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.
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