Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

by: Tom Stoppard

Important Quotations Explained

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Guildenstern: We’ve travelled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation.
Rosencrantz: Be happy—if you’re not even happy what’s so good about surviving? We’ll be all right. I suppose we just go on.

This discussion takes place in Act III immediately after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have discovered that Hamlet is no longer onboard the boat. Just as suddenly as they were called to their mission, their journey has now become pointless, and Guildenstern has been thrown into despair. His remark reflects the frustration and despondency that the play attributes to the realization that life will never make sense and that nothing external will be able to give satisfying purpose and meaning to our lives. The indifference of the universe to our sufferings, questions, and desires may lead one to believe, as Guildenstern does, that life is nothing more than mechanical forces and that we are being driven toward death by a natural “momentum” that we can neither stop nor understand. This is the deepest and darkest state of existential crisis, the lowest point one can reach when thinking seriously about the meaningless randomness of life.

Rosencrantz’s reply, however, suggests a way out of the pit of despair into which Guildenstern has fallen, although whether the play as a whole supports his approach is debatable. When Guildenstern looks at the indifference and arbitrariness of the world, he feels only that life has no meaning. But the fact that life as a whole does not have any obvious meaning does not mean that it is impossible for any individual life to have meaning, and Rosencrantz’s response is an attempt to find meaning and purpose on precisely this individual level. When faced with the chaos of life, Rosencrantz decides that his personal purpose will be to seek pleasure for himself. That is not to say that Rosencrantz is advocating hedonism and fulfilling every desire however and whenever we want. Rather, Rosencrantz says that even though the universe does not care about us, we should care about ourselves and strive to find happiness and personal fulfillment. If we find things that give our lives meaning, we may not be overjoyed, but we will at least be “all right.” Although this may sound plausible, the fact that Rosencrantz lapses into confused dread at the moment of impending death may suggest that even his attitude cannot save us from the harsh realities of life in a pointless universe.