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As the lights come up, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are
now inside, watching as Ophelia rushes past, followed by Hamlet. Silently,
Hamlet grabs Ophelia but quickly releases her and runs offstage.
Ophelia runs off as well. Then Claudius and Gertrude enter. Speaking
Shakespearean English, Claudius confuses Rosencrantz with Guildenstern,
then explains that he wants their help in determining what is wrong
with Hamlet, their childhood friend. Speaking lines taken directly
from the play Hamlet, Claudius says that Hamlet
has recently changed, perhaps as a result of his father’s death.
Gertrude echoes Claudius’s comments. Also in Shakespearean English,
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern promise to do whatever they can to
figure out what is bothering Hamlet. Polonius enters to say that
he wishes he knew why Hamlet has changed so drastically. Everybody
but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leaves.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to figure out what has
just happened. Guildenstern comforts Rosencrantz by telling him
that they will soon understand why they are there and what they
need to do to return home. Guildenstern reminds him of the logic
at work in the universe and says that the two just have to stick
it out until the events have ended. They start discussing possible
causes of Hamlet’s madness, essentially repeating the speeches made
earlier by Claudius and Gertrude. Together, they decide to probe
Hamlet using questions and answers. They practice, borrowing the
scoring used in tennis, but succeed only in further confusing each
other. Whether they are seriously interested in the answers to each
other’s questions, or whether they want to beat the other one at
the game, is not clear.
Hamlet enters without speaking, then leaves. Immediately,
Guildenstern decides that Hamlet has changed greatly. Guildenstern suggests
that Rosencrantz pretend to be Guildenstern, while Guildenstern
pretends to be Hamlet so that they can practice the question-and-answer
game. After a while, Rosencrantz begins asking Guildenstern questions
about what has recently transpired at Elsinore, the court of Denmark.
They conclude confused, because Hamlet seems to have lots of reasons
to be upset: his father has recently died under murky circumstances,
and his uncle has usurped the throne to become king and married
his mother, Gertrude.
Hamlet comes back in, confusing his companion Polonius
with riddles. He excitedly greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but
mistakes one for the other as the stage goes dark.
Whereas Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a tragedy
with occasional moments of comedy, Stoppard’s play is a comedy with
occasional moments of tragedy. But both plays attempt to portray
the complexities of life. According to the plots of both plays,
Claudius has summoned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to help with
Hamlet. But, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lucidly realize, Hamlet
has many reasons to be upset: he has just lost his father, the crown
(Claudius has become king of Denmark, even though Hamlet is of age
and capable of governing), and his mother (she remarried very quickly after
the death of Hamlet’s father). The interweaving of happy and sad
things occurs in the riddles Hamlet speaks to Polonius: these might
be a tragic result of his madness, they might simply be his childish
attempt to make his friends laugh by making fun of an old man, or
they might be a little of both. Similarly, the verbal sparring between
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern resembles a comedy routine, with non
sequitur following non sequitur, even as they try to figure out
whether their friend, tragically, has gone insane. They even highlight
the nonsensical nature of their dialogue by keeping score as if
the questions and answers were a game of tennis. Nobody, including
the men themselves, seems able to tell Rosencrantz from Guildenstern,
which is funny but also sad, as it comments on the difficulties
of establishing a firm identity in a chaotic world. Like life, the
two plays have moments of joy and sadness, and neither is wholly
funny nor entirely tragic.
Stoppard takes lines directly from Hamlet as
a way of emphasizing the relationship between his play and Shakespeare’s
play. On the one hand, without Hamlet,
and Guildenstern Are Dead would not exist. Stoppard borrows
heavily from Shakespeare’s text, including the characters of Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern, and he incorporates lines verbatim from Shakespeare
into his own work. Whenever Rosencrantz and Guildenstern speak to
a character from Hamlet, they switch from modern
English to Shakespearean English. Although they do not notice the
difference, we as readers are meant to pick up on the change in
language. On the other hand, Stoppard’s versions of Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern are very different from the two men found in Hamlet.
Whereas Shakespeare’s portrays the two men as goons with little
personality, Stoppard gives the men individual characteristics and
far more lines than in the original play. They think, feel, joke,
gamble, and reason. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern clearly want to
help Hamlet, and they attempt to ascertain whether Hamlet has, in
fact, gone insane through the game of question-and-answer. In this
sense, Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not simply act
as agents of Claudius, as Shakespeare’s versions do. Instead, Stoppard
lets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to function independently
from both Claudius, their king, and Shakespeare, their original
creator. Stoppard wants to emphasize Hamlet as
not solely the greatest work of drama in the English language but
as a play capable of speaking to us on a human, visceral level.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead!