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Study Questions & Essay Topics

Study Questions

1. What is the significance of the play that the Tragedians perform? How does it affect the audience’s understanding of Stoppard’s play as a whole?

The Tragedians perform a play entitled The Murder of Gonzago, which depicts events that parallel those in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet requests the traveling players to perform The Murder of Gonzago so that he may disturb the conscience of Claudius and find out whether Claudius has indeed killed Hamlet’s father. Stoppard’s play preserves this action, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not privy to Hamlet’s motives. This creates dramatic irony and tension, since Stoppard’s audience is expected to be aware of Hamlet’s reasons for wanting the play performed, as well as the unpleasant outcome of its performance, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the protagonists with whom the audience is supposed to sympathize, remain ignorant of these details. The differing perspectives of the audience and the protagonists are emphasized as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch the rehearsal of The Murder of Gonzago. In the rehearsal, their own deaths are predicted, but they cannot recognize this detail and are only confused by the fact that the parallel characters in Gonzago wear identical clothes to their own. Stoppard’s audience, meanwhile, cannot fail to see what is happening, and thus the experience of the audience is removed even further from that of the characters.

The distance between the audience and the characters is underscored by the fact that the audience is watching a play in which characters are watching a play—the audience is at a double remove from the action. By driving this wedge between the audience and the protagonists, Stoppard enables the audience to view the play more dispassionately, to see it as an intellectual drama rather than an emotional one. Temporarily removed from caring about the characters, the audience can think about the ideas Stoppard presents and the relationship between theatrical performances and their audiences, since that is what is actually occurring on stage as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch the rehearsal and fail to relate to it. In fact, the Player encourages the audience to think about its own relationship to the stage as he claims during the rehearsal that audiences only believe in what they expect to see. By pushing his audience away from his characters, Stoppard brings this idea to the forefront and forces the audience to think about its own relationship to the play rather than simply watching and feeling along with the characters.

2. How do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern develop as characters over the course of the play?

At the beginning of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem almost like blank caricatures rather than real characters. The only description Stoppard gives of them is that they are Elizabethan gentlemen and that Rosencrantz is nice but sees nothing weird about the improbable coin flipping, while Guildenstern is aware that it is strange. The completely characterless environment surrounding the two men emphasizes their generality and anonymity. They represent two attitudes rather than complex arrays of feelings—Rosencrantz is carefree and Guildenstern is anxious. As the play moves on, however, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become more well-rounded and realistic characters. Rosencrantz experiences doubt and dread, Guildenstern displays anger and disappointment, and both men have moments of sympathy and tenderness for the other. Their reactions at the end of the play are very different from what one might predict from the first scene: Rosencrantz is terrified but wearily resigns himself to death, and Guildenstern is perplexed and regretful, yet he vanishes from the stage with a flippant joke. Clearly, these are not the empty vessels with which Stoppard began the play.

The development of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as characters is significant because it shows Stoppard’s attitude toward the consequences of the crisis through which the two men pass. Over the course of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern confront the absurdity of living in a universe dominated by randomness, populated by people whose motives are unknowable, and describable only with a language that is frustratingly ambiguous. The easy responses to realizing that life is absurd would be to move to either a positive or negative extreme and completely despair or care about nothing but satisfying one’s own desires. Although they flirt with both possibilities, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not give in to either despair or hedonism. Instead, they develop as individuals in that they experience a fuller range of emotions, perceptions, and ideas than they were capable of at the beginning of the play. By showing their development from empty vessels to full individuals, Stoppard suggests that the existential crisis they experience is what determines whether one lives a complete life. Only by realizing life’s absurdity and overcoming it by developing the ability to imagine and act on a broad range of experiences can we become fully human.

3. How does the play use foreshadowing in light of its representation of the world as essentially random and chaotic?

The play contains many instances of foreshadowing, such as the repeated discussions of death that look forward to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s own deaths. In particular, the play uses the audience’s knowledge of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to anticipate the coming action of the plot. The audience, in other words, recognizes such details as the conversations about death as being foreshadowing prior to the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, since the audience is expected to know what happens to the two men in advance. Indeed, the very title Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead forces the audience to see foreshadowing where it otherwise would not, since it cues the audience to the ultimate outcome of the play. Given that the play presents the universe as an utterly random and absurd play, it may seem odd or even contradictory that it would also use foreshadowing, since foreshadowing is a way of imposing order on the world being described.

This contradiction is fairly minor, though, since the play ultimately reminds its audience that foreshadowing is a purely literary artifact that does not happen in the real world. In other words, the audience can recognize foreshadowing because the audience knows what will happen before it happens. Within the play, however, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not have such knowledge and thus cannot experience the world as anything other than random. This point is emphasized by Guildenstern’s depressed reaction to the arrival of the Tragedians in Act I. He says that he was ready for a sign or omen, but that the grotesque Tragedians make a mockery of the very idea of an omen. While the audience might see the arrival of the Tragedians as foreshadowing the events at Elsinore, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern see it as nothing but an irritation, and an embarrassingly shameless one at that. Their inability to recognize the signs that the audience sees as predicting future events reminds the audience of the fact that foreshadowing is a literary device, not a real phenomenon that people experience in an utterly random and seemingly meaningless world.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. Shakespeare scholars have long debated whether the Hamlet of Shakespeare’s play is truly mad. How does Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead deal with the question of Hamlet’s madness? Does Stoppard present Hamlet as sane or insane? Why?

2. Does the play ultimately suggest that we can overcome the randomness of the world? Or does it advocate accepting chance into our lives?

3. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not heroes in any traditional sense, but do they do anything that the play presents as heroic? If so, what?

4. What is the significance of the Player in the play? Why does Stoppard present him as such an enigmatic figure?

5. The play depicts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as making a mistake when they do nothing about the letter regarding Hamlet’s death. Within the world of the play, what other options do they have? What opportunities does Stoppard give them for altering the outcomes of their lives?

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