Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a classic contemporary play by Tom Stoppard, which follows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters, courtiers in Hamlet, as they are called to the palace to find out what’s wrong with the Prince, and then sent to deliver a message to the king of England. As they are led from one task to another, they catch glimpses of the great Shakespearean tragedy unfolding around them, and wonder at what is going on.
The play explores time in two ways, both of which are fundamentally tied into the medium of theatre—theatrical fatalism, and the conflict between finite time and eternal time.
Now . . . And Now . . . And Now . . .
Life and theatre are eternal and finite.
Life is eternal (or appears so), because it is impossible for a person to really grasp the fact that they have an end, the way they can grasp that a day or a season has an end. As Rosencrantz puts it, “Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on for ever. … And yet I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all.” (71-72)
And life is finite because people are born and they die.
Theatre is eternal because every play can be performed an infinite number of times. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is about two characters invented by a writer that died dozens of generations ago, and the play is still being performed (in fact, it’s currently being revived at the theatre at which it premiered exactly fifty years ago.) It’s also a very immediate medium, not something you can put down and stop like a book. The play is continuing, going from one line to the next, without end. And, especially in a play like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which languishes in long scenes of dialogue and moments of silence, this can give the impression that the thing is boundless. “One is, after all, having [a future] all the time . . . now . . . and now . . . and now . . .” (70).
And theatre is finite because, some exceptions aside, most plays last just a few hours or less.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern addresses this dissonant experience, the simultaneous feeling that we are immortal and knowledge that we are not, both through dialogue and through the form of the play. Of course, it being a play alone emphasizes the themes discussed by the characters, but there are some other formalistic aspects peculiar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that reinforce the concept. To start, there’s the title—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It’s a quote from one of the last lines of Hamlet, and as a title it seems paradoxical. For the majority of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not dead. Those final lines are another formal quirk to the play, and to Hamlet as well, because they’re recursive. The ambassador from England tells Horatio that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,” (Hamlet 5.2.371) and Horatio, surrounded by the corpses of the royal family, tells the ambassador that he will “speak to the yet unknowing world / how these things came about” (5.2.380-381). The end of the play could be the beginning, and the whole thing could circle around on itself endlessly as Horatio tells the story over and over again—but the title, which comes from that same scene, declares how finite these characters are.
This juxtaposition is referenced multiple times in the dialogue of the characters. At one point, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are talking to a player about the play they’re going to perform for the royal family, a play that has almost the exact same plot as Hamlet. With all these points of overlap between theatre and reality, it seems that the player is describing the real world when he talks about how excellent his actors are at dying, and it seems that Rosencrantz is bemoaning the actual human condition when he responds, “Is that all they can do—die?” (83) The idea of this troupe of actors performing bloody plays and dying over and over and over—all they can do is die—again embodies the finite-eternal conflict.
Much like I Have Been Here Before, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exploits the medium of theatre to evoke a feeling of fatalism—though this technique is much more prominent in Stoppard’s play, and where I Have Been Here Before suggests that people can escape their fates, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is unresolved on the matter.
The big thing hanging over the whole show is Hamlet. The audience presumably knows the plot of Hamlet, and so knows exactly what is going to happen to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. However, the two courtiers themselves know very little of the drama playing out around them, so while their roles in Hamlet seem very precisely ordered and predetermined, through the lens of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the demands placed on them seem random and unmotivated. There’s an undeniable impression that the actions and eventual deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are fated, as the play never diverges from the plot of Hamlet—but at the same time, by shifting the perspective to these two courtiers, who are not present for all the arguments and soliloquies of the play, Stoppard gives the impression that their circumstances, and the actions they have to take, are disordered and happenstance. In Hamlet, the two courtiers appear to arrive just on time to keep the action going. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two will be sitting around, waiting for something to happen for minutes on end, and will be in the middle of talking about death when suddenly “a grand procession enters, principally CLAUDIUS, GERTRUDE, POLONIUS and OPHELIA.” (72)
This contradictory, unresolved conflict between random chance and preordained fate is embodied by the opening scene, in which Rosencrantz correctly calls “heads” for a coin flip ninety times in a row. On the one hand, it’s the kind of one-in-a-billion coincidence that could only be created by some higher power—a god or a playwright—but on the other hand, it’s a completely meaningless coin toss that has no affect on the lives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or on the story of Hamlet.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead does not attempt to answer any of the questions it’s raising about time (much less the questions about identity or existence or any of the many other issues the play grapples with), though it does a great job of bringing them onto the stage. Is life totally random, or have we just not seen enough of the play to understand the hidden order? Are we infinite in our ability to experience a present moment, or have we just not reached our end yet? The play uses theatre in multiple ways—as a medium, as a topic of discussion of the characters, as a backdrop/plot—to explore these questions, though at the end the audience is left with as few answers as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The play even ends in a blur, with the play “[fading] out, overtaken by dark and music” (126) in the middle of Horatio’s line about speaking to the yet unknowing world. Stoppard is not aiming to bring resolution, he’s aiming to put these feelings and odd contortions of life onto the stage, where these artificial renditions can hit home harder than reality. As the player explains at one point,
“I had an actor once who was condemned to hang for stealing a sheep … so I got permission to have him hanged in the middle of a play … I thought it would be effective, you know—and you wouldn’t believe it, he just wasn’t convincing! It was impossible to suspend one’s disbelief.” (84)
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