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Free Study Guide: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard - Free BookNotes

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ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD: BOOKNOTES

CONFLICT

Protagonists

Though they are often silly and ineffective, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are surely the heroes of the play. They long for comfort, stability, and an understanding of their situation, all of which are denied them.

Antagonists

Their antagonists, however, are not so easily identified. Claudius may be one, since he seems to care little about them, wanting only to use them for his own purposes. Hamlet, too, can be considered an antagonist, even though he does not have “evil” motives. He wants to save his own life, and is willing to trade Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s lives for it. In fact, the entire court seems to be at odds with the two main characters. However, the court is not directly and necessarily opposed to them. Rather, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are simply thought of as expendable. No one thinks to explain to them why they are there, what they need to do, or when they can leave, and they cannot ask.


Because they are lowly gentlemen, they must do what the King asks without questioning him. Because they were raised with Hamlet, they have a role to play in his tragedy, even though they haven’t seen him for years and have nothing to do with him. Even the idea of these two men being able to help Hamlet in any way is ridiculous--and yet they have no choice but to try, because of their positions in life and at court. Claudius--who hardly knows Hamlet, let alone Rosencrantz and Guildenstern--calls them, so they must come. Thus, fate itself may be thought of as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s primary antagonist.

At the very beginning of the play, they try together to remember why they are traveling to the castle. Finally, they realize that they have been sent for by the King. That summons resonates in their minds at an almost subconscious level: they did not decide to come--they were sent for, and so came, without giving it any thought. It is that simple for them. Fate pulls them along, kicking and screaming, and they must decide how to respond to this unwanted force that is working in their lives. Guildenstern is angry about it. He has a strong sense of right and wrong, and he believes that since the court disrupted their lives, it has the responsibility to help them complete their mission so they can go home again. He deeply resents being dropped into the middle of chaos. How, he wonders, can he help Hamlet if he doesn’t know what is really happening at court, or what he is really supposed to accomplish? However, he is so completely in the dark that he does not even know who to question.

He talks about “they” and “them”--mysterious, unknown figures that, he assumes, have all the answers but just aren’t giving them up. Rosencrantz starts out much more at ease with the direction of his fate. He isn’t so disturbed about the seeming absurdity and randomness of his life. Unlike Guildenstern, he doesn't look for signs--he accepts things as they come. However, as time passes, he becomes more unnerved. He too, demands explanations, and his way of trying to force them is to create a false sense of control.

He keeps a hawk-like watch over the castle’s inhabitants (who almost universally ignore him) and tries to organize himself by establishing the direction of the wind. Eventually, he becomes nearly hysterical, demanding to no one that his questions be answered.

Climax

Since the play is a winding, confused series of scenes and arguments, there is no clear climax. However, one might view the scene in which they discover that Hamlet has switched the letter as a turning point, because they must make a decision. (They were taking a letter to the English King, telling him to execute Hamlet, and Hamlet changed it with a letter that asked the English King to execute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.) Throughout the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been accustomed to being non-entities. They do as they’re told, never asking questions. Not even Hamlet, their only identifiable friend in the play, can tell them apart. But in order to save their own lives, they would have to assert themselves. One might say that they must find their own identities in order to fight against the fate they are being drawn into. This conflict, then, is resolved very darkly.

Outcome

Try as they might, they cannot establish their identities or gain an understanding of the workings of the world around them. Rosencrantz simply gives up, reasoning that if no one will explain why he is in this situation, he is not going to fight that. He disappears. Guildenstern is sure that there must have been a time when they could have directed their own destinies, but he cannot identify when that might have been. Proclaiming that they’ll ‘know better next time,’ he too disappears. Thus Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who nobody could ever tell apart, are swallowed up by their own lack of individuality.


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