full title Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
author Tom Stoppard
type of work Play
genre Black comedy; parody; satire
time and place written 1964–1965; London, England
date of first publication 1967
publisher Grove Press
tone Witty; playful; sly; sarcastic; bleak; angst-ridden
setting (time) Late 1500s (Elizabethan era)
setting (place) Middle of nowhere; Hamlet’s court; a boat
protagonist(s) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
major conflict Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempt to discover the cause of Hamlet’s apparent madness and their own purpose in the world.
rising action Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sent for by Claudius to ascertain the cause of Hamlet’s strange behavior. Along the way, they encounter a bizarre troupe of traveling actors and become involved in a series of inexplicable occurrences and confusing situations.
climax While escorting Hamlet to England, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discover that he is to be killed upon arrival. At long last faced with an opportunity to make a meaningful choice, they fail to act and discover that their own lives will be sacrificed.
falling action Rosencrantz and Guildenstern despair upon realizing that they are to be put to death and confusedly lament their failure to avoid their situation.
themes The incomprehensibility of the world; the difficulty of making meaningful choices; the relationship between life and the stage
motifs Shakespeare’s Hamlet; the Lord’s Prayer; gambling
symbols The coins; the boat
foreshadowing The coin tossing foreshadows the randomness of the play’s action. The Player’s offer to let Rosencrantz and Guildenstern participate in the Tragedians’ performance foreshadows the close parallel relationship between the events at Elsinore and The Murder of Gonzago. The many references to death foreshadow the deaths at the end of Act III.