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.
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