Free Study Guide: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard - Free BookNotes|
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ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD: LITERARY CRITICISM
He suggests that it might feel good--like being a child, who is only expected to follow directions, not to think for himself. Rosencrantz wonders how they can figure out Hamlet. Guildenstern reminds him of what the King told them: Hamlet has changed, and since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have always been close to him, they may be able to cheer him up and find out what is wrong. Rosencrantz begins to wonder what their reward will be like. They try to do something constructive, but decide that they have been placed, and the best thing to do would be to wait until something happens.
Rosencrantz looks at the audience and mentions that he hates feeling like a spectator, whose only hope is that someone interesting will come on in a minute. Guildenstern agrees: they are being kept interested without ever being allowed explanations, and it is driving him crazy. Rosencrantz suggests that they play Questions, a game which consists of two players having a conversation without ever making a statement--only questions are allowed. Through the game, they have a light, uninformative conversation, asking questions like “What does it all add up to?” to which the response is, “Can’t you guess?” Finally, Guildenstern asks Rosencrantz, seriously, what his name is, but Rosencrantz doesn’t see he is serious. Even when Guildenstern asks him “Who do you think you are?” Rosencrantz thinks it is rhetoric.
They cry out to no one, wondering what the game at court is, what the rules are. Hamlet enters behind them, reading, and Guildenstern notices him just as he leaves. To alert his friend, Guildenstern calls out, “Rosencrantz!” and, miraculously, Rosencrantz responds. The men are both thrilled, as it appears that Rosencrantz really does instinctively know his own name. He suggests that they try the same thing with Guildenstern, but Guildenstern, irritated, points out that he would have to be surprised in order for it to work. Rosencrantz doesn’t quite get this, and tries to surprise Guildenstern immediately. Guildenstern then calls to his friend again, this time using his own name--but Rosencrantz responds to it. Disgusted, Guildenstern asks for consistency from his friend.
They begin to talk about Hamlet. Rosencrantz has nothing much to say, but Guildenstern sees that Hamlet has changed. Rosencrantz begins to ask him about it, and Guildenstern realizes that they might play Questions with each other to analyze what is happening to Hamlet. He thinks Rosencrantz gets this too, and begins to play with him, pretending to be Hamlet. But Rosencrantz doesn’t get it, and thinks Guildenstern has gone crazy. Very annoyed, Guildenstern explains what he is trying to do. Rosencrantz seems to understand, but it is soon clear that he doesn’t, and Guildenstern gets very irritated. He throws up his hands, wondering what he and Rosencrantz possibly could share except their situation.
They sit in silence for a while, then Rosencrantz finally realizes what Guildenstern was trying to do. They begin the game again, but when Guildenstern calls Rosencrantz by his name, Rosencrantz gets confused--he is thinking he is Guildenstern again. Finally, they get it all sorted out, and Guildenstern impersonates Hamlet while Rosencrantz asks him questions. At first, he doesn’t see that what they want to do is get as much information as possible from Hamlet.
Finally, however, he establishes a conversation with Guildenstern-as-Hamlet. Rosencrantz points out that Hamlet’s father was King, and Hamlet is an adult, but after his father’s recent death, his Uncle Claudius was made King instead of him. This has something to do with the fact that his uncle married his mother, Queen Gertrude, very soon after his father’s death. Rosencrantz, following the thread, muses aloud that Hamlet’s much-loved father is dead, and Hamlet, who should be King, is now merely Claudius’s “son.” All of this is common knowledge, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot figure out why they were sent for by Claudius. Rosencrantz hears music again, and when Guildenstern calls him, using both names, Rosencrantz answers to both, infuriating Guildenstern.
He tells Rosencrantz to go peek in on Hamlet. Rosencrantz reports that
Hamlet is talking to himself--though he is not alone. Hamlet enters backward,
followed by Polonius. Hamlet teases Polonius with nonsense, while Polonius
tries to maintain his dignity. Finally, Polonius says he is leaving, and
Hamlet wryly announces his eagerness for this. Guildenstern calls to Hamlet.
Hamlet is very excited to see them--though even he confuses one man with
It is significant that the scene changes with hardly any changes to the scenery. One of Stoppard’s major purposes in this play is to make the reader (or, more likely, viewer) unable to forget that he or she is reading or watching a play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern refer to the audience, look at the audience, and are undeniably on a stage throughout the production.
Stoppard supports this manner of performance by substituting long, random conversations for action. If we are caught up in the story, it is because we enjoy wordplay, not because we are worried about the characters or the plot. The action of Rosencrantz is set against the backdrop of Hamlet, a play in which almost nothing happens until the very end. The vast majority of the play concerns Hamlet’s debates about whether or not to kill his uncle (who murdered his father.) Few of his arguments advance him in any particular direction--he considers suicide, he rejects his own love interest, he decides that no one should get married anymore. These serious and yet ineffective attempts to resolve his problems are reminiscent of Guildenstern, who is very serious but never gets anywhere with his thoughts.
The game of Questions mirrors their experience at Elsinore: much rhetoric
with very little information. Once the audience sees that Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern don’t even know their own names, it is clear that these
two will never succeed in communicating with Hamlet. Their case is hopeless,
yet they blunder on, mainly because they are unsure of how to give up.
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Benway, Nova. "TheBestNotes on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead".
. 12 May 2008