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 paralyzing 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 is 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.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead actively engages with Shakespeare’s Hamlet through quotation and visual cues. Stoppard includes many of Hamlet’s most notable scenes in a way that casts them in a new light. For instance, the most famous portion of Hamlet is the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet’s monologue about mortality and whether he should kill himself. Stoppard includes this scene, but it occurs in the background, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in the foreground, wonder whether to approach Hamlet. As Hamlet mulls over his death, they decide that the time is perfect for a casual chat. This belief is deeply at odds with Hamlet’s actual state of mind, which the audience knows but the characters do not. Such dramatic irony is funny, but it serves a larger purpose. Hamlet is regarded as one the greatest works of world literature, but Stoppard’s comic treatment of it shows the importance of viewing Hamlet on its own terms rather than as the apex of literary tradition. By presenting Hamlet not as a great artifact but as a play that depicts real feelings and complex characters, Stoppard reminds his audience of the power of Shakespeare’s play to speak to us on an individual, human level.
Throughout the play, Guildenstern performs punning riffs on a segment of the Lord’s Prayer, uttered by Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and known to many people as the “Our Father” prayer. Guildenstern usually replaces the final word of the phrase give us this day our daily bread with a word that both rhymes with Rosencrantz’s most recent remark and forms a pun on their situation. For instance, after Claudius and Gertrude greet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, mix up their identities, and ask them to probe Hamlet’s mind, the two become so confused that they can hardly speak straight. Rosencrantz cries out, “Consistency is all I ask!” to which Guildenstern responds, “Give us this day our daily mask.” Guildenstern’s substitution of the word mask for bread is deeply ironic. In the prayer, Jesus asks God to provide something people need on a daily basis—bread—while Guildenstern asks for something that the two men have too much of—masks, or shields, that prevent their identity from being known. Since even they cannot keep themselves straight, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would have little need for masks, and thus Guildenstern’s remark is a bleak, almost resigned response to their situation.
This ironic reuse of a sacred text parallels Stoppard’s irreverent use of another hallowed literary work, Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Stoppard wants to emphasize the lure of literary works—be they prayers or plays—but he also wants to show the danger of relying on them exclusively to help us solve our problems. People often look to literature in times of need, but Stoppard reminds us that although such works as the Lord’s Prayer or Hamlet may seem universally appealing, they are grounded in specific circumstances and are about specific people, and thus they cannot be applied to any situation indiscriminately. Guildenstern calls on the Lord’s Prayer when placed in trying situations, but it does him no good, and his punning substitutions point out that there is no piece of literature that can help them through their particular situation. Thus Stoppard reminds his audience that great literature—be it religious or secular—is not a blueprint for how to lead our lives. Rather, literature itself struggles to make sense of the complex business of living in a confusing, often frustrating world.
Scenes of gambling occur repeatedly in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and underscore the central role that chance plays in the lives of the characters. The play opens with Guildenstern losing bet after bet to Rosencrantz as the flipped coins keep coming up heads. Later, Guildenstern tricks the Player into accepting a bet that the year of the Player’s birth doubled is an even number, and Rosencrantz tries to cheer up Guildenstern on the ship to England by giving his friend a chance to win the same bet. All this gambling, this reliance on chance rather than individual actions, highlights how much chance drives the lives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and how little they do to counteract it. Although they are frustrated that chance puts them in unmanageable situations, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take no action to help themselves and instead surrender to chance by relying on gambling. Confronted with the troubling randomness of reality, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not try to resist it. Instead, they embrace the very thing that is tormenting them, finding it easier to give in to chance than take the difficult step of actively deciding how best to lead their lives.
The coins that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern flip at the beginning of the play symbolize both the randomness of the world and the play’s exploration of oppositional forces. The pattern of coin after coin landing heads up defies the expectation that the laws of probability actually do work and that the world makes clear sense. Instead, the coins suggest that the world is ruled by randomness and the occurrence of highly improbable events. The point made by the coins is reiterated by the way that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get caught up in a string of improbable situations that, from their perspective at least, occur entirely at random and make no sense whatsoever. Randomness is often contrasted to determinism, the notion that events happen according to some unbreakable plan. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead combines randomness with determinism to suggest that chance seems deterministic. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feel that they can do nothing to counteract the chance’s determinist force, just as they can do nothing to stop the coins from landing heads up.
The coins also stand in for the play’s exploration of oppositional forces. Although the coins land heads up so many times that they may seem one-sided, coins are actually two-sided, a fact the audience is reminded of when a coin lands tails up. This two-sidedness reflects the many sets of opposites in the play, from the division between Guildenstern’s philosophical pessimism and Rosencrantz’s pragmatic optimism to the dual nature of language, which is a source of both pleasurable wit and painful confusion. Imagining the world as a set of opposites is somewhat at odds with the coins’ symbolism of a world dominated by chance, since oppositions impose order on the world. Stoppard resolves this tension by having the oppositions in the play break down. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reveal themselves to be more complex and less oppositional than they initially seem, for instance. This breakdown of oppositional forces is reflected in the coins in that the laws of probability suggest that flipped coins should split evenly between heads and tails, but Stoppard shows that such a simple model does not account for the sheer randomness of the world.
Almost the entirety of Act III takes place onboard a boat to England, and Stoppard uses the boat to reflect the experience of living in a universe that is beyond our control. Guildenstern initially responds quite positively to being on the boat, noting that it is pleasurable to give up responsibility and allow oneself to simply be carried along through life. This resignation to life’s randomness is freeing, Guildenstern believes, because it means that we no longer have to worry about whether we are making the right decisions—we can just relax and see where life takes us. The play suggests that this is a naïve and dangerous attitude, however, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s refusal to take any action for themselves will end up getting them killed. Guildenstern realizes that getting on the boat was a mistake, since giving up their freedom meant that they lost all control over their lives. Simply giving in to the randomness of the world, as well as believing that giving in leads to freedom, are self-destructive gestures. These gestures make us like men on a boat they cannot steer, unable to do anything about our experiences.
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