Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Analysis

Tom Stoppard

The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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 As toss after toss comes up heads, Guildenstern concludes that the law of probability is no longer in effect and speculates with some anxiety on what the cause of this strange phenomenon may be.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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Elsinore Castle

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.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

The Turbulent Sixties and Stoppard as a Political Playwright
The year 1966, like rest of the mid-1960s, was extremely turbulent...

(The entire section is 903 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

One of the most distinguishing features of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is the way it moves in...

(The entire section is 922 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 543 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Compare Shakespeare's Hamlet with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to see how Stoppard used the play as a source. What did...

(The entire section is 136 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was made into a feature film in England in 1990 starring Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz, Tim Roth as...

(The entire section is 116 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Stoppard's The Real Thing (1982) is a more conventional play about love and marriage. It was very popular and convinced critics that...

(The entire section is 283 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Further Reading
Bareham, T., editor, Tom Stoppard: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Jumpers, Travesties: a...

(The entire section is 379 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 184 words.)