In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead we see two unassuming characters of Shakespeare’s Hamlet take center stage to relive their demise over and over again, while questioning their decisions, the directions of others, and even their own identities. Stoppard presents his play in a meter of rhymed verse, blank verse, and prose; not surprisingly, he enacts a Shakespearean styled iambic-pentameter with certain passages, which have been translated from Shakespeare’s Hamlet directly. This style brings a tongue-in-cheek humor to the sad story of these two pawns-Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They exist in an uncharacterized purgatory, living by “arbitrary” nature, and coming to and fro by the wills of others i.e. a higher power. Tom Stoppard uses great diction and incredible savvy to seamlessly piece together this unique tale of basic and inconsequential characters. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead (actually) throughout the play, trapped in futile movement, reliving their demise over and over again, locked in Post-Structuralism.
Stoppard’s play starts out with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a place “without any visible character.”(p. 11) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’s opening setting carries a direct correlation to the stature of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves. The first page (p. 11) dictates their journey before it begins, in that while they exist in Hamlet, they play a very small part, and the parts they play actually have very little to do with what they aspire to do, and their actions have little consequence on the whole of their fates. The word “character” has polysemic implications, and relates to character as in the quality of nature; and/or character as in the subject itself. The diction and syntax used within page 11 reveals to the reader that the pieces of the scene are lacking, and this directly relates to the characters themselves, not just the setting. Sub-clauses used within the first lines show that time is passing and that the setting is uncharacteristic. This is Stoppard’s first subtle indication that there is less to the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and more to their fate through repetition and circular reasoning. They exist in a place not unlike purgatory; trapped between heaven and hell, or in between significance and insignificance, always questioning; answering questions with more questions. Purgatory is: “a state after death according to Roman Catholic belief in which the souls of people who die are made pure through suffering before going to heaven.” Ros and Guil appear unable to right a wrong, or start to process the idea of how they came about in this situation. All the while they suffer emotional hardships brought on the by the fear of death and their inability to change their own course. One’s bag is near “empty” (p. 11) (dead, lifeless) and one’s bag is near “full” (p. 11); the lexical sets found within the first page pair opposites against one another, in an impossible struggle, stuck. The idea of repetition (doubling) is brought up just after the stage direction’s description of the setting, “Then they repeat this process [flipping a coin, while continually getting heads; an impractical feat].”(p.11) Value and money, repetition and probability are entities illuminated from the start, these representing the unreality of their situation, the lack of value they hold, and the incredible circumstances they have come to by way of arbitrary means. “They have apparently been doing this for some time.” (p. 11), the time is not specific, neither is the location of the scene. This is one example of the many ways in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have died, come to exist in attempt to right a wrong, and ultimately fail; the plot of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is Stoppard’s rebuttal to the many unsubstantiated claims readers have formed in attempt to redefine/or better understand Hamlet.
The intertextuality between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Hamlet posed, become visibly numerous in Stoppard’s play. One of the most interesting parts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead reflects a passage from Hamlet, where Hamlet states in Act II, scene ii, “I am but mad north north-west; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.” Stoppard uses this to show that Hamlet is at the whim of the elements, and then he goes on to say that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern actually possess these same “symptoms” (p. 57); therefore they are at the whim of something greater than themselves. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are caught in this vicious cycle, this spinning wheel that has been fated for them by the very people who control them, and the elements that control those people.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, also questions the idea of certainty, and the idea that nothing is for certain. The uncertainty throughout humorously reflects the whimsical nature of Hamlet’s character, and his decision making being based on things of uncertainty i.e. the weather, “winds” -Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in their final moments, again, realize that they have been brought to their fates by the direction of others, not in the least by Hamlet and the changing wind that he allegedly decides by. They say, lastly, “Well, we’ll know better next time.”(p.126) Punctuation within this line suggests there is a half-stop, a pause that shows contemplation. After this line we read, “Now you see me, now you-(and disappears).” The reader experiences a half-stop (comma), a caesura (-), and parenthesis (()) from the stage direction; here we are shown a disappearance of a character, by way of showing-rather than telling. Guil has been transported back to a place without character, he disappears to attempt this cycle again, and then perhaps, he and Ros will know better next time. There is no explanation for this disappearance; they neither die, nor stay alive. The end scene is never explained. Their existence in this purgatory-esque state is an attempt to right their wrongs, to cleanse themselves, and release themselves from this form of the theater of the absurd.
The theory that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are stuck in purgatory stems from the idea that they double everything; there is repetition in their action, and there is evidence of coming full circle, anew, for these characters with little forward movement or accomplishment. If one takes the number of pages (126) of the play and divides it by two, undoubles it, the quotient takes the reader to page 63. Meta-Theater within the play is reflected in the Player’s passage, “Player (bursts out): We can’t look each other in the face! (Pause, more control.) You don’t understand the humiliation of it –to be tricked out of the single assumption which makes our existence viable-that somebody is watching [God]…. The plot was two corpses gone before we caught sight of ourselves, stripped naked in the middle of nowhere and pouring ourselves down a bottomless well.”(p.63) The Player’s passage eerily defines the plot device that summarizes the play’s predicament itself; there are too many assumptions, this is not a singular event, and that this situation is endless. Diction in this passage is demotic and somewhat confusing, but when looked at word for word, one finds a startling discovery. Talk of a “bottomless well” suggests there is no end to their story. The word “single” sticks out as very significant in a book filled with “doubles”, but also, it implies that a single storyline or an assumption -assumptions are typically not synonymous with the truth- is completely illogical. There is reference to two corpses, deceased already, before Ros and Guil find self-meaning, and now in the story it is all too late because wheels have been set in motion, they are condemned to their fates. The actual number of pages to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is 115, 115 divided by two (2) is 57.5, in between p. 57 and p. 58, one can read passages where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern compare themselves to Hamlet by symptoms and also proclaim that “He’s at the mercy of the elements.”, as they are. The whole of the story suggests that they are at the mercy of elements. They have no control over their fates because they arbitrarily make use of their time, and they keep repeating this act over again, not realizing until the it’s too late that they must significantly change their path to alter the status quo, or continue this monotonous existence.
Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. New York: Grove Weidenfeld,
Thompson, Ann and Taylor, Neil. eds. Hamlet. The Arden Shakespeare. 3rd Series. London:
Thomson Learning, 2006.