A Summary and Analysis of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which had its premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in 1966, is one of the most famous plays by the Czech-born British playwright Tom Stoppard. Stoppard’s work has long been concerned with revisiting Shakespeare and offering a new take on his work; he even wrote the screenplay to the hugely successful 1998 film Shakespeare in Love.

But his first great engagement with Shakespeare was his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which takes two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and makes them the main figures in the drama. By doing so, Stoppard examines the gaps between the scenes in Shakespeare’s play, opening Hamlet out in ways which we might not have considered before while also echoing many of its principal concerns: the role of fate in governing our lives, the significance of performing and ‘acting’ (of various kinds), and the fine line between what is real and what is artifice.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: plot summary

The play follows the timeline of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, with several key elements and moments – including the arrival of the Players at Elsinore, the killing of Polonius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s voyage to England with Hamlet – being incorporated into the action. However, in between these familiar events we are treated to the musings of the two title characters as they, in a double act reminiscent of Vladimir and Estragon from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, wait to find out what their fates will be.

The play begins with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tossing coins and musing on the idea of chance. The coin has turned up heads eighty-five times in a row. At this stage, they have no idea why they have been summoned to the royal court at Elsinore: the first clue that they are not possessed of full control, or even knowledge, of the course of their lives. Old friends of Hamlet, they have been sent for by the King and Queen, Claudius and Gertrude, but at this stage they have no idea why. Indeed, they can’t even tell which of them is Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern, in the first of many witty in-jokes and nods to the audience (after all, which of us could tell the two of them apart, when they always come as a pair?).

In a nod to the events of Hamlet, the troupe of wandering actors or Players arrives at court, and they rehearse The Murder of Gonzago. In Shakespeare’s play – which we have summarised in a separate post – Hamlet directs the Players to act this play so he can observe his uncle’s reaction in the audience when the King in the play is murdered by poison (the same way Claudius murdered King Hamlet). In Stoppard’s play, however, the actors in The Murder of Gonzago enact a different scene: the execution of two courtiers who bear a close resemblance to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves. Rosencrantz smells a rat, thinking that this is a hint at their own eventual fate.

They find themselves on board a ship bound for England, as in Shakespeare’s play, unaware that Hamlet has outwitted his uncle and exchanged the letter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are carrying for one of his own (which commands the English king to kill them, rather than Hamlet himself). The ship is attacked by pirates and Hamlet escapes, and the two title characters prepare to face their deaths as the final scene from Hamlet is played out.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: analysis

The idea for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead came from Stoppard’s agent, who suggested that his young budding playwright fashion a play around the two minor characters from Hamlet, but have them arrive in an English being ruled over by another Shakespeare character, King Lear. Stoppard rejected that final touch as being perhaps an arch move too far, but he ran with the core idea of making a play involving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern during their ‘off’ moments, when they are not part of the canonical scenes of Hamlet.

This central idea is often portrayed as more original than it in fact was. In truth, Stoppard was not the first playwright to do this: in 1874, W.S. Gilbert, of the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership, published a play titled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the periodical Fun, with the play being first performed 17 years later (another performance, in 1900, featured a teenage P. G. Wodehouse, then about to embark on his hugely successful writing career).

So the basic idea at the heart of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was not wholly new. But his treatment of this premise would outdo what Gilbert and others had attempted, creating a play that is at once comical and philosophical, trivial and profound, faithful to Shakespeare’s original characters and playfully irreverent towards them. Stoppard handles these fine balances with panache.

And indeed, a central theme of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is also one we find at the heart of Hamlet: the relationship between ‘acting’ (as in performing an action, or acting upon something, such as a father’s command to avenge his murder) and ‘acting’ (as in performing a role, whether by pretending to be mad or performing a play in order to catch a murderer out). Stoppard’s play, like his witty and hilarious The Real Inspector Hound from the same period, reminds us that metatheatre is already a pivotal concern in Shakespeare’s play, with its play-within-a-play (The Murder of Gonzago, renamed ‘The Mousetrap’ by Hamlet himself) and its tragic hero who seems intent on performing a role.

And like Hamlet himself – thrown into a role, that of avenging son, which he seems reluctant to adopt – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are characters who appear not to be in control of their own destinies. They were ‘sent for’ by Claudius and Gertrude, who want to find out what’s up with Hamlet.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead could not have been written, of course, without Hamlet. But it almost certainly would never have been written in Samuel Beckett had never written Waiting for Godot, the post-war play which did more than any other, perhaps, to take theatre in a new direction. We have analysed Beckett’s remarkable play in a separate post, but the key similarities between Beckett’s and Stoppard’s two post-war visions lie in the rather helpless passivity of the two central characters in each play, the emphasis on repetition (calling to mind Camus’ absurdist essay, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’), and the philosophical emphasis in both.

In both plays, the central pair of characters have to occupy themselves while waiting for something to happen: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are waiting to be summoned and then waiting to be given their orders, while Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for the elusive Godot, who never arrives. The modern world is at once absurdly tedious and repetitive and worryingly unpredictable, as the events of the Second World War had shown perhaps more clearly than ever before.

The fact that the title of Stoppard’s play condemns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death before the play has even begun – in a line taken from Shakespeare’s play – is oddly fitting, not just because it signals the various textual echoes of Shakespeare’s original found in Stoppard’s own play but because it overlays everything that the two characters do with a sense of futility. They are, in a sense, already dead.

But then the same is true of Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and Polonius. If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are ultimately disposable, what about the royal line of Denmark? Stoppard’s play ends much as Shakespeare’s does, with much of the court dead at each other’s hands. Only Horatio survives – and Fortinbras, of course, who arrives to take over the kingdom. Everything in Hamlet appears to have been for nothing, too, and it is this truth about the nature of Shakespeare’s tragedy which Stoppard’s scintillatingly clever comedy brings so brilliantly into focus.

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