Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Don’t you see?! We’re actors—we’re the opposite of people!Whoever coined the axiom “there are no small parts, only small actors,” never was cast as Rosencrantz or Guildenstern in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The roles are so indistinguishable that audiences cannot tell which name belongs to which character without a printed script. They don’t appear until Act II, vanish partway through Act IV, and die offstage, deaths so insignificant that we need an exposition character to explain their end.
Which makes them perfect characters for Tom Stoppard. This was his fourth play, debuting in 1966, and presaged an award-winning career in which he persistently blurred the lines of theatre. His characters comment on stage conventions, openly observe the audience, and disregard (rather than break) the fourth wall. And all together, these characters and actions create a strange momentum that questions the relationship between the show and its audience.
In some ways the play mirrors Beckett’s better known, but less accessible, Waiting for Godot. Two characters stand in place, trying to understand their strangely bleak life and abstract purpose, while the world caroms past them. They play the same sorts of games Vladimir and Estragon play to stave off awareness of their hopeless situation. Even the opening stage direction reflects Beckett:
Two Elizabethans passing the time in a place without any visible character.But this play is emphatically not Godot Redux. Unlike Beckett, who saw all human action as essentially adrift, Stoppard repeatedly reminds us that we are watching the back half of a profound story. On the other side of the wall, the most important story ever staged continues, unheeding of the two daft courtiers, who in turn remain blind to the profundity surrounding them. Hamlet, Claudius, and Polonius keep interrupting their solitude, yet they never understand.
That’s because these two are more caught up in their own narrative. Like the audience, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have lost sight of the most important fact of their lives: themselves. They know their names as a pair, but no longer remember which of them is which. Throughout the play, they devise tests and games to see if they can rediscover their names. Everything that happens can be perceived as an attempt to relearn lost identities.
Without that inherent sense of self, everything else seems colorless to them. King Claudius has given them a task, but for them, it exists with no vital context. Hamlet keeps trying to draw them into his confidence, alternately entrusting them with his secrets, and turning them into his personal weapons against Claudius. But because the court is pouring its majesty into empty vessels, nothing ever happens. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain unmoved.
Throughout these actions, our antiheroes maintain a strange symbiosis with The Player, a character whose equal lack of identity spurs him not to inaction, but to vacillating rage and fatalism. His play within a play, The Murder of Gonzago, forms a bridge between this play and Hamlet, but the more our heroes see of it, the more they see their own stories played out. This layering of theatre upon theatre poses many of the play’s most interesting questions.
When Roland Barthes spoke disparagingly of authors having “theological” control over their creations, he may have had this story in mind. Shakespeare created Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, set their story in motion, and seemingly lost interest in them. Like a disinterested and mildly cruel God, he introduced these characters for no purpose but to die. Stoppard asks: what control, then, do they have over their lives?
Like us, these characters never grasp their place in their own story. The forces that placed them there remain curiously absent. They know they have some purpose, but they don’t see what, and their fumbling attempts to discover that purpose leave them only more confused. As history’s great pageant plays just beyond their vision, they remain trapped in a permanent present. Yet they retain a strange optimism. Guildenstern’s final words reflect this: “Well, we’ll know better next time.”
Of course, for us as for them, there is no next time; their optimism is part of the illusion that makes life bearable in the face of such profound nothingness.In this play, Stoppard has created the opposite of a tragedy: small characters whose insignificance achieves such overwhelming proportions that they don’t even understand their own deaths. And he defies us to ask which side of the wall we stand on, that of Shakespeare and the heroes, or that of these two, inches from eternity.