Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Free Will and Identity in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
The play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was written by Tom Stoppard in 1967, during a time when existentialism popular amongst many of the philosophically inclined. Existentialism mainly focuses on the need for humans to make rational choices that determine their own meaning in life, despite existing in an irrational universe. Stoppard takes the two minor characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and uses them the main protagonists of his play and to effectively tells their side of the story. This is a play about two characters who are challenged by philosophical topics such as identity, fate, and free will.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two friends who are uncertain of their identity and their purpose. Starting at the beginning of the play, where neither of them is able to recall where they are going or why, to their very last moments, in which they are bewildered by their deaths, neither character can understand the world around them. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feel unable to make any significant choices in their lives due to the constant confusion they find themselves in. A prominent issue pertains to neither character being able to remember their own name. They are constantly losing track of themselves and mixing up their own names, relating to Stoppard’s notion of personal identity. The journey of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern demonstrates the prominent role of chance in our lives, and how it leads to almost paralyzing confusion when it is coupled with the difficulty of discerning the desires and true intentions of others.
The classification and naming of others can create stereotypes and limit one’s ability to find their own identity. Within the play, both Rose and Guildenstern are unaware of what their actual names are. Names seem to give people identity, therefore making it difficult for both of them to truly know who they are. “I haven’t forgotten – how I used to remember my own name – and yours, oh, yes! There were answers everywhere you looked. There was no question about it – people knew who I was and if they didn’t they asked and I told them. Rosencrantz says this to Guildenstern to prove to him that he knows his own name when it is clear to the reader that he truly does not. Not knowing their names makes both of them confused and less confident in themselves. By having two characters that seem to flicker back and forth between identities, Stoppard questions the notion of identity at large. Other characters struggle to recognize individual identity and players cause confusion amongst themselves; Claudius and Hamlet confuse Rosencrantz and Guildenstern while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s conversation with the Player confuses Hamlet’s, Claudius’, and Polonius’ relationships to Ophelia. Stoppard humanizes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by filling them with a deep-seated universal desire: the need to find meaning. Although they are unable to achieve any redeeming purpose, the audience is able to sympathize with the characters as they waver between awareness and understanding – never truly redeeming the latter. Stoppard’s play also questions the specific identities of his characters and suggests that not only is the human self lowly and powerless, but it may not even be a ‘self.’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s identities prove extremely porous. They are constantly losing track of themselves and mix up their own names, even their own body parts, as Rosencrantz thinks Guildenstern’s leg is his in the dark at the beginning of Act Three. When being faced with the depictions of themselves in the Tragedians’ play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are interested but unable to recognize themselves. ‘Well, if it isn’t–! No, wait a minute, don’t tell me….I never forget a face…not that I know yours, that is,’ Rosencrantz tells the character representing him, then loses his grip of the situation. He then mistakes the character for himself by implying that the character has almost recognized Rosencrantz when it was actually Rosencrantz who had almost recognized the character: ‘For a moment I thought—no, I don’t know you, do? I? Yes, I’m afraid you’re quite wrong. You must have mistaken me for someone else,’ Rosencrantz says. One may view their names as an identity, which in both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s cases, would mean that they do not know their personal identities. I personally believe that a person’s name shouldn’t be something that holds a person back or controls them, it should be something that is used to represent the life a person makes for themselves. Therefore, I feel that neither Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were given the opportunity to find their own identities because they didn’t even know their own names.
After reading, I believe that Free will is an illusion in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Instead of being able to make their own choices, they are presented with limited alternatives. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the two characters are not given distinct identities. Stoppard continues with this confusion in his play and when Rosencrantz becomes frustrated about never knowing for sure whether his name is Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, Guildenstern replies, ‘We are comparatively fortunate; we might have been left to sift the whole field of human nomenclature, like two blind men looting a bazaar for their own portraits…At least we are presented with alternatives.’ It is made obvious that their freedom has significant limits by Guildenstern’s reaction to their situation. This play reveals that Hamlet’s passivity of death is, in fact, everyone’s fate. Every individual might as well fail to act since his or her efforts seem to be overridden by a more powerful motion: the trajectory of life towards death. Guildenstern describes this trajectory in terms of being on a boat: ‘We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current…” Act 3. Guildenstern ponders where things went wrong after realizing he and Rosencrantz have been marked for death. He concludes that the boat, which he thought was a symbol of freedom, was a symbol of deception. While one is free to move around on the boat, the boat’s destination is predetermined and therefore, beyond anyone’s control. In this scene, Guildenstern resolves the play’s discussion of free will and predestination by suggesting that human beings are both free to act and compelled by forces beyond their control.
The story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern causes a reader to question many philosophical questions in life. The characters themselves are struggling with topics such as free will and identity, causing the audience to question the same topics. I personally felt that I have struggled with my identity throughout my life, trying to figure out what it was that defined me. In order to discover my identity, I have decided to use the name I was given at birth as a starting point towards discovering what I truly want my life to encapsulate. The statement that Guildenstern makes to Rosencrantz in act two, “You seem to have no conception of where we stand” can relate to many people’s confusion of their own self.
It also calls back to the idea of direction, while also articulating the bigger problem; that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don’t understand the motives and forces that are at work around them. Life to some may seem like it has no direction, but I believe that both free will and identity allow one to create a path and life for oneself.
Questioning the Identity and Purpose in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the predominant characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, are defined unceasingly by questioning their identity, environment, and what their believed purpose is. This astounding piece of literary work written by Tom Stoppard shows the trek that the two characters (originally from Hamlet written by the well known English poet, William Shakespeare) make to Denmark in hopes to help Hamlet. What is the purpose of their journey though? In moving to Denmark Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come to the realization that their physical journey is not solely about the tangible movement. Rather it represents the idea how everything will eventually come to an end including both life and time, so if everything is predetermined what is the purpose?
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern incessantly question their purpose in life which eventually leads to several conclusions that have no significance towards their purpose. The old friends of Hamlet are often described as opposites of each other, Rosencrantz is viewed as immature, irresponsible, goofy, and comical while Guildenstern is solemn, inquisitive, and mature. We notice from the very beginning that several conversations they have are repetitive because Rosencrantz merely answers Guildenstern’s thought provoking questions with a statement or another question. From the gecko Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are flipping a coin and they make a bet each time. By surprise Rosencrantz consistently wins by choosing heads ninety-three times in a row. Guildenstern is extremely confused and skeptical about the entire situation. Due to the law of probability which is defined by Merriam Webster as the measurable likeness of something occurring Guildenstern is unable to accept the idea that this is occurring by chance while Rosencrantz has no issue with the situation. Essentially they transform a silly coin toss into something with philosophical meaning. From this coin toss they begin to believe that it is futile because in the end there will have been no purpose for anything if everything is predetermined.
Unremittingly in a confused state of mind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have queries about their purpose. The two at the castle in Elsinore begin to forget why they had come there in the first place besides the fact they were sent for. The cloudiness in their memory causes them to go in a state of mind where reality is absurd. In search of answers only more questions arise. Prior to interacting with Hamlet they try to play a game to determine what is happening remove and subsequent to speaking with the Prince he outsmarts the two fools. This drawls back to their original question why are they even there? Perpetually we notice other characters have difficulty differentiating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern even reaching the point where they are so disoriented they confuse their own names. Their journey continues onward and the question of their existence and inescapable fate is still being asked
Additionally, when the tragedians perform the famous tragedy Hamlet which unveils their fate they remain oblivious and confused. Despite recognizing that two actors act similarly to them they are unable to connect the dots that in all reality it’s them in the play. Unable to recognize the significance of the play they continue to feel detached from their lives. From the perspective of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern they have predicted the future so precisely including the downfall of the royal family, the death of themselves, and the fate of several other protagonists. It is not until the moment that they are about to face death by being hung that they accept that death is inevitable. Although as human beings we cannot completely blame them in being unaware that death is bound to occur because we have all had that moment of realization, and all we can do at that point is to accept it. Regardless of how long it took them their apprehension of fate they develop as individual characters.
Nevertheless, all the events that occured based on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s choices lead them to the same exact end result that they were going to reach eventually. At first they were heading to Denmark for Hamlet and along the way their desire to find out who they are and what their purpose is overtakes the plot of the piece. Readers long for the duo to comprehend that death is inevitable and it takes all the experiences in between for them to reach that conclusion. The physical journey ultimately represents how humankind struggle with rationalizing that we are all born to die at some point, and having an ending that is so obscure makes it difficult for people to accept reality and continue living their life to the fullest or until it is too late.
Exploring the Absurdity in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of the most frequently performed plays of modern theater as it is the ingenious tale of supple Rosencrantz and witty Guildenstern, childhood friends of young Hamlet. In Tom Stoppard’s expansion on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is noted as a “well-known, dark, funny, hysterical, and odd play” (1). This spinoff from Hamlet’s classical tragedy is categorized in the theatre of the absurd where the randomness of human nature is defined through the use of meaningless dialogue often repeated multiple times with lack of a structured plot and meaningful character interactions. The three act play centers on humor as well as living in a world that is beyond absolute comprehension. The act of flipping the coins helps to advance the plot but also gives the author an opportunity to discuss humanities inability to comprehend the world and its choices, as shown through the direct characterization of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are initially described as “two Elizabethans” (11) wearing “hats, clocks, sticks, and all” (11) as they are to be viewed as nothing but ordinary. However, both are carrying money bags but Rosencrantz has one “nearly full” (11) while Guildenstern has a “nearly empty” (11) bag. The character of these two friends is immediately established as Guildenstern is seen as a pessimist and Rosencrantz an optimist, laying the framework for the superiority complex between Ros and Guil.
The play opens with the bemusing dialogue and exertion of flipping the coins between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Ros repeatedly utters,“heads” (12) while Guil simultaneously flips multiple coins and studies them closely. The different responses to the results of the coin toss mirror the disparate personalities of the Elizabethan men throughout the commencing scene of the play. While Ros casually flips the coin without questioning the reappearance of “heads,” (12) Guil broods over the philosophical possibilities of entering an alternate universe as it’s “not the first time” (14) having spun coins. Rosencrantz is clearly addled through the probability of the coin flip while Guildenstern centralizes the absurdist possibilities in an attempt to understand the phenomena rather than be confronted with an existential crisis. This encounter between Ros and Guil reflects existentialist values and seems to suggest that everything is planned out for humanity as choices remain hypothetical. However, although probability plays a key role in the coin flip, Stoppard suggests the opportunity for chance which consequentially defies humanities predefined choices.
The “eighty-five times” (14) flipping the coin throughout Act I highlights the capriciousness variability of the world. While Ros derides the law of probability by accurately guessing heads consistently, Guil searches for a logical explanation through varying degrees of syllogisms. Guildenstern explains “if we postulate, and we just have, that within supernatural forces the probability is that the law will not operate as a factor” (17). The exchange between the two Elizabethan men further illustrates the imperfection of reasoning and absurdity of basing decisions on theoretical probability. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a absurdist comment on the mystifying role of chance in everyday lives of twentieth century society.
The theatre of the absurd is commonly referenced when referring to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as the conversation between the two men focuses on the void of meaning. Stoppard incorporates stage directions throughout the entirety of the play in order to exhibit the separate identity existences of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Offstage, Ros and Guil are wrestling with finding purposeful meaning in life by sitting “despondently” (15) and “irritatedly” (18) chattering. Onstage, their existence is rooted into who they are role playing and offstage Ros and Guil cannot wrap their minds around their responsibility in the universe and often feel a sense of “embarrassment” (22).
Later in the play, Guil notes that he and Ros have been “spinning coins together for as long as can be remembered” (15). Here, it becomes obvious that Ros and Guil have been friends for a prolonged period of time, but could actually show that the two extreme personalities of the men complement one another, defying social expectations of absurdist communication barriers. Although the coins land in a particular manner which may catch the eye as one-sided, the coins are two-sided, adding to the complexity of opposites seen throughout the play. Guildenstern’s analytical pessimistic attitude and Rosencrantz’s practical effervescence towards language provides both wistful and language, which is a source of both pleasing droll and distressing uncertainty. Viewing the world as a site of opposites represents the world which is consumed by societies values and is solely dominated by chance. According to the laws of probability the coins should have an equal chance of landing heads or tails when flipped, buy Stoppard suggests that this simplistic mechanism fails to consider the absolute eccentricity of the world.
Existentialists claim that choice remains meaningless because humanity exists in a fabric in which everything is done for them. While Rosencrantz is “receiving” (15) and “spinning” (15) coins he is counting the impossible and becomes immersed with this decision as he hasn’t ever seen a thing like the obscurity of coin patterns. Although he is profiting from this “game” (12) Stoppard classifies him as being so embarrassed that he “forgot the question” (16). The actions of Ross suggests that his embarrassment is a direct result of his failure to take time to understand the mechanism behind the coin flip and Stoppard addresses this learning experience for humanity as a whole who continuously fails to take time and see why and how individuals benefit from experiences. On the other hand, Guil eases himself into the process and tries to understand, yet although his explanations border on absurd, putting words to the phenomena allows him to justify his actions in attempt to avoid a crisis questioning life’s meaning.
Through Stoppard’s characterization of Rosencrantz’s constant bewilderment and Guildenstern’s intellectual curiosity, the two serve as a model for existentialist philosophy. By presenting two characters who represent the both sides of existentialism, Stoppard fulfills his goal in writing a “verbally dazzling” (1) novel where two minor characters in Hamlet are able to shine through in a world full of choices. The inevitability of the coins landing on heads charts humanities struggle to dwell in a random universe where frustration enhances the absurdity of the situation explained in the modern dramatic masterpiece, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Death and Destiny in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Given the title of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead the reader will know that the principal characters are destined to die; it’s just a matter of time as to when the two will meet their inevitable end. There is no chance of the two changing their fate. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern show little to no interest in the circumstances they are put into and move from scene to scene without much choice nor question into their literal roles in Stoppard’s play. Their passive approach to their lives reflects the difficulty in making decisions in a complex world. Unfortunately, their decisions in continuing onward and solely relying on spoken and written words concerning their circumstances seal their fate. In the end, Guildenstern ponders over a moment where the two of them could have chosen not to continue with their mission. His doing this is an attempt to change his predetermined fate. Meanwhile, Rosencrantz accepts it. The result would be him exerting some control during his final moments by no longer questioning death given how he has thought more to reflect upon concept of death.
Throughout the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discuss their individual views of death; an “eternity” of “silence and some second-hand clothes”, “destiny”, or the “absence” of thought and memory (Stoppard 72, 97, 123). As a rationalist, Guildenstern aims to analyze his life, a life he can’t remember all too well and lived passively in drifting from one occurrence to another. Guildenstern wants to desperately understand their situation, and tries to reason his way through incidents troubling him. Guildenstern’s beliefs of rational explanations for their predicaments lead him to frustration when the subject of death and dying come into play.
Being confronted with his morality only makes Guildenstern attempt to further disassociate himself with something everyone is subject to. The irony is Guildenstern thinking nothing of dying—simply shrugging it off—until he’s confronted with his own fate. He knows that his death is, in his own words, “failing to reappear, that’s all.” His desire to not be killed causes him to reflect and wonder if there was a moment in the play where he could have made a different choice—saying no, turning away, or knowing what he was sent to do before accepting the task—or if he had done something wrong in the past to deserve to die. His realization that he and Rosencrantz are about to die without him having understood anything leads Guildenstern to attack the Player in a fit of fury and hopelessness. (Stoppard 84, 125). Guildenstern’s logical and methodical approach toward morality differs significantly with Rosencrantz’s ideals.
Rosencrantz is pragmatic and seeks simple, efficient solutions to problems rather than philosophical explanations of them—a trait leading Guildenstern to assume his friend is complacent and unwilling or unable to think deeply. Out the two, Rosencrantz is the most open about talking about death. Rather than viewing death as an absolute fact, he views it as more of a universal experience. He states how it’s “silly” to fear morality considering how in death, one doesn’t “truly know” if they’re asleep in a coffin or dead, but when you’re dead, it’s “the end” for the person in question (Stoppard 70, 71). Though Rosencrantz’s views about dying come across as simplistic, it’s these beliefs that cause him to accept his morality and be at ease when he and Guildenstern are put to death.
Like his friend, he went about life one day to the next without memory and relying on the word of others to know what he and his friends were sent for and what will become of them. Saddened with having no recent memories and no longer having a carefree and artless façade masking a deep dread about his fate, he is the one who welcomes death. According to Rosencrantz, he is “relieved” and “tired” of being confused by the happenings around him and his friend’s reactions to not solving their situation (Stoppard 125). On the surface, Rosencrantz may not be philosophical like Guildenstern, but he is nevertheless capable of perceptive and complex thought.
Stoppard’s play might ultimately suggest that the blatant role of chance in our lives, coupled with the difficulty of discerning true intentions and desires of other people, leads to virtually paralyzing confusion. Although the experience of trying to piece together instances in life, which could have changed for the better, may be amusing when it happens to others, in the end it is one of the most dreadful aspects of existence. Not having control in life is a scary thing. Events either happen as a result of destiny or luck of the draw. Continuing a path merely for the reason of it being laid out for you exposes the lack of control one would have; what happens next is chance and there is no going back from it. You could leave out of free will, but whatever occurrence happens next is out of your control. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s choice in not questioning their roles in life leads them to death. Stoppard reveals the danger of their passiveness by giving the two the chance to make a very meaningful choice, but it doesn’t cause them to escape their fixed fate.
The Importance of Setting in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Effect of setting on play in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which features minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is a play that consists of a very loose plot line as well an almost nonexistent setting. The two main characters, aliased Ros and Guil, wander around throughout most of the play and end up on a boat that leads them to England. This particular mention of setting, seen in the third act, gives an effect on the overall play by outlining the philosophical meaning behind it.
The beginning of the third act starts with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern waking up in a pitched darkness, not knowing where they are. After some dialogue and confusion, the audience is the first one to understand the characters’ surrounding, which was identified through “ship timbers, wind in the rigging, and then shouts of sailors” (98). Only after the sailors are heard that Rosencrantz understands that they are on a boat. This unknowingness of their surroundings emphasizes the dramatic irony in the act as the audience is aware of the situation well before the characters are. Ros and Guil, throughout the entire play, do not seem to be fully aware of what is going in their lives; in the second act, they both try to find out where they are by licking their toes and putting it up in order to identify the wind’s direction. These foolish acts, in addition to the oblivion of their location, outlines a whole philosophical meaning to the play, which demonstrates the way people are incapable of knowing at all times what is going on in their lives and can not always rely on a natural force, as the wind in the play, to lead them somewhere. In addition to their oblivion and incompetence of being able to live for themselves, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s dependence of a new and more powerful force is seen in the third act. The two protagonists are in a pitch black darkness for a couple of pages in the play, and still not completely aware of their whereabouts. Them sitting in the darkness symbolizes the literal and metaphorical way they are ‘in the dark’; being completely clueless and unaware, just as they are in the play overall. The only way Ros and Guil were fully aware of their surroundings was when Hamlet appeared as the stage “lightens disproportionately” (99). Hamlet lighting the stage, despite it being disproportional, emphasizes the idea that Ros and Guil are unable to do things and lead their way in life by themselves due to their dependence on another force or being. The idea of being completely dependent on an individual is also seen during Guil’s monologue as he describes his comfort in knowing that someone is sailing the boat he is on, despite not knowing where he is going. This goes hand in hand with the philosophical idea of religion, and how individuals can not see who controls their lives – who is God – the exact same way that Guil can not see the captain of the boat but still trusts him with his life.
Overall, there is a general lack of setting description in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but the setting provided gives insight to philosophical ideas that are seen in the play as a whole such as the full dependence on a force or being without being able to control one’s own life.
How Identity is Deconstructed and Lost
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.
An Interpretation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s Absurdity with Warner Heisenberg’s Theories
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.
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.
Shakespeare and Stoppard: Metatheatrical Line Between Being a Character and Being an Actor
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.
Shakespeare, 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.
The Deaths of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. What Was That For?
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.
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.
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.