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.