Rosencrantz: What are you playing at?
Guildenstern: Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.
This exchange, which occurs in Act I just after Claudius and Gertrude inform Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of their mission, highlights both the pleasures and pitfalls of language. On the positive side, the fact that language is extremely complex and always changing means that it can be a great source of delight. Characters spend a great deal of time in the drama playing with words, creating clever linguistic jokes and engaging in a lot of witty banter. The complexity and instability of language, however, has negative consequences as well, which this quotation also points to. Since language is our primary way of understanding the world—it is “all we have to go on,” as Guildenstern says—the fact that it is inherently ambiguous means that we often have trouble expressing ourselves and even making sense of our lives. Throughout the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves unable to say what they want to, and their confusion mounts as they try to determine the true meaning of what other characters say to them. This frustrating feature of language contrasts sharply with its enjoyable aspects, as the play emphasizes that language, like the two-sided coin Rosencrantz and Guildenstern keep flipping, is a combination of opposites.
Uncertainty is the normal state. You’re nobody special.
This remark, which the Player utters in Act II after reuniting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at Elsinore, emphasizes one of the major themes of the play—the incomprehensibility of the world. Guildenstern complains to the Player that he and Rosencrantz have no idea what is happening at Elsinore and have no clue what they should be doing there, and he hopes to relinquish to the Player the burden of having to make decisions. The Player’s cutting response in the quotation criticizes Guildenstern for believing that he is in a uniquely difficult situation. Instead, the Player suggests, doubt is a characteristic feature of human life, and it is “normal” to not understand everything that is happening around us. The play dramatizes the Player’s claim that confusion is a normal experience by depicting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as two fairly ordinary men who are asked to perform a seemingly simple task—come talk to their childhood friend and try to cheer him up—but get overwhelmed by a disorienting string of strange occurrences and perplexing remarks. Even the most mundane situations, it seems, are fraught with complication and ambiguity.
Audiences know what to expect, and that is all they are prepared to believe in.
The Player makes this claim at the conclusion of the mimed rehearsal in Act II. Guildenstern angrily says that the Tragedians’ silent performance of the death scenes is unbelievable and out of keeping with the true nature of death, but the Player’s response suggests a different view about our relationship to both the theater and to our own lives. On the theatrical level, the Player’s remark suggests that when we applaud some aspect of a play as realistic, what we are actually saying is that it conforms to our expectations of the way the play should go. In this scene in particular, the Player’s point is that audiences expect certain characters to die and expect death to look a certain way onstage, and audiences will only believe that deaths have been realistically represented if they happen the way audiences anticipate. Our desire to see the plots of literary works unfold in specific ways determines whether we will believe those pieces of literature to be realistic.
The Player’s statement is also a powerful claim about the way we view the world in general, which is itself a larger and more dangerous version of the theater. Stoppard expects his audience to be familiar with an idea from another work by Shakespeare: As You Like It, in which a character notes, “All the world’s a stage.” Seen in this light, the Player’s remark points to our role as spectators of the dramas of life, not just the dramas of the theater. We have beliefs and expectations about the world around us, the Player says, and when we are confronted with something that does not conform to those beliefs, we question or even reject it. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern go through this experience most strikingly in Act III, when they both refuse to believe that they are actually on their way to see the king of England, since they are unable to form any expectations about what that would be like. Similarly, they cannot believe in their own mortality even at the moment of their impending deaths since dying is so far out of range of their expectations. The things we believe are true in life, in other words, are simply the things we expect to be true.
Life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it.
The Player makes this observation in Act III as he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that the Tragedians had to leave Elsinore suddenly and without payment after unexpectedly angering Claudius with their play. The Player’s comment is more than a pained response to being caught off guard by Claudius’s outrage, however. The quotation is a bleak expression of a very difficult and frightening truth—namely, that the world is a random and chaotic place in which our chances of success are extremely slim. We may wish the world to be orderly and make sense or for only good people to be rewarded and only bad people to be punished, but the world does not conform to our desires, and rewards and punishments are entirely random. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not horrible people and do not deserve to be executed, but that is the fate that befalls them. They are entirely normal men who do nothing that is particularly bad or particularly good, but they suffer anyway, because the universe does not discriminate between good people and bad. The apparent pointlessness of the universe, the Player’s remark suggests, would make us choose to be elsewhere if only we were not already here.
Guildenstern: We’ve travelled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation.
Rosencrantz: Be happy—if you’re not even happy what’s so good about surviving? We’ll be all right. I suppose we just go on.
This discussion takes place in Act III immediately after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have discovered that Hamlet is no longer onboard the boat. Just as suddenly as they were called to their mission, their journey has now become pointless, and Guildenstern has been thrown into despair. His remark reflects the frustration and despondency that the play attributes to the realization that life will never make sense and that nothing external will be able to give satisfying purpose and meaning to our lives. The indifference of the universe to our sufferings, questions, and desires may lead one to believe, as Guildenstern does, that life is nothing more than mechanical forces and that we are being driven toward death by a natural “momentum” that we can neither stop nor understand. This is the deepest and darkest state of existential crisis, the lowest point one can reach when thinking seriously about the meaningless randomness of life.
Rosencrantz’s reply, however, suggests a way out of the pit of despair into which Guildenstern has fallen, although whether the play as a whole supports his approach is debatable. When Guildenstern looks at the indifference and arbitrariness of the world, he feels only that life has no meaning. But the fact that life as a whole does not have any obvious meaning does not mean that it is impossible for any individual life to have meaning, and Rosencrantz’s response is an attempt to find meaning and purpose on precisely this individual level. When faced with the chaos of life, Rosencrantz decides that his personal purpose will be to seek pleasure for himself. That is not to say that Rosencrantz is advocating hedonism and fulfilling every desire however and whenever we want. Rather, Rosencrantz says that even though the universe does not care about us, we should care about ourselves and strive to find happiness and personal fulfillment. If we find things that give our lives meaning, we may not be overjoyed, but we will at least be “all right.” Although this may sound plausible, the fact that Rosencrantz lapses into confused dread at the moment of impending death may suggest that even his attitude cannot save us from the harsh realities of life in a pointless universe.