The Possibility of Probability: An Exploration of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s Ideas of Absurdity Through the Theories of Warner Heisenberg
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.
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