Friday, June 25, 2010

Sir Tom Stoppard, the Early Plays - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Sir Tom Stoppard, the early plays.

6. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is probably Sir Tom Stoppard's best-known and most frequently-studied play, and is one of the most original and inventive plays of British post-war theatre. Beneath the verbal and visual wit lies a concern with serious philosophical issues to do with the opposition between determinism and free will, and reality and illusion, and it is part of Stoppard's genius that he manipulates the medium of the theatre itself to mirror the intellectual themes.

The play is structured around the idea that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's predicament of being minor characters from Hamlet, trapped within the plot of Shakespeare's play, is equated with Man trapped in a deterministic universe. Thus the play functions throughout on two levels, and occasionally on three when the play draws attention to itself as a play, in relation to us, the audience.

Stoppard has used Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exactly as Shakespeare created them - that is, as undeveloped flat characters, with minimal and ineffectual roles, largely ignorant of the events into which they have been drawn, and whose deaths pass almost unnoticed - and transposed them into a twentieth century idiom by equating them with anti-heroes of the Theatre of the Absurd. In fact the play owes a clear debt to Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern resembling Vladimir and Estragon, waiting, without knowing what they are waiting for, in an incomprehensible, perhaps meaningless universe, in which death is the only certainty. The appearance of The Players also mirrors, structurally, the appearance of Pozzo and Lucky in Waiting for Godot.

The theme of fate versus free-will is introduced in the opening scene: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are tossing coins, and the coins have come up heads ninety two times in a row. The act of tossing a coin is an act of free-will, and the result apparently depends on chance, but in the long run it seems that the attempt to influence the future by an individual act of free-will is futile, because the outcome has been predetermined. Thus we have an image in which free-will and determinism co-exist, with free will operating in the short term, and determinism in the long term. This duality is demonstrated again later when, in a scene which is reported but not actually shown in Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are on a boat bound for England.

'Guil: Where we went wrong was getting on a boat. We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along, as inexorably as the wind and current.' (Act 3.)

Free will and determinism are both present in their world, but whichever way they look at it, they cannot escape their imminent deaths.

The inevitability of death is also the pivot around which Stoppard builds his exploration of the reality versus illusion dichotomy. Rosencrantz tries to comprehend death as a reality but is unable to battle through the illusions thrown up by the mind in the face of the unknown.

'Ros: It's silly to be depressed by it. I mean one thinks of it like being alive in a box, one keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead.' (Act 2)

When a troupe of actors, The Players - specialists in illusion - arrive, the whole relationship between illusion and reality is thrown into doubt.

'Guil: You die so many times: how can you expect them to believe in your death?

Player: On the contrary, it's the only kind they do believe. They're conditioned to it. I had an actor once who was condemned to hang for stealing a sheep . . . I got permission to have him hanged in the middle of a play . . . and you wouldn't believe it, he just wasn't convincing It was impossible to suspend one's disbelief.' (Act 2)

The suggestion is that we cannot believe in reality even when we see it, and are all-too-eager to believe in illusions. The Player proves his point later when Guildenstern stabs him and he falls to the ground and 'dies'. Guildenstern is taken in by the Player's act, thinking he has killed him, until the Player revives and says

'For a moment you thought I'd - cheated.' (Act 2)

'Cheated' by substituting reality for the illusion, implying that we can never be absolutely sure whether something we perceive is reality or an illusion, a theme which occurs repeatedly in Stoppard's work and is exemplified by After Magritte (1970), the thesis of which might be paraphrased as: what we 'know' depends upon how we choose to interpret what we think we see.

As well as these philosophical themes, Stoppard is exploring a moral theme in the play; the moral and spiritual desolation of a civilisation without God. The loss of meaning to life in the absence of God is suggested in this speech by the Player:

'You don't understand the humiliation of it - to be tricked out of the single assumption which makes our existence viable - that somebody is watching . . . We pledged out identities, secure in the conventions of our trade; that someone would be watching. And then, gradually, no one was.' (Act 2)

The view that modern man is adrift in a meaningless universe without God is in keeping with the Absurdist view of man with which Stoppard is working, but Stoppard goes further and says something about the moral decline which follows the adoption of a philosophical position which denies the existence of God. The Players are supposed to be taking culture to the king's court, but they are 'a comic pornographer and a rabble of prostitutes' (Act 1), and their plays are obscene performances in which, for a price, the audience can participate. That this particular situation can be extended to modern society as a whole is suggested by the frequent repetition of the phrase 'the times being what they are', and reinforced by Guildenstern's comment 'The very air stinks' (Act 1); a joking reference to Hamlet's line: 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark'. (Hamlet 1.iv.90)

Read the full version of this essay at:

Ian Mackean runs the site, which features a substantial collection of English Literature Resources and Essays, and where his sites on Books Made Into Movies, and Short Story Writing can also be found. He is the editor of The Essentials of Literature in English post-1914, published by Hodder Arnold. When not writing about literature or short story writing he is a keen amateur photographer, and has made a site of his photography at


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