Review: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard (1967)

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I read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard years ago in my senior year of high school in my AP English class, which was also the first time that I also read Hamlet. I didn’t understand the plays at all then, Stoppard’s one more than Shakespeare. When I first started rereading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, it seemed almost as if I never read it before! There was a lot I forgot, and most of what I remember came from what I remember of the movie. Ultimately, this lead to me enjoying Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead this second time around. Moreover, having read up slightly on existentialism, it helped to enhance my enjoyment of this fictional work.

Guildenstern is more abstract/ideological type of character compared to Rosencrantz’s more pragmatic type, but the two fit together with Guildenstern leading the way and Rosencrantz supporting him although with not entirely original ideas (as Guildenstern complains). Guildenstern often rambles on to fully formulate his thought compared to Rosencrantz. Rosencrantz is the more concise of the two to observe or question surrounding behavior; although, overall, it is still two ramblings of men who have no idea and go along asking questions due to their way of thinking and then not care in the end about their fate because everyone dies. Rosencrantz does makes astute judgments about Hamlet through his observation. “ROS: A compulsion towards philosophical introspection is his chief characteristic, if I may put it like that. It does not mean he is mad. It does not mean he isn’t. Very often, it does not mean anything at all. Which may or may not be a kind of madness” (116). Furthermore, earlier in the play, Rosencrantz states, “Half of what he said meant something else, and the other half didn’t mean anything at all.” (57) which enhances an earlier quote from Guildenstern: “Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.” (41) so the only thing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can observe is Hamlet’s words even if he might mean something other than what he’s saying. Rosencrantz does indeed embody as a “support” to Guildenstern.

That’s not to say that Guildenstern doesn’t gets into interesting conversations with other characters. Guildenstern has thought on the matter of fate multiple times throughout the play such as the following example from the play in a moment between the Player and Guildenstern.

PLAYER: It could hardly be one without the other. [Talking of chance and faith]

GUIL: Fate then.

PLAYER: Oh yes. We have no control (25).

Talking of this chance and faith hardly being one without the other, as such as them having no control – Guildenstern and the Player declare it to be fate. Whatever is out of our control is fate or chance. Furthermore, “GUIL: 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…. There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said – no. But somehow we missed it.” (122, 125). Guildenstern believes in fate in that he also believes that there must have been a chance to say no, but they didn’t, and thus they are where they are. People move along in the world as if by an invisible hand that causes them to choose one way or another.

The Player as an actor chooses to talk of his experiences as someone who plays a role repeatedly even if by the end of the play, the character has died but the actor has not so he’s allowed to play the role again and die again if he so wishes. Throughout the play, the Player has some insights in human behavior on trust and belief that he shares with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. First, “PLAYER: Everything has to be taken on trust; truth is only that which is taken to be true. It’s the currency of living. There may be nothing behind it, but it doesn’t make any difference so long as it is honoured. One acts on assumptions.” (67). If there is no trust, how can we believe what we are hearing or reading from secondary sources? People act on what they believe is happening because they either trust or do not trust what is going on. Everything you observe is in your own perspective; you know no other mind than your own. Second, “PLAYER: Audiences know what to expect, and that is all that they are prepared to believe in.” (84). This goes back to the previous quote in terms of human behavior. “One acts on assumptions” leads to people having made a judgment to assume to know what to expect and that’s all that they’re going to expect. As the Player says: “that is all that they are prepared to believe in.” Third, “PLAYER: Life is a gamble, at terrible odds – if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it.” (115). Life is truly a gamble; you don’t know what you’re going to get. I don’t think many people would take the bet either considering that we often don’t know where we’ll be many years down the road from where we are currently.

Rosencrantz had the best lines in the play when speaking with Guildenstern in meaning of how much it spoke to me on an existentialist level. “ROS: I don’t pretend to have understood. Frankly, I’m not very interested. If they won’t tell us, that’s their affair.” (92). He also later questions to Guildenstern how do you know if you are who you are. In the play, the two men are often interchangeable to the other characters in the play. They have even mixed up themselves before. So when they have taken the time to question who they are and how do they know, and still are confused, existentialism is rearing its head here to be heard.

ROS: Is that you?

GUIL: Yes.

ROS: How do you know? (97)

Another moment that Rosencrantz was in a discussion with Guildenstern showed that Rosencrantz is aware of the absurdity of things that he and Guildenstern speak about.

GUIL: Allowed, yes. We are not restricted. No boundaries have been defined, no inhibitions imposed…We can do what we like and say what we like to whomever we like, without restriction.

ROS: Within limits, of course.

GUIL: Certainly within limits. (116).

Guildenstern says one thing, but when Rosencrantz makes sure to remind him that there are still limits in the world, and Guildenstern agrees although right before he was just saying that they can do or say whatever they want without restriction. Alas, there are restrictions, of course. In America, we have freedom of speech, but if you go to an airport and shout out terroristic threats, your freedom of speech is shot. You’re going to be taken as a threat and are going to be in trouble. There are limits to freedom of speech as in the case in Germany where holocaust denial is a crime.

ROS (he means): Is he dead?

PLAYER: Who knows?

GUIL (rattled): He’s not coming back?

PLAYER: Hardly.

ROS: He’s dead then. He’s dead as far as we’re concerned. (121)

As far as they are concerned, Hamlet is dead to them. Since they do not know what has happened to Hamlet and the missing barrel, Rosencrantz has decided that he might as well think Hamlet is dead because he could be for all that they know, so as far as they are concern, Hamlet should be treated as if he were already dead. What great lines!

Overall, Tom Stoppard’s play deserves to be one of the classics about one of the greatest classics there ever were. With its existentialist theme on choice and existence, and the constant questioning of life, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard is a marvelous play and I highly recommend it for those who are interested in reading some existentialist fiction. I had a lot of fun reading the play especially since I am typically a fan of reading Shakespeare, so reading something like a fanfiction using Shakespeare’s characters and canon combined with existentialist themes to a unique piece of work lead to a great time for me.

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7 thoughts on “Review: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard (1967)

  1. Hi! This is a really interesting and insightful post. I just wrote a review of the NTL’s performance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead with Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire. I would love to get your opinion of it. Here’s a link to my blog if you’re interested, brahamjade.wordpress.com .

    Liked by 1 person

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