The Theme of Lost Identity in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a dramatic play written by Tom Stoppard, contains numerous allusions to the Bible and Hamlet. These two features provide not only allusions to Shakespeare through the obvious Hamlet references, the plot that we are all actors in this world, and through the rhyming couplets of the Biblical codas, but also give a deeper and more complex meaning to the play. It seems that while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unaware of who they are or where they come from, it is obvious to the audience that they were raised in Christian households through the many codas.

Biblical allusions reappear throughout this play, in the forms of codas but also in the dialogue between the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. There are, in fact, five codas which make a play on the first line of the Lord’s Prayer—Give us this day our daily bread—and are formed as rhyming couplets. The first coda, on page 39, states, “Consistency is all I ask, give us this day our daily mask”(Stoppard 39). This coda follows after King Claudius mixes up the names of the two friends and confusing the two about their identities even more. The next coda deals with immortality, “Immortallity is all I seek, give us this day our daily week” (Stoppard 45). Here the coda is giving not only an allusion to the Bible, but is discussing the idea of being immortal like a god and receiving a week for each day that passes. This coda is used mainly to reinforce the idea of a loss of time and direction. The third coda states, “All I ask is a change of ground, give us this day our daily round” (Stoppard 93). This coda is alluding to wanting a change in scenery and wanting to sit around and play games all day but not being able to because there are other more important things to do. The fourth coda further extends the metaphor of theatre and life, “All I ask is our common clue, give us this day our daily cue” (Stoppard 102). Not only is Stoppard playing on the idea of cues in theatre, but he is also portraying the loss of identity and confusion about how to operate in modern society. For example, each individual puts on a different mask for the different people in their lives and we get our cues about how to act in public from our family and friends when we are younger. The final coda appears on page ll4 and states, “Plausibility is all I presume! Call us this day our daily tune” (Stoppard 114). This coda is questioning the plausibility in all of life and, in particular, the idea that we are all actors and the world is stage. Stoppard mainly uses the codas to express the idea that we are all actors in our own life but he also is questioning many of life’s biggest questions, such as, is this all plausible? Can we expect consistency in life? The use of Biblical references leads to a deeper questioning of perhaps Christianity and the religious world as a whole.

Another use of Biblical references comes from dialogue between the two confused Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. On page 71 the two refer to Saul/ Paul, the man who killed Christians before becoming one himself. Although this allusion is said in a joking manner, it is followed by the depressing idea that no one cares where they are and no one will ever find them. The reference to Paul is dealing with the idea of a change in character, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are changing at this point. They are becoming more aware of who they are and are becoming a little bit less confused as to what they are doing and why. Another allusion is when they discuss the baby in “swaddling clout”. Clout is another name used for clot as in dirt clot and is referring to reality versus fiction. This allusion is to baby Jesus in swaddling clothes, but here they are portraying Jesus to be covered in dirt. Although the Bible portrays this birth of Jesus to be awesome and beautiful, in reality he is just a poor carpenter’s son born in a dusty dirty place and was more than likely covered in dirt. These allusions give us a deeper idea of the way Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are seeing the world and perhaps as to why they are so confused.

Stoppard strives to relay many messages to the younger generations in this dazzling work about loss of identity and the changes our identity suffers when we are around other people. By using Biblical references as a way to enhance the idea of confusion of the two main characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard truly makes a point about modern society and the reason why we are all as confused about who we are and why we are here.

The Societal Impact of Nonconformity in Sula

Toni Morrison’s Sula celebrates liberation from society’s constraints on individuality and self-discovery, and illustrates the negative impact of conformity. The novel follows the lives of several members of The Bottom’s community who refuse to relinquish their identities to fit the expectations of how a certain race or gender should act and the impact it has on their lives and their society. This society, influenced by the 1900’s racial segregation in America, enforces specific standards, and ostracizes whoever defies the cultural norm. Although certain characters choose to retain individuality and isolate themselves, they never fully establish their identities and desperately search for something in order to do so. The characters cling to certain aspects of their lives to create a sense of self, only to lose both it and themselves, henceforth forced to live aimlessly. Lynn Nordin’s essay “‘My Lonely Is Mine’ Loss and Identity in Toni Morrison’s Sula” discusses both the negative and positive impact of loss on characters’ identities in the novel. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead reflects a similar notion, as the title character’s pointlessly stumble through the play trying to discover their purpose, but ultimately lose themselves. The ambiguous identities of the novel’s characters highlight the ambivalent impact nonconformity has on an individual and society itself.

Morrison begins her novel detailing the origin of The Bottom, a hilltop community of African Americans, as one of deceit and white ascendancy. Although they dislike the blatant injustice, the members of The Bottom make no effort to change their circumstances and instead emulate such segregation within their own community, “They were mightily preoccupied with earthly things—and each other, wondering…what that little girl Sula…was all about, and what Aris 2 they themselves were all about” (Morrison 6). Definite expectations and social norms restrain the residents’ individuality, and the embracement of identity and refusal to conform to the morals and mundane lifestyle of the town result in ostracization, isolation, and fear. Initially, defiance of their principles frightens the residents and they hide from it, but eventually grow accustom to and incorporate such things into their regimen, “…they had simply stopped remarking on the holiday because they had absorbed it into their thoughts, into their language, into their lives” (Morrison 15), and ultimately become dependent on them. Just as “Suicide Day became a part of the fabric of life up in the Bottom of Medallion, Ohio” (Morrison 16), Sula, a promiscuous and nonconforming individual, forces the town to develop a strong identity, which dissipates upon her death.

Throughout her entire life, Sula challenges her society and aims to develop her own identity instead of conforming to orthodox rules, infuriating her town. Her obdurate rejection of the 1900s’ misogyny, racism, and classism intrigues all those around her, sparking an obtuse hatred and fear among her neighbors. However, amidst the antipathy, love and camaraderie infuse itself into the town’s identity, “They began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in general band together” (Morrison 117). Sula’s presence, although despised, becomes a crucial part of The Bottom, and once removed, the town members lose purpose and understanding. Although after Sula’s death a brief tranquility permeates the town, without someone to mutually hate and bond over, literally all color and warmth disappears, and the town reverts to its cruelty and stifling behaviors. Without an identity, or some form of motivation to live, the residents of The Bottom desperately search for one, eventually finding Aris 3 solace in the incongruity of Shadrack and Suicide Day, which ironically leads to their deaths. While the majority of The Bottom’s members finds an identity through hatred of nonconformity, several characters find temporary identities in many facets, and choose whether to embrace or reject certain these aspects of themselves.

Race plays a significant role in the identities of many characters, as they either defy or accept society’s perception of black inferiority. Shadrack’s finding comfort and stability when he first sees his face displays the importance of embracing what society deems unfit and detestable. “He had been harboring a skittish apprehension…that he did not exist at all. But when the blackness greeted him with its indisputable presence, he wanted nothing more” (Morrison 13). Shadrack feels none of the inferiority that segregation impresses, and instead basks in the beauty and richness of his race. Similarly, Sula expresses a stout confidence in the superiority of blacks to Jude and Nel, claiming all men, even whites, adore and envy blacks and their love (Morrison 105). Tar Baby, one of the few whites who interact with the black community, finds relief in The Bottom, where he can live and die peacefully without the expectations of white society.

However, despite the positive perceptions of blacks, several characters try to eliminate all ties to their culture and inadvertently accept the oppressed role assigned by society. Helene Wright’s compulsive cleaning symbolizes her desire to rid herself of her black and Creole roots and suppresses her daughter’s identity as well, “I don’t talk Creole…and neither do you” (Morrison 27). Her desire for approval and propriety make her passive when confronted by someone she has accepted as a superior, “An eagerness to please and an apology for living met in her voice” (Morrison 20). Although her daughter, Nel, refuses to become like her mother, “I’m me. I’m not their daughter. I’m not Nel. I’m me. Me” (Morrison 28), she ultimately imitates her life as a Aris 4 single mother and leader of the black community. Conformity to racial standards causes great pain for all who do so, while those who accept their race and origins have a greater sense of self, and allows them to escape from more societal norms and prejudices.

Racial norms directly link to the gender roles assigned to men and women in the black society, however, much ambiguity exists as to the acceptance of sex nonconformity in The Bottom. The town celebrates female leaders such as Eva Peace, Helene Wright, and Nel Wright, other women despise immoral, promiscuous women like Sula Peace and Hannah Peace. Moreover, men who do not work and isolate themselves are shamed, while those who engage in adultery experience no reprimand. Morrison creates a world of female empowerment, where men do not dictate the lives of women, instead, women dominate society and men have a passive role. Shadrack, Plum, and Tar-Baby isolate themselves and make no effort for production, forcing the women around them to act as both caretakers and leaders. All husband’s or partners exist predominantly as motivators for the female characters’ action. The departure of Boy-Boy, causes Eva to become a prominent figure in society, and cares for her family and others, driven by her hatred for her ex-husband, which ultimately defines her identity, “…the consistency of that hatred as long as she wanted or needed it to define and strengthen her or protect her from routine vulnerabilities” (Morrison 36). Nel experiences a similar event, where she becomes the sole source of income and support for her children, and uses the pain as motivation and, like Eva and her mother, becomes a leader in the black community. As Nel emulates her mother’s life, Sula imitates Hannah’s. HannHannah shamelessly flirts and beds men, regardless of marital status, attracting them with her attractiveness and magnetic personality, “Hannah rubbed no edges, made no demands, made the man feel as though he were complete and wonderful just as he was” Aris 5 (Morrison 43). Men enjoy her company because, despite breaking the stereotypical modest, moral wife role, she acts elegant and feminine. Although her daughter follows her model of promiscuity, Sula’s methodology is more masculine, as sex exists solely as a personal pleasure rather than an emotional experience. She lacks Hannah’s kindness and generosity and infuriates both men and women, “Hannah had been a nuisance, but she was complimenting women…Sula was trying them out and discarding them without any excuse the men could swallow” (Morrison 115).

Gender plays a prominent role in the development of the character’s identities, as the passivity of the men in the novel allow the creation of strong, powerful women who defy traditional gender roles and greatly impact their society. As Sula mimicked her mother’s lifestyle, Morrison emphasizes the severe impact friends and family have on one’s identity and individuality. The Deweys, three boys who came from different backgrounds and all dubbed Dewey by Eva, grow so close that eventually they become a single entity, where one cannot exist without the others. Despite vastly different physical features, no one can tell the difference between any of the boys with which Eva has no problem, “What you need to tell them apart for? They’s all deweys” (Morrison 38). Despite aging, the boys never mature and remain childish and inseparable until their deaths. The boys do not conform to the expectations of the town and instead find their identity with each other.

Helene Wright also establishes her identity through her daughter. Not wishing her daughter to also live of life of disorder and pointless ambitions, Helene inhibits imagination and tries to deter any bad influences on her daughter. Helene wishes to impart a piece of herself onto her daughter, and appears to succeed in instilling her daughter with propriety and the desire for control and order. Helene wishes to conform her daughter to the ways of society and wishes to nearly impart her Aris 6 beliefs onto her daughter. While Nel does not experience an identity assimilation with her mother, she firmly roots her identity with Sula as a child, and later her husband when Sula departs. However, once she loses him, she believes herself to be gone as well, and she aches for the loss of control and stability in her life. She feels incomplete, and despite her cool and perfect demeanor, the ominous “ball of muddy strings” (Morrison 109) symbolizes her inner turmoil and chaotic nature—similar to Sula. Until she visits Eva, Nel does not realize that her husband’s betrayal is not the one causing her sadness despite using him to fill her incompleteness for years. When Eva confronts Nel about the accidental murder and claims she watched, Nel realizes she enjoyed it since she truly craves chaos and lack of control—exactly like Sula. Nel realizes that Sula is her counterpart, and they exist as a single person. However, Sula’s death has forever separated the pair, and Nel finally releases the gray ball as she weeps for her lost friendship. Sula recognizes much earlier that she feels incomplete, “her craving for the half of her equation” (Morrison 121), and tries to fill it with sex—which she observed as a child as a pleasurable experience that temporarily replaced loneliness and replaced emotional relationships.

Both women struggle throughout the novel to find their identity, but are unable to do so without each other. While Sula embraces difference, and refuses to conform to society’s standards and expectations of a colored woman, “Why? Why can’t I do it all, why can’t I have it all” (Morrison 142), Nel inversely tries to establish an identity through conforming to expectations, “You a woman and a colored woman at that. You can’t act like a man. You can’t be walking around all independent-like” (Morrison 121). Both have tremendous effects on their society, as both instill a strong community connection in different ways. Aris 7 As Nel and Sula exist as a single entity, searching for their identity, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead contains a similar concept with its two title characters. The characters, while possessing unique character traits, essentially fulfill the others need and together satisfy a whole person. They spend the play searching for meaning and their identities as the characters themselves even confuse their names and by the end lose all sense of individuality, “Ros: We are Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. Guil: Which is which” (Stoppard 121). Just as Nel and Sula can never fully establish their identity together due to separation by transcontinental distance, anger, and death, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never discover themselves and their purpose in life.

Likewise, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern imitate the people around them and fill certain roles like many characters in Sula do as to fit into society. In both works, the characters try different activities in hopes to fulfill a sense of purpose yet fail to do so. Stoppard’s play’s discussion of identity and the characters’ completion of one another compares greatly to Morrison’s bilateral protagonist—Sula and Nel. Sula and Nel’s search for identity through either choosing to join or refute society parallels the desire for peace insinuated by the title character’s name, which translates to peace. The search for identity throughout the novel by all the characters portrays the desire of a society to achieve peace and a purpose. Many of the character’s experience hardship and lack control whether or not they participate in the society around them.

Although Nel and Sula choose two different approaches to achieve the inner peace they desire, neither find the identity and meaning they desire when apart. As girls they comforted and protected one another, and despite suffering through familial issues, had the peace they try to restore as adults. When Sula returns, that tranquility is restored for a brief moment, until Sula, believing the bond where the pair shared Aris 8 everything including romantic partners still exists, inadvertently betrays Nel. As Sula lays dying, she momentarily believes the childhood peace they had achieved still exists as she wishes to tell her friend and counterpart about death, “Well, I’ll be damned…it didn’t even hurt. Wait’ll I tell Nel.” Meanwhile, at the end of the novel Nel cries for both her friend and the realization that she will never achieve peace without Sula. The loss of their friendship greatly impacts the characters and their lives. Once separated after years of friendship, Sula and Nel must explore who they are separate of each other. When Sula leaves, she freely explores the world. According to Lynn Nordin’s essay “‘My Lonely Is Mine’ Loss and Identity in Toni Morrison’s Sula”,“Sula’s loss of Nel appears to be a catalyst for her to live her experimental life outside of the confines of the Bottom” (Nordin 13). Once separated from a distinctive part of her personality, Sula tries to redefine herself. However, the world outside of The Bottom leaves her unsatisfied, and strangely she returns to a place she appears to dislike. “Returning to the community seems to go against the development that Sula is seeking, since she returns to a place where she is already marginalized” (Nordin 13). Nordin believes Sula’s returns to Medallion solely because of innate, subconscious knowledge that Nel completes her personality and satisfies her search for identity (Nordin 14). Sula’s intent on restoring her lost personality and drive fails when she naively believes Nel has not conformed and changed to fit The Bottom’s society—something Sula will never do. In grief, Sula isolates herself, and grieves the loss of her friendship and identity while trying to find something or someone else to replace her friend.

Morrison’s novel illustrates the importance of identity and the need to establish one to achieve inner peace. None of her character’s ever truly achieve this, and suffer greatly for it. Her Aris 9 protagonists, Nel and Sula, represent two sides of the same character, one who chooses to follow society’s rules and conform, and another who isolates herself and refuses to join a society in an effort to restore a lost identity, both in an effort to reestablish a lost identity which can only be restored by rekindling their friendship. Unfortunately, this never occurs, and the pair’s suffering affects and changes the society around them. Nel becomes a leader of her community, while Sula the residents of the Bottom unite in their hatred of her. However, Sula’s death causes the falter of the camaraderie and the town resultantly loses its identity. This causes the death of many members of the society, and ultimately leads to blacks leaving the once flourishing town. The futile search for identity parallels Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as the characters lose themselves in the process. The complexities of identity, and ambivalent effects of nonconformity in Sula illustrate the desire for inner peace, which can only be found through friendship and love.

Works Cited

Morrison, Toni. Sula. New York: Vintage International, 2004. Print.

Nordin, Lynn. ““My Lonely Is Mine” Loss and Identity in Toni Morrison’s Sula.”

Karlstads University. Web. 5 Jan. 2016. Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1967. Print.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: A Quest for Meaning

Tom Stoppard´s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a postmodernist adaptation of the lives of two seemingly appurtenant characters from Shakespeare´s Hamlet. In the story, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern search for meaning in their isolated existence as they are dragged towards a preordained fate. Their attempts to understand occurrences and to escape from the metaphorical spiderweb that ensnares them are often thwarted as a result of their illogical methods. Throughout the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are tormented by confusion as they unsuccessfully search for meaning in their lives. An existentialist approach to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s plight suggests that they will be unable to influence their future or find meaning in the world no matter what approach they take. Stoppard suggests that part of their problem lies in their lack of personal identity. When they first encounter the Player, Rosencrantz has a moment of confusion about his identity, saying “My name is Guildenstern, and this is Rosencrantz…I’m sorry – his name is Guildenstern and I’m Rosencrantz” (Stoppard 22). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s uncertain identities make it difficult for other characters to differentiate between and relate to them, which is detrimental to their social interactions. This adds to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s sense of isolation and confusion, especially when the other characters in the play, like Hamlet, have such a well-formed sense of identity. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s lack of identity contributes to their inability to form opinions about things and display effective judgmental abilities. For most people, memories are nothing more than personal reactions to events.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, lacking identity, also lack the ability to form personal opinions about things. As a result, they remember nothing and live in a perpetual state of disorientation. At one point, while they are pondering their absence of memory, Guildenstern sums up their plight: “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered” (Stoppard 61). This sums up their reason for being unable to find meaning in life; without a sense of time, space, or ethics, they are unable to form memories or opinions about their experiences.

One element of human psychology that appears in Stoppard’s play is people’s tendency to experience anxiety when they are conscious of the intimidating boundlessness that freedom offers. Self-identity, responsibilities, and ethical beliefs help us become more stable, setting more boundaries and narrowing the number of courses of action from which we are able to choose. Without these aids, we are constantly responsible for choosing and re-choosing our path in life. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lack identities and a sense of ethics, so they are “condemned to be free” and are perpetually insecure about their role in life. This could be part of the reason that they feel inclined to help Claudius; the responsibility of spying on Hamlet gives them a sense of direction in a life that lacks it.

On the other hand, several situations in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead present evidence that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s fate is preordained. If their fate is set, then the need for stability and identity is an illusion because their path in life is unchangeable no matter what decisions they make. At one point, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are flipping coins, and each coin lands heads up instead of following the normal laws of probability. If even the laws of physics are worthless in the hands of fate, what power do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have over their future? Rosencrantz hopelessly describes his predicament: “Inside where nothing shows, I am the essence of a man spinning double-headed coins, and betting against himself in private atonement for an unremembered past” (Stoppard 15). If they are at the mercy of a preordained fate, then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not free at all. As is the case with their coin that endlessly lands heads-up, the connection between cause and effect in their life is hopelessly skewed. Although some rules restrict freedom, a rule like the law of probability can be the stepping-stone between intention and result. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have no stepping-stones, and so they float on the periphery of Too Free and Not Free Enough, never experiencing the stable balance between freedom and law for which most people settle.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent two different ways of coping with a life of confinement saturated with freedom. Rosencrantz, although regretful about the loss of his past, does not fight against the confusion of his life, choosing instead to play pointless games, much like a child. Guildenstern, on the other hand, never ceases asking questions and looking for information that will help him understand the circumstances that he and Rosencrantz find themselves in. Their distinct ways of coping with bewilderment display, in some ways, a divergence in the amount of success that they encounter. Guildenstern never finds answers, but Rosencrantz is able to play his word and coin-tossing games without failure.

Overall, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s inability to find meaning in life is a result of their lack of identity, preordained fate, and isolation from other characters.

A Play Within a Play: Metatheatrical Distinctions Between Actor and Character in Shakespeare and Stoppard

Metatheatre, a form of self-reflexivity in drama, plays a pivotal role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Tom Stoppard’s parodic version, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Self-reflexivity is conveyed through metatheatrical scenes, or scenes that are staged as plays, “dumb shows”, and the extensive commentary made on the mechanics and structural qualities of theatre, in both plays. In the Shakespearean original, the characters participate self-consciously in such instances as the Player’s practice speech, Hamlet’s instruction to the players and their support in “The Mousetrap”. Hamlet also adopts the importance of linguistic expression over physical expression in the theatre. Similarly, in Stoppard’s play, the characters literally ‘play’ with language and reduce it to its bare, communicative purposes. Ros and Guild imitate Hamlet and various other characters obsessively throughout the text and similar production to the “Mousetrap” leaves the pair confused and questioning their existence. Though metatheatrical qualities are prominent in both Shakespeare’s tragedy and Stoppard’s tragi-comedy, the function is divergent: in Hamlet, self-reflexivity is used to cast revenge on Claudius’ guilty soul and reveal ultimate Truth, while in Stoppard’s parody, the cast fails to recognize Truth and human purpose. Hamlet is essentially a play about plays, as it blurs the line between the role of actor and character. Throughout the dialogue there are references made to the constructs of theatre and acting techniques, and most significantly, the inclusion of a ‘meta-play’, “The Mousetrap” in Act 3. Self-reflexivity uncovers one of the major thematic concerns of the play, the nature of acting and the distinction between acting and “genuine” life. This distinction can be placed firstly in the band of ‘Players’, a group of actors that participate in the meta-plays production in the larger context of the play, Hamlet. This complexity is initiated by Hamlet’s request of the Player’s famed speech:“I remember one said there were no sallets in the lines to make the matter savory, nor no matter in the phrase that might indict the author of affectation, but called it an honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine…Twas Eneas’ tale to Dido, and thereabout of it especially where he speaks of Priam’s slaughter.”(Act 2, Scene 2)Hamlet’s description of an aesthetically pleasing dialogue resembles the dialogue that the characters themselves use. This level of self-reflexivity transitions into the ‘speech’ that Hamlet demands, the ‘Murder of Gonzago’, the story that is inserted into the play that Hamlet puts on. The story follows similar circumstances to King Hamlet’s murder; Prince Hamlet, after adding additional lines, plots to reveal the corruption behind Claudius’ actions: “The play’s the thing, /Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”(Act 2, Scene 2) Hamlet’s intention for the meta-play is rooted in avenging his father’s spirit, which categorizes itself as a ‘revenge tragedy’. By interacting with the conventions associated with the genre, the play attempts to represent a life outside the theatre. The distinction between man and character continues into Hamlet’s speech on nature’s ambiguities:“O, there be players that I have seen play—and heard others praise, and that highly—not to speak it profanely, that neither having th’ accent of Christians, nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature’s journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.”(Act 3, Scene 2)By discerning between humanity and the imitation of humanity, Hamlet questions his own identity as a participant. The self-reflexive tendencies of the protagonist present an extended metaphor for human certainty and purpose.Language and choice of diction coincide with the self-conscious elements of both Shakespeare’s and Stoppard’s plays. In Hamlet, words function further than just communicative purposes; words, for Hamlet, represent the dichotomy between speech and act. In the following exchange, Polonius questions Hamlet’s relationship with language: “Polonius: What do you read, my lord?Hamlet: Words, words, words.”(Act 2, Scene 2)Hamlet purposefully makes no distinction between the words he reads since they fail to resonate with other characters. Instead, the prince participates in conflicts through his extensive vocabulary and reflects on his own sanity as a man and actor through soliloquies. Similarly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern rely on word play to produce meaning, in a seemingly meaningless world. However, Ros and Guild regard language with little respect and utilize it in an illogical and cyclical way. The following dialogue between the pair exemplifies the pleasures and pitfalls of language:“Rosencrantz: What are you playing at?Guildenstern: Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.”(Stoppard, Act 1)As Guild explains, language is the primary way of understanding the world, yet it’s complexities and ambiguities leave the characters dumbfounded. Through this struggle with words and linguistic patterns, the play interacts with its own conventions, self-reflexively, to remind audiences that there is no Truth associated with fiction.Stoppard’s parodic retelling of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, focuses on two minor characters from the original, meaning the entire play can be considered a metatheatre. The play is framed by the larger context of Hamlet, but details the lives of Ros and Guild and their interactions with theatre and the techniques of acting. Self-reflexivity dominates the text, as it further blurs the relationship between speech and act, the actor’s life and ‘genuine’ life. In their first meeting with the ‘tragedians’, Ros and Guild struggle to understand the role of the play, within the play: “…We do on stage the things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else.”(Stoppard, Act 2) The tragedians represent the players the players that Hamlet instructed for his explication of “The Mousetrap”, however, these actors are enlisted to play a different story. The passage exemplifies the absurdist standpoint that the actors within the play, which exists within the play, adopt regarding the distinction between life on and off the stage. The tragedians represent a parody of the self-reflexivity that was so prominent in Shakespeare’s original drama: the notion of genre and audience anticipation and knowledge. They explain “audiences know what to expect, and that is all they are prepared to believe in.”(Stoppard, Act 2) Self-reflexivity, ultimately, is Ros and Guild’s downfall, for in Act 3, they fail to recognize their own death in the production put on by the tragedians. As in Hamlet, Claudius responds to “The Mousetrap” by recognizing a flaw in his character, Ros and Guild are meant to perceive a similar message. Though metatheatrical qualities are prominent in both Shakespeare’s tragedy and Stoppard’s tragi-comedy, the function is divergent: in Hamlet, self-reflexivity is used to cast revenge on Claudius’ guilty soul and reveal ultimate Truth, while in Stoppard’s parody, the cast fails to recognize Truth and human purpose.Works CitedShakespeare, William. Hamlet. Booth, Allison, and Kelly Mays. The Norton Introduction To Literature. 10th ed. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2002. Print.Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. New York: Grove, 1967. Print.

“Play” in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

A discussion of the implications of the various meanings of the word ‘play’ in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Tom Stoppard’s production Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is highly intelligent in its linguistic style, capability of thought and manner of speech. The two ‘main’ characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (R&G), engage in complicated word play as they comfort themselves in a world they do not comprehend. Their word-play, and the play on the word ‘play’, results in great comedy, as well as acting as a medium for Stoppard to explore the relation between the audience and cast. His absurdist theatre suggests existentialist theory as the bewildered R&G bumble through their indifferent, bizarre universe. Early on in the play, R&G decide to ‘play’ a game of questions, in the form of a tennis match. They believe that their ‘ping-pong’ enquires will help them interrogate Hamlet about his morose state. A highly entertaining battle of words ensues, reminiscent of the repartee of Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV and the stichomythia of Richard and Anne in Richard III:Ros: We could play at questions.Guil: What good would that do?Ros: Practise!Guil: Statement! One-love. (33)Unlike Richard, however, who won the hand of Anne, R&G’s word-play leads to naught. It is Hamlet who “murders” them in the interrogation, as he makes them look “ridiculous” (47). The tennis-match allegory continues; according to Guildenstern, they were “caught on the wrong foot once or twice” (48). Likewise, their clever word-play also results in nothing, as every question is answered by another:“Guil: Do you think it matters?Ros: Doesn’t it matter to you?Guil: Why should it matter?Ros: What does it matter why?Guil (teasing gently): Doesn’t it matter why it matters?Ros: What’s the matter with you?PauseGuil: It doesn’t matter” (36).Stoppard’s clever pun on ‘matter’ may be alluding to Hamlet, 2.2:191 Polonius: What do you read, my lord? 192 Hamlet: Words, words, words. 193 Polonius: What is the matter, my lord? 194 Hamlet: Between who? 195 Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord. This witty banter continues throughout the play. One implication of this is that Stoppard blurs the boundary between R&G – they are consistently confused of their true identity. The only way we can perceive the difference in personality between R&G is through their speech – as Guildenstern says, “[w]ords, words. They’re all we have to go on” (32). The entire play is based on discourse. To be without is like being “a mute in a monologue” (54). R&G are spontaneous in their speech – at least, they believe they are. However, Stoppard wrote their lines – there is nothing spontaneous about it. They ‘play’ with words in a desperate attempt to show their free will and to escape the ‘play’ they are unwillingly in. However, as the audience knows, their desire cannot be fulfilled. Stoppard ironically controls this seemingly random and bizarre banter between the two. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are just characters in a play. They are nothing more. The result of this is that an ironic discrepancy exists between what we know and the characters limited, misguided perception. As Rosencrantz says; “They’ll have us hanging about ’till we’re dead!” (85). R&G are ignorant of their fate; dramatic irony ensues to great comedic affect: “Player (to Guil): Are you familiar with this play?Guil: No.Player: A slaughterhouse – eight corpses all told” (75).This irony is both comical and decidedly morose. Stoppard plays a delicate balancing game between humour and horror; the play is both intellectual and hilarious. Their word play distracts them from the inevitable truth of their helplessness, but it is only a momentary reprieve. The light banter between them during most of the play seems to mask an insufferable anxiety that cannot be expressed in dialogue. As Stoppard himself once said; “There are no words to say how much I love words”. Stoppard mocks R&G as they fail to express what they are thinking. Words are just not enough. The result is frustration. With reference to Hamlet;“Ros: Stark raving sane.PausePlayer: Why?Guil: Ah. (To Ros) Why?Ros: Exactly.Guil: Exactly what?Ros: Exactly why.Guil: Exactly why what?Ros: What?Guil: Why?Ros: Why what, exactly?Guil: Why is he mad?!Ros: I don’t know!” (60).Guildenstern shouts at Rosencrantz near the end of the play; “Do you think conversation is going to help us now?” (112). Their nonsensical discussion leads to nowhere. Probing questions such as “[i]s there a God?” are quickly refuted; “Foul!” (35). Instead of focusing on how to escape their fate, they ponder their ontological status, the ‘who what why’ in endless word-games that repeat and repeat in cyclic despair. To give an example, Guildenstern repeatedly plays with a line from the Lord’s Prayer, referring to the necessities of life: “Give us this day our daily bread…” Guildenstern sardonically corrupts this and calls for theistic intervention, knowing that nothing will come:“Guil: Consistency is all I ask!Ros (quietly): Immortality is all I seek…Guil (dying fall): Give us this day our daily week…” (37).Guildenstern’s play on the well-known prayer highlights the absence of ‘basics’ in their morose world. R&G are helpless and must supplicate to a higher order. They plea for “consistency”; something entirely lacking in the absurdist, whimsical world they inhabit. However, R&G seem to have no true belief in an underlying purpose – they care only about the plot because it involves their subsequent death. Their world is devoid of spirituality – all that is left is a ‘place without any visible character’ (1). This structure is repeated over, and over, and over again – pages 30, 37, 85, 93, 105 – each time more desperate than the time before. Without morals, represented in the form of religion, life is nothing – R&G live in a repetitious world at the “mercy of caprice that reason cannot explain” (Robinson 88).Thus, Stoppard abandons all didactic purpose and writes ‘anti-theatre’ – lack of logic dominates in his bizarre production, suggestive of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and other absurdist plays. He paints a postmodernist picture where ultimate values have been lost, primarily through the outright horror of WWII. Stoppard’s portrayal of R&G’s bleak, indifferent universe has been influenced by this existentialist theory. R&G ask fundamental questions about their existence but receive no answers in return. Their word-play, the constant questions answered by questions, help reinforce this feeling of absurd despair:“Guil (seriously): What’s your name?Ros: What’s yours?…Guil: What’s your name when you’re at home?Ros: What’s yours?… Guil (seizing him violently): WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?” (35).What eventuates is an inherent absurdity in all their word-play, an irony as we realize the insignificance of their words in a world that they are the centre of. Stoppard brings two marginal characters to the attention of the play. However, their roles are still peripheral to the plot; their words do not rock the metaphorical “boat” of their unavoidable demise. They are not in control. The Player recognizes this; knowing that nothing will ever change, he salvages a small freedom by resigning himself to that necessity. R&G entertain hope through their witty repartee that something will change for the better. This, simply put, does not occur.Through this eclectic, pointless conversation we do find sympathy for them, but a detachment still exists between audience and character. R&G attempt to traverse this gap – Guildenstern once calls out “Fire!” to the audience – but, once again, their dialogue is not enough. R&G are trapped in an “undiscovered country”, devoid of humanity. The audience gets a feel for this living nightmare through the repeating word-play, which frustrates the spectators as much as R&G. However, we passively watch the show in a dream-like state. RGAD and other absurdist productions subvert conventional theatre and blur the boundary between us and them. Stoppard make us consider our own “country” – whether it too is meaningless – but some boundaries cannot be crossed. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are stuck. Their only defense is wit, as Kenneth Tynan observes: “While it is clear that none of [Stoppard’s] characters control their own destiny… it is equally obvious that their unsinkable quality, their irrepressible vitality and eccentric persistence, constitute what Stoppard feels to be an authentic response to existence” (Robinson 88). The audience knows that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will die – the title states so. The Player comments: “Audiences know what to expect, and that is all they are prepared to believe in” (76). The presupposed knowledge, that they are dead, effectively makes R&G ‘ghosts’ stuck in a Hamlet-like purgatory. Their fate, suggested by the boat, is set to such a degree that Rosencrantz ironically states; “we might as well be dead” (99). Their banter can distract them from this truth, but it cannot defeat it. Their all-too-human limitations result in injustice, defeat, and finally death. They do what “actors do best” (75); they play their part then die.To conclude, the major implication of Stoppard’s word-play is the discovery that it is inherently pointless. Their words may be humorous, but they cannot stop the irrevocable destiny that awaits. Death will come for R&G – and also for ourselves. Stoppard’s realistic portrait of R&G perhaps suggests a link between R&G’s pointless acts and our own – perhaps, with such a pessimistic, existentialist outlook to life, he believes that we too are already dead. Stoppard, through the word play, puts a mirror up for us to consider our own seemingly predestined and repetitive existence. All we can do, as Tynon suggests, is laugh.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Transformation by Tom Stoppard

How does Stoppard’s Transformation of Hamlet reveal a shift in ideology?Stoppard’s transformation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet shifts in values and world-view from the original. These changes are a result of the change in context between the two texts. The Elizabethan world-view was that of an ordered universe, where reality could be expressed through language and known law/logic was applicable. On the other hand, Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead reflects a more contemporary ideology, where the universe is inexplicable and the audience has no sense of certainty. According to this world-view, language is a confused expression of reality and there is no such thing as a logical existence. It is this difference in context between the two plays that contributes to its changed ideology.Language serves as the fount of meaning in Hamlet. This is apparent in the confrontational dialogue between Hamlet and Gertrude:Gertrude: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.Hamlet: Mother, you have my father much offended.Gertrude: Come, come you answer with an idle tongue.Hamlet: Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.Here, Hamlet is mocking the rhythm and words of Gertrude’s reproaches. By echoing the rhythmic structure of Gertrude’s language, Hamlet manages to turn the finger of accusation from his own behaviour to his mother’s, thus seizing control of the confrontation through his use of language.Hamlet’s reaction to Ophelia further demonstrates this point. The sounds of his words on immediately seeing her – “soft…nymph…orisons…” – suggest a gentle feeling towards her. Once Ophelia speaks in the forced, formal tone advised by her father, however, Hamlet appears frustrated that her impersonal language should block any proper communication between them, saying “Are you honest?…can it be you speaking in so empty a manner?” This reflects the ideology that there exists a universal means of communication, an ultimate expression of truths that, if broken down, causes disturbance and chaos.In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, language interferes with meaning rather than enhancing it. The repetition that characterises much of the dialogue makes this evident; conversations keep returning to where they started, as here:Guil: Never mind…we’ll have it out like a nightingale at a Roman feastRos: You’d be tongue-tiedGuil: Like a mute in a monologueRos: Like a nightingale at a Roman feastGuil: Like a star on a bannerRos: Like a nightingale at a Roman feastThis ping-pong of ideas, where each concept is thrown back and forth, suggests directionlessness and lack of progress. The futility of language also appears in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s frequent alterations of cliches, as shown when Rosencrantz confuses the metaphor “That’ll put a stick in their spokes,” declaring instead “That’ll put a spoke in their wheel” and thereby depleting the statement of meaning. In another instance, Guildenstern states “Certainly not. If you like”, contradicting his statement and thus highlighting the subversion of language. The ideology driving this play is based on an arbitrary, confusing world in which nothing is certain. Shakespeare presents the universe as an ordered place, disrupted by “most foul, strange and unnatural” events such as the killing of a king. Hamlet sees himself as a “scourge and minister” whose duty it is to exact revenge upon his father. This purpose of revenge influences his actions to some extent. For instance, he decides not to kill Claudius while his enemy is praying; doing so would cause Claudius to go to heaven, which would mean poor revenge on Hamlet’s part. Both Hamlet’s and Claudius’ actions reflect an awareness of salvation in the afterlife and the purpose of living. The soliloquy in which Claudius states “Try what repentance can…but what can it when one cannot repent?” contrasts with Hamlet’s declaration that “to kill now…that has no relish of salvation in’t.” Uncle and nephew inhabit the same moral universe, one to which knowledge and known laws apply.In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, however, the universe is unfathomable and disorderly. Coincidence and chance dominate, as in the play’s opening coin-tossing sequence in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unable to change the run of heads – chance alone determines their future. As the Player mentions, “It is written…there is no choice involved.” The play has strong fatalistic overtones, the very title implying that it has been predetermined that the protagonists will die. Indeed, the fact that the coins keep turning up heads could be symbolic of the fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are destined to lose their heads in the end.The known becomes the unknown in this play, further emphasizing the world’s uncertainty. As Guildenstern states, “We only know what we’re told and that’s little enough. And for all we know it isn’t even true…for all anyone knows, nothing is.” The men’s constant need to check reality, as when Rosencrantz replies “Do I?” to Guildenstern’s “We’ve got a letter. You remember the letter,” also reveals the ideology that the human condition is inexplicable. People cannot have knowledge of anything. Stoppard is exposing the inevitable contradictions that occur when two people try to define the same reality.The difference in ideology also appears in the contrasting presentations of Hamlet as a character. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the main focus of the play, depicted as a tortured hero whose initial words “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable” convey despair and weariness. The disjointed rhythm and dislocated progress of Hamlet’s thoughts convey his inner turmoil, thus instilling in the audience a degree of sympathy for him. This sympathy grows as the audience learns of the reason for his melancholic disposition. He presents us with the image of his mother and uncle in bed together, saying “Oh most wicked speed, to post/ With such dexterity to incestuous sheets.” Shakespeare’s use of sibilance here conveys Hamlet’s disgust, the ‘hissing’ sound perhaps indicative of Hamlet’s dwelling upon and fascination with the disgusting. This sympathetic portrayal of Hamlet contrasts with Stoppard’s portrayal of a Hamlet deliberately orchestrating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s death. This enables Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to appear as pawns, consistent with the ideology that humans are but players in a confusing world. Stoppard constantly makes references to the fact that the men are “summoned,” thereby emphasizng their personal insignificance.Shakespeare’s Hamlet reveals ideologies about a structured universe in which language is the fount of meaning and logic is applicable to life. Hamlet’s dependence on language in order to fathom Gertrude’s behaviour and Ophelia’s distance, as well as his sense of duty toward revenge, make this point evident. Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead reveals the shift in ideology through its subversion of language within a world-view in which the universe is inexplicable. The protagonists’ confusion regarding reality, as well as their notion of fatalism and the value of human beings as ‘mere players,’ make this difference apparent. Ideology changes in Stoppard’s transformation of the original play because of its different context and, therefore, the difference in how its characters see the world.

Sisyphus on Stage: The Fate of Characters from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were two students at Wittenberg in the 16th century.[1] Students of the same school and of the same names are also minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the main characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. The characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead suffer the same fate as Sisyphus, a character from Greek mythology. The titular characters of the play are the clearest examples, since they are the main focus of the text. Their particular roles are first made clear in The Coin Toss opening. From that point until the very end, the protagonists are trying to reach freedom and failing constantly, which is apparent every time they compete against each other. Their attempts are definitively broken in Act three on the boat. Finally, the ending shows how close Rosencrantz and Guildenstern actually are to the mythical Sisyphus – consigned, like this character, to repeat patterns of action that raise pointed questions about fate and rationality.

It might be best to start with an introduction of the mythological character of Sisyphus. According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king and founder of the polis of Corinth. He was a murderer responsible for betraying Zeus himself and imprisoning Thanatos, God of Death. He committed his biggest crime after his death however, when he used trickery to get out of Hades and refused to come back, trying to avoid death even after it already took place. In the end, his efforts to escape his fate lead nowhere, as he was brought back to Hades by Hermes, the messenger of Gods. Yet he is not remembered for these feats. As Marcel Sarot puts it, “Sisyphus’s name lives on for his punishment rather than for any of his other feats.”[2] Sisyphus was sentenced to push a huge boulder up the hill without ever succeeding, because it always rolls down just before reaching the top. This can be seen as a visualization of his struggle to escape fate. Escaping fate is something, that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are trying to do since the very first scene of their story. As the play starts, the audience finds the titular characters flipping coins to kill some time. The coin always land heads up. Here their roles in relation to each other become apparent. Every time the coin lands, Rosencrantz is the winner and Guildenstern is the loser. Neither seems really comfortable with their role. The streak of Guildenstern’s bad luck is so unusual, that he thinks about it being a punishment for his past sins: “Inside where nothing shows, I’m the essence of a man spinning double-headed coins, and betting against himself in private atonement for an unremembered past.”[3] Just like Sisyphus continues pushing his boulder up the mountain just for it to fall, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue flipping coins in hope of finally changing the outcome just for the coin to land heads up. This isn’t the only game they play however. It also isn’t the only one with this result.

After being given the task of finding out what is the cause of Hamlet’s madness, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have more questions than answers. Therefore, they decide to play a game of questions. Here are the rules explained by Helen Keyssar-Franke: “The rule of the game is that every question must be responded to with another real question; no rhetorical questions or non-sequiturs are permitted. One loses when one answers a question.”[4] The scoring is the same as in tennis. Guildenstern cheats to steal the first set for himself. What follows is a witty dialogue, which escalates, when Rosencrantz has a game point and Guildenstern loses his temper and angrily asks a rhetorical question: “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?”[5] Even though he tried everything, even cheating, he just couldn’t break out of his role and once again ended up being the loser. Rosencrantz might be winning against his friend, but when it comes to understanding the world around them, he is just as helpless as Guildenstern is. When the two titular characters return to the mystery of Hamlet’s madness, they are helpless. They try roleplaying during which Guildenstern pretends to be Hamlet, while Rosencrantz asks him questions. They sum up the entire set up of Hamlet in the process. Yet, when Rosencrantz asks him in the end of this dialogue “Now, why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?” Guildenstern answers: “I can’t imagine,”[6] even though the plot must be obvious to every single member of the audience. Then why do these two students of the best university in Europe not understand? Simply because it’s not their role to understand. Their confusion is their boulder in a way. Their confusion and helplessness are on display in Act II, along with the newly introduced desire for freedom. During the whole Act two, the protagonists talk about wanting to escape the prison of Elsinore and events around them, which are beyond their control. The only scenes, when it seems to be possible, are those with The Player and his Tragedians. Those scenes are not controlled by the events of Hamlet, therefore Rosencrantz and Guildenstern create these encounters independently on the events of Shakespeare’s play. As Keyssar-Franke puts it: “The central characters seem to move easily in and out of Hamlet; there is no reason not to think that they cannot continue to do so.”[7] These are their rare moments of hope. It’s their equivalent of Sisyphus’ brief escape from Hades back to life. Then Act three comes around and all hopes of reaching freedom are gone. Nothing more than the setting of it is needed to realize, that they can’t escape their fate, just like Sisyphus can’t escape his boulder.

Act three takes place on a ship, which is supposed to take Hamlet to England. There is no escaping the script of Hamlet now. They don’t see it that way however. Guildenstern even says that “one is free on a boat.”[8] Rosencrantz is a bit more sceptical and wants to break free from the story, but doesn’t know, whether it’s staying on board or jumping over the side that would make him free. They are trapped on a ship, which is taking them to their final destination. Just like Sisyphus can go only up the mountain, they can only sail to England. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern still retain hope in the possibility of freedom however. The dialogue between the titular characters on the boat seems slightly chaotic. Both of them keep turning from a feeling of hope to a feeling of despair and back again. At one point, Rosencrantz even stops believing in the existence England. Their situation is best summed up with this quote by Guildenstern: “We may seize the moment, a short dash here, an exploration there, but we are brought full circle to face again the single immutable fact – that we, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, bearing a letter from one king to another, are taking Hamlet to England”[9] Sisyphus had his hopes for escaping death, when he chained it to a wall. It’s understandable that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would have them too. They are, however, slowly but surely approaching the end of their hopes. After reuniting with The Player and his Tragedians and being attacked by pirates, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern read the letter forged by Hamlet. In it they learn of them being sentenced to death. They wonder why would they be so important, that their execution would be ordered by one king and done by another. Once again, they have more questions than answers. In the confusion, Rosencrantz realizes something, when he says: “They had it in for us, didn’t they? Right from the beginning.”[10] Rosencrantz is right, that they were destined for this outcome since the very beginning just like Sisyphus’ boulder is destined to roll down the mountain even before he starts pushing it up. Yet he doesn’t stop trying just like Guildenstern still tries break free from his role in the plot.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had been having conversations about death with The Player multiple times, but at this point, they are no longer talking about an abstract concept, but about their very own and impending end. Guildenstern loses his temper and stabs The Player with his own dagger. After a short moment of shock, the apparent murderer says: “If we have a destiny, then so had he – and if this is ours, then that was his.” The Player stands up however and explains, that the dagger was fake. Margarete Holubetz calls this “an absurd proof of the existence of destiny.”[11] Guildenstern couldn’t kill a character, that wasn’t marked for death. He can’t do anything else than what the script of Hamlet allows him to do. The hunt of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for freedom is over and they must come to terms with it. After a short dialogue between the two titular characters, Rosencrantz comes to terms with his death before his friend does. Guildenstern’s last monologue is however much more relevant to the subject. He exposes the fact, that he still doesn’t believe in fate, when he says: “There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said – no. But somehow we missed it.” Guildenstern’s belief into one forming his own destiny is certainly interesting, but it is not important as the line which follows. Guildenstern’s last completed line is: “Well, we’ll know better next time.”[12] This is where the realization of just how close Rosencrantz and Guildenstern really are to the mythical Sisyphus. They are not only forced to never find meaning in the world around them, to never reach freedom and to die, but they are also forced to do it over and over again every time the play gets staged. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will always be dead. It’s this Guildenstern’s final monologue, which explains the character of The Player. Throughout the play, The Player seems to know the fate of all the characters around him. He apparently tries to help Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find the cause of Hamlet’s madness and save them from their fate. In Act II he has his Tragedians practicing for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, trying to show them what Claudius, the king, did. When he doesn’t get the reaction, he wanted, he screams at his cast: “You’re not getting across!”[13] After Guildenstern’s final monologue, it seems that The Player has been through all the adaptations of the play and remembers them all. Yet he can’t break the wheel of fate and save Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That is his Sisyphean task. It seems, that all the characters in the play have their tasks, which they will be fulfilling forever. Ophelia will always go mad and drown herself. Claudius will never get away with the murder of his brother. Alfred is going to get abused over and over again by his fellow Tragedians. All these claims are based on fatalism, which was the basis for nearly all Greek myths, including the one about Sisyphus.

Daniel Dennett defines fatalism as “the idea that what happens (or has happened) in some sense has to (or had to) happen.”[14] There is however a proof for this idea in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, because during every staging the characters truly go through all the events, which they have been destined to go through by the author. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will always flip coins, get confused at Elsinore and trapped at a boat. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will always be dead. Tom Stoppard’s play is universally believed to be one of the best, that Theatre of the Absurd has to offer. Audiences are still attending theatres to witness Rosencrantz and Guildenstern battle their fate. They see Guildenstern lose all the time to Rosencrantz. They see the titular characters trapped in the script of Hamlet. They see them fulfil their destiny as foretold by the play’s title. They hear Guildenstern’s final monologue and might understand the implication, that during the next production there will be a new audience witnessing all the characters metaphorically pushing their boulders upwards until the very end, only for them to roll down again. They will continue doing that, just like Sisyphus, for eternity. Or at least as long as the play gets staged.


1. Dennett, Daniel. Elbow Room. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984. 2. Holubetz, Margaret. “A Mocking of Theatrical Conventions: The Fake Death Scenes in The White Devil and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” English Studies 63.5 (1982): 426-429. EBSCO 13 Dec 2016. 3. Keyssar-Franke, Helene. “The Strategy of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’” Educational Theatre Journal 27.1 (1975): 85-97. JSTOR 29 Nov 2016. 4. Sarot, Marcel. “Sisyphus Revisited: Reflections on the Analogy between Linguistic Meaning and the Meaning of Life.” Neue Zeitschrift für systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 38.2 (1996): 219-231. EBSCO 13 Dec 2016. 5. Smith, Preserved. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.” Modern Language Notes 36.6 (1921): 374. JSTOR 29 Nov 2016. 6. Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. London: Faber and Faber, 1968. [1] Preserved Smith, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” Modern Language Notes 36.6 (1921): 374, JSTOR, 29 Nov 2016. [2] Marcel Sarot, “Sisyphus Revisited: Reflections on the Analogy between Linguistic Meaning and the Meaning of Life,” Neue Zeitschrift für systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 38.2 (1996): 224, EBSCO, 13 Dec 2016. [3] Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), 6. All subsequent quotations are from this edition. [4] Helen Keyssar-Franke, “The Strategy of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,’” Educational Theatre Journal 27.1 (1975): 93, JSTOR 29 Nov 2016. [5] Stoppard 35. [6] Stoppard 42. [7] Helen Keyssar-Franke, “The Strategy of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,’” Educational Theatre Journal 27.1 (1975): 94, JSTOR 29 Nov 2016. [8] Stoppard 92. [9] Stoppard 92. [10] Stoppard 114. [11] Margaret Holubetz, “A Mocking of Theatrical Conventions: The Fake Death Scenes in The White Devil and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” English Studies 63.5 (1982): 426, EBSCO, 13 Dec 2016. [12] Stoppard 117. [13] Stoppard 71. [14] Daniel Dennett, Elbow Room (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984), 104.

The Possibility of Probability: An Exploration of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s Ideas of Absurdity Through the Theories of Warner Heisenberg

Several hundred years following the production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Tom Stoppard took it upon himself to expand on the characters who take on the roles of Hamlet’s best friends in his absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The two characters float in and out of scenes that crossover with their appearances in Hamlet while also passing several scenes outside of their sister play’s world during many of which both make attempts to process the meaning behind their existence and their role to play in the world in relation to what is occurring around them. Werner Heisenberg addresses a similar, but more scientific, version of this question in the third chapter of his book Physics and Philosophy: “The Copenhagen Interpretation of “Quantum Theory,” playing with the idea of possibility versus actuality and challenging the imagination of the reader in their ability to comprehend knowledge that is frequently accepted as fact, pushing them to a place of thought comparable to that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While in the process of reading Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead it is useful to consider Heisenberg’s “The Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory” as a lens for interpreting these character’s actions and interactions with the world around them, as well as to bring the reader to a similar place of questioning that both characters experience throughout the play and further the understanding of their philosophical struggles.

To begin, act one of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead opens to the two friends walking together through a nondescript setting playing a gambling game of flipping coins. Rosencrantz has selected “heads” as his winning side, while Guildenstern has selected “tails.” In a normal situation, the probability of the coin landing on either heads or tails is 50/50, as there are only two options. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, however, discover that the coin they are using, which presumably is not weighted one way or rigged, continuously lands on heads even as they approach they’re hundredth trial of the game, leaving Rosencrantz the very obvious victor. Both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are bewildered and regard the situation as absurd, questioning whether the probability of the coin landing on one side or another is predictable after all (Stoppard, 15). Viewing this situation through a lens crafted by Heisenberg’s writings, however, provides a more analyzed reason for why Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are experiencing this phenomenon.

On the same note, by using his own scientific example Heisenberg explains another situation in “The Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory” in which incorporating probability when assessing the possibility of an outcome can mislead an observer. He describes an experiment in which light quantum travels through two holes in a black screen while a photographic plate behind the screen registers the light, creating two different patterns on the plate behind depending on which hole the light passes through. Assuming both holes are open, the likelihood of the light passing through either is equal. Yet if the light passes through just one hole, it is as if only that one hole is open. He believes that probability theory is flawed in that nothing truly can ever have an equal chance of 50/50, nor can an exact probability be calculated, stating:

“What happens depends on our way of observing it or on that fact that we observe it […] this example shows clearly that the concept of the probability function does not allow a description of what happens between two observations. Any attempt to find such a description would lead to contradictions; this must mean that the term ‘happen’ is restricted to the observation. Now, this is a very strange result, since it seems to indicate that the observation plays a decisive role in the event and that the reality varies, depending on whether we observe it or not” (Heisenberg, 404-405).

What Rosencorantz and Guildenstern are experiencing in their coin game is similar to the experiment that Heisenberg has described to prove his point, an unpredictable probability despite the seemingly obvious “only two options” as they are unable to see all of the factors and what affects the coin between each flip. Viewing the game played between these two men while keeping Heisenberg’s theories in mind allows the reader to make sense of a seemingly absurd situation.

Furthermore, throughout the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern struggle intensely against their identities, or rather, lack of identities. Used as background characters throughout Hamlet, once placed in the foreground the lack of depth in the development of both becomes exceedingly obvious. Their interchangeability is seen in scenes as simple as Claudius mistakenly calling them by the wrong names, for example as he states “Welcome, dear Rosencrantz … (he raises a hand at GUIL while ROS bows – GUIL bows late and hurriedly) … and Guildenstern. He raises a hand at ROS while GUIL bows to him – ROS is still straightening up from his previous bow and halfway up he bows down again” (Stoppard, 35). This reoccurring situation leads to an important question, whether or not the failure of other characters to recognize Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as individuals is what results in their lack of depth, in an idea similar to the “if a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” notion. This idea is complicated by Heisenberg’s interpretation of what is perceived versus what really occurs as he states “The transition from the ‘actual’ to the ‘possible’ takes place during the act of observation. If we want to describe what happens in an atomic event, we have to realize that the word ‘happens’ can apply only to the observation, not to the state of affairs between two observations. It applies to the physical, not to the physical act of observation, and we may say that the transition from the ‘possible’ to the ‘actual’ takes place as soon as the interaction of the object with the measuring device, and thereby with the rest of the world, has come into play” (Heisenberg, 407). While Heisenberg argues that existence regardless of observation is possible, for example that one knows that the city of London exists whether or not they are there (Heisenberg, 407), when the probability function comes into play the idea of actuality becomes problematic due to the lack of ability by the viewer to determine all factors between two observations. Keeping this in mind while reading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead adds new levels to the reader’s understanding to the characters individuality and lack of identity.

It is thus useful to approach the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead through a lens crafted by Heisenberg’s ideas surrounding probability theory in relation to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s struggle to find sense in the world built around them as well as some amount of significance and certainty in their existence. While both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern work with these ideas throughout the play, they attribute much of their confusing to living in an “absurd” world. Applying Heisenberg’s theories gives the reader some scientific reasoning behind the events that both men experience.

Works Cited:

Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. New York: Grove Press, 1967. Print.

Heisenberg, Werner, “The Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory.” The World of Physics: The Einstein universe and the Bohr atom. Ed. Jefferson Hane Weaver, New York: Simon and Schuster, New York, 1987. 397-409. Print.

Resonance of Other Texts in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Starting from his early career as a journalist and dramatic critic up to his current career as playwright and Hollywood writer Tom Stoppard has long held a strong alliance with Shakespeare. Based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead draws heavily in several contemporary directions previously covered by Beckett, T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, to name a few. The product was not another Hamlet but rather a post-absurdist take on modern man’s metaphysical position.

Shakespeare’s story in Stoppard’s play remains only as a setting, the reader’s focus is mainly on Stoppard’s two creations that carry little resemblance to Shakespeare’s forerunning figures. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as dramatic characters are more identical to Beckett’s Gogo and Didi in the play Waiting for Godot than to Shakespeare’s original courtiers. Both the pairs are two lost souls waiting for something to happen. Though Stoppard is respectful of the contents and aesthetics of Shakespeare’s works, he is nonetheless no idolizer. Ruby Cohn in an essay correctly describes the play as: “Extremely skillful in dovetailing the Hamlet scenes into the Godot situation, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a witty commentary rather than a theatrical exploration into either great work”.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead highlights Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the most inconsequential characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Shakespeare’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are little more than plot device, ordered by King Claudius to look into Hamlet’s peculiar behavior at court and then ordered to accompany Hamlet to England and his execution after Hamlet kills Polonius by mistake. Hamlet escapes Claudius’s plan and plots instead the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are reported to be dead after Hamlet returns to Denmark.

Stoppard, in his treatment of Hamlet, also seems to be parodying the play. Not only Hamlet, but he also seems to be parodying Becket’s Waiting for Godot, whose lead pair Didi and Gogo play word games and ‘pass the time’, as mentioned in the play; waiting for Godot, who never arrives. Waiting for Godot begins on a country road that is noticeably unremarkable, so when Stoppard specifies in his opening stage directions that ‘two Elizabethans passing the time in a place without a visible character’ it is enough to call to the mind Waiting for Godot. Stoppard further includes another reference later in the play that is even less mistakable. Towards the end of Act II, when Hamlet is dragging Polonius’s body across the stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern unfasten their belts and hold them tight to form a trap for Hamlet. This plan fails as Hamlet avoids them, but the parodic comedy sparkles when Rosencrantz’s trousers fall down, recalling a similar scene from Waiting for Godot. At the beginning of the play, Rosencrantz is seen rejoicing the fact that 85 consecutive winning calls of heads has ‘beaten the record’, to which Guildenstern says ‘don’t be absurd’, which brings a clear allusion to Becket.

Like Didi and Gogo, one is weaker than the other in the pair of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern- the latter pair encounters the troupe of players, just like Didi and Godo meet Lucky and Pozzo. Becket’s couple hopes that Godot will turn up as promised. Stoppard’s pair remembers being ‘sent for’ in the dark of night by a messenger from court. The condition of all four resembles Sartre’s existential loner.

The play finds resonance in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest as well. Towards the beginning of Act II, Cecily discovers that Miss Prism has written a novel and the section follows-

“Cecily. Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.

Miss Prism. The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”

This is echoed in Act II of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead when the Player says- “The bad ended unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.”

Perhaps, this striking resemblance between the two plays has a deeper significance. Stoppard’s view in the play is that human life is predetermined because even though human beings do have choices in this life, they do not have enough knowledge to pick wisely. However, when they actually gain the knowledge, for instance when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern read the letter that orders their death, it arrives too late. Their fate has a shocking resemblance to that of Wilde himself, who wrote his famous play only a few months before his fortunes were shipwrecked and he landed himself in prison.

In Stoppard’s network of allusions, Shakespeare takes his place not only among the greatest artists of the past, but also Stoppard’s contemporaries. The diligence and originality of each new conception with which Stoppard reproduces Shakespeare makes his adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays different from the rest of the dramatists.