Sisyphus on Stage: The Fate of Characters from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were two students at Wittenberg in the 16th century.[1] Students of the same school and of the same names are also minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the main characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. The characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead suffer the same fate as Sisyphus, a character from Greek mythology. The titular characters of the play are the clearest examples, since they are the main focus of the text. Their particular roles are first made clear in The Coin Toss opening. From that point until the very end, the protagonists are trying to reach freedom and failing constantly, which is apparent every time they compete against each other. Their attempts are definitively broken in Act three on the boat. Finally, the ending shows how close Rosencrantz and Guildenstern actually are to the mythical Sisyphus – consigned, like this character, to repeat patterns of action that raise pointed questions about fate and rationality.

It might be best to start with an introduction of the mythological character of Sisyphus. According to Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a king and founder of the polis of Corinth. He was a murderer responsible for betraying Zeus himself and imprisoning Thanatos, God of Death. He committed his biggest crime after his death however, when he used trickery to get out of Hades and refused to come back, trying to avoid death even after it already took place. In the end, his efforts to escape his fate lead nowhere, as he was brought back to Hades by Hermes, the messenger of Gods. Yet he is not remembered for these feats. As Marcel Sarot puts it, “Sisyphus’s name lives on for his punishment rather than for any of his other feats.”[2] Sisyphus was sentenced to push a huge boulder up the hill without ever succeeding, because it always rolls down just before reaching the top. This can be seen as a visualization of his struggle to escape fate. Escaping fate is something, that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are trying to do since the very first scene of their story. As the play starts, the audience finds the titular characters flipping coins to kill some time. The coin always land heads up. Here their roles in relation to each other become apparent. Every time the coin lands, Rosencrantz is the winner and Guildenstern is the loser. Neither seems really comfortable with their role. The streak of Guildenstern’s bad luck is so unusual, that he thinks about it being a punishment for his past sins: “Inside where nothing shows, I’m the essence of a man spinning double-headed coins, and betting against himself in private atonement for an unremembered past.”[3] Just like Sisyphus continues pushing his boulder up the mountain just for it to fall, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue flipping coins in hope of finally changing the outcome just for the coin to land heads up. This isn’t the only game they play however. It also isn’t the only one with this result.

After being given the task of finding out what is the cause of Hamlet’s madness, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have more questions than answers. Therefore, they decide to play a game of questions. Here are the rules explained by Helen Keyssar-Franke: “The rule of the game is that every question must be responded to with another real question; no rhetorical questions or non-sequiturs are permitted. One loses when one answers a question.”[4] The scoring is the same as in tennis. Guildenstern cheats to steal the first set for himself. What follows is a witty dialogue, which escalates, when Rosencrantz has a game point and Guildenstern loses his temper and angrily asks a rhetorical question: “WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?”[5] Even though he tried everything, even cheating, he just couldn’t break out of his role and once again ended up being the loser. Rosencrantz might be winning against his friend, but when it comes to understanding the world around them, he is just as helpless as Guildenstern is. When the two titular characters return to the mystery of Hamlet’s madness, they are helpless. They try roleplaying during which Guildenstern pretends to be Hamlet, while Rosencrantz asks him questions. They sum up the entire set up of Hamlet in the process. Yet, when Rosencrantz asks him in the end of this dialogue “Now, why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?” Guildenstern answers: “I can’t imagine,”[6] even though the plot must be obvious to every single member of the audience. Then why do these two students of the best university in Europe not understand? Simply because it’s not their role to understand. Their confusion is their boulder in a way. Their confusion and helplessness are on display in Act II, along with the newly introduced desire for freedom. During the whole Act two, the protagonists talk about wanting to escape the prison of Elsinore and events around them, which are beyond their control. The only scenes, when it seems to be possible, are those with The Player and his Tragedians. Those scenes are not controlled by the events of Hamlet, therefore Rosencrantz and Guildenstern create these encounters independently on the events of Shakespeare’s play. As Keyssar-Franke puts it: “The central characters seem to move easily in and out of Hamlet; there is no reason not to think that they cannot continue to do so.”[7] These are their rare moments of hope. It’s their equivalent of Sisyphus’ brief escape from Hades back to life. Then Act three comes around and all hopes of reaching freedom are gone. Nothing more than the setting of it is needed to realize, that they can’t escape their fate, just like Sisyphus can’t escape his boulder.

Act three takes place on a ship, which is supposed to take Hamlet to England. There is no escaping the script of Hamlet now. They don’t see it that way however. Guildenstern even says that “one is free on a boat.”[8] Rosencrantz is a bit more sceptical and wants to break free from the story, but doesn’t know, whether it’s staying on board or jumping over the side that would make him free. They are trapped on a ship, which is taking them to their final destination. Just like Sisyphus can go only up the mountain, they can only sail to England. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern still retain hope in the possibility of freedom however. The dialogue between the titular characters on the boat seems slightly chaotic. Both of them keep turning from a feeling of hope to a feeling of despair and back again. At one point, Rosencrantz even stops believing in the existence England. Their situation is best summed up with this quote by Guildenstern: “We may seize the moment, a short dash here, an exploration there, but we are brought full circle to face again the single immutable fact – that we, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, bearing a letter from one king to another, are taking Hamlet to England”[9] Sisyphus had his hopes for escaping death, when he chained it to a wall. It’s understandable that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would have them too. They are, however, slowly but surely approaching the end of their hopes. After reuniting with The Player and his Tragedians and being attacked by pirates, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern read the letter forged by Hamlet. In it they learn of them being sentenced to death. They wonder why would they be so important, that their execution would be ordered by one king and done by another. Once again, they have more questions than answers. In the confusion, Rosencrantz realizes something, when he says: “They had it in for us, didn’t they? Right from the beginning.”[10] Rosencrantz is right, that they were destined for this outcome since the very beginning just like Sisyphus’ boulder is destined to roll down the mountain even before he starts pushing it up. Yet he doesn’t stop trying just like Guildenstern still tries break free from his role in the plot.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had been having conversations about death with The Player multiple times, but at this point, they are no longer talking about an abstract concept, but about their very own and impending end. Guildenstern loses his temper and stabs The Player with his own dagger. After a short moment of shock, the apparent murderer says: “If we have a destiny, then so had he – and if this is ours, then that was his.” The Player stands up however and explains, that the dagger was fake. Margarete Holubetz calls this “an absurd proof of the existence of destiny.”[11] Guildenstern couldn’t kill a character, that wasn’t marked for death. He can’t do anything else than what the script of Hamlet allows him to do. The hunt of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for freedom is over and they must come to terms with it. After a short dialogue between the two titular characters, Rosencrantz comes to terms with his death before his friend does. Guildenstern’s last monologue is however much more relevant to the subject. He exposes the fact, that he still doesn’t believe in fate, when he says: “There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said – no. But somehow we missed it.” Guildenstern’s belief into one forming his own destiny is certainly interesting, but it is not important as the line which follows. Guildenstern’s last completed line is: “Well, we’ll know better next time.”[12] This is where the realization of just how close Rosencrantz and Guildenstern really are to the mythical Sisyphus. They are not only forced to never find meaning in the world around them, to never reach freedom and to die, but they are also forced to do it over and over again every time the play gets staged. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will always be dead. It’s this Guildenstern’s final monologue, which explains the character of The Player. Throughout the play, The Player seems to know the fate of all the characters around him. He apparently tries to help Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find the cause of Hamlet’s madness and save them from their fate. In Act II he has his Tragedians practicing for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, trying to show them what Claudius, the king, did. When he doesn’t get the reaction, he wanted, he screams at his cast: “You’re not getting across!”[13] After Guildenstern’s final monologue, it seems that The Player has been through all the adaptations of the play and remembers them all. Yet he can’t break the wheel of fate and save Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That is his Sisyphean task. It seems, that all the characters in the play have their tasks, which they will be fulfilling forever. Ophelia will always go mad and drown herself. Claudius will never get away with the murder of his brother. Alfred is going to get abused over and over again by his fellow Tragedians. All these claims are based on fatalism, which was the basis for nearly all Greek myths, including the one about Sisyphus.

Daniel Dennett defines fatalism as “the idea that what happens (or has happened) in some sense has to (or had to) happen.”[14] There is however a proof for this idea in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, because during every staging the characters truly go through all the events, which they have been destined to go through by the author. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will always flip coins, get confused at Elsinore and trapped at a boat. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will always be dead. Tom Stoppard’s play is universally believed to be one of the best, that Theatre of the Absurd has to offer. Audiences are still attending theatres to witness Rosencrantz and Guildenstern battle their fate. They see Guildenstern lose all the time to Rosencrantz. They see the titular characters trapped in the script of Hamlet. They see them fulfil their destiny as foretold by the play’s title. They hear Guildenstern’s final monologue and might understand the implication, that during the next production there will be a new audience witnessing all the characters metaphorically pushing their boulders upwards until the very end, only for them to roll down again. They will continue doing that, just like Sisyphus, for eternity. Or at least as long as the play gets staged.


1. Dennett, Daniel. Elbow Room. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984. 2. Holubetz, Margaret. “A Mocking of Theatrical Conventions: The Fake Death Scenes in The White Devil and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” English Studies 63.5 (1982): 426-429. EBSCO 13 Dec 2016. 3. Keyssar-Franke, Helene. “The Strategy of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’” Educational Theatre Journal 27.1 (1975): 85-97. JSTOR 29 Nov 2016. 4. Sarot, Marcel. “Sisyphus Revisited: Reflections on the Analogy between Linguistic Meaning and the Meaning of Life.” Neue Zeitschrift für systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 38.2 (1996): 219-231. EBSCO 13 Dec 2016. 5. Smith, Preserved. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.” Modern Language Notes 36.6 (1921): 374. JSTOR 29 Nov 2016. 6. Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. London: Faber and Faber, 1968. [1] Preserved Smith, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” Modern Language Notes 36.6 (1921): 374, JSTOR, 29 Nov 2016. [2] Marcel Sarot, “Sisyphus Revisited: Reflections on the Analogy between Linguistic Meaning and the Meaning of Life,” Neue Zeitschrift für systematische Theologie und Religionsphilosophie 38.2 (1996): 224, EBSCO, 13 Dec 2016. [3] Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), 6. All subsequent quotations are from this edition. [4] Helen Keyssar-Franke, “The Strategy of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,’” Educational Theatre Journal 27.1 (1975): 93, JSTOR 29 Nov 2016. [5] Stoppard 35. [6] Stoppard 42. [7] Helen Keyssar-Franke, “The Strategy of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,’” Educational Theatre Journal 27.1 (1975): 94, JSTOR 29 Nov 2016. [8] Stoppard 92. [9] Stoppard 92. [10] Stoppard 114. [11] Margaret Holubetz, “A Mocking of Theatrical Conventions: The Fake Death Scenes in The White Devil and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” English Studies 63.5 (1982): 426, EBSCO, 13 Dec 2016. [12] Stoppard 117. [13] Stoppard 71. [14] Daniel Dennett, Elbow Room (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1984), 104.

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