Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
TOM STOPPARD 1966
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s best-known and first major play, appeared initially as an amateur production in Edinburgh, Scotland, in August of 1966. Subsequent professional productions in London and New York in 1967 made Stoppard an international sensation and three decades and a number of major plays later Stoppard is now considered one of the most important playwrights in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Recognized still today as a consistently clever and daring comic playwright, Stoppard startled and captivated audiences for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead when he retold the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as an absurdist-like farce, focusing on the point of view of two of the famous play’s most insignificant characters. In Shakespeare’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are little more than plot devices, school chums summoned by King Claudius to probe Hamlet’s bizarre behavior at court and then ordered to escort Hamlet to England (and his execution) after Hamlet mistakenly kills Polonius. Hamlet escapes Claudius’s plot and engineers instead the executions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose deaths are reported incidentally after Hamlet returns to Denmark. In Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become the major characters while the Hamlet figures become plot devices, and Stoppard’s wildly comic play becomes the story of two ordinary men caught up in events they could neither understand nor control. Stoppard’s play immediately invited comparisons with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and also brought to mind George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Luigi Pirandello. “Stoppardian” is now a recognizable epithet that suggests extraordinary verbal wit and the comic treatment of philosophical issues in often bizarre theatrical contexts.
Tom Stoppard (pronounced Stop-pard, with equal accents on both syllables) was born Tomas Straussler in Czechoslovakia on July 3, 1937. His name was changed when his mother married British army major Kenneth Stoppard after the death of the boy’s father. Educated from the age of five (in English) in India and from the age of nine in England, Stoppard left school at seventeen to become a journalist before deciding in 1960, at the age of twenty-three, to become a full-time writer.
Before becoming an “overnight” sensation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard worked as a free-lance writer and drama critic in London, writing stage plays, television plays, radio plays, short stories, and his only novel, Lord Malquist and Mr. Moon. The turning point in his writing career came in 1963 when his agent, Kenneth Ewing, wondered in casual conversation who the King of England might have been during the time of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The question prompted Stoppard to write a one-act verse burlesque entitled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear, and when Stoppard participated in a writing colloquium for young playwrights in Berlin in 1964 he submitted a version of this text.
Stoppard eventually discarded from this play most of the verse and the references to King Lear, gradually focusing on events in Hamlet’s Elsinore. In August of 1966, Stoppard helped direct the first production of the play in Edinburgh. Though the play was “done in a church hall on a flat floor” with “no scenery” and “student actors,” influential London theatre critic Ronald Bryden perceived the play’s potential and wrote that Stoppard’s play was “the best thing at Edinburgh so far” and that “it’s the most brilliant debut by a young playwright since John Arden.” Bryden’s review convinced the National Theatre in London to produce the play and Stoppard soon vaulted into international prominence.
Since his phenomenal success with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Stoppard has produced a large body of work that critics continue to find intelligent, erudite, witty, and filled with verbal pyrotechnics. A number of early critics questioned whether this dazzling surface was supported by genuine profundity and many early critics found Stoppard’s plays coldly analytical rather than emotionally powerful. But The Real Thing in 1982 and Arcadia in 1993 seemed to deliver the kind of pathos his highly intellectual “philosophical farces” might have been lacking. Though not unanimously acclaimed by critics today, Stoppard is undeniably a major figure in contemporary drama. He has also written a number of adaptations of plays in foreign languages and several screen plays, including a feature film version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in 1990.
Two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet are travelling to the court of King Claudius and have paused on the road to play a coin-tossing game of “heads or tails.” The one named Rosencrantz has just won for the 70th consecutive time, each time betting on “heads.” Rosencrantz is embarrassed to be winning so much money from his friend, Guildenstern, but Guildenstern is more concerned with the apparent violation of probability in this phenomenal run. After the string gets to 76, Guildenstern begins throwing the coins more absent-mindedly as he speculates on the possible philosophical and even religious explanations for this amazing streak.
Guildenstern suggests four possibilities for this run of “heads,” including simple luck since every toss has the same 50/50 odds no matter what has happened earlier. He helps Rosencrantz recall that this day began with a messenger from King Claudius insisting that they come to Elsinore, where their friend Hamlet had gone some time earlier. They hear music in the air and are soon joined by a troupe of actors, “tragedians,” whose leader (the Player) tries to solicit money from them in exchange for a performance.
When the Player suggests an entertainment that implies sexual participation, Guildenstern is angered but Rosencrantz is eventually intrigued and tosses a coin on the ground, asking “what will you do for that?” The Player and Guildenstern bet on whether the coin has fallen heads or tails, exchanging tosses until the Player finally chooses tails and loses. After the Player refuses to bet any longer on the coin toss, Guildenstern tricks him into betting that the year of his birth doubled is an odd number (any number doubled is even). When the Player loses, the troupe has no money to pay the wager and must perform for free. As they are readying themselves, Rosencrantz notices that the last tossed coin turned up tails.
A sudden change of light on stage indicates a shift from the present exterior scene to an interior scene in Elsinore Castle where Hamlet and Ophelia enter and perform actions from Shakespeare’s famous play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to leave, but Claudius, Gertrude, and the rest of the court enter speaking Shakespearian verse, trapping the two men into playing the roles they are assigned in Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern learn that King Claudius wants them to find out why Hamlet is acting so strangely. When the characters from Shakespeare’s play leave, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (now in the castle at Elsinore) are as baffled as before. To prepare for their interrogation of Hamlet, Rosencrantz initiates a question and answer game and then Guildenstern pretends to be Hamlet while Rosencrantz questions him. The first Act ends as Hamlet appears and welcomes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Elsinore.
As characters from Hamlet continue to come and go, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ruminate about their continued confusion. Eventually, the Player arrives and complains about how the two courtiers disappeared (in Act I at the lighting change) when his troupe was performing. He complains that as actors he and his troupe need an audience to complete their sense of identity. Hamlet has asked the tragedians to perform The Murder of Gonzago and since the Player seems to be “a man who knows his way around,” Guildenstern asks for advice. The Player tells them to accept uncertainty as a natural part of human life. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern speculate about their future, the question of control, and the nature of death, Claudius and Gertrude re-enter and once again sweep Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into their Shakespearean roles. As the characters from Hamlet come and go, the acting troupe eventually returns to rehearse The Murder of Gonzago, but this rehearsal is interrupted by scenes involving other characters from Hamlet and gradually
evolves beyond the rehearsal of The Murder of Gonzago as it appears in Hamlet to a summary of events that occur later in the play, including the death of Polonius and the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don’t quite understand that it is their own deaths being enacted, but Guildenstern is rattled by the suggestion and accuses the actors of not understanding death. A blackout brings the action back to Hamlet and the frantic conclusion of The Murder of Gonzago.
Suddenly it is sunrise, the next day, and Claudius enters and commands Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to accompany Hamlet to England. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wonder about how to find Hamlet, he appears, dragging the body of Polonius. They join their two belts to capture him, but Hamlet evades them as Rosencrantz’s trousers fall down. Eventually, Hamlet is brought to Claudius by others and the stage lighting changes once more to reveal that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are again outdoors. They are taking Hamlet to England.
Act III opens in pitch darkness with soft sea sounds and sailor voices indicating that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are on a boat. Gradually, light
reveals three large barrels and a huge, gaudily striped umbrella on the deck of the ship. After they discover that Hamlet is sleeping behind the umbrella, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern open the letter from Claudius that they are to present to the King of England when they deliver Hamlet. They are surprised to discover that the letter orders the King of England to put Hamlet to death, but Guildenstern philosophizes that “death comes to us all.” Hamlet arises from behind the umbrella, blows out a lantern, and the stage goes to pitch black again and then moonlight, which reveals Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sleeping. While they sleep, Hamlet takes the letter from them, substitutes another, and retires again behind the umbrella, blowing out the lantern and bringing darkness again to the stage.
When light returns, it is morning and Hamlet is relaxing under the umbrella. Rosencrantz has also decided not to worry about what the letter does to Hamlet. They hear music and the tragedians reappear, all climbing (quite impossibly) out of the three large casks on deck. The Player explains that they had to “run for it” because their production of The Murder of Gonzago offended the King. Suddenly, pirates attack the ship and in the confused battle that follows Hamlet, the Player, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leap into the three barrels. After the fight is over, only the Player and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reappear. Hamlet is now gone, but as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern look at the letter again they discovered that the letter Hamlet substituted now instructs the King of England to put them to death. All the players reemerge from one of the barrels and form a menacing circle around Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The Player offers philosophizing words, but the enraged Guildenstern snatches a dagger from his belt and stabs the Player in the throat, appearing to kill him. However, the dagger is retractable, the Player rises, and the tragedians act out several kinds of deaths as the light dims, leaving only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on stage. Rosencrantz proclaims that he has “had enough” and disappears. Guildenstern calls for his friend, realizes he’s gone, and disappears himself.
Immediately, the stage is flooded with light and the characters appear from the tableau of corpses that ends Shakespeare’s tragedy. An Ambassador from England announces that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, and Hamlet’s friend, Horatio, ends the play by pointing out that “purposes mistook [have] fallen on the inventor’s heads.”
Alfred is a Stoppard invention who does not appear in Shakespeare’s play. Alfred is a small boy, one of the six tragedians, who is highlighted in Stoppard’s play because he is forced to play the feminine roles in drag and finds his cross-dressing very humiliating.
The Ambassador from England appears in both plays but only at the end to announce that the orders to execute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been carried out.
In Shakespeare’s play, Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, secretly murders Hamlet’s father, marries Hamlet’s mother, and sends for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to gather information on Hamlet’s behavior as Hamlet mopes around the court. After Hamlet
- 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.
kills Polonius, Claudius orders Hamlet escorted to England by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, where orders in a sealed letter are supposed to have Hamlet killed.
In both Shakespeare’s and Stoppard’s plays, Gertrude is Hamlet’s mother and the new wife of King Claudius.
In Stoppard’s play, Guildenstern is the more philosophical and intellectual of the two courtiers who double as minor characters in Shakespeare’s play and major characters in Stoppard’s. The opening sequence of coin tossing vexes Guildenstern because he craves order and predictability in the universe. The apparent violation of probability in coin tossing drives him to seek an explanation but he attempts to remain calm when no satisfactory answers arise. He has a wry sense of humor, can be quite sarcastic, and is resilient, though he is also quick to anger and subject to panic or despondency when he finally feels overwhelmed. Guildenstern likes to hear himself talk and often rambles at length, sometimes without making a lot of sense. He frequently uses parables and analogies to attempt to understand the mysteries that confront him and he likes verbal games as a way of working things out. Wary and nervous, he likes to stay in control and questions more than his friend, Rosencrantz, whom he often badgers but ultimately is trying to protect and support with optimism whenever possible.
The hero of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet is a relatively minor character in Stoppard’s play, where he drifts in and out performing actions and speaking lines from his classic role as the melancholy Dane. In Stoppard’s play, Hamlet is eventually portrayed more playfully as he lounges in a deck chair in Act III.
Horatio is Hamlet’s best friend in Shakespeare’s play. In Stoppard’s comedy he exists only to deliver the last speech of the play.
Ophelia is the daughter of Polonius, who is one of the King’s counselors in Hamlet. Ophelia is Hamlet’s “girlfriend” in both Shakespeare’s and Stoppard’s plays. Almost all of her Shakespearean lines are omitted in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as she mimes most of her scenes.
If the Player has a counterpart in Shakespeare’s play he is the actor who performs the Pyrrhus speech for Hamlet in Act II, scene ii. In Stoppard’s play this character is the leader of the wandering troupe of actors who perform The Murder of Gonzago and a major character because he speaks so clearly and forcefully about reality and theatrical illusion. Proud of his acting craft but frustrated by his lack of financial success and his dependence on audience, the Player is self-assured, intense, but also sad. Like Guildenstern, the Player is philosophical but he is also practical, pragmatic, and resilient. A man experienced in the ways of the world, the Player accepts uncertainty more easily than anyone else in the play.
In both Shakespeare’s and Stoppard’s plays, Polonius is the father of Ophelia and is killed by Hamlet when Hamlet mistakes him for the King. Polonius is portrayed in both plays as old, garrulous, and occasionally foolish.
Rosencrantz is a minor character in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and one of the two major characters in Stoppard’s unusual version of Shakespeare’s story. In Shakespeare’s play, Rosencrantz is one of Hamlet’s university friends from Wittenberg. With Guildenstern, he is summoned by King Claudius to come to Denmark because Hamlet, after returning to Denmark for his father’s funeral and his mother’s wedding, began acting quite strangely. Rosencrantz helps Guildenstern spy on Hamlet for Claudius and then is assigned with his friend to take Hamlet to England after Hamlet kills Polonius. When Hamlet returns to England, he reports to his friend Horatio that on the ship to England he discovered Claudius’s letter ordering his death. He substituted a letter ordering the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and escaped the ship when pirates attacked it. In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are such nondescript characters that Claudius and his queen Gertrude can’t distinguish between them.
In Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz is the more timid of the two courtiers and considerably less reflective and philosophical than his friend, Guildenstern. At the beginning of the play Rosencrantz is winning on every toss of the “heads or tails” game and is embarrassed to be taking so much money from his friend but is either oblivious or unconcerned about how unusual this streak of “heads” might be. He is relatively unreflective, naive, innocent, even simple-minded and slow intellectually. He often “tunes out” when Guildenstern rambles in his philosophical talk but he is very sensitive and concerned about his friend’s unhappiness. Usually, he doesn’t question as much as Guildenstern, but when he understands their situation he generally feels more overwhelmed. However, when he senses approaching death, Rosencrantz is quietly resigned.
In both plays a soldier talks with Hamlet and identifies the Norwegian military commander, Fortinbras, as he marches his troops across Denmark toward Poland. Hamlet admires Fortinbras for his bravery and Fortinbras succeeds to the throne in Denmark after both Claudius and Hamlet die.
The tragedians who perform The Murder of Gonzago in Hamlet are more childlike and playful in Stoppard’s comedy, where they play musical instruments as well as miming their roles in The Murder of Gonzago.
Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead blends two stories—Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Stoppard’s own version of how the two courtiers might have felt and behaved after they were summoned by King Claudius to spy on their schoolmate, Hamlet.
When Stoppard decided to write about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern he was free to give them personalities of his own because Shakespeare had hardly given them any personalities at all. He was also free to let them speak in a more colloquial language and to elaborate on aspects of their lives that Shakespeare did not specify, such as what they might have done with Hamlet on the ship to England. But once Stoppard chose to blend his story with Shakespeare’s, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were fated to die at the end of Stoppard’s story because they die at the end of Shakespeare’s. Stoppard uses this literary fatalism as a metaphor for the fate that awaits all human beings—the inevitability of death.
The play begins with Stoppard’s story, as two very un-Shakespearean courtiers flip coins as they pause on the road to Elsinore. The extraordinary suspension of the laws of probability that permits over 100 coins to land “heads” before one lands “tails” indicates that there is something special about this day. And when a coin finally lands “tails” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are immediately
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Compare Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead to see how Stoppard used the play as a source. What did he include, what did he leave out, and why? Research the conclusions of scholars on the relationship between the two texts to confirm and enlarge your findings.
- Read psychologists and psychiatrists on the human attitudes toward death, perhaps beginning with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s On Death and Dying. Compare what you learn in your research to what is implied in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.
- Read Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as an example of Theatre of the Absurd. Compare it to Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead and decide how they are similar or different in tone and theme. Research the conclusions of scholars on the applicability of Absurdism to Stoppard’s play to support your conclusions.
swept out of Stoppard’s story and back into Shakespeare’s, from which they originally came. Once they are placed in Shakespeare’s story, their fate is sealed. They will die at the end, even though they shift back and forth from the Shakespearean to the Stoppardian story. What was special about this day is that it set in motion the events that would lead to their deaths.
Fate is something that has already been decided, something humans have no control over, something that will happen whatever human beings do, and the literary fatality that comes from entering a world where events are already decided gives Stoppard the metaphor he needs for human fate. Though they resist accepting the fact, human beings are doomed to die as soon as they enter the world.
When the tragedians first arrive in Stoppard’s story, Guildenstern says “it was chance, then . . . [that] you found us,” and the Player says, “or fate.” Subsequent references to “getting caught up in the action” of the Shakespeare play are frequent, as are references to not having any “control.” And when the Player says in their dress rehearsal for The Murder of Gonzago that “everyone who is marked for death dies,” Guildenstern asks, “Who decides?” and the Player responds, “Decides? It is written.”
Art and Experience
Stoppard elaborates on the theme of fate by exploring the relationship between art and experience. Throughout the play, he uses the tragedians and their spokesperson, the Player, to emphasize that art can create an illusion that is often more real and convincing than the experience of ordinary life.
The tragedians specialize in portraying death on stage, but Guildenstern argues that their version of death is not “real.” The Player responds by saying that the fictional representation of death is the only version that human beings will believe. He recalls the time he arranged for one of his actors condemned to be hanged to meet his execution on stage. However, to his surprise, the audience jeered and threw peanuts at this “real death” and the actor couldn’t accept his fate calmly, crying the whole time, “right out of character.”
Sigmund Freud asserted that human beings are psychologically incapable of seeing themselves as dead. When we come close to dying in our dreams we wake up or alter the dream so we become spectators ourselves, and as soon as we exist as spectators we have not in fact died. In art, however, we can experience death vicariously and safely, testing our reactions to it in a way that paradoxically rehearses us for our own death while further distancing us from the reality of it. Playing the role of spectators is perhaps as close as humans can ever get to accepting the reality of their human mortality.
This assertion is demonstrated most effectively in Act III, when the frustrated Guildenstern attacks the Player and seems to stab him fatally in the neck with a dagger. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, audience members initially unaware of the retractable blade in the stage dagger will experience a moment of shock when it appears mat a real death has taken place on stage. But almost immediately we remember that we are at a play and mat this death cannot possibly be real. When the Player comes to his feet to the applause of his fellow tragedians, the audience laughs in relief, as does Rosencrantz, who applauds and calls for an encore.
The theme of humans denying their own mortality also helps to explain a number of problematic points in the play. When, for example, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discover that the letter from Claudius orders Hamlet’s death, the generally sympathetic and pleasant pair distance themselves from the fact and justify their non-involvement. As disagreeable and unheroic as this behavior might be, it is in keeping with Stoppard’s theme. Guildenstern justifies his non-involvement by feigning acceptance of “the designs of fate,” and Rosencrantz’s denial of responsibility is capped with a phrase that adumbrates the end of the play—“If we stopped breathing we’d vanish.” Even more problematical, perhaps, is their behavior after discovering the revised letter that orders their own deaths. Shakespeare’s pair were probably ignorant of the letter’s contents and surprised by their executions. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern realize they are delivering their own death warrants and do nothing to avoid it. But quite in character, Rosencrantz simply avoids thinking about it—“All right, then. I don’t care. I’ve had enough. To tell you the truth, I’m relieved,” while Guildenstern continues to look for explanations and escape routes—“there must have been a moment. . .where we could have said—no.” His final words are either a continued denial of die reality of his death or an acceptance of his status as a literary character—“well, we’ll know better next time.”
Stoppard’s theme is probably best summed up by the speech that Rosencrantz makes in Act II about lying in a coffin. Quite out of the blue he says to Guildenstern, “do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with a lid on it? Quite honestly and significantly, Guildenstern says “no” and Rosencrantz echoes his response. But then die usually dim-witted Rosencrantz touches on the essential problem—“one thinks of it like being alive in a box, one keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead. . .which should make all the difference. . .shouldn’t it? I mean, you’d never know you were in a box, would you? It would be just like being asleep in a box.” When human beings attempt to think about their deaths, they assume some kind of continued consciousness. Ironically, Rosencrantz demonstrates in this speech the very kind of thinking he has just categorized as “silly.” After characterizing death as a kind of sleep, he associates death with a mortal dream state, complete with the possibility of waking to full consciousness and a sense of helplessness—“not that I’d like to sleep in a box, mind you, not without air.” Unable to conceptualize his own death he refuses to fully accept that “for all the compasses in the world, there’s only one direction, and time is its only measure.”
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 nondescript, 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.
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
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 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 life styles.
- 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: Bank Americard 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.
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.
When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead premiered in Edinburgh and London in August of 1966 and in April of 1967, Tom Stoppard was immediately recognized as a major contemporary playwright. The cleverness in the concept of the play, its verbal dexterity, and its phenomenal theatricality brought its first reviewer, Ronald Bryden, to call it “the most brilliant debut by a young playwright since John Arden.” Later, in London, Irving Wardle, writing for the Guardian, said that “as a first stage play it is an amazing piece of work,” and in New York, Harold Clurman, reviewing the play in Nation, echoed the general sentiment by calling Stoppard’s play a “scintillating debut.” And Clive Barnes, the highly influential critic for the New York Times, asserted in October of 1967 that “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.”
However, as enthusiastic as critics were for this dazzling first effort, they also had some very clear reservations. Generally, they thought Stoppard’s play somewhat derivative, too closely linked to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, for example. Bryden found the play “an existentialist fable unabashedly indebted to Waiting for Godot” and the appreciative Clurman called it” Waiting for Godot rewritten by a university wit.” Also in New York, an appreciative Charles Marowitz writing for the Village Voice added, “my only objection is that without the exhilarating stylistic device of the play-beneath-the-play, the play proper would be very much second-hand Beckett.” Michael Smith, also writing for the Village Voice, applauded the play, saying “the writing is brilliantly clever, the basic trick inspires a tour de force, and the play is great fun,” but added, “the drawback is Stoppard’s attempt to push it to deep significance. The early part of the play repeatedly echoes “Waiting for Godot” in sound and situation but entirely lacks its resonance.”
Another reservation the critics voiced was the suggestion that the play’s verbal dexterity and ingenious theatricality might have been all it had to offer, that underneath the dazzling surface there was very little of substance and that the play was ultimately shallow. This was suggested by Philip Hope-Wallace reviewing the first London production for the Guardian when he said,“I had a sensation that a fairly pithy and witty theatrical trick was being elongated merely to make an evening of it.” And despite his generous praise for Stoppard’s play, Charles Marowitz added that “much of its crosstalk is facile wordmanship that benefits accidentally from ambiguity.”
Writing somewhat after the initial critical response to the play, critics Robert Brustein and John Simon summed up this ambivalent response. Brustein wrote, “I advance my own reservations feeling like a spoilsport and a churl: the play strikes me as a noble conception which has not been endowed with any real weight or texture,” and in a now often quoted remark, Brustein calls Stoppard’s play “a theatrical parasite, feeding off Hamlet, Waiting for Godot and Six Characters in Search of an Author—Shakespeare provided the characters, Pirandello the technique, and Beckett the tone with which the Stoppard play proceeds.” Similarly, critic John Simon writing for The Hudson Review admitted that “the idea of the play is a conception of genius” but also saw it as “squeezing large chunks of Beckett, Pinter, and Pirandello, like sliding bulges on a python as he digests rabbits swallowed whole,” finally reducing Stoppard’s play to “only cleverness and charm.”
More than 30 years later, this ambivalent assessment continues to hang over Stoppard’s work in general and over Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in particular. In varying degrees, critics have leveled similar charges upon successive major plays—Jumpers (1972), Travesties (1974), The Real Thing (1982), Hapgood (1988), and Arcadia (1993), frequently assessing them as excessively concerned with cleverness and the arcane, too cerebral, lacking in genuine emotion, and ultimately shallow when measured against a very high standard of art and genius. However, the duration and accomplishments of Stoppard’s career has finally affirmed his status as a major playwright. By the time Stoppard had written Jumpers and Travesties, Jack Richardson, writing in Commentary in 1974, had to admit Stoppard’s pre-eminence: “since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a play I admired but found a little too coy and dramatically forced in its darker moments, Stoppard has come closer and closer to a successful wedding of theatrical artistry and intelligence. He is already the best playwright around today, the only writer I feel who is capable of making the theatre a truly formidable and civilized experience again.”
In the context of a brilliant career, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead continues to be a formidable achievement. Even by 1973, Normand Berlin, writing in Modern Drama, could assert that Stoppard’s first major play had “acquired a surprisingly high reputation as a modern classic.” And within a decade of its first appearance, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead had enjoyed over 250 productions in twenty different languages. Though a number of critics now feel that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is perhaps not Stoppard’s best play—that some of his later work have been more complex, polished, and mature—Stoppard’s first major play remains his most popular and his most widely performed.
Nienhuis is an associate professor of English at Western Carolina University. In this essay he postulates that Stoppard’s themes of uncertainty and confusion make his play appealing to twentieth century audiences who easily identify with his characters’ doubts and fears.
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.
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,
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Stoppard’s The Real Thing (1982) is a more conventional play about love and marriage. It was very popular and convinced critics that Stoppard could write with more emotional impact and with less reliance on clever, verbal pyrotechnics.
- Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601), the obvious source for Stoppard’s play, is a nearly inexhaustible resource for comparisons with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
- Stoppard clearly acknowledged Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952) as a major influence on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Beckett’s classic play is about two men “passing the time” as they wait for someone who never arrives. There are many similarities as well as differences between the two plays.
- Luigi Pirandello’s play, Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), is another example of “a play within a play” and the most famous literary investigation into how fictional life and real life relate to one another. As actors rehearse a play, six fictional characters from an unfinished play mount the stage and demand to have their story represented and resolved.
- The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), by Oscar Wilde, is the classic example of the epigrammatic verbal wit that Stoppard is renowned for and which he first displayed so brilliantly in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
- On Death and Dying (1969) by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is a classic investigation into the human attitudes toward death. She describes five stages of dying that move from denial, anger, bargaining, and depression to acceptance.
- Sigmund Freud was a provocative commentator on human attitudes toward death, and though nearly every educated person is familiar with Freud’s basic ideas, few have actually read him. A very short and readable essay of astounding sensitivity called “On Transcience” (1916) is perhaps a good place to start in reading Freud.
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 Active 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 Active 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 Active 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 Active 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.
In this excerpt, Hynes avers the greatness of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, while also discussing the debt of gratitude the play owes to not only William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but to such absurdist works as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
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 Doris 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, Claudins, 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
“WE’RE ALL AFRAID TO DIE, ESPECIALLY WITHOUT BEING SURE OF WHY WE’VE LIVED”
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 artistcreators 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. 643ℓ47.
In this positive review of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which was originally published on October 17, 1967, Barnes praises playwright Stoppard’s scholarship and intricate wordplay.
Barnes is a well-known theatrical critic best known for his reviews in the New York Times.
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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.
Bareham, T., editor. Tom Stoppard: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Jumpers, Travesties: a Casebook, Macmil-lan, 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, Mac-millan, 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 Guildenstern 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 play before setting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead into the context of Stoppard’s other work and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.