A structural clash of perspectives. Irreconcilable contradictions in Tom Stoppard's drama "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead"

Term Paper, 2016
24 Pages, Grade: 1,0



I. Introduction

II. The structure of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead
1) The melting plot
2) The symbol of the coin as a structural metaphor
3) The ambiguous play with the audience
4) Metadramatic elements in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

III. A clash of perspectives: Contradictory world-views in conflict
1) Transformation and affirmation of the Hamlet plot
2) Adaptation and inversion of “Waiting for Godot”
a) Affinities in the characterisation of Ros and Guil to Beckett’s tramps
b) Differences in the dramatic conception of Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead
3) The postmodern attitude of the Player

IV. Final comment

V. Bibliography

I. Introduction

A new form of art can only emerge from an investigation of the old, cultural possessions. Precisely this argument is dramatized in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by means of comparing different models which try to introduce system and sense into the world, while none of them can claim to be of a general validity. The contradictions that have developed from man’s existential need to understand and adopt a structured world-view must be left standing side by side – a central perspective to dissolve them is not available since every stance is system-immanent and thus relative. The concept of intertextuality implies the awareness that our ways of thinking and possible writing styles are always and inevitably shaped by the cultural conventions they stem from and also by the medium and the sign structures one has to make use of for the sake of articulation.The author does no longer pretend to be the original creator of an art work because he is well aware that he himself is a “cultural product” and that he has to make use of the literary repertoire, traditional stylistic devices, ideologies and conventions. Nevertheless, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is neither an obvious intertextual assembly of quotations, a simple patchwork, nor is Stoppard a “theatrical parasite”[1]. The integral parts of the Hamlet pattern and the absurdist Godot -model are homogenized to form a new plot in a way that the play can also be understood without any special literary knowledge – although a spectator who only has a rough idea of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy will probably miss many of the jokes relying on dramatic irony. Stoppard’s play evades the traditional genre typology. Because of its midway position between tragedy and comedy, parody and pastiche the play is conservative in taking over whole sequences of Hamlet literally and at the same time revolutionary because the distance towards the previous literary models serves to embed ancient moral concepts and thought into an ironic, postmodern context. In his reflection on the cultural inheritance Stoppard as a writer influenced by the postmodern mentality fulfils the requirement of Umberto Eco that the literary tradition should be dealt “with irony, without innocence.”[2] Among various contemporary playwrights who have rewritten Hamlet, Stoppard’s version occupies a particular as well as outstanding position because prince Hamlet is neither the center of the play – his personality and individual dilemma, his tragic situation and complicated relationship to the other characters and himself are virtually unimportant – nor does the play foreground psychoanalytic or social aspects.

The first part of this term paper is devoted to structural features of Stoppard’s play like the composition and combination of the plot, the coin metaphor (which is paradigmatic for the structure of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) the reciprocal relationship between the audience and the play and the use of metadramatical elements. The main emphasis of the second part is put on the adaptation and inversion of the play’s dramatic predecessors Hamlet and Waiting for Godot. Furthermore, the different perspectives unfolded shall be compared, contrasted and examined as regards content.

II. The structure of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead

1) The melting plot

As already mentioned, Stoppard makes use of two dramatic models in his defamiliarizing play. Two underlying structures, on the one hand Hamlet, the most famous tragedy of Western culture, and on the other hand Waiting for Godot, the prime example of the Theater of the Absurd are melted and held together by means of a surface structure fitted in to bridge the gap between the two patterns and to form a “new” plot. Consequently, the inner system of communication is partitioned into the textual, onstage Hamlet world and the absurd offstage world[3] of the bewildered clowns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (henceforth Ros and Guil). The link between those two textual systems is embodied by the Player as a kind of epic mediator[4] who, just like the audience, has a knowledge of the Hamlet script and thus of Ros’s and Guil’s final destination. For this reason he can easily contrast both intermingled systems from a seemingly higher position outside the action of the playworld in which he takes part at the same time. If one heeds the Player’s advice to “look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else”[5] it soon becomes clear that the two protagonists are double characters acting on two levels because their active Hamlet participations and their stative offstage existence alternate permanently. The dramatic sequence of Hamlet is not rearranged, but can be imagined to pass simultaneously and scene by scene in the background. The majority of encounters between the two courtiers and Hamlet is incorporated literally in Stoppard’s version, though not always in full and often with slight changes or short insertions. The longest of their dialogues with the prince[6] is markedly shortened but hence reported by Ros and Guil in retrospect. Significantly, the pipe scene, which most impressively illustrates their role as Claudius’s henchmen and spies in Shakespeare, is omitted, but appears, though in a quite transformed version, in the third act on board the ship where it seems to be more apt. The reason the recorder lines are probably cut is that Ros and Guil are in this scene too well aware of their function to intrigue against Hamlet, whereas Stoppard’s courtiers are intended to make a befuddled, clueless and baffled impression. Not a possible complicity in the king’s plot is stressed, but rather their innocence, which is due to their total ignorance concerning the (from their marginal perspective) completely incoherent events going on around them. As far as the second dramatic model is concerned, similarities to the Theatre of the Absurd are principally established by means of anologies - very few explicit quotations from Waiting for Godot can be made out. The following paragraphs will show why the dramatic model of the latter drama and that of Hamlet are not selected arbitrarily, and why a close interrelation between those two as regards content can be ascertained.

2) The symbol of the coin as a structural metaphor

The coin tossing is a repeated leitmotif of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and serves as the opening scene of the drama. The impossible run of heads (all in all, if one also counts the continuation of the coin tossing included in the bet against the Player, the coin comes down heads uppermost one-hundred and one consecutive times) has the signalling function to make Ros and Guil aware of the fact that they are about to enter a fictional world in which rules of probability are not valid[7]. What is more important about the coin metaphor is that it can be interpreted to illustrate the counterpointing structure of the play. The form of a coin depicts a paradox[8]: there are always two apparently distinct sides of one and the same thing that are nevertheless bound together. A coin can be seen as a binary object illustrating the dichotomy of two different values, but at the same time those values are identical because they add up to one and the same principle. Both sides can only be defined by means of their opposite, they are strongly interdependent and none of the two positions exists without the other. For these reasons the boundaries between the two sides are fluid, the distinctions are less than absolute and what seems to be a clearly defined opposite is often interchangeable with its counterpart. Throughout the play supposed oppositional equivalents are ironically held against each other with the intention to call into question whether they can be assumed to stand in a 1:1 relation and whether an axis between poles like actor and spectator, art and life, reality and fiction, chance and fate, tragedy and comedy or death and life can be drawn anyhow. In this light it becomes clear why Stoppard, of all available models, chose the dramatic pattern of Hamlet and that of Waiting for Godot. Indeed, what Jan Kott[9] has observed about the parallels between Shakespeare’s King Lear and Beckett’s Endgame, i.e. between one of the great tragedies and an absurdist farce, obviously also applies to the relation between Stoppard’s sources. Despite the significant differences that may appear at first glance, the basic content of existential questions, which remain after having subtracted the manner they are dealt with, are mainly the same. On Hamlet as well as on Didi and Gogo a situation is imposed that does not leave them with many choices. Hamlet can either fulfil his father’s last will and bow to the revenge pattern or kill himself, Didi and Gogo can go on waiting eternally or hang themselves “tomorrow. [ Pause.] Unless Godot comes.”[10] All of them can neither escape nor leave without having opted for one of these alternatives. Although absolute metaphysical power has been replaced by absurdity, questions about the human condition, about “the quintessence of dust”, (Ham II, 2) the meaning of life and the mystery of death remain unanswerable and essential – no matter whether they are faced by clowns or by tragic heroes. For these reasons tragedy and absurdism can be said to be two “answers” to one and the same subject matter, to the same fundamental problems ; they are only two sides of the same coin. This conclusion is also valid for the putative dichotomy of reality and fiction or of life and art. The use of metadramatical elements rejects the notion that art should be a mimetic copy of reality and therefore suggests that mimesis is “as there are so many of us” (RG 22) a very questionable concept[11]. It seems that Ros and Guil, in their downstage position at the footlights, are opposed to the fictional onstage Hamlet characters, the tragedians included, and that they are, as the extension of the audience, meant to be “real”. This assumption, however, turns out to be an illusion which is established only to be distorted. The moment the audience realizes that they are exactly the expected marginal Shakespeare characters, the courtiers’ fictive role and their supposed “real” identity become inextricably intermingled. That is why reality can no longer be seperately defined and is moreover undermined especially by Ros’s disability to recall anything about their pre-existence except that coins came down tails as often as heads and people could assign the right name to each of them. Additionally, these meagre memories only serve to mark the change between the two levels of the Hamlet world and their own little lives. Once fiction has imposed itself upon reality, the latter is – just like the two clowns – contained within a larger plan, it is just a wheel “within wheels” (RG 123) swallowed by the power of illusion. Illusion is also emphasized by apparently supernatural forces that come into effect and remain without explanation. Ros and Guil are baffled to hear themselves talk in Elisabethan English according to the script, they enigmatically find themselves in Elsinore without having walked there, on board the ship they hide in the left of three barrels during the pirate attack to emerge from the middle one afterwards and they should rather not bet on tails[12]. In this respect the self-conscious representative of all fiction, the Player, can be seen as the man behind the scenes pulling the strings and utilizing the power of fiction to sustain the trouble-free course of the script. Indeed, the tragedians defend the progress of the Hamlet plot which can be seen when they threateningly encircle Ros and Guil who endanger the plot when they are about to discover their death sentence written down in black and white. Completetly taken up with the play world the actors even become mixed up with the Hamlet cast.[13] Only seemingly, the Player asserts Guil’s view that they are “operating on two levels” (RG 71) by his statement that actors are “the opposite of people” (RG 68) – but they are because they do not try to derive significance from opposites. They do not strive for a stable, consistent identity or meaning and have freed themselves from constructed boundaries because it is “all the same” (RG 89) – here in the literal sense – to them. As a consequence of the inseperability of reality and fiction, the faked border between actor and spectator turns out to be untenable, too. Desperate about their useless efforts to “glean what afflicts” (RG 50) Hamlet, Ros and Guil feel as if they were standing on the outside, just like spectators, while they are actually encompassed by the famous tragedy. They confirm their passive status several times:

Ros: I feel like a spectator – an apalling prospect. (RG 45)


[1] Robert Brustein, „Waiting for Hamlet“, New Republic (November 1967), p.25. Brustein’s attitude is furthermore undermined by the insight that Shakespeare himself is not an original creator since he has also rewritten the cultural material available to him.

[2] Compare: Umberto Eco, Nachschrift zum ‚Namen der Rose’, München, 1984, p.78: „Die postmoderne Antwort auf die Moderne besteht in der Einsicht und Anerkennung, daß die Vergangenheit, nachdem sie nun einmal nicht zerstört werden kann, da ihre Zerstörung zum Schweigen führt, auf neue Weise ins Auge gefasst werden muss: mit Ironie, ohne Unschuld.“

[3] See Tim Brassell, „In the Offstage World: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead “, in: Tim Brassel: Tom Stoppard: An Assessment, Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, London, 1985, p.39/40.

[4] Beate Neumeier, Spiel und Politik: Aspekte der Komik bei Tom Stoppard, München, 1986, p. 67.

[5] Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Stuttgart(=Reclam), 1998, p.28. Quotations from this edition will in the course of following passages be refered to as (RG + page number).

[6] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Stuttgart(=Reclam), 2000, II ii, V. 220-375. Quotations from this edition will in the following passages be referred to as (Ham + act + scene).

[7] Compare Tim Brassell, „In the Offstage World: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead “, in: Tim Brassell, Tom Stoppard: An assessment, Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, London, 1985, here p. 40.

[8] Compare Manfred Draudt, “Two sides of the same coin, or…the same side of two coins: An Analysis of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead”, English Studies, 62/4 (1981), 348-357.

[9] Compare Jan Kott, König Lear oder das Endspiel, in: Jan Kott, Shakespeare heute, Frankfurt/M., Wien, Zürich, 1991, 144-188.

[10] Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, London (=Faber and Faber), 2000, p.87. This edition will in the following paragraphes be refered to as (WFG + page number).

[11] For a more detailed analysis of the inseperability of reality and fiction in Stoppard’s plays please see June Schlueter, „Stoppard’s Moon and Birdboot, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “, in: June Schlueter, Metafictional characters in modern drama, New York, 1979, 89-103, here especially 96/97.

[12] The “preponderance of magic” has been examined in greater detail by J. Dennis Huston, “Misreading Hamlet: Problems of Perspective in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, in: John Harty, III (ed.), Tom Stoppard: A Casebook, New York, 1988, here 53-56.

[13] Rosencrantz mistakes the disguised Alfred for Gertrude (RG 82) and Hamlet confuses the Player-King and -Queen (RG 85) with Claudius and Gertrude.

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A structural clash of perspectives. Irreconcilable contradictions in Tom Stoppard's drama "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead"
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Agnes Pfaff (Author), 2016, A structural clash of perspectives. Irreconcilable contradictions in Tom Stoppard's drama "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/323861


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