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

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SCENE 1: On The Boat


Stoppard is still playing jokes: he makes the audience listen to long lists of sailor calls, until they are forced to laugh at the absurdity of it. He wants it to be painfully obvious that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are on a boat, so that it becomes painfully obvious how ridiculous they are. If they had not immediately started debating about where they were, they would have figured it out quickly enough. One also wonders how they got on the boat without knowing it: they truly do seem like paper dolls, placed in different situations for the amusement of their owner.

Stoppard again draws a parallel between the life of a character within a play (who is there to serve a certain purpose) and a courtier (who, most likely, is at court for a similar, and equally unyielding, reason.) And again, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s plight is both funny and tragic--but mostly funny.

Who could feel sorry for a character who cannot tell the difference between a lantern and the rising sun? Indeed, Rosencrantz especially gives no indication that he has any deep concerns or will of his own--he has just awakened, but as soon as he decides it will be night soon and he will “have to” go to sleep, he gets tired again and prepares to do so.

Guildenstern, on the other hand, has made his mind a prison in a different way: he no longer seems to be fighting his situation intellectually. He says that, presumably because of all the unexpected things that have happened to him lately, he can no longer be skeptical about anything. He no longer wants to move, and he seems to be vaguely afraid of what might happen at any moment. Still, Stoppard continues his word games, and the two banter absurdly. The sense of doom creeps in despite, or perhaps because of, these games, in which they talk endlessly without conveying any information, much less reaching any decisions.

Guildenstern claims he likes boats because of their limited possibilities: he could just as well be talking about the court of Denmark, where he is forced to follow the whims of those superior to him. He does not even seem to understand that what he has wanted all along was freedom: in fact, he doesn’t even seem to want freedom anymore. His proclamations sound lame: “One is free on a boat. For a time. Relatively.” During this expressive and ominous speech, Rosencrantz threatens to vomit over the side--onto the audience. Stoppard seems to want to avoid letting the viewer get too involved in any of the dialogue. He does not really want us to sympathize with either of his main characters, the way that Beckett might have wanted his audience to see themselves in Vladimir and Estragon. He is most interested in shaking us up, making us laugh in various ways, so that it comes as no surprise that he claims he wrote the play as entertainment.

It most likely appeals to the viewer on many different levels, none of which are too profound. The metaphors Guildenstern uses to describe his feeling of obligation to the King are astronomical: he mentions a “fixed star,” and changes of their angle in relation to it. There is a vague feeling of the fates at work behind this speech: he believes that his attachment to the King transcends even the earth, and is of the same nature as the unchanging galaxy itself. Nor do either of them seem to understand that not everyone lives this way: they argue that Hamlet has things easy, since everything has been done for him.

They do not realize that Hamlet, unlike them, is not a pawn in someone else’s game, and therefore does not have to do whatever Claudius says simply because Claudius has written a letter and sent him off. Ironically, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wail about their petty concerns as Hamlet makes real decisions in the background: should he let the English King kill him? (He has had suicidal thoughts in the past.) Should he murder his uncle? Might he just escape the entire scene altogether? Again, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern envy Hamlet in his supposed security. They wish they had what he has: someone who wants him to do something concrete and specific. They would gladly carry out any clear and finite order they were given.

Immediately after this jealous tirade, Guildenstern murmurs, “Give us this day our daily cue.” This is a sort of joke in itself, since Guildenstern has been making “Give us this day our daily--” comments throughout the story--and he has just been “cued” to make another. Rosencrantz has his own verbal flair. He has mastered the art of talking without saying anything. (Guildenstern: “He couldn’t even be sure of mixing us up.” Rosencrantz: “Without mixing us up.”)

This infuriates Guildenstern, and plays a big part in their inability to get anything done. Guildenstern tries to make a point, Rosencrantz confuses it, and Guildenstern, often bossy and pretentious, can’t resist explaining even the most pointless point. He gets completely sidetracked, forgets what he was trying to say in the first place, and they are back where they started.

Clearly, Stoppard is making a point about the limitations of words. One hears echoes of an earlier conversation: Rosencrantz: “What are you talking about?” Guildenstern: “Words. They’re all we have to go on.” Much of the play seems to consist of talking about words, and if it is all they have to go on, it is clearly not enough. As the story proceeds, they get increasingly disturbed, as Rosencrantz’s hysteria following the “loss” of the letter indicates.

Not having made a decision of their own in a long time, they begin to worry more and more that nothing is real. Rather than simply believing they will get to the English King somehow, they try to picture it in their heads. They are not satisfied to let things happen, yet they are unable to influence their surroundings. Gripped by a picky sort of curiosity-they demand to know every detail before they are willing to get involved in anything--they nevertheless stand around immobilized. It is as if they are stiffening, becoming cardboard characters, who cannot act with any natural ease.

More and more, they demand that the plot be laid out for them, and more and more, they are absorbed into the demands of the plot. They cannot even be sure that they are Hamlet’s friends. There is little affection in them for anything, including each other, though they do share moments of tenderness. Guildenstern, especially, is careful to keep things “in proportion”--which seems to mean, “let’s not think too much about what this means for Hamlet, or for ourselves. Let’s just fulfill our duties.” He uses many philosophical arguments about whether death is a good or bad thing, never taking into account his own role in the problem.

It is one thing to argue about whether or not one man’s death is an awful or even a momentous event. To lead that man to his death is something else entirely. By this point, both of them are completely grasping at straws, and it shows in their conversations. When Rosencrantz gives a list of what has happened to them since they were summoned by the King, it is a bare jumble of words held together by direct quotes from people like Claudius and Hamlet.

It is clear that Rosencrantz remembers remarkably little even of what has happened since they have been at the castle. If he had no one to tell him things, he would be completely lost. It is particularly interesting that he can remember exact quotes from other people, but seems to have no idea of his own words or actions (he is often unsure if he is even alive.) He has been wondering for days, perhaps weeks, which way is west, and even when he watches the sun come up, he can’t be sure. Even reciting back the details of what they will do with the letter for the English King, he relies on Guildenstern for all the concrete information.

He has just read the letter out loud himself, and he has not connected that one of his questions about it has been answered--there is nothing in the letter telling them what to do after dropping off Hamlet. He acts as though he still doesn’t know. Hamlet called Rosencrantz a sponge, but he is in many ways just the opposite: he doesn’t absorb anything, and information slides off of him like oil.

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Benway, Nova. "TheBestNotes on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead". . 09 May 2017