Play Time: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard

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.Read More »