R&G reading

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

by Tom Stoppard

Theme of Fate and Free Will

This theme is introduced in the very first scene of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, where the long string of coins tosses coming up "heads" seems to suggest that the laws of probability have been suspended. The way that fate operates in the play is largely through the words of William Shakespeare. Since Stoppard's play works within the framework of Shakespeare's Hamlet, his characters are bound to undergo a certain series of events – their fate was "written" in 1600. Main characters Guil and Ros have the most freedom when they manage to get out of the action of the Hamlet storyline, but in these times they often find themselves bored and listless. The relationship between Stoppard's play and Shakespeare's allows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to ask the question: to what degree do fate and chance control our own lives?

Questions about Fate and Free Will

  1. How can the fact that the action of Stoppard's play is already determined by Hamlet be used as a metaphor for fate?
  2. Do the characters seem happiest when they feel that they have free will or when they sense that their fate has already been written?
  3. What is the relationship between fate and free will that is symbolized by the boat? Do Ros and Guil find this a desirable relationship? Should they?

Chew on This

In the beginning of the play, Guildenstern sees fate and free will as two sides of a coin. Either there is such a thing as fate and they have no free will, or there is such a thing as free will but then their actions are arbitrary.

Which interpretation is true for R&G?

Theme of Manipulation

People use each other quite a bit in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and part of the reason the main characters, Ros and Guil, are never in control of their situation is because they seem naively incapable of using the people around them. Manipulation, in many ways, is compared the act of directing a play – it's the ability to control the course of events. A play is explored as something that manipulates the audience: something that attempts to affect the way that they think and feel.

Questions about Manipulation

  1. How does Claudius manipulate Ros and Guil in the play? How do they not realize that they are being used, or do they?
  2. To what extent does the Player direct his troupe and attempt to please his audience, and to what extent does he manipulate both groups? Is he is manipulating them? If so, why?
  3. How do relationships in the play change when one character begins "using" another? Namely, what chance does Hamlet's friendship with Ros and Guil have after they come to him on Claudius's business?

Chew on This

Ros and Guil are too oblivious to be able to manipulate anyone. Their fate arises because they are manipulated by both Hamlet and Claudius, but for different and conflicting purposes. Are they unknowing victims or are they complicit in their own deaths?

Theme of Multiple Realities

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the play-within-a-play is packed within a clear context and is used by Hamlet to send a message to Claudius. For us as the audience of Stoppard's play, however, the distinctions between a play and reality get totally jumbled. First, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is nothing but a play on the stage. Secondly, it is a play that interacts with the action of an earlier play, Shakespeare's Hamlet. Third, it is unclear to what extent the Player and his Tragedians are driving the action of the play and to what extent the "real" characters are in control of what is happening. The difference between drama and reality is called into question, most explicitly in the arguments between Guil and the Player.

 

Questions about Versions of Reality

How many distinct realities are there within the play? Is the reality inhabited by Ros and Guil different than that inhabited by the Player, than that inhabited by Claudius and Hamlet? If these realities are different, then how are they different?

  1. Do drama and real life constitute two different versions of reality? How does the play distinguish between them? Does this distinction ever break down?
  2. How can you explain the fact that the characters sometimes act as if they know that they are in a play? Are these moments different from the rest of the play? Does it interfere with your ability to understand the rest of the play? Does it make the play seem fake and contrived?

Chew on This

There is no one version of reality presented in the play, and the idea of one coherent reality is presented as a fiction. Only those that can act in a multiplicity of realities make it out of the play unscathed.

How many distinct realities are there within the play? Is the reality inhabited by Ros and Guil different than that inhabited by the Player, than that inhabited by Claudius and Hamlet? If these realities are different, then how are they different?

 

Theme of Foolishness and Folly

In many ways, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead it is the title characters' fault that they die. They are easily, and, at times, willingly manipulated. Not to mention, Ros and Guil spend a good portion of the play messing around – swapping names, misunderstanding each other, playing at games of their own devising. Their foolishness is, in part, a source of comedy, but it also seems a natural way to stay entertained when one has as little to do.

Questions About Foolishness and Folly

  1. Focusing on Hamlet in particular, what is the difference between madness and foolishness? Is Hamlet mad or foolish or both?
  2. How much of the action of the play is driven by folly? How much of it is purpose-driven?
  3. With regard to Ros, what is the difference between a foolish speech and an illuminating one? Are Ros's speeches any more foolish than Guil's? If so, how? If not, why not?

Chew on This

In the play, the characters that appear the most foolish are those who take time to step back and attempt to understand their situation. By contrast, those who act thoughtlessly appear wise.

Are R&G actually foolish or simply in a state of childlike innocence? Are the limitations personal fault or simply omissions?