Free Study Guide: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard - Free BookNotes|
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ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD: ONLINE NOTES / BOOK REVIEW
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