Resonance of Other Texts in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Starting from his early career as a journalist and dramatic critic up to his current career as playwright and Hollywood writer Tom Stoppard has long held a strong alliance with Shakespeare. Based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead draws heavily in several contemporary directions previously covered by Beckett, T.S. Eliot, Oscar Wilde, to name a few. The product was not another Hamlet but rather a post-absurdist take on modern man’s metaphysical position.
Shakespeare’s story in Stoppard’s play remains only as a setting, the reader’s focus is mainly on Stoppard’s two creations that carry little resemblance to Shakespeare’s forerunning figures. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as dramatic characters are more identical to Beckett’s Gogo and Didi in the play Waiting for Godot than to Shakespeare’s original courtiers. Both the pairs are two lost souls waiting for something to happen. Though Stoppard is respectful of the contents and aesthetics of Shakespeare’s works, he is nonetheless no idolizer. Ruby Cohn in an essay correctly describes the play as: “Extremely skillful in dovetailing the Hamlet scenes into the Godot situation, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a witty commentary rather than a theatrical exploration into either great work”.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead highlights Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the most inconsequential characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Shakespeare’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are little more than plot device, ordered by King Claudius to look into Hamlet’s peculiar behavior at court and then ordered to accompany Hamlet to England and his execution after Hamlet kills Polonius by mistake. Hamlet escapes Claudius’s plan and plots instead the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are reported to be dead after Hamlet returns to Denmark.
Stoppard, in his treatment of Hamlet, also seems to be parodying the play. Not only Hamlet, but he also seems to be parodying Becket’s Waiting for Godot, whose lead pair Didi and Gogo play word games and ‘pass the time’, as mentioned in the play; waiting for Godot, who never arrives. Waiting for Godot begins on a country road that is noticeably unremarkable, so when Stoppard specifies in his opening stage directions that ‘two Elizabethans passing the time in a place without a visible character’ it is enough to call to the mind Waiting for Godot. Stoppard further includes another reference later in the play that is even less mistakable. Towards the end of Act II, when Hamlet is dragging Polonius’s body across the stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern unfasten their belts and hold them tight to form a trap for Hamlet. This plan fails as Hamlet avoids them, but the parodic comedy sparkles when Rosencrantz’s trousers fall down, recalling a similar scene from Waiting for Godot. At the beginning of the play, Rosencrantz is seen rejoicing the fact that 85 consecutive winning calls of heads has ‘beaten the record’, to which Guildenstern says ‘don’t be absurd’, which brings a clear allusion to Becket.
Like Didi and Gogo, one is weaker than the other in the pair of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern- the latter pair encounters the troupe of players, just like Didi and Godo meet Lucky and Pozzo. Becket’s couple hopes that Godot will turn up as promised. Stoppard’s pair remembers being ‘sent for’ in the dark of night by a messenger from court. The condition of all four resembles Sartre’s existential loner.
The play finds resonance in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest as well. Towards the beginning of Act II, Cecily discovers that Miss Prism has written a novel and the section follows-
“Cecily. Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.
Miss Prism. The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”
This is echoed in Act II of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead when the Player says- “The bad ended unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.”
Perhaps, this striking resemblance between the two plays has a deeper significance. Stoppard’s view in the play is that human life is predetermined because even though human beings do have choices in this life, they do not have enough knowledge to pick wisely. However, when they actually gain the knowledge, for instance when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern read the letter that orders their death, it arrives too late. Their fate has a shocking resemblance to that of Wilde himself, who wrote his famous play only a few months before his fortunes were shipwrecked and he landed himself in prison.
In Stoppard’s network of allusions, Shakespeare takes his place not only among the greatest artists of the past, but also Stoppard’s contemporaries. The diligence and originality of each new conception with which Stoppard reproduces Shakespeare makes his adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays different from the rest of the dramatists.
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Starting from his early career as a journalist and dramatic critic up to his current career as playwright and Hollywood writer Tom Stoppard has long held a strong alliance with […]