responds, “Uncertainty is the normal state. You’re nobody special. . . . Relax. Respond. That’s what people do. You can’t go through life questioning your situation at every turn.”
The two talk about Hamlet, and Rosencrantz describes his own fear of death, until Claudius and Gertrude arrive and inquire after the Prince. When Hamlet enters, in the middle of his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Rosencrantz resolves to confront him but finds himself unable to speak. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch the players rehearse The Murder of Gonzago (the drama that Hamlet requests from them in Shakespeare’s play), and their rehearsal becomes the action of Hamlet itself, including the dumb show they will later perform for the court, Hamlet’s slaying of Polonius, and a foreshadowing of the pair’s own fate. There is a brief blackout and the play resumes at that point in Hamlet when Claudius leaves the performance of The Murder of Gonzago, horrified by its similarity to his own murderous actions. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern learn that Hamlet has indeed slain Polonius, and they are ordered by Claudius to take him to England along with a letter for the English King. The act ends with the pair on their way to England, still baffled by the course of events they seem powerless to resist.
Act 3 opens on board a ship bound for England. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch Hamlet furtively and speculate on their strange situation and its possible consequences. Once again, they prepare themselves by acting out their meeting with the King of England. In the process they open Claudius’ letter and learn that it asks the king to kill Hamlet. Stunned, the pair debate the issue and resolve to do nothing. When the two fall asleep, however, Hamlet steals the letter from them and replaces it with another. The following morning, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discover the actors hiding in barrels on the ship. The ship is set upon by pirates; Hamlet escapes, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern resolve to go on to England and see the king. Again they act out the encounter, open the new letter and see to their dismay that it now asks the king to kill them.
Guildenstern quarrels with The Player and stabs him, but the knife is a theatrical prop and his death is only a performance. The actors act out the final scenes from Hamlet—the poisonings, duels and deaths of the principal characters—and the lights dim around them until only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are visible. Realizing that they are powerless to alter the course of their destiny, which has been predetermined by the action of the play, they resign themselves to their fate. First Rosencrantz and then Guildenstern disappears into the shadows, and the lights come up to reveal the last scene of Hamlet, with Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes all lying dead on the stage. An ambassador from England enters and tells Horatio that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, and Horatio begins his final speech as “the play fades out, overtaken by darkness and music.”
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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is also a play about the English language and its possibilities, and Tom Stoppard’s use of language is one of his most effective dramatic devices. As the characters grapple with their puzzling destiny, their exchanges provide some of the theater’s most dazzling displays of verbal acrobatics. Rapid-fire word games, clever punning, and skillful verbal wit mark the play’s dialogue, as they do all of Stoppard’s works, and the audience must remain alert and attentive to follow its intricate patterns.
Stoppard’s interweaving of Hamlet’s plot with his own is also skillful and effective, combining classic theater with modern as Shakespeare’s dialogue is intercut with his own and phrases from Hamlet recur in lines delivered by Stoppard’s characters. His use of the strolling players to convey those segments of Hamlet taking place out of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is both inventive and successful in presenting members of the audience with key points they must know for future reference. Additionally, serious scenes from Hamlet become comical in the light of the audience’s prior knowledge of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s utter lack of comprehension regarding how they came to be where they are and what they are to do now that they have arrived. Even Hamlet’s famous soliloquy is given an amusing slant as Rosencrantz attempts to speak with him and finds he is unable to do so—the result of the fact that a soliloquy must be delivered alone.
Stoppard also uses his characters themselves as dramatic devices. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Everyman doubled, caught up in the rush of history—in their case, theatrical history—and unable to resist its forward flow. The play suggests through them the confusion and isolation of life, a view that Stoppard shares with many of his contemporaries, including playwright Harold Pinter. Their reactions to the situation in which they find themselves are both varied and utterly human: They fear the worst, deny its existence, rationalize its mysteries, and distract themselves with details from its reality.
Although they seem at times interchangeable, and one of the play’s frequent sources of humor lies in the constant confusion of their names, there are subtle differences between the two. Rosencrantz is by nature more likely to avoid difficult questions than is his friend, and he ends his speculations on the nature of death with a series of frantic jokes. Guildenstern, on the other hand, recognizes early that something is amiss in their particular universe and makes repeated attempts— which Rosencrantz neatly sidesteps—to draw his companion’s attention to the fact.
The Player serves a very different function. As an actor, he belongs by rights in the play and experiences no unease over his situation, noting “I’ve been here before.” So have they all—each time Hamlet is performed—but only the professional actor has been granted an apparent awareness of that fact. The Player also serves as an occasional counselor and guide to the baffled pair, although his words of advice only confirm their worst fears that death lies at the end of their involuntary journey.
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Elsinore Castle. Apparent location of the play’s first act. Tom Stoppard’s stage directions for act 1 describe the scene as “Two Elizabethans passing the time in a place without any visible character.” The location seems to be a featureless place, neither indoors nor out, where the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discourse and toss coins. At length it becomes clear that this is an outdoor location close to the castle of Elsinore, because the traveling players approach them en route to the castle. However, Hamlet himself appears at the end of the act, so the setting may be within the castle itself. This anomaly is intentional, for the setting of the whole play is more one of “inner space” (inside the mind) than any physical place.
The second act makes use of some of Shakespeare’s original lines in Hamlet, with which it soon becomes obvious Stoppard’s play is dovetailing. However, Stoppard never makes the location clear (just as Shakespeare, with minimal stage directions, never makes his locations clear for Hamlet).
Ship. Apparent setting for act 3. Even more curious than the first two acts, this act is apparently set on a ship at sea—an inference the audience draws from the sound effects suggested by Stoppard, such as “soft sea sounds” and “ship timbers, wind in the rigging.” There are three large barrels on the deck (sufficient to hold one or two actors), and a few steps lead to an upper deck. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are taking Hamlet to England after the death of Polonius, perhaps. But at one point all the traveling players emerge from one of the barrels, and at the end of the play it is clear that the setting is, magically, not a ship but the Danish court.
Perhaps one is meant to assume (from the title) that the play is posthumous, with all the characters dead throughout, not just killed at the end of act 3.
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The Turbulent Sixties and Stoppard as a Political Playwright
The year 1966, like rest of the mid-1960s, was extremely turbulent both socially and politically. U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, for example, aroused world-wide protest as the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, J. W. Fulbright, challenged the legality of America's military involvement in Southeast Asia and even Pope Paul VI pled for an end to hostilities. In America, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded by Betty Friedan to gain equal rights for women, and the civil rights movement for American blacks was spurring race riots in Cleveland, Chicago, and Atlanta. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was being openly defied by Southern states refusing to desegregate schools and the University of Mississippi's first black graduate, James Meredith, was shot while participating in a Mississippi voting rights march. Meanwhile, Massachusetts voters elected Edward Brooke the first black U.S. senator since Reconstruction. Closer to home for Stoppard, England was responding to demands for independence from Rhodesia and conflicts heated up between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland.
But in the midst of this social and political turmoil, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead displays no interest in the social and political issues of its time. And for many years after his initial success, Stoppard seemed to write from a steadfastly apolitical point of view, claiming, perhaps puckishly, that "I must stop compromising my plays with this whiff of social application. They must be entirely untouched by any suspicion of usefulness. I should have the courage of my lack of convictions."
As a result, the work following Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—including such plays as The Real Inspector Hound (1968), Jumpers (1972), and Travesties (1974)—seemed to a number of critics to lack political and social awareness. Stoppard's drama was seen by many as dazzling in its display of ingenuity and word play and interesting in its often arcane subject matters but ultimately superficial. Influential British theatre critic Kenneth Tynan summed up this assessment succinctly, calling Stoppard "a cool, apolitical stylist," referring to Travesties as "a triple-decker bus that isn't going anywhere."
But in a flurry of plays in the late 1970s, starting with Every Good Boy Deserves Favor (1977), Stoppard silenced these critics by writing several plays dealing explicitly with political issues and themes. Every Good Boy Deserves Favor is set in a Russian prison hospital where one of the inmates is imprisoned for his political beliefs. Professional Foul (1977) is set in Czechoslovakia and deals with political dissidents in a totalitarian society. Night and Day (1978) takes place in a fictionalized African country and examines the role of the press in a dictatorial third-world country while Cahoot's Macbeth (1979) concerns the repression of theatre in Czechoslovakia. Though not considered major plays in the Stoppard canon, these works clearly demonstrated Stoppard's capacity for engaging contemporary social and political issues.
The Tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd
When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead appeared in 1966, its possible connections to the Theatre of the Absurd were seen immediately, in part because of Stoppard's conscious echoing of Beckett's classic Waiting for Godot. But subsequent assessments have suggested that Stoppard's connection with this literary context is more problematical than initial identifications would have suggested.
The Theatre of the Absurd arose after World War II and flourished in the 1950s and early 1960s, initially and especially in France in the works of Eugene Ionesco (E-on-S'-co), Jean Genet (Shuh-nay'), and Samuel Beckett. These and other playwrights rejected the concept of a rational and ordered universe and tended to see human life as absurd and lacking purpose. To express this vision effectively, these dramatists tended to eliminate reassuring dramatic elements like logical plot development, realistic characterization, and rational dialogue, replacing them with bizarre qualities that forced audiences to experience absurdity first hand.
And in 1968, Stoppard acknowledged the impact that Beckett and others had had on writers of his generation, saying "it seemed clear to us, that is to say the people who began writing about the same time that I did, about 1960, that you could do a lot more in the theatre than had been previously demonstrated. Waiting for Godot—there's just no telling what sort of effect it had on our society, who wrote because of it, or wrote in a different way because of it."
By the mid-1960s, the Theatre of the Absurd had lost much of its shock value and was already becoming outmoded, taking its last flourish in America from the early work of Edward Albee. But in 1966 and 1967, many critics saw Stoppard as a late example of this absurdist movement, with Charles Marowitz asserting in May of 1967 that Stoppard's play eventually became "a blinding metaphor about the absurdity of life."
However, later assessments have suggested that Stoppard uses the Theatre of the Absurd more for comic effects than philosophical meaning. Critics like William Gruber eventually observed that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are given the opportunity for meaningful action (when they discover the letter condemning Hamlet) and lack the courage or character to act responsibly. And in Beyond Absurdity: The Plays of Tom Stoppard (1979), Victor Cahn makes the case that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a significant step in moving theatre out of the abyss of absurdity." Though certainly working in the context of the absurdist theatre movement of the 1950s and early 1960s, Stoppard's first major drama must not be too easily subsumed under its heading.
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One of the most distinguishing features of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is the way it moves in and out of the plot of Shakespeare's Hamlet and changes tone as it does so. While Shakespeare's play has many moments of rich humor, it is basically serious and tragic, while Stoppard's treatment of the Shakespearean story is distinctly comic, even farcical.
Much of Stoppard's comedy comes, then, from the implicit contrast with Shakespearean solemnity. As the most famous tragedy of the most respected playwright in the history of the world, Hamlet conjures up an image of high seriousness, but when we meet Stoppard's courtiers at the beginning of his play they are casually flipping coins and speaking in colloquial, informal prose rather than Shakespearean verse. The rag-tag tragedians add even more contrast with Shakespearean seriousness, especially when they descend in their financial desperation to the suggestion of a pornographic exploitation of little Alfred. However, when the two courtiers are sucked into the Shakespearean action and must mingle with characters speaking Shakespearean blank verse, they begin speaking the same way and the sharp contrast with their informal speech creates a comical effect both going and coming. Their inability to escape the Hamlet plot is comic, as is what appears to be a posturing attempt to fit into it when they can't escape. Finally, they are comic when they deflate again to their non-heroic stature after the Hamlet characters disappear. In their first entry into the Shakespearean world, Stoppard indicates that the two courtiers are "adjusting their clothing" before they speak, and as they use the lines given them in Shakespeare's play, their inflated style is comic because it seems postured and implies desperate ineptitute. Then, back in their Stoppardian world, they are once again comically unheroic, as Rosencrantz whines, "I want to go home," and Guildenstern puts on his comical bravado, unconvincingly attempting to appear in control.
But if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are comically foolish because they seem overwhelmed by the power of the Shakespearean world, they are also comically noble because their ordinary presence seems eventually to deflate that Shakespearean high seriousness. It is as if their ordinary, prosaic quality begins to acquire a nobility of its own, and in contrast the Shakespearean characters eventually begin to sound exaggerated, even a little silly. This impression finds its culmination in Act III, when Hamlet is discovered lounging under a gaudily striped umbrella, reduced to something not quite classically Shakespearean. There is thus in Stoppard's play a kind of comic victory for the underdog, perhaps most clearly expressed at the beginning of Act II when Rosencrantz responds to Hamlet's esoteric Shakespearean language by saying, "half of what he said meant something else, and the other half didn't mean anything at all." Generations of readers and theatre-goers who have silently struggled at times to understand the demanding dialogue of "the world's greatest playwright and the world's greatest play'' chuckle as the ordinary man speaks up.
Thus, we are led also to parody as a source of Stoppard's humor in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Stoppard's references to other literary texts are numerous and subtle, but parody as a literary style frequently imitates a serious work in order to demean it. Stoppard's parody is distinctive because it is generally quite respectful and affectionate toward its source rather than critical.
Apart from his parodic use of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Stoppard is most clearly parodying Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, whose two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, play word games and "pass the time" as they wait for someone who never arrives. Beckett's play begins on a country road that is distinctly non-descript, so when Stoppard specifies in his opening stage directions that "two Elizabethans [are] passing the time in a place without any visible character" it is sufficient to recall Waiting for Godot for those who are very familiar with the Beckett classic. However, if this reference is missed, Stoppard includes another reference later in the play that is even less mistakable. Near the end of Act II, when Hamlet is dragging Polonius's body across the stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern unfasten their belts and hold them taut to form a trap for Hamlet. This comes to naught as Hamlet avoids them, but the parodic comedy sparkles when Rosencrantz's trousers fall down, recalling a similar scene at the end of Waiting for Godot. The parody is not intended to satirize Beckett's play or either pair of characters. If anything it ennobles both, paying respects to Beckett's genius, as in an "homage," and dignifying the silliness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. With his buddy's trousers comically gathered at his ankles and facing another complete failure, Guildenstern says quite simply, "there's a limit to what two people can do."
Apart from the simple pleasure of recognition that such parody provides a knowing audience, this parody enlarges the suggestiveness of Stoppard's text. His two ordinary men are not to be taken as victims of an absurdist world, as Beckett's are. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern live in a simpler world where the inevitability of death is not tragic but a natural part of life. If human beings can calm their minds, they will realize that it is "silly to be depressed" by death, that "it would be just like being asleep in a box." When, at the beginning of the play, Rosencrantz exults that eighty-five consecutive winning calls of heads has "beaten the record," Guildenstern says "don't be absurd," and the clever allusion to Beckett speaks volumes to those who catch the joke.
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1966: Vietnam is becoming a full-scale military conflict. By year's end, 389,000 U.S. troops are in South Vietnam and the bombing of North Vietnam is already extensive, despite growing protest to the war in the U.S. and abroad.
Today: The U.S. "defeat" in Vietnam continues to plague the national sense of self-esteem. Though full diplomatic and cultural relations with Vietnam have resumed, the American memory of failure and ignominy has yet to be exorcised.
1966: The Women's Liberation Movement is gaining momentum as Betty Friedan, author of the influential The Feminine Mystique in 1963, organizes the National Organization for Women (NOW) and becomes its first president.
Today: Women have gained a new place in society. Through the rise in two-income families and the extensive development of day-care facilities, women have taken a dramatically increased role in the work force, moving from domestic positions into direct competition with men, though female salaries are statistically lower.
1966: The American Civil Rights Movement is backed by the wide-sweeping 1964 Civil Rights Act, aspects of which are contested in a number of southern states that resist school integration. Alabama Governor George Wallace signs a state bill on September 2 that forbids Alabama's public schools from complying with desegregation guidelines.
Today: African Americans enjoy far greater economic, social, and political mobility, and school integration is commonplace in America. Former Governor Wallace, an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency of the United States in 1968 and 1972, is now partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair as a result of an assassination attempt in May of 1972.
1966: French President Charles de Gaulle proposes that Europe strive for more economic and political independence from the powerful domination of the United States and Russia, announcing on March 11 that France will withdraw her troops from NATO (The North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and requests that NATO remove all its bases and headquarters from French soil.
Today: Russia has become much less powerful politically, economically, and militarily as various regions within the former Soviet empire assert their independence and Russia suffers major economic setbacks. The United States perhaps dominates Europe most powerfully in its exportation of popular culture, with European countries enthusiastically embracing Western clothing, entertainment, and lifestyles.
1966: After 8 years in power, South Africa's prime minister Henrik F. Verwoerd is assassinated on September 6 and succeeded a week later by Balthazar Johannes Vorster, who vows to continue the policies of apartheid (pronounced "ah-par-tate," it is a system of racial segregation and white dominance) in South Africa.
Today: After decades of resistance from the white minority, apartheid is overthrown in South Africa in 1996 when the former political prisoner Nelson Mandela is elected president in a free election and a new national constitution brings a non-racial democracy to the country.
1966: California's Bank of America creates the BankAmericard and Master Charge is created in response by New York's Marine Midland Bank, ushering in the era of the credit card. By the end of 1966, there are 2 million BankAmericard holders.
Today: BankAmericard has become Visa, Master Charge has become MasterCard, and the credit card has become a way of life world-wide. In the United States alone, banks solicited 2.7 billion credit card applications by mail in 1995, roughly 17 for every American between the ages of 18 and 64. The average credit card debt per household has risen from $649 in 1970 to nearly $4,000 in 1996.
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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was made into a feature film in England in 1990 starring Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz, Tim Roth as Guildenstern, and Richard Dreyfuss as the Player. Stoppard adapted the script to the screen and directed the film himself. The film is in technicolor and runs 118 minutes and is available to rent from select video stores and for purchase from Buena Vista Home Video or Facets Multimedia. It was named the best picture at the Venice Film Festival in 1991 but met with a lukewarm reception in the United States.
In 1972, Kenneth Friehling provided a 38 minute audio cassette commentary on the play for the Everett/Edwards Modern Drama Cassette Curriculum Series out of Deland, Florida.
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Bareham, T., editor, Tom Stoppard: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Jumpers, Travesties: a Casebook, Macmillan, 1990.
Contains interviews with Stoppard, general assessments of his work, reviews of early productions, and excerpts from critical studies.
Cahn, Victor L., Beyond Absurdity: The Plays of Tom Stoppard, Associated University Presses, 1979.
In a long section on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Cahn contrasts Stoppard's play with the traditional Theatre of the Absurd.
Gordon, Robert, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Jumpers, and The Real Thing: Text and Performance, Macmillan, 1991.
Part of a useful series that focuses on the performance aspects of plays. The sections on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead include one that describes and comments on its first professional production at the Old Vic in 1967.
Harty, III, John, editor, Tom Stoppard: A Casebook, Garland, 1988.
Three essays on the play, including invaluable essays by William E. Gruber and J. Dennis Huston that discuss how Stoppard uses the Shakespearean text.
Hayman, Ronald, Contemporary Playwrights: Tom Stoppard, Heinemann, 1977.
A very readable critical study that includes a short chapter on Stoppard's first major play and a valuable interview with the author.
Jenkins, Anthony, editor, Critical Essays on Tom Stoppard, G.K. Hall, 1990.
Includes four important essays on the play and an especially valuable interview with Stoppard.
Londre, Felicia Hardison, Tom Stoppard, Frederick Ungar, 1981.
A scholarly assessment of Stoppard's work through the late 1970s, including a chapter on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Accessible for most students.
Matuz, Roger, editor, Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 63, Gale, 1991.
A very thorough compendium of excerpts from the most important criticism on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. An excellent place to start for an overview of interpretations of the play.
Perlette, John M., "Theatre at the Limit: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in Modem Drama, Vol. 28, no. 4, December, 1985, 659-69.
An essential essay for understanding the complexities of Stoppard's thematic treatment of death.
Rusinko, Susan, Tom Stoppard, Twayne, 1986.
A very accessible introduction to Stoppard that includes a short chapter on Rosencrantz and Guildenstem Are Dead.
Sales, Roger, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Penguin, 1988.
A thorough, book-length analysis of the play that effectively summarizes and comments on the action of both Stoppard's and Shakespeare's plays before setting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead into the context of Stoppard's other work and Beckett's Waiting for Godot.
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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.
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