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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: LITERATURE NOTES

THEMES - THEME ANALYSIS

R&G is “about” many things, most of which are not communicated through the plot. This is most obvious in the case of R&G’s relationship to Hamlet. While Stoppard is clearly much indebted to Shakespeare, he does not build his story on top of the latter’s. He builds it around it.

Thus the Player and his troupe rehearse a play, Hamlet and Ophelia run on, fighting, and the actors continue their practice. The audience often laughs at the great drama that is playing out behind the scenes, as the main stage is given to a couple of goofy courtiers who can’t remember their own names. But this is exactly the point: we are watching a play in which bit players are made stars, and who must deal with the fact that they were never meant to be as important as they now seem to be.

Their characters seem stretched, because we know them (if at all) as Hamlet’s friends, who serve a small purpose in Shakespeare’s play and then disappear. This seems also to be how they know themselves: when they are asked to help Hamlet, they seem shocked that anyone cares what they think or do. They set about understanding their great roles in their universe, never realizing that, no matter how much time they have to brood or wonder, they will never be more than Hamlet’s friends. This seems as incongruous to them as watching a play about them seems to the audience, and that is perhaps what is most amusing about the play.

The audience understands what is happening on stage far better than the characters, which makes the latter far less realistic and, arguably, sympathetic. In any case, one cannot have these reactions to the play without an in-depth understanding of Shakespeare’s play. R&G exists in the world of theatre, where our memories of fiction (Hamlet) mix with our memories of fact (whatever experiences we have had with identity crises or searching for goals). The real and the unreal intertwine.


We watch caricatures weep over their confusion about life, and caricature characters who have always seemed very “human” to us. Hamlet is a fool and Rosencrantz is a tragic figure. All of it is tied together loosely with sight gags, long monologues, and charming banter. There is hardly a plot, and what plot there is was borrowed from another play. The audience is handed this world like a puzzle, unsure how to react, but probably finding it all very funny.

While most of what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do and say is not “dramatic”--they spin coins, pace about, and play word games--the Player is the ultimate actor. Everything he says is larger than life. Yet he is also completely fake: he believes death is what audiences expect it to be--a bloody, if convincing, seizure that lasts long enough to be effective and then ends abruptly. He has no understanding of humanity: he executes an actor onstage and then gets angry that the man won’t stay in character and lets his grief drag on and on, until it is boring. He is obsessed with being watched, and says he is always “on.”

Yet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are no less artificial, though for them it reveals itself in different ways. If the Player is a human costume, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are husks. They long to be filled by some kind of personalities, but their thoughts are repetitive and ineffectual, and their actions haphazard and confused. All they are equipped with is the vague, semi-subconscious understanding that to be fully human, they need more than they have. When they die, the disappear: they aren’t even given a bloody, fake, Player-style death. It almost seems that they were never there at all. And though this bothers them, they can never quite figure out why.

They do not suffer from existential angst: they do not wonder how to fully realize their potential or what the meaning of their lives might be, or if they do, it is from a very two-dimensional perspective. They want to know whether or not to sleep, eat, or even leave the room. They ask for meaning from outside sources, because they know somehow that they were not created with meaning of their own. Rosencrantz is even more involved in this role than Guildenstern: he says even to his friend, “I’m only good in support.” They fulfill their purpose in the story, then they leave. When their time has come, they seem ready, though they have been fighting the idea. They give up. “Oh well,” says Guildenstern. “I’m relieved,” says Rosencrantz.

Though they share some qualities with Beckett’s characters, who desperately and futilely search for a purpose, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not in the same league, because their struggle is not a human struggle. It is the struggle of minor characters unable to understand why they are not the leads of their story. This is how fate works for them: it pulls them forward relentlessly, no matter how hard they dig in their heels. It comes in the guise of the end of the story. While many people believe that things happen to them for a reason, no one is as bound to this idea as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who serve a single purpose for their entire lives without even knowing it.

They show up at the castle, try to take Hamlet to England, and allow him to escape (or be taken) with pirates. Nothing else they do is significant: even their conversations with their old friend do little but assure Hamlet that Claudius is out to get him. Though they appear to be wrestling with ideas of free will vs. fate--a hallmark of existential literature--their struggles are in vain. They have no free will, so their lives are entirely directed by fate. Everyone in the play has a role, and when it is finished they drop off the face of the earth. They are all in it together, especially the minor characters. The Player seems to realize this when, commenting on whether his meeting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was a result of their fate or his, he says, “It could hardly be one without the other.”


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