"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead", a play by Tom Stoppard
A classic in its own right
Tom Stoppard took the title of his 1966 play from a line towards the end of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. All the main characters are dead, which leaves the concluding lines to be spoken by Hamlet’s friend Horatio and the Norwegian general Fortinbras. An ambassador from England announces that he has come too late to tell the Danish king that his orders have been obeyed and that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead”.
These two minor characters appear much earlier in the play as spies sent by King Claudius to try to work out what is in Hamlet’s mind that could explain his bizarre behaviour. They are old friends of Hamlet and are greeted warmly at first but then less so as Hamlet is clever enough to work out their true purpose and taunts them about their duplicity.
Later on, Claudius sends Hamlet on a ship to England, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are bearing a letter from Claudius that requests that Hamlet be killed on arrival, but Hamlet is able to switch the letter for one that condemns his two former friends to death. Hamlet is able to escape from the ship when it is attacked by pirates and return to Denmark, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not so lucky.
Tom Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 but has lived in Britain since 1946. His widowed mother married a British army major, which therefore gave Tom and his brother Peter British citizenship. He began writing plays in the 1950s and in 1964 wrote a one act play entitled “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear”, which evolved into the three act play in which King Lear plays no part.
Stoppard was interested in the many unanswered questions arising from “Hamlet”. Clearly, the characters were used by Shakespeare for a specific purpose, and they always appear as a pair with little to distinguish one from the other. They are also overshadowed by the much stronger character of Hamlet. However, what if they were put in the limelight and the other Shakespeare characters played bit parts? Also, what if their actions were seen in a comic light as opposed to being elements of a tragedy? These were the possibilities that inspired Tom Stoppard to write his play.
Stoppard turns everything on its head by concentrating on the times when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are off-stage as far as Shakespeare’s play is concerned. One can imagine that the main action of Hamlet is happening on another stage in parallel to what one is seeing here. At times the two plays interact and a scene from “Hamlet” appears in Stoppard’s version.
One of the main themes of “Hamlet” is the main character’s musings on the nature of existence and the purpose of life, as exemplified by the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. For Stoppard, the same questions apply to his main characters, and much of the comedy of the play comes from their introspections and conclusions on these matters.
The play opens with the two courtiers flipping a coin and betting on heads or tails, which immediately poses questions about fate, chance, and the nature of reality. The coin always comes down heads, 92 times in a row, thus prompting the characters to reckon that they are subject to unnatural forces. The scene is therefore set for happenings that are beyond their control and which they will struggle to understand.
When the pair are summoned by Claudius and Gertrude to undertake their mission to spy on Hamlet, great play is made of Shakespeare’s apparent inability to tell them apart. This even extends to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves. Hamlet’s central question of “Who am I?” is thus presented with a comic twist.
The travelling players from “Hamlet” also make an appearance in this act. Just like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern they spend a lot of time off-stage, so Tom Stoppard imagines that all these bit players might get together at such times. However, the play that they put on for the courtiers is a lot more bloodthirsty than the wordy and courtly performance they enact in “Hamlet”. During their “time off” they clearly have other preferences.
In Act Two there are many interactions between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the chief player, the king and queen, and Hamlet. Questions of reality and unreality crop up with confusing frequency, aided by the contrast between what the players do on stage and off (they produce a dress rehearsal of “The Murder of Gonzago” which they perform in “Hamlet”), and always against the background of whether Hamlet’s madness is feigned or real.
Issues of life and death arise when the players foretell the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the couple are asked to find the corpse of Polonius after Hamlet has killed him in error, thinking that his victim was Claudius.
Act Three takes place on the ship to England as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern escort Hamlet to England, sent there by Claudius in a bid to have Hamlet killed. Questions of existence arise at the outset because the pair have no idea how they got there and need proof that they are actually alive. They open Claudius’s letter and thus discover the king’s true purpose. However, Hamlet switches the letter while they are asleep.
Also on board are the players, who have decided to escape the expected wrath of Claudius. They have stowed away in barrels on deck, which also prove to be good hiding places for all the characters when the pirates attack. After the pirates have gone, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discover that Hamlet has gone too.
When they look again at the letter they learn the truth about Hamlet’s treachery and have to face the fact that their fates are sealed. However, they cannot understand why they deserve to die. The chief player offers Guildenstern an intended consolation along the lines that everyone must die, but this enrages the courtier who takes the player’s dagger and stabs him with it. The player falls but then rises again, because his dagger is a theatrical one with a retractable blade. This provides another approach to the question of the reality of life and death.
In the final scene the two main characters muse on the existential issues that have pervaded the play but still fail to come to any satisfactory conclusions. Could things have been different? Could they have changed the course of events in either their own drama or the parallel one that keeps impinging on theirs? The lights go out on each of them in turn and the line “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and dead” sounds as the final moment of the play.
Although this is a comedy, it has a number of messages and poses many questions. Just as there are no easy answers in “Hamlet”, so there are none here. An audience member will come away with the uneasy feeling that, as well as being the main character in his or her own life story, they are also a bit player in that of every other person they know, to a greater or lesser extent.
Would a patron of this play who did not know “Hamlet” reasonably well get as much out of it as someone who did? The answer to that is probably No, because there are so many subtle references to Shakespeare’s play in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”. Also, it would be difficult for someone who was completely ignorant of “Hamlet” to be aware of the points of contact between the two plays, or even of the significance of the title. That said, the play is entertaining and enjoyable in its own right, and might be an interesting point of entry (if somewhat confusing!) to “Hamlet” for someone who had not seen it.
About the author
I am a retired librarian, having spent most of my career in academic and industrial libraries.
I write on a number of subjects and also write stories as a member of the "Hinckley Scribblers".