Hope for humanity in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Just how dead are they? A fateful misstep need not be a fatal mistake.

Hope for humanity in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Just how dead are they?  A fateful misstep need not be a fatal mistake.

 Burton Weltman

 “We cannot choose our circumstances,

but we can always choose how we respond to them.”



1.Prologue: Existentialist Nightmares.

“We are our choices.”   Jean Paul Sartre.

We have all had this nightmare.  You are trapped in a scary place that you can’t get out of, or you are being chased by someone or something that you can’t get away from.  You almost get free, but then not.  You are baffled and can’t figure out what to do.  But, just before you are done in by whatever is threatening you, you wake up, shaking, but free of the danger.

That is essentially the experience of two minor characters from Hamlet as they are portrayed in Tom Stoppard’s comic play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  Caught in what appears to them, and to us in the audience, as a nightmare, they stumble about, futilely trying to figure out what is going on, and how to get out of whatever it is.  The dreamlike quality of their existence is exemplified by their frequent inability to remember things, including the events of their own lives before they were caught up in Hamlet’s story.  They also repeatedly find themselves in scenes of Hamlet and not remembering how they got there.  It is like a nightmare.  Only they don’t wake up.  And they are done in at the end.[1]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a play set inside another play, Hamlet, and it runs in tandem with the other play.  Whatever happens in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is bounded and limited by what happened in Hamlet.  That is, nothing can occur in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that would conflict with or contradict the script of Hamlet.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must work out their own fates within the confines of Hamlet’s tragedy.

Stoppard is generally considered to be an existentialist playwright.  Existentialism is generally considered to be a philosophy of choices.  In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard has created a situation of severely constricted choices.  He has, thereby, pushed the existential situation to its extremes.  Since Hamlet ends with an announcement of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we the audience watch the humorous antics of the two bumbling characters in Stoppard’s play with muted horror because we already know the ending of Hamlet.  But we still hope against hope that they will wake up to their situation and escape what seems to be their fatal fate.  They don’t wake up from their nightmare and they don’t escape, but could they have?  I think this is the crucial question of the play.

Were there options that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could have taken within the confines of Hamlet that would have allowed them to survive, despite the announcement of their deaths at the end of that play?  Were there choices that Stoppard could have had them make that would have enabled them to survive, despite being constrained by the terms of Hamlet.  I say “Yes,” there were.  They could have survived, and that is the main point of Stoppard’s play.

2.The Plot: Such as it is.

“Man is conditioned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”  Jean Paul Sartre.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two young Danes, apparently Prince Hamlet’s childhood friends and classmates at Wittenberg University in Germany.  They have been summoned by the newly installed Danish King Claudius to the King’s castle to spy on Hamlet.  Hamlet has recently returned from Germany to attend the funeral of his father, the late King Hamlet.  Prince Hamlet is behaving in suspicious ways, which is of concern to the new King since he had secretly murdered Hamlet’s father in order to gain the throne, and he would not want the Prince digging up the dirt on him.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, seeming to have no real option but to obey the command of their King, agree to watch Hamlet and report on him.

The two characters spend the rest of their own play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, wandering around inside Hamlet’s play.  They show up at key dramatic moments of Hamlet, openly appearing in the action of Hamlet where they have been written into the script of that play, secretly behind the scenes of Hamlet where they are not in the Hamlet script.  They observe the action in Hamlet, but play no active role in the course of either Hamlet or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  They are passive actors in both plays.  But, although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were by the terms of their play unable to alter the course of Hamlet’s play, that does not mean they were without options and choices.

3. A story inside a story: An existentialist dilemma.

“I rebel; therefore, I exist.” The Myth of Sisyphus Albert Camus.

Every story, whether factual or fictional, begins with some sort of “Once upon a time” scenario.  “Once upon a time” creates the existential situation within which the characters in the story will make their way.  It provides the background and the setup of the story, that is, the status quo from which the story proceeds.  The story’s plotline will then disrupt the status quo – that is the gist of the story – and the story will generally end with some new ordering of things.

The opening is critically important to a story because the opening usually portends the story’s ending.  The setup of a story generally indicates who and what is important, and inclines events in a certain direction.  The options allowed to the characters, and the existential choices they can make, are defined and constrained by the opening setup.  It is like setting up a debate.  Whoever gets to set the terms of the debate is most likely to win, and if you join the debate on someone else’s terms, you are most likely to lose.

It is often the case in a fictional story that if you are not there at the beginning, you are likely to meet a bad end.  That is one of the problems facing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in their play.  They are there at the beginning of their own play, but they are almost an afterthought in Hamlet’s story and, as such, they were expendable to Hamlet.  But that does not mean they weren’t important to themselves, or that they were expendable to the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Tom Stoppard did something quite unusual in this play, for which there isn’t even a name.  He told a story about two minor characters in Hamlet, and did so within the confines of that play.  It is a story inside a story, which is different than a play within a play, such as the one Shakespeare included in Hamlet.  The play within Hamlet was part of the plot.  It was a device used by young Hamlet to further his goal of unmasking Claudius as a murderer.  But Stoppard’s play is not part of the plot of Hamlet.  It occurs in, but is not of, Hamlet.  

It is not uncommon for an author to piggyback his work onto an existing popular story, either a story by another author or by him/herself.  This can be done in a variety of ways.  There are prequels that tell the backstory of the original work; interquels that fill in happenings taking place between events in the original story; sidequels that tell of things taking place at the same time as the original story; and sequels that tell of what happened after the end of the story.

In the case of Hamlet, a prequel might have described young Hamlet’s childhood. An interquel might have described what Laertes did while he was away from Denmark during the middle of the play.  A sidequel might have described what Fortinbras was doing before he appeared at the end of the playAnd a sequel might have described what happened in Denmark after all the main characters in the play were dead and Fortinbras had taken over.  In composing each of these types of “quels,” an author must be consistent with the original story, but he/she is essentially operating outside of that story and has a good deal of latitude in composing his/her own plot.

But Stoppard did something else.  He placed his story directly inside the story of Hamlet and, thereby, narrowly limited the scope of his invention and his characters’ options.  His two main characters must repeatedly come up to the mark of their roles in Hamlet.  Whatever they do or wherever they go, they must be back to make their scheduled appearances in Hamlet, and nothing they do can conflict with their roles in that play.

But that does not mean that Stoppard had no latitude within which to play, or that his characters could not act on their own behalf in their own play.  There was wiggle room in Hamlet within which he could create and they could react.  So, how could Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have escaped their seemingly fated deaths, and why didn’t they?

4. Free Will, Determinism, and Compatibilism: Finding Existential Wiggle Room.

“Freedom is what we do with what has been done to us.”   Jean Paul Sartre.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a philosophic play that raises many questions, including questions about whether people are capable of willing freely what they choose, or are bound by deterministic chains of cause and effect.  Most critics claim that the play is intended to illustrate the randomness of the universe as it appears to us and the determinism of the universe as it is in reality.  The play, they say, emphasizes the contradiction between the way in which we experience the world as freedom and the way in which the world really is.

Stoppard, these critics argue, portrays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as “moving towards an inescapable fate,” despite what they experience as “the randomness of life.”  The two characters are chronically befuddled, and have no real options or choices.[2]  The play shows people “at the mercy of external forces,” and “unable to make any significant choices.”[3]  It is “a play about the tricks of fate” which render Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “incapable of helping themselves,” and make them symbols of  a helpless and hopeless humanity.[4]  In this view, Stoppard portrays the world as “absurd” and “uncertain,” and the “hapless” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exemplify humanity’s inability to make significant choices and take meaningful action.[5]  In sum, the moral of the story is the futility of free will and the fatality of determinism.

In support of this reading, critics point to views in the play expressed by the Player and seconded by Guildenstern.  Stoppard identifies the Player as the chief of the actors hired by Hamlet to enact the play within his play.  These actors play a small role in Hamlet but a big role in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Much of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern consists of discussions between Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and the Player about life and living.  Consistent with his vocation as an actor, the Player holds that all of life is scripted for us, and that our role in life is to follow the script.  “We have no control,” he declaims. “Wheels have been set in motion,” and “Events must play themselves out,” he insists.[6]

The Player’s is essentially a deterministic view of life.  It is a view, however, that relegates most of us to playing subordinate roles in scripts written by and for others, putting ourselves in the service of others, and without any say-so.  The actors in the Player’s troupe are, in fact, willing to perform any script and any action for anyone.  They don’t even need to be paid money.  They merely need an audience.  Significantly, they apparently moonlight as male prostitutes.  Guildenstern buys into the Player’s rationale, and it is on this basis he and Rosencrantz act.

Many critics claim that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent anti-existentialist characters because they repeatedly refuse to choose, and just meander along within Hamlet’s play.  The play, in this view, is a refutation of existentialism.  But that is not accurate.  Existentialism claims that we cannot refuse to choose.  We are choosing all the time, even when we refuse to choose.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and especially Guildenstern, may not want to choose, but they are choosing anyway.

While the setup of the play mitigates against the idea of free will – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must perform their roles in Hamlet and are not free to choose otherwise – there is a third way of looking at the human condition that encompasses both free will and determinism.  And it is a way that is consistent with the existentialist point of view with which Stoppard is usually associated.  It is called compatibilism, and I think it is what the play is mainly about.  Compatibilism proposes that “My action is free, because the event which immediately precedes it is an act of will; it is necessitated because it comes at the end of a series each of whose items is a necessary consequence of its predecessor.”[7]

That is, in retrospect, we can look at a result and see how a chain of causes and effects led to the result.  But, we can also see the choices that were made in creating that chain of events, and we can see that if different choices had been made, the chain would have been changed and the result would have been different.  In turn, we can prospectively see the options we have and choices we must make, which will be the beginning of another chain of events.  We have free will, but it operates within the constraints of our context which consists of chains of events that we cannot change.  For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, their context is the play Hamlet, but they are free to move about within the constraints of that play.

Compatibilism essentially encompasses what existentialists describe as the facticity and anxiety of the human situation.  The facticity is that we find ourselves in a universe that we didn’t make or choose, that we don’t control, and that is essentially indifferent to our existence.  The anxiety stems from the fact that we must choose what to do, and how to make our way.  Refusing to choose, which we are free to do, is still choosing.  And we can’t make choices or make our way on our own.  We must do what we can with what we have, and do it with others.  Others are part of our context.  The stories of our lives are inevitably intertwined with others, and we can do nothing without the cooperation of others.

“I’ll let you be in my dream if you’ll let me be in yours,” intones Bob Dylan in a song about surviving the nightmare of nuclear war.  No one’s survival is secure without the survival of the others.[8]  Hamlet tried to compose and enact his story on his own, not trusting to include even his best friend Horatio in his plans, and Hamlet failed badly.  His story became a bloody nightmare that none of the principles escaped.  If only he had confided to Horatio about his interactions with the Ghost, the play may have ended very differently, and he might have survived.  So might have Ophelia, Polonius, and Laertes, who were innocent bystanders to Hamlet’s story, as were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern made a similar choice to spin out their tale on their own, without confiding in Hamlet or anyone else, and they, too, did not survive.  But they could have.

5. In for a penny, in for a pounding: Rationale vs. Rationalization.

“Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.” Samuel Beckett.

Literature is full of twosome heroes and heroines.  The pairs can take different forms and serve different functions within the stories in which they appear.  Sometimes, as with Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, the dominant character is the smarter of the two and comes up with the answers to their problems.  Other times, as with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, it is the subordinate character who is smarter and has the answers.  Quixote is a scholar while Panza is illiterate, but Quixote is also a fool and Panza is clever.  In the play Waiting for Godot, to which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is often compared, the dominant character, Vladimir, is the more intellectual of the two.  He frequently philosophizes and rationalizes about the predicament in which he and his sidekick, Estragon, find themselves.  And his conclusions generally help.  So, the two of them are able to work through their crises, and make their situation bearable.[9]

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the dominant character, Guildenstern, is the more intellectual of the two, but his rationalizations of their situation only lead the two of them into deeper trouble.  Rosencrantz is intellectually feeble, but intuitively a genius.  In the 1990 movie version of the play, which was directed by Stoppard, Rosencrantz repeatedly stumbles into inventing all sorts of modern devices.  He also repeatedly tells Guildenstern that something is dreadfully wrong with the situation they are in and that they should get out of there fast.  Guildenstern, however, dismisses Rosencrantz’s inventions in the movie as silly and, in both the movie and in the script for the play, he dismisses Rosencrantz’s rationales for leaving as foolish.  Guildenstern, instead, constructs rationalizations for their staying the course.  So, they stay.

Guildenstern’s rationalizations essentially take the form of what in scientific circles during Shakespeare’s time were known as “saving the appearances.”  “Saving the appearances” was a phrase that from ancient times through the seventeenth century was applied to the attempts of astronomers to make sense of the geo-centered Ptolemaic model of the universe.  The Ptolemaic model put the Earth at the center of the universe and portrayed the other planets and the stars as revolving around the Earth.  Over the course of the centuries, however, astronomers discovered new planets and stars that did not fit within the original geo-centered model.  So, they adduced increasingly weird orbits for these planets and stars – epicycles and other wrinkles – in order to save the appearances of the model.  It was a brilliant construction that occupied some of the best minds for two millenniums, but it became very complicated and convoluted.

The Ptolemaic system was finally rejected by Copernicus and his followers during the sixteenth century in favor of a simpler helio-centric model that encompassed all of the observations of the planets and stars without all of the complications of the geo-centered model.  Conservatives, including the Catholic Church, resisted the new model on the grounds that it demoted the place of humanity within God’s creation and conflicted with passages in the Bible.  For the Catholic Church of that time, science was supposed to serve dogma, and facts were supposed to be massaged to uphold what was considered Gospel.  Willingness to go along with saving the appearances in astronomy and other scientific fields became a life and death issue for scientists in some Catholic countries, as Galileo, among others, found out.[10]

The Copernican system was, however, readily accepted in Protestant countries such as Shakespeare’s England, where the practice of saving the appearances of preconceived notions through rationalizing away inconsistent evidence was rejected by empiricists such as Frances Bacon.  For many Protestants, science was a means of discovering God’s word as it was embodied in the physical universe.  So, facts mattered, even in the study of alchemy, magic and ghosts, which were important subjects of study for scientists such as Bacon and, later, Newton.  And theories must conform to the facts.

The conflict between facts and preconceived notions, and the problems that arise when people try to save the appearances of preconceived notions, is a theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays.  This includes Hamlet, as when Hamlet adjures Horatio that “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Facts count, Shakespeare repeatedly emphasizes, even if they don’t fit our cherished theories.  The problem with trying to save the appearances is also a main theme in Stoppard’s plays, as exemplified in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by Guildenstern’s rationalizations of his and Rosencrantz’s situation.

Guildenstern seems unable to think outside the box, to use the current terminology for the problem of trying to save appearances.  He has been caught up within the Hamlet story and cannot think his way out.  He is brilliant and knowledgeable, but terminally narrow-minded.  “We are presented with alternatives,” he intones, “But not choice.”  “We’ve been caught up” in Hamlet’s story, he explains, and “there is a logic at work.”  So, he concludes, he and Rosencrantz should just relax and “be taken in hand and led, like being a child again.”[11]

Rosencrantz is slow-witted and ignorant, and doesn’t even seem to know there is a box.  But that enables him to be inventive (look at all the things he unwittingly contrives) and intuitive.  He can think outside the story, and can think pragmatically rather than dogmatically.  He knows trouble when he senses it.  Rosencrantz is a wise fool, a type that is a favorite of Stoppard.[12]

6. What is to be done?

 “There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us at dusk.”  Jean Paul Sartre.

Given that they are caught in Hamlet and can’t contravene that script, there are still things Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could have done in their own play that might have saved them from the death announced in Hamlet.  Built into Stoppard’s play are opportunities for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to make choices that could have changed things for them.  They were not fated to act as they did, even if they failed to take advantage of the opportunities that Stoppard provides for them.   They could, for example, have confided in Hamlet at various points of their play.  Shakespeare provides a perfect opening for such a confidence in Hamlet when Hamlet first encounters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

After welcoming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as old friends, Hamlet asks “Were you not sent for?…Come, come deal justly with me.”  Hamlet wants to know whether the King has set them to spy on him.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern equivocate.  Hamlet repeatedly presses them, conjuring them “by the rights of our fellowship, by the constancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love.”  Prompted by Rosencrantz, Guildenstern finally admits “My lord, we were sent for.”  The three of them then engage in desultory conversation, ending in the coming of the actors whom Hamlet will hire for his play.

This was a perfect opportunity within the context of Hamlet for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to consult with Hamlet in the context of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Having admitted that the King had sent for them to spy on Hamlet, they could reasonably have followed up that admission with a discussion with their old friend about what was going on.  This is particularly the case since in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two of them quickly come to their own conclusion that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father.  Once they have reached that conclusion, it is unreasonable of them not to open up with Hamlet.  But they choose not to.

There were many opportunities within both Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for them to consult with Hamlet.  But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hem and haw throughout the play, saying to themselves that they want to talk with Hamlet, but unable to get themselves to do it.  They even practice various ways in which to begin conversations with Hamlet, but never carry them out.  In any case, Guildenstern’s rationalizations in defense of doing nothing keep them from saying or doing anything that might change their situation.  That was their choice.

Their rationalizing and equivocating come to a head when the two of them discover in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that the letter from Claudius that they are carrying to England requests that the King of England kill Hamlet.  At that point, Rosencrantz has had enough.  He wants to confide in Hamlet.  “We’re his friends,” Rosencrantz insists.  How can they be accomplices to the murder of Hamlet?

But Rosencrantz’s humanity is overridden by Guildenstern’s callousness and cowardice, as he once again rationalizes in favor of doing nothing.  Death isn’t so bad, he claims, and Hamlet’s death would be just one man dying so, “from the social point of view…the loss would be well within reason and convenience.”  Besides, Guildenstern concludes, “there are wheels within wheels,” and who are they to try to change things.  It is bad faith rationalization at its worst, and it is that which leads to their own deaths.[13]

If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had confided in Hamlet at any point in the play, the three of them could have worked out a joint plan for saving all of their lives.  Since Hamlet was explicitly doomed by the script of Hamlet – he dies onstage in full view of the audience – such a plan would not have saved him.  But it could have worked for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Their deaths are only announced in Hamlet, not actually seen by the audience.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could, for example, have colluded with Hamlet to change Claudius’ letter as Hamlet does in Hamlet. They could then have faked the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so as to avoid any blame and punishment that Claudius might hit them with because his scheme for Hamlet’s death had failed.  Hamlet’s later comment to Horatio in Hamlet that he cared not that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might be dead could then be part of this joint plot.  Stoppard could have written something like this into his play – the key is faking the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – without contradicting Hamlet.  He didn’t.  Why not?

7. Comedy, Tragedy, and a Good Conscience.

“Life begins on the other side of despair.”  Jean Paul Sartre.

“The play’s the thing wherein to capture the conscience of the king,” Hamlet proclaims.  So, too, the play may be the thing to capture the consciences of the audience for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or maybe touch their vanity.  Hamlet is a tragedy.  A tragedy has been described as a story of too much of a good thing becoming bad.  Tragedy generally involves a character who pursues a too narrowly prescribed good too far until it turns on itself, becomes bad and precipitates a disaster.  The character’s “tragic flaw” is a lack of perspective, the failure to see things in a broader context, for example failing to recognize that one person’s good may be someone else’s bad, and an individual’s good ultimately depends on the good of all.[14]

Tragedy is a story of hubris versus humility, the failure of the tragic character to recognize his/her personal limits, and to reconcile contradictions within him/herself, within his/her society and/or between him/herself and society.[15]  In the case of Hamlet, it is arguably his hubris combined with his gullibility toward the ghost who, I think, is an agent of the Devil, that leads almost inevitably to disaster.[16]  In any case, a tragedy may contain humor, but it is not expected to be funny.

In contrast with Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a comedy.  It is expected to be funny.  A comedy has been described as a humorous conflict between folly and wisdom, foolish people and wise people, with a happy ending that results from the wise peacefully overcoming the fools and their foolishness.  In comedy, the problem is created by someone acting out of stupidity or ignorance, “the intervention of fools.”  The solution is for the fools either to be corrected or constrained.[17]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are both fools.  Much of their story is also very funny.  But the play ends with their being hanged.  That’s not funny.  And while they don’t know what’s in store for them as they wander through their play, we do.  How can an audience in good conscience laugh at the high jinks and foolishness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern knowing that the play will end after the somber line “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead?”

I don’t think an audience can in good conscience laugh at the thought of the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  I think that either members of the audience must be people of bad conscience, smug in their superior knowledge to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and callous at the death of two fools – losers in the parlance of Donald Trump – or audience members must believe that somehow Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t really dead.  And maybe they aren’t.

8. Epilogue: Life after reported death?

Estragon: “I can’t go on.” 

Vladimir: “That’s what you think.” 

Waiting for Godot.  Samuel Beckett.

When his demise was wrongly reported in the newspapers of his day, Mark Twain quipped “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”  Might the same be true of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?  In his last speech before seemingly being executed, Guildenstern muses that “Well, we’ll know better next time.”  Next time?  What’s with this “next time?”

In the movie version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the actors that Hamlet has hired show Rosencrantz and Guildenstern how to fake being hanged.  At the end of the movie, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are shown being hanged.  But are they?  Maybe it’s a fake hanging.  In the play, they merely disappear at the end, and it is not clear how they died.  Or maybe they didn’t.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make farewell speeches, but maybe they are just fooling everyone, including us in the audience.  Are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern actually dead?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is full of trickery and slight-of-hand, starting with the opening scene in which a flipped coin repeatedly comes up heads, seeming to contradict the laws of probability.  Then there are the numerous inventions that Rosencrantz stumbles onto in the movie version of the play, which was directed by Stoppard.  In the movie version, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are also repeatedly saved by chance or random choice from discovery or death.  Faking their deaths at the end of the play could be Stoppard’s last bit of trickery, a trick played on the audience.

In any case, dead or alive, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is, I think, ultimately a hopeful play.  Despite operating within an extremely narrow range of options, being tied into and almost tied up by the script of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern still had options to survive the demise announced for them in that play.  If they didn’t survive, it was a result of their own lack of imagination and their own choices.  In his farewell speech, Guildenstern muses that they should have just said “No” when they were summoned by the King.  And they should have.  A moral of their story is that you don’t want to get caught up in someone else’s story in which you are just a throwaway bystander.

So, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern made a fateful misstep into Hamlet’s story.  But that fateful misstep need not have become a fatal mistake.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern implies that in even the tightest and direst situations, there still may be leeway and hope.  And just when you may seem to be without options, there may still be choices you can make.

B.W. 12/17

[1] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. pp.16, 38.

[2] Evar Johnson. “Characters in search of a purpose: Meaning in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” belmont.edu

[3] “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as Existential Antiheroes.” The Stanford Freedom Project. Fall, 2015.

[4] Peter Travers. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” Rolling Stone. 2/18/91.

[5] Shmuel Ben-Gad. “A Semi-Existentialist Comedy: Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.’” American Culture. 5/20/15.

[6] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. pp..25, 63, 79.

[7] Anthony Kennedy. A New History of Western Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2010. p.666.

[8] Bob Dylan. Talkin’ World War III Blues.

[9] For an analysis of the play as a love story, see my post on this blog “Waiting for Godot: Why do we keep waiting? Hope among the Hopeless.”                       

[10] Thomas B. Kuhn. The Copernican Revolution. New York: Vintage Books, 1959.

[11] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. pp.39- 40.

[12] For an analysis of Arcadia that discusses this theme, see my essay on this blog entitled “Entropy, Negentropy and Chaos in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia: Must We Face the Music or Can’t We Just Dance?”

[13] Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  New York: Grove Press, 1967. p.110.

[14] Paul Goodman. The Structure of Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954. pp.35, 172.

[15] Kenneth Burke Attitudes toward History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961. p.37.  Aristotle. Aristotle’s Poetics. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961. p.81-83.

[16] For a discussion of the ghost in Hamlet as an agent of the Devil, see my post at this blog website “Better Dead than Red: Hamlet and the Cold War against Catholicism in Elizabethan England.”

[17] Aristotle 1961, 59.  Burke 1961, 41.  Goodman 1954, 82-100.