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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.
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 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.
How does the play use foreshadowing
in light of its representation of the world as essentially random
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead!