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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: LITERARY ELEMENTS

ACT TWO

SCENE 2: Things Start to Fall Apart at the Castle

Notes

When Rosencrantz tries to approach Hamlet when he is debating suicide, we realize that this would be the perfect time to talk to Hamlet seriously, to really get him to divulge is innermost thoughts and feelings. Yet for some reason Rosencrantz cannot do it. The only explanation he gives is that he has succumbed to Hamlet’s personality. Indeed, it seems likely that someone like Rosencrantz, who, though he has existential troubles, most likely never thinks about suicide, would be intimidated by someone with real emotion. He would not know what to say to Hamlet were Hamlet to confess his secrets to him. He has no real character, and therefore no real part in the story of Hamlet. He is a minor character--from the way he acts, it seems that he was somehow created that way and has no way of changing.

This inability to advance to “reality” is similar to the situation of the main character of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a poem by T.S. Eliot. Tom Stoppard acknowledges this work as a parallel, if not a direct correlation, to Rosencrantz. The poem is a narration by someone who can never quite decide what to do, because he is so afraid of the consequences of his actions that he prefers not to act at all. He stands on the sidelines, saddened that he can never be part of the action. Yet his sadness is not high tragedy, like Hamlet’s. Rather, it is pathetic. He does not nobly and bravely try to fight, failing because of something beyond his control. His failure comes from his fear, foolishness, and perhaps his laziness. These are qualities he arguably shares with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Yet one gets the sense in Rosencrantz that the two main characters are bound to a certain plot, from which they cannot escape. Even they themselves seem to understand that they have no control (as does the Player, who also is relegated to a mere bit part in Hamlet). Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Prufrock all stand aside, morosely watching the main characters of their worlds play out their lives. But Prufrock seems to be there by his own doing, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, though they have some of Prufrock’s sad silliness in them, seem to truly be at the mercy of some higher power.

Thus, while Eliot’s poem might share some elements with Stoppard’s play, Stoppard is not as concerned with how to be (or not be) a genuine person. He is also, in a sense, playing with paper dolls: he creates pseudo-personalities for two minor characters from a Shakespeare play, using them as mouthpieces for his clever dialogue. They are never, unlike Prufrock, even treated as entirely real. Nor, of course, is the rest of the cast of Hamlet--Ophelia’s tears are played for a laugh in Stoppard’s play. The audience is not meant to take the tragic play seriously.


The Player does not seem to even notice the events of the castle: these “bit players,” in fact, are not often even curious about the intense drama that is playing out around them. They recognize that they are spectators, and feel little more than annoyance when the “main characters” interrupt their little lives. The players watch Hamlet scream at Ophelia, then immediately go back to their rehearsal. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are focused not on helping their friend Hamlet, but on simply returning home again.

When the stage goes black and the audience hears the cries of people watching The Murder of Gonzago, we are meant to understand that the King is finally realizing that Hamlet knows that he murdered Hamlet’s father. Though this is perhaps the climax of Shakespeare’s play, Stoppard does not even allow it to occur in the background: it is composed of voices heard in a dark room. There is no real reaction to it by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Its only effect on the play is to draw the main characters nearer to their own inevitable ends.

Their connection to the forces that bring about those ends is strangely inconsequential. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves fixate on the most inconsequential aspects of their experience: they hear Hamlet proclaim a bit of nonsense about which directions of the wind find him sane and which insane, and they cannot let it go. They spend the rest of the play trying desperately to determine which way is east. As well, they are convinced that the events going on around them actually revolve around them, and that the members of the court may actually be trying to confuse them.

They also consistently confuse each other: at times, the audience seems to understand their conversation better than they do themselves. They speak vaguely and do not follow through their thoughts--another reason why they rarely come to a decision. This is one of the greatest sources of comedy in the play, and there is a strong physicality to it which one must see the play to experience. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern go through the motions of making a grand decision to look for Hamlet, only to return to their original positions minutes later, the audience cannot help but laugh, even though two people so bumbling are surely doomed (their silliness prevents them from accomplishing anything, ever.) Even they are surprised when their actions are successful.

Their idea for a trap (their two belts tied together) is so ridiculous that only someone like them might fall for it. They assume that Hamlet, like them, is prisoner of a grand dramatic scheme, so that if they lay a trap for him, he would have no choice but to fall into it. If one thinks about this for a moment, it becomes rather sad: Hamlet has a freedom that confounds these two men, who have never experienced it. But Stoppard never allows us to get too caught up in their pitiful situation: he uses their pathetic scheme as a chance to let Rosencrantz’s pants fall down. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern often try to fake their way through situations they do not understand.

When the King asks for Hamlet and they don’t know where he is, they cannot admit that; instead, they stall. This is a big part of their problem: they live in a world that makes it impossible to just say, “Wait! Stop! I don’t understand! What exactly do you want me to do, and why?” Their role in life demands that they keep moving, going about their duties, without hesitating or questioning. Claudius does, therefore, play some role in their inability to get their bearings: their fear and awe in his presence forces them to act without understanding. In a rare show of imagery, Stoppard describes autumn, using Guildenstern as a mouthpiece.

Though described almost entirely through different shades of brown, this autumn seems to have much to do with death. He talks about the baked earth, a “brownness at the edges of the day.” Everything sounds dead, at an end, and somewhat ominous. Stoppard, who usually avoids lyrical passages in Rosencrantz, seems similar to the players: he’s best at “doing death.” It is perhaps no accident that this description is fitted in between Hamlet’s conversation with the soldier about the impending war against Poland, with Denmark and Norway as allies.

Since Stoppard has selected only a few direct scenes from Hamlet to include in his own play, it is significant that he has highlighted the political aspect of Hamlet that most modern productions of the play leave out. (Shakespeare’s play takes place on the brink of a war, in which Denmark and Norway are allied against Poland, and Norse soldiers are occupying Denmark.)

The final conversation in the second act is perhaps the most reminiscent of Waiting For Godot. They seem unable to determine even the reasons to go or stay, even though they have been discussing why they want to leave for almost the whole play so far. It seems that Rosencrantz actually has a better understanding of himself here: he has always complained more about wanting to go home, and now that he has a chance to get closer to that goal, he wants to take it.

Guildenstern, however, who has always been proud of his ability to analyze situations, seems to have analyzed himself into a corner. He is no longer sure that freedom really exists, and he is beginning to feel hopeless. Finally Rosencrantz convinces him to move, but the viewer might get the sense that things are taking a turn for the worse: Guildenstern, who used to be excited about symbols, omens and double meanings, now seems to believe that nothing has any meaning. Rosencrantz, on the other hand, seems caught up in life at the castle--he no longer cares what the grand meaning of it all is, he just wants to get one step ahead of where he is at the moment. One gets the sense that they are falling deeper into an inescapable well.


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