Analysis of 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead'

Seminar Paper, 2006

22 Pages, Grade: 1,3




The play

Post-modernism in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Metadrama in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead



The play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in its present form is the result of several drafts and older versions of this play, which Tom Stoppard wrote and staged. The first one was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet King Lear and was performed by amateur actors at a Ford Foundation cultural picnic in Berlin, in 1964. In this form the play was a one-act comedy in verse.[1] In the following years the title changed and Stoppard rewrote the play into prose. At the Edinburgh Festival in 1966 the play had its break through and soon later its script was bought and produced by the National Theatre at the Old Vic. According to the Sunday Times it was “the most important event in the British professional theatre of the last nine years.”[2] The reason for the enthusiastic reactions towards the play is the fact that it illustrates the confusion of mankind in the post-modern world. Today’s pluralism leaves the individual all to himself. The unity, which used to be created by religion, class or moral values, has been split up in favour of countless parallel existing societies with their own moral ideals and goals. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a comical depiction of two friends looking for an orientation in a world, which to them has lost its orders and values. By using Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are the two courtiers from Elsinore, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Stoppard shows an unknown perspective of Hamlet. It is the one of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Without knowing the entire plot they experience the action from their point of view and constantly try to find explanations of their roles and future in the play. The lack of orientation and the absence of reliable values in this strange world remind the audience of the contemporary pluralistic society and its problems. Even though the matter is serious Stoppard manages to establish a comical atmosphere, which includes a certain self-critique as self-control to prevent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead from becoming in any way idealistic or instructive. To show this I will analyse the play from a post-modern perspective and thereby focus on the metadramatic features, which make up for the self-control of the play. At first I will describe the plot and setting of the play. Secondly I will define post-modernism and metadrama for an analysis of the play. In the context of metadrama some textual allusions to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot will be described.

The setting

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead focuses on the situation of these two characters known from their minor roles in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In both plays they appear as two courtiers at Elsinore who, without being able to avoid it, are caught up in the action and eventually get killed without ever finding out why they got involved. Stoppard’s play looks behind the scenes of Hamlet and depicts Ros and Guil (that is how the two friends call each other casually) as questioning the ongoing action. They are the stage characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are inescapably imprisoned in their roles both trying to understand what is going on and taking their existence on stage for reality.

The entire text is strictly limited to the way Ros & Guil perceive the Hamlet plot. Their speculation about the purpose of their existence begins when Claudius commands them to court. It continues when they try to find out what is going on with Hamlet who obviously is bad-tempered. Finally they are chosen to bring Hamlet away from Elsinore to England without really knowing why. Only an audience familiar with Shakespeare’s play knows at this point that Ros & Guil have been selected to accompany the courtly agitator on the journey to the place of his execution. Hamlet however finds the letter expressing this request. To save his life he exchanges his name with those of Ros & Guil and flees leaving behind the two honest subjects from Elsinore who are doomed now.

Ros & Guil have the problem of a discrepancy of knowledge. Neither of them knows the Hamlet plot and it is left up to them to make sense of the orders they are given. This discrepancy is emphasized by the design of the play. The action of all three acts can be divided into two different categories. Tim Brassell referred to them as ‘on-stage’ and ‘off-stage’ sections:[3]

The on-stage sections are incorporated from Hamlet (introducing Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Horatio, Fortinbras and the 1st Ambassador) and contain passages where Ros & Guil are explicitly involved in the Hamlet plot. Consequently, as Shakespeare’s original version suggests, these sections take place at Elsinore where the drama unfolds, with Ros & Guil playing their roles known from Hamlet as two obedient courtiers carrying out the wishes and demands, which are expressed by the royals surrounding them. The off-stage sections are newly written texts. They work like additions and tell the story around the on-stage action with Ros & Guil on their way to Elsinore, their stay at court and finally the crossing to England on a boat together with Hamlet. Off-stage Ros & Guil try to make sense of their confusing situation of being given orders and handling the complicated character of Hamlet. They lack information and constantly question everything they experience in order to understand it:

Ros: He talks to himself, which might be madness.

Guil: If he didn’t talk sense, which he does.

Ros: Which suggests the opposite.

Player: Of what?[4]

When not involved in the Hamlet action, they spend their time playing games such as coin spinning games, question games, role-plays as well as discussions and interpretations of their situation. Because of misunderstandings and malapropisms these conversations become comical and carry heavy irony. Witnessing both of them trying to define directions with help of the draught in the theatre building, makes the audience understand the absurdity of their situation:

Guil: I’m trying to establish the direction of the wind.

Ros: There isn’t any wind. Draught, yes.

Guil: In that case the origin. Trace it to its source and it might give us a rough idea of the way we came in – which might give us a rough idea of south, for further reference.

Ros: It’s coming up through the floor. (He studies the

floor.) That can’t be south, can it?[5]

Along with a thematic relationship scenes like this can be seen as a strong allusion to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. (The connections between both plays will be discussed more closely later in this paper).

Time and space jumps are striking stylistic devices of Stoppard’s. In Act I Ros & Guil are transferred from the tragedian’s roadside performance to the court of Elsinore.[6] Apart from that both of them wake up on the boat without having an idea of how they got there, only remembering the order from Claudius to leave for England at the beginning of Act III.[7] A further jump of place occurs when the tragedians who were murdered by the Player appear as the victims of the murders taking place at Elsinore known from the last Hamlet scene.[8] Time and place as devices to create a reliable order in existence are disregarded.

In this hostile environment Ros, the rather emotionally oriented character of both, reacts to his surrounding with an attitude best described as a “gut feeling”. He is far more sensitive than his companion and acts in a rather spontaneous manner, often trying to counteract the plot at work, which they constantly try to grasp but just the same fail to comprehend. By acting this way he hopes to find proof for his existence:

Ros: I wish I was dead. (Considers the drop.) I could jump over the side. That would put a spoke in their wheel.

Guil: Unless they’re counting on it.

Ros: I shall remain on board. That’ll put a spoke in their wheel. (The futility of it, fury.) All right![9]

Guil tries to face the situation from the empiric point of view. He discusses philosophical and mathematical theories to get to grips with his existence; for instance trying to solve the mystery of the coin spinning game producing eighty-five times heads in a row:

Guil: It must be the law of diminishing returns. … I feel the spell about to be broken. (…)

Well, it was an even chance… if my calculations are correct.[10]

What unifies them is their belief that they have the possibility of taking influence on the action which they are actually subdued to on stage. Most clearly this is alluded to in scenes where Ros & Guil act spontaneously: Ros is responsible for a short moment of suspense when he suddenly shouts “Fire!”[11] into the audience without any obvious reason. Of course, nothing happens and he happily explains his behaviour with the argument “It’s all right – I’m demonstrating the misuse of free speech. To prove that it exists.” Guil also has one of these moments when he stabs the Player with his own dagger. At first Guil, who still sees himself as an identity potentially able to take influence, believes to have killed the Player. However the dagger’s blade was retrievable. The Player “performed” a death, which Guil believes in up to the moment when the Player stands up again and is applauded by his fellow tragedians.[12] What appears at first sight to be a climax turns out to be only a marginal incident without any consequence, which could possibly give evidence to Guil’s hope of being able to take influence. As the leader of the tragedian band, which performs a play at court in Hamlet and a dumb show rehearsal of the courtly performance in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the Player is introduced. He stands out in the confusing world of the two courtiers since he is sure about his role and position in the plot in contrast to them. He accepts his role as an actor playing according to a certain order and negates Ros & Guil’s belief in the existence of individual identities:

Guil: Well … aren’t you going to change into your cos- tume?

Player: I never change out of it, sir.

Guil: Always in character.

Player: That’s it.[13]

To him the characters involved in the plot are only “acting” according to a given order. He is aware of the theatricality of the situation. This appears to be a rather comfortable perspective to look at things. Ros & Guil are offended by this perception of their situation since it denies them any form of influence or individuality. This antagonism creates a tension between especially Guil and the Player. Many philosophical battles are fought between both in which they try to convince each other of their views. The Player however understanding existence as being an illusion created by mimesis cannot be successfully objected to and leaves Guil behind in their arguments. Death and existence as conditions truly experienced and potentially comprehensible don’t exist for him! Nevertheless Guil refuses to accept this till the end.

Shakespeare’s protagonist Hamlet only appears in a minor role in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in the selected scenes from Shakespeare’s play without falling out of role like Ros & Guil do. He doesn’t cross the line into the new text. Besides an alluding function to the thematic similarities between both plays in his dialogues and monologues his only role is to serve as a figure without any depth, only bringing on the action and being part of the world which Ros & Guil try to make sense of. He and the rest of the royal household, who unfold the tragedy of Hamlet, work as a kind of meta-sphere for Ros & Guil. It offers a mysterious order, which bewilders and frightens them. They feel out of their depth when confronted with this reality viewing it only from their limited perspective:


[1] Rusinko, p.29

[2] Ibid, p.29

[3] Brassell, p.39

[4] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Act II, p.73, l. 6ff

[5] Ibid., Act II, p.62, l. 5ff

[6] Ibid., Act I, p. 35, l. 24ff

[7] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Act II, p. 107, l. 1ff

[8] Ibid., Act III, p. 142, l. 5ff

[9] Ibid., Act II, p. 120, l. 9ff

[10] Ibid., Act I, p. 8, l. 23ff

[11] Ibid., Act II, p. 63, l. 21f

[12] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Act III, p.138, l. 17ff

[13] Ibid, Act I, p. 34, l. 25ff

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Analysis of 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead'
University of Mannheim  (Lehrstuhl Anglistik II)
Classics of 20th Century British Drama
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Analysis of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead from post-modern metadramatic perspective.
Analysis, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Classics, Century, British, Drama
Quote paper
Karl Mattern (Author), 2006, Analysis of 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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