Title of the Work

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead


Tom Stoppard

Nationality/Ethnic Background

Czechoslovakian, later becomes an American citizen.

Genre and Sub-genres

Tragic Comedy, Existentialism, Absurdist, Nihilism, Post-Modernist.

Pertinent Biographical Information

While in Germany in 1964, Tom Stoppard wrote a short, one act play titled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear. Later on in 1966 Tom Stoppard revised the play into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. His theatrical career began with the writing of radio and television plays, but his first international success came with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a retelling of Hamlet by William Shakespeare through the eyes of two minor characters.

Major Characters, Their Relationships, Their Conflicts

  • Rosencrantz: Childhood friend of Hamlet; is sent to help uncover the truth behind Hamlet's depression with Guildenstern
  • Guildenstern: Childhood friend of Hamlet; is sent to help uncover the truth behind Hamlet's depression with Rosencrantz
  • Player: Leader of the Tragedians; witty, his remarks make it appear as if he knows more than he lets on. He travels with his group of actors, The Tragedians, which serve to parallel real life and acting
  • Hamlet: Troubled character of which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are commanded by Claudius to watch. He plays a minor character in this play as opposed to Hamlet.‍‍‍‍
  • Claudius: Hamlet's uncle who married his mother after he murdered Hamlet's father (who is also his brother)
  • Gertrude: Hamlet's mother who sent for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
  • Ophelia: Hamlet's lover or woman to marry who is caught in the middle of Hamlet's odd behavior
  • Polonious: Adviser to the king; He was an old man who seemed to be wise, but ironically he wasn't so wise after all.‍‍

Brief Plot Summary

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead opens with the two self titular characters flipping a coin with the outcome continuously resulting in heads. The two men ponder this dilemma evaluating many different possibilities of why this has occurred. As the two break from the coin toss game they begin to wonder how they got to the place they are currently at and can only come up with the conclusion that they were sent for by a messenger. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern encounter a group of actors called the Tragedians, led by the Player, who want the men to pay them for a show. The Tragedians parallel the line between real life and acting, something that becomes a common motif in the story.
The play changes rather drastically and the two men are now in the presence of Hamlet and Ophelia who are in the royal castle of Denmark. The two men are mistaken for one another by Claudius while he explains why they were sent for which is to find out what is bothering Hamlet. The two men decide that in order to understand what is bothering Hamlet, they are going to have to coax him with intricate word games. In order to prepare themselves they play a word game using the rules of tennis. One of them then pretends to be Hamlet and the other questions him, but to still find no insight as to why Hamlet has gone insane. They are met by Claudius and they inform him that they have no idea if Hamlet is crazy or not. They then continue to think about Hamlet's mental state, but then begin wondering about death and what happens after it.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern then ponder on how they are to reveal the truth of Hamlet's matter and remain in a confused state in which they cannot decide if Hamlet is insane or not. The two men are then invited to a play performed by the Tragedians which the reader discovers is a reflection of Claudius and Gertrude's affair. They also witness two spies (dressed just like themselves) die during the play. These deaths foreshadow their death later in the play.

The next scene begins with Claudius telling the two titular characters to depart to England with Hamlet to continue their investigation of Hamlet's mysterious case. On the boat ride to England Rosencrantz and Guildenstern contemplate where they are going and how their journey has come along. They begin talking about what will happen once they get to England and the letter given to them is opened in the process. They read it and see that it instructs the king of England to kill Hamlet. They decide that they should not tamper with what is destined to happen and decide to deliver the letter. Hamlet however switches the letters once they fall asleep. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wake up to find that the letter instructs the King of England to instead execute the two, of which the characters seem to be oblivious to when Hamlet switched the letters. Horrified, the characters seem to question why life has come to this before the scene ends. Horatio ends the play with the speech he gives at the end of Hamlet.

Motifs (Recurring Images, Ideas, Figures of Speech, Symbols, Colors) & Their Thematic Significance

  • Gambling: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern gamble continuously throughout the play. This motif of gambling reflects the chance of life that is prominent in the play. Chance is seen even as the play opens with the two men flipping a coin. This constant display of chance underscores the way that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern rely heavily upon the concept in their lives rather than making decisions or taking an active role to help their chances.

  • Falling and Stumbling: Throughout the play the two characters fall down and stumble. This represents the ideal of existentialism that people go through life confused and just stumbling and bumbling about. There is no greater power watching over them or guiding them in anyway, but they sometimes believe otherwise.

  • Confusion: The two characters are confused all the time. They try to understand the different things going on around them, but they cannot communicate efficiently through language and thus, remain confused throughout. This confusion is part of existentialism. They go through life without answers and knowing nothing for sure.

  • The Coins: In the beginning of the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are flipping two coins. The coin lands on heads time after time. The coins landing on heads every time is Stoppard poking fun at the laws of probability. The coins symbolize the randomness of the world, and the fact that not everything can be explained by something such as a law of probability.

  • The Actors: The Tragedians are portrayed as actors with multiple lives that seem to taunt death, as their characters would die but the actors would live on (as death is only an act in plays). There are subtle hints that the actors are representative of fate in the play as they essentially follow a script the same way that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are (something that the main characters are unaware of but something we know as an audience).

Other Significant Thematic Elements (Significant Character's Names, Significant Quotations, Significant Actions/Events)

The Player: Stoppard uses the player to establish the theme of art vs. reality to the reader. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet the player and the tragedians, the player is very excited due to the fact that without an audience the player's art is nothing. Stoppard also uses the player as a way to show how society uses art to try and gain order in the world.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern not knowing their names: When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet the player and the tragedians they completely forget their names. This ties into the theme of existentialism and rises the question, Who am I? Throughout the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue to forget their names which again ties back to the existentialism.

Major Themes

  • Existentialism and decision making are combined to incorporate a major theme of this play in that the world is incomprehensible. The two main characters of the work are constantly presented to be questioning one another in rather surface deep questions to themselves, but existentially deeper questions to the reader. Questions such as "who am I?" or "Is my name different at home?" display the lack of knowledge the two men have about the basic concept of who they are. This identity crisis in which the two men experience show that not only do they not know their names, but also they don't know themselves as individual in the world they live in. Questions such as "what does it matter?" and "what does anything matter" allow the reader to infer that the men have no direction in their lives as to what is important and not important. This connects to decision making skills, in which the two men greatly lack, and is displayed when the two are trying to decide to go to England or not. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern passively approach the subject and simply follow the path they are given instead of making the choice for themselves. These two concepts connect to show the incomprehensibility the two men find in the world they live in. They cannot seem to find themselves, their place in the world, or the meaning of their lives.

  • Art vs. reality is brought up greatly through the use of the tragedians. Before Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet these actors their lives are random and uncontrolled. Afterwards the player states that through this use of art and plays, there is order once more. However Guildenstern greatly criticizes the player because this does not help him answer his questions and he believe that art does not truly help one realize why there is meaning.