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.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: a Close Look on Final Moments
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s Final Moments
The final scene of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead provides a compilation of the themes present throughout the entire play. The act begins with the usual foolish banter between the comedic duo, and ends with the announcement of their deaths. Even in their final moments, the pair struggles to identify who they are and their purpose, and questions whether a choice to avoid their fate ever presented itself. As the players appear, art once again blurs and fights with reality, as the duo believes art can never convey true emotions or death. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern express their fear to die, despite constantly discussing it throughout the play prior. The denouement of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead serves as a final addressment to each of the overarching themes presented in Stoppard’s work.
The scene opens in complete darkness until, after several lines, a light is shed upon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s situation, revealing a boat. The boat represents their fate, and the inability to change the direction of the boat demonstrating how the pair lack freewill and merely drift along with the tide, making no effort to defy their predetermined demise. Guildenstern demonstrates an understanding of this through his lack of motivation to do anything, and his admiration for the boat shows an acceptance of fate, “…You don’t have to worry about which way to go, or whether to go at all-the question doesn’t arise…” (100). As the duo realizes their impending doom, they become panicked and begin to question whether they ever had a choice, “…there must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said-no” (125). As seen throughout the entire play, the question as to whether Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have a choice in their actions or freewill is but an illusion is addressed, with the prior confirmed through their unwilling disappearance.
As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern question their actions and inability to escape their fate, the initial identity confusion present throughout the play develops until any differentiation between the characters is lost, “Ros: We are Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. Guil: Which is which? Ros: Well, I’m-You’re-“ (121). Even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves lose their sense of identity, after realizing their inescapable fate and concluding that nothing holds meaning. Upon seeing their anguish and confusion, the player tries to comfort them by stating who they are, but they refuse to accept their minor roles, and wish to understand. Their identities fluidly exist, where whatever distinguishable traits that previously existed dissipate. As the pair nears death, they lose their grip on reality and begin to lose themselves.
The final introduction of the tragedians into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s reality allows the combination of the themes of mortality and art. Guildenstern accuses the players of lacking the experience and emotional depth to truly portray death, “Even as you die you know that you will come back in a different hat” (123). Although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern believe their death to be a neutral zone of which they will never escape, at the final moments, the line between reality and art blends, and Guildenstern portrays a knowledge of being a character in a play that may constantly replay itself. The fear of death previously exhibited by the characters vanishes, and the characters finally accept death and their role in the play.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s acceptance of death and acknowledgment of the play itself, connects each of the themes developed throughout the play. The characters recognize their inevitable predetermined destinies and no choice or action of theirs holds meaning or can change the outcome. This acknowledgement causes the duo to question why this occurs, and eventually accept their identities as characters in a play, blurring the line between art and reality. The achieved enlightenment ends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s panic and confusion over death, allowing them to accept their fate and realize that as long as the performances of the play continue, they will never truly die, only exist in a negative zone until revived to replay the events. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s last appearance in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead epitomizes the overarching themes of the play and resolves many questions presented prior to the final act.
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.
Pinter and Stoppard: Conflict Between Reality and Illusion
The contrast between illusion and fact functions as the central focus of countless texts in the canon of English literature. The subject occupies a prominent position in a diverse array of genres and forms, among which is that of the modern drama. Old Times and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, two classics of late twentieth-century British theater, exemplify the predominance of the conflict between truth and artifice as a topic on the contemporary stage and illuminate the thematic significance of such a subject in relation to prevailing literary thought and more universal statements on the nature of existence and the human condition.
The nature of reality is the ultimate concern of Old Times, the script of which is as understatedly menacing as enigmatic as any form the Pinter oeuvre. The piece eludes simple summarization to such an extent that the author himself, when prompted to describe the plot, offered a mere five words in reply: “. . . it happens. It all happens.” In a somewhat more thorough elucidation, the playwright commented on the cryptic and frequent silences that mark Old Times as a product of the Pinter pen, stating that halts in conversation result because “something has happened to create the impossibility of anyone speaking for a certain amount of time.” The pauses are not superfluous, but arise from the tension that resides below the surface of the lines. In much the same way that meaning is contained in what the characters do not say, import is attached to what they do. Critic Sidney Hoffman notes that, linguistically, the work “is alternately simplistic (to the level of being banal) and tortured,” and, “while it has a double purpose, [it] still points toward . . . comprehension.” Old Times is a study of battling couples (in both the metaphorical and literal sense), and it is the juxtaposition of opposites that simultaneously propels the action and creates ambiguity. In the most superficial respect, a synopsis would indicate that very little takes place: spouses living in a remote converted farmhouse receive a visitor, the old friend of the wife, at which point the interaction among the trio prompts recollections of years gone by. However, the parlance is bizarre and unnerving, rife with confessions and allusions, suggesting an abundance of concealed inter- and intrapersonal wars. Homan writes, “a majority of the critics, sometimes affirmatively, sometimes negatively, found that the “real” play was below the surface. . . “between the lines.” A number of interpretations offered by scholars “stress the act of interpretation itself. Each of the characters is a “perceiver who distorts,” and, fashioning a world through a private language, “straining further from reality,” resembles an artist engaged in the “process of creation.” Two modes of perception and, hence, creation may be in operation: what we see of others and what we insist others see of us.” This is, to a certain extent, confirmed by Pinter’s remark of, “It is all happening.” The interview between Deeley, Kate, and Anna takes place, and that is all; there is nothing more. “What we see is what we see.” This straightforward approach to Old Times directly relates to the soundlessness that pervades Pinter’s body of work. For him, “When true silence falls, we are still left with echo but are near nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover over nakedness.” By manipulating language to their advantage, Anna and Deeley, viewed by Elin Diamond as “dazzling word performers,” can fashion their past and present states of being according to personal preference; they see circumstance and actuality as “matters of linguistics choice.” Yet the fragility of this tailored history becomes evident when it “is Kate’s narrative, her final speech, that demolishes everything her rivals have tried to establish by verbal fiat. Language here is a double-edged sword that, at length, wounds the players themselves, betraying them because it is “endlessly and hopelessly significant.”” Words are tools by which it is possible to usher a reinvented past into the now, and thus to alter the present condition of things from what they are to what they, in the minds of Deeley and Anna, should be. Of the real world, “only Kate can live there.” The finale further highlights the conflict of pretense and fact as the characters engage in a concluding mime that will, both within and outside of the play’s events, cap the performance. After both Anna and Deeley have made unsuccessful attempts to exit the stage, the threesome sits in shadow until a flash of light interrupts the dimness. The sudden brilliance shows Anna lying on the divan, Deeley collapsed in his armchair, and Kate sitting on the sofa in the midst of the desolation. According to one school of thought, the light, “like a photograph in our memories,” underlines how the “verbal creativity” at the forefront of the majority of the play has degenerated into silence. The disconcerting quiet that engulfs the scene reminds the audience that the rivalry between the husband and the friend has precluded the potential for “further opportunities for verbal recreation.” The architecture of illusion, which Anna and Deeley have skillfully produced from “linguistic choice”, has prompted a disastrous end. Only Kate, who has refrained from direct participation in the contest at hand, remains serenely unaffected: “it is Kate alone who sits upright, who does not leave her place on the divan, and who, unlike her husband and her friend, feels not need to try to escape. One observer argues that to be motionless in a mime is to win.” Kate’s refusal to improvise a past has afforded her a peacefulness that differs sharply from “Deeley slumped, sobbing, humiliated in the chair.” And indeed, “several scholars have found in the mime an address to the audience. Forced to look at the stage in bright light, we are “halted to see how we too lead our lives,” and how there is no victory “for these half-concealed, half-revealed characters” who reflect an image of the spectator.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead devotes even more attention to the examination of artifice and actuality. The very framework of Stoppard’s revision of Hamlet underscores the divergent pull of this antithetical pairing, as the playwright inserts numerous excerpts from the Bard’s original into his modern variation. When observing the episodes from Shakespeare’s tragedy, the eponymous noblemen inhabit the role of the onlooker. The twosome often makes comments regarding their resemblance to a traditional audience. “I feel like a spectator,” Rosencrantz remarks in the first act. This self-consciousness is also discernible in such instances, as when Guildenstern, addressing the pathetic Alfred, employs the phrase, conventionally associated with directors, “We’ll let you know.” Ros and Guil, as they are called in the text, are effectively extensions of the theater-going public witnessing Stoppard’s drama. Many of the speeches specifically address the audience, as when Ros shouts “Fire!”, and then continues by saying, of the viewers, “They should burn to death in their shoes.” The author contrasts the “realistic” duo with the fabricated personages of Hamlet. As Richard Corballis points out, it is important that the elimination of the famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy “robs Hamlet of another chance to communicate directly with his audience,” and thus heightens the sense of artificiality that is imparted upon the Elsinore of Shakespearean invention. In much the same way, the Tragedians seem, at least initially, to occupy a place in the “genuine” realm of existence: “They get involved in the absurd coin-spinning, complain that they have no control, and join the empty speculation about chance and fate.” However, as the Player himself declares, he is “Always in character,” not so much a real person as a fashioned self. The troupe is in fact representative of something quite contrary to Ros and Guil. The relationship between the thespians and the abstracts of reality and illusion becomes evident when the Player declares, “We’re actors- we’re the opposite of people!” As Corballis notes, a crucial moment in the play comes when Guildenstern, stating, “But we don’t know what’s going on, or what to do with ourselves. We don’t know how to act,” is met with the response from the Player, “Act natural. . .” Thus, though it may have at first appeared that the Tragedians were out of place within Stoppard’s landscape, it quickly becomes clear that it is actually “real” people like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are out of their element in the constructed mirage of the stage. This idea is further realized when the Player states, “There’s a design at work in all art . . . we aim at the point where everyone who is marked for death dies. . . It is written. . . We follow directions- there is no choice involved. The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.” This world, therefore, “unlike the ‘real’ world of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, has form and meaning, and death is an accepted part of its design.” Amidst the uncertainty of the reality in which Stoppard’s viewers languish, however, there is no such simple choreography. The Tragedians emphasize the isolation that defines the plight of Ros and Guil, and thus the plight of humanity in general. In contrast to the predetermined organization of the theater, there are no guarantees in the brutal puzzle of the mortal condition.
Both Old Times and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead illuminate a variety of aspects of the conflict, ever present in countless works of twentieth-century literature, between illusion and actuality. The plays underscore the relativity of the nature of existence, and also offer testimony to the prevailing philosophies of modern English writing, illustrating popular approaches to the motifs of life, death, and the meaning of each.