What separates Hamlet from other revenge plays (and maybe from every play written before it) is that the action we expect to see, particularly from Hamlet himself, is continually postponed while Hamlet tries to obtain more certain knowledge about what he is doing. This play poses many questions that other plays would simply take for granted. Can we have certain knowledge about ghosts? Is the ghost what it appears to be, or is it really a misleading fiend? Does the ghost have reliable knowledge about its own death, or is the ghost itself deluded? Moving to more earthly matters: How can we know for certain the facts about a crime that has no witnesses? Can Hamlet know the state of Claudius’s soul by watching his behaviour? If so, can he know the facts of what Claudius did by observing the state of his soul?
Can Claudius (or the audience) know the state of Hamlet’s mind by observing his behaviour and listening to his speech? Can we know whether our actions will have the consequences we want them to have? Can we know anything about the afterlife? Many people have seen Hamlet as a play about indecisiveness, and thus about Hamlet’s failure to act appropriately. It might be more interesting to consider that the play shows us how many uncertainties our lives are built upon, how many unknown quantities are taken for granted when people act or when they evaluate one another’s actions. In the aftermath of his father’s murder, Hamlet is obsessed with the idea of death, and over the course of the play he considers death from a great many perspectives. He ponders both the spiritual aftermath of death, embodied in the ghost, and the physical remainders of the dead, such as by Yorick’s skull and the decaying corpses in the cemetery. Throughout, the idea of death is closely tied to the themes of spirituality, truth, and uncertainty in that death may bring the answers to Hamlet’s deepest questions, ending once and for all the problem of trying to determine truth in an ambiguous world.
And, since death is both the cause and the consequence of revenge, it is intimately tied to the theme of revenge and justice—Claudius’s murder of King Hamlet initiates Hamlet’s quest for revenge, and Claudius’s death is the end of that quest. The question of his own death plagues Hamlet as well, as he repeatedly contemplates whether or not suicide is a morally legitimate action in an unbearably painful world. Hamlet’s grief and misery is such that he frequently longs for death to end his suffering, but he fears that if he commits suicide, he will be consigned to eternal suffering in hell because of the Christian religion’s prohibition of suicide. In his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy (III.i), Hamlet philosophically concludes that no one would choose to endure the pain of life if he or she were not afraid of what will come after death, and that it is this fear which causes complex moral considerations to interfere with the capacity for action.
The story outline
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead highlights the fundamental mystery of the world. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend the entirety of the play in total confusion, lacking such basic information as their own identities. From the play’s opening, which depicts them as unable to remember where they are headed and how they began their journey, to their very last moments, in which they are bewildered by their imminent deaths, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot understand the world around them. Their confusion stems from both the sheer randomness of the universe, illustrated by the bizarre coin-tossing episode, and the ambiguous and unclear motives of the other characters, who pop onstage and deliver brief, perplexing speeches before quickly exiting.
While Stoppard frequently uses their confusion for comic effect, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern occasionally become so frustrated by the world’s incomprehensibility that they fall into despair. The play ultimately suggests that the prominent role of chance in our lives, coupled with the difficulty of discerning the true intentions and desires of other people, leads to almost paralysing confusion. Although this experience may sometimes be amusing or seem funny when it happens to others, in the end it is one of the most dreadful aspects of existence. The constant confusion in which they find themselves leaves Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feeling unable to make any significant choices in their lives. They are pushed along toward their deaths by what appear to be random forces, and they fail to respond to their circumstances with anything but total passivity. Their lack of agency is underscored by Stoppard’s decision to transport them from scene to scene without any choice on their part. One minute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in the woods with the Tragedians, and the next they are in Elsinore being asked to probe Hamlet’s distressed mind, a request they accept without even understanding what they have been asked to do.
Even at the end of Act II, when they ask each other if they should go to England, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not make a choice but instead merely continue on the path that has been laid out for them. Since they have already come this far, Rosencrantz says, they may as well keep going. Their passive approach to their lives reflects how difficult it is to make decisions in a world that we do not fully understand, in which any choice can seem meaningless and therefore not worth making. Stoppard demonstrates the danger of this passivity by giving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the opportunity to make a very meaningful choice, which they fail to do. This moment occurs when they discover that they have a letter ordering Hamlet’s death upon their arrival in England: if they destroy it, Hamlet lives, but if they do nothing, he dies. While Rosencrantz hesitates about what to do, Guildenstern argues that they should not take any action, since they might not understand what is at stake. Although this decision may seem like an unfeeling rationalization for moral laziness, it is in fact simply an extension of the passivity that has marked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern throughout the play. By failing to make a significant choice when they have the opportunity to do so, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern incur terrible consequences, as Hamlet discovers the letter and switches it with one ordering their deaths rather than his own. Even though deciding which actions we should take in life is at times so difficult that we might be tempted to succumb to total passivity, failing to act is itself a decision, one that the play presents as not merely immoral but self-destructive. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead emphasizes the close connection between real life and the world of theatrical performance.
Numerous features of the play work to underscore this connection, not least of which is the fact that the play asks its audience to assume that the characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet are real and deserve to have their story told from another perspective. Within the play, the connection between life and the stage is revealed to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by the presence of the Tragedians, who perform a play that depicts parallel events to those in which the two men find themselves. This play shows that the characters most similar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are ultimately killed, which is precisely the fate that befalls Stoppard’s main characters. As they watch the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern see that the two actors playing the roles parallel their own are dressed exactly as they are. This confuses Rosencrantz so much that he wonders why he recognizes the actor dressed as himself but then tells the actor that he is not who the actor believed he was. In other words, theater reflects life so well that Rosencrantz cannot tell which. Guildenstern criticizes the Player for assuming that theatrical performance can depict real feelings, especially the terror of death.
The Player’s response is twofold—he claims that theatrical death is the only kind people believe in because it is what they expect, and then he demonstrates that point to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by convincingly performing his own death when Guildenstern stabs him with a stage knife. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are completely persuaded by the Player’s performance, which lends credence to his claim that people really do believe in the things that theater has led them to expect. Indeed, the characters only believe in death when it looks theatrical, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot quite bring themselves to believe in their own impending deaths, for which they are unable to form any expectations. The audience cannot believe in their deaths either, at least according to the logic of the play and the Player, since the audience’s expectation that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will die is never fulfilled. By refusing to depict their deaths and refusing to give the audience what it knows is coming, Stoppard keeps Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from dying and instead turns them into living literary characters.
The outline of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
As the play questions the reality of individual identity, it likewise questions free will. What is it? What is choice? What is action or progress? Can one trust all the trappings and signs of existence if one knows that they’ll soon be extinguished? As the play proceeds, individual decisions and actions seem more and more inconsequential, nearly equivalent to apathy and passivity. Hamlet is, famously, a play whose crisis swirls within the vortex of Hamlet’s passivity. Yet this play reveals that Hamlet’s passivity is in fact everyone’s. Every individual might as well be motionless, might as well fail to act, since his or her every effort is overridden by a more powerful motion: the trajectory of life towards death. Guildenstern describes this trajectory in terms of being on a boat: ‘We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current…’
Indeed, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bustle about on stage but ultimately effect nothing, their attempts at action all thwarted by the plot structure of the original Hamlet, whose inexorable progression is analogous to the inexorable motion of life towards death. (Indeed, the exchange of the letter ordering Hamlet’s death for the letter ordering Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s is in fact a plot twist in the original Hamlet.) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try futilely to intercept Hamlet on stage and end up going along with anything the prince and/or Claudius proposes. As in Hamlet, they agree to reason with Hamlet, sail to England, are executed, etc. Even that seemingly spontaneous pirate attack is just playing out a reference already written into Hamlet. Yet while human will may be powerless against mortality, it can still act meaningfully within the realm of interpersonal relationship and human emotion. Helpless as they are, humans can still choose to be kind to others and to honor friendship and, in so doing, in still their lives with some meaning. Thus, Guildenstern’s tenderness towards Alfred and his comforting of Rosencrantz stand out as affecting moments of warmth within the play. Conversely, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s passivity after discovering Hamlet’s death-sentence stands out as one of the play’s most horrifying instances. Though any action may have been futile, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s choice to not even try to act to save him bespeaks a level of disregard for human life on par with death’s itself. 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?