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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: ONLINE NOTES

THEMES

Perhaps what this play is most “about” has nothing to do with its content. Stoppard continually reminds the reader that he or she is reading a play, an artificial representation of decidedly uneventful events. Thus, one of the play’s central themes is plays themselves. We are constantly made to think of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and encouraged to find humor in the tragic drama. Even though most of the characters in Rosencrantz die by the end, one is not likely to feel sad when they do--it is not a tragedy. The play is deeply dependent on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to the point that the reader’s reaction to it is dependent on his or her knowledge of the earlier play. Thus, one of the major themes of Rosencrantz must be what some theatre critics have called “theatrical parasitism.”


Stoppard’s play is about Shakespeare’s play, and feeds on it for its own meaning. In fact, one would have no idea what was going on in Stoppard’s play without a good understanding--a complex, analytical understanding, even--of Hamlet. The artificiality of the play is one of its major characteristics: we can never suspend our disbelief, because we know we are watching the story of minor characters from Shakespeare. At the same time, fate is a great force in the lives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, despite--or because of--their cardboard quality. They have real fates, destinies, purposes, within their confused world. Were they to change in any way the world of Hamlet might come crashing down. But they never will change, because they have been created to serve a specific function in Hamlet’s world, and they must carry out their duties until there is nothing else for them to do, at which time they simply disappear.

While an English Ambassador arrives at the end of the play to assure us that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, we don’t see them die. To us, they simply fade out, as though they were never really there in the first place. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern served but one purpose in Shakespeare’s play, and Stoppard has seized on an interesting idea: what if those one-note characters had personalities? What would their conversations be about? Not much, as we learn from the play. This is why the existential themes in Rosencrantz never get fully fleshed out, the way they do in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Though probably most people can understand feeling confused about what their purpose in life is, or wishing that someone would just tell them what to do so they don’t have to decide for themselves, no one can really relate to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are unsympathetic because they are comic, whatever their philosophical woes may be. Their pants fall down. They forget their own names. No audience feels the chill of a meaningless life onstage with these men. Their artificiality is one of their central characteristics, and it is comic and unsympathetic at the same time.


MOOD

There is very little emotion in this play--even at the end, when the main characters disappear (seemingly dying); the audience does not exactly feel bad for them. This is perhaps because the audience is so muddled by the play’s events that they find it difficult to align themselves with any particular character. Comedy is interspersed with tragedy in such a way as to make the viewer unsure of just how to react. Thus, the prevailing mood of the play may be a kind of darkly humorous confusion, throughout which the audience is just as confused as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about what is real, what is fake, and what is really happening at the castle.

For all their angst, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are clowns in the end. Their attempts to understand their situation read like comic routines rather than desperate grasping at straws. However, there is something chilling in their complete inability to keep their heads above water. As Rosencrantz says at the end, throughout the play, they have done nothing wrong. They are likable enough. And yet they are doomed to die, because of decisions they had no part in that they didn’t even know were being made. Another essential ingredient to their demise is, however, their own foolishness. The play revels in absurdity, moving through numerous comic set pieces. Yet Stoppard does not allow us to forget that all of their ineffectual humorous rambling actually has consequences: by the end of the play, it has killed them. This is hard to swallow for an audience who must feel fairly similar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: unsure of what they’re witnessing, and unsure what to do about it. This sort of confusion is surely designed, at times, to make the audience uncomfortablebut never far from a laugh.


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