Read: November 2019
Author: Tom Stoppard
Genre: Screenplay / Script
Length: 126 (paperback)
Selected By: Elle Tea
“Hamlet, as told from the worm’s-eye view of two minor characters, bewildered Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Reality and illusion mix, and fate leads heroes to a tragic but inevitable end.”
“We do on stage the things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else.”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – or Guildenstern and Rosencrantz – are minor characters in Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet. If you’ve somehow managed to live this long and miss out on Hamlet entirely, the abbreviated version of our protagonists’ relationship to the titular character in the Bard’s play is as follows:
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pronounce themselves to be Hamlet’s oldest, dearest friends who, out of concern for his mental state and a desire to ingratiate themselves with their new king (who happens to be both Hamlet’s uncle and his stepfather), agree to distract Hamlet from his emotional and mental turmoil and report on his welfare and actions to the murderous usurper Claudius. They strut and simper across the stage until Hamlet puts them in their places, effectively reminding them that, although they may appear as the noblest of beasts, they, like everyone else, are nothing more than dust. When they fail to determine the cause of their charge’s malady and things escalate to such a degree that Hamlet ends up killing his quasi-girlfriend’s father, King Claudius sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern off on one final mission: to escort his wayward nephew to England where, unbeknownst to them, he has made arrangements to have Hamlet executed by the English king. Hamlet learns of this nefarious plot, of course, and turns the tables by swapping his name on the writ of execution for those of his alleged friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and so the latter arrive in England only to lose control of their charge, then the situation, and finally… their lives.
“The only beginning is birth and the only end is death – if you can’t count on that, what can you count on?”
And the tragedy is that they never really understand anything that is going on, right up to the point when they’re executed. They’re just about the most clueless people in the entire play – don’t get me wrong, Hamlet has everyone all topsy-turvy and wrong-side up… but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are essentially sycophantic non-entities until they allow themselves to be puffed up, at which point they lose their objectivity. They lack the naive innocence and genuine heartache of Ophelia, the babbling meddling of Polonius, the blind loyalty of Laertes, the evil machinations of King Claudius, or the short-sighted self-involvement of Queen Gertrude, and somehow manage to spend the most time with Hamlet while simultaneously knowing and learning the least about him. They are so focused on determining his major malfunction in order to gain favor from him, the new king, or both that they fail their supposed friend in the greatest way of all: they never notice that Hamlet speaks sense quite frequently and that it is his obsession with seeming mad that is actually driving him mad.
“Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.”
Until they get to England.
And the rest of the tale plummets and pummels on towards its inevitable conclusion.
“Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are… condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one – that is the meaning of order.”
I’ve loved Stoppard’s play about these two unfortunate dinguses for years, and after having read my other two picks (Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad) for November’s re-read-a-book selection weeks before the book club date, I ended up selecting this oldy-but-goody.
“We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered…”
In Stoppard’s play, it is assumed the audience is already familiar with Hamlet and is, therefore, aware of the fates of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – or Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. It’s all a bit tongue-in-cheek, really: for example, in Hamlet, the two characters are never seen apart, and so it becomes practically inconsequential as to which actor is playing which character, provided there are two separate actors for each one; in Stoppard’s play, their separate identities are so inconsequential that their names become interchangeable to everyone, even themselves.
A man talking sense to himself is no madder than a man talking nonsense not to himself.
Though minor supporting characters in Shakespeare’s masterwork, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Guildenstern and Rosencrantz) feature front-and-center in Stoppard’s play. Oh, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is still clearly visible – the play is taking place all around our two heroes, and at times they stumble front-and-center into the midst of a major scene… but they don’t notice the significance, so caught-up are they in their own odd shared predicament.
Because something, as they say, is rotten in the state of Denmark.
“Generally speaking, things have gone about as far as they can possibly go when things have got about as bad as they can reasonably get.”
It begins with a bag of coins and a small wager between friends. Coins which – no matter whether they are thrown, tossed, kicked, or hurled – always land on heads. Always. And Guildenstern (or Rosencrantz) – being the more pragmatic and philosophical of the two – delves into the meaning of such questionable (and for him, unfortunate) fortune. It plagues him to no end – the dependable predictability of those coins always landing on heads – and it comes up frequently, being, as the subject is, never truly far from his thoughts.
“The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.”
Rosencrantz (or Guildenstern), on the other hand, is simpler – almost childlike – of mind. He questions little and reasons less, and he’s perfectly willing to accept both sides of every argument, provided Guildenstern (or Rosencrantz) approves first: he accepts without question that suddenly all of the coins in the world seem to land on heads as easily as he accepts the moment when they suddenly don’t, he doesn’t question the peculiarity of their situation and the missing time for which they cannot account save for the instances when Guildenstern (or Rosencrantz) voices his concerns and questions the truth and validity of it all, he accepts that the Player is absurd and bawdy just as willingly as he accepts that The Player is logical and honest.
“Give us this day our daily cue.”
The other noteworthy characters are also comprised of members of the cast from Hamlet‘s wings: the theater troupe, led by the aforementioned Player, is met by our two hapless heroes on its way to the town where, as dictated by the Bard, they will eventually serve as the mirror by which the corrupt morals of the Danish ruling family are reflected and laid bare for the censure and judgment of both the fictional and real audiences. While the troupe itself serves as the tool by which the reality of both Hamlet‘s and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead‘s worlds can be viewed – sort of like CliffsNotes versions of each play for the TLDR crowd – their leader, known simply as The Player, takes great pains to focus the attention of his audience, be it Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Guildenstern and Rosencrantz) or ourselves, on the truths behind the farces and seems to gain a sort of perverse pleasure from hearing his audience’s harsh condemnation of the fiction even as they accept and submit to the reality.
“We’ve traveled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation.”
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is an excellent play about the human condition and the philosophy of existentialism. An understanding of Hamlet is greatly helpful but not entirely necessary, though you may miss much of the meaning and some of the puns. Reading the play can be a little dry, as Stoppard’s real strength is in the witty, intelligent, rapid-fire banter between characters, which can be overwhelming at times if you haven’t designated a “voice” for each one. Barring an opportunity to view an actual theatrical performance of this play, which can be difficult to find, the 1990 film adaptation is really quite excellent; Stoppard directed it himself, so it stays true to the source material, and Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and Richard Dreyfuss each knock it out of the park with their performances of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the Player, respectively.
Elle Tea’s Favorite Character(s): The Player. Of all the characters, he makes the most logical sense and is often at his most profound when speaking what seems like nothing more than gibberish.
Elle read the Grove Press mass-market paperback edition of this selection.