Rosencrantz: What are you playing at?


Guildenstern: Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.


This exchange, which occurs in Act I just after Claudius and Gertrude inform Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of their mission, highlights both the pleasures and pitfalls of language. On the positive side, the fact that language is extremely complex and always changing means that it can be a great source of delight. Characters spend a great deal of time in the drama playing with words, creating clever linguistic jokes and engaging in a lot of witty banter. The complexity and instability of language, however, has negative consequences as well, which this quotation also points to. Since language is our primary way of understanding the world—it is “all we have to go on,” as Guildenstern says—the fact that it is inherently ambiguous means that we often have trouble expressing ourselves and even making sense of our lives. Throughout the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves unable to say what they want to, and their confusion mounts as they try to determine the true meaning of what other characters say to them. This frustrating feature of language contrasts sharply with its enjoyable aspects, as the play emphasizes that language, like the two-sided coin Rosencrantz and Guildenstern keep flipping, is a combination of opposites.