Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead highlights the fundamental mystery of the world. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend the entirety of the play in total confusion, lacking such basic information as their own identities. From the play’s opening, which depicts them as unable to remember where they are headed and how they began their journey, to their very last moments, in which they are bewildered by their imminent deaths, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot understand the world around them. Their confusion stems from both the sheer randomness of the universe, illustrated by the bizarre coin-tossing episode, and the ambiguous and unclear motives of the other characters, who pop onstage and deliver brief, perplexing speeches before quickly exiting. While Stoppard frequently uses their confusion for comic effect, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern occasionally become so frustrated by the world’s incomprehensibility that they fall into despair. The play ultimately suggests that the prominent role of chance in our lives, coupled with the difficulty of discerning the true intentions and desires of other people, leads to almost paralyzing confusion. Although this experience may sometimes be amusing or seem funny when it happens to others, in the end it is one of the most dreadful aspects of existence.
The constant confusion in which they find themselves leaves Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feeling unable to make any significant choices in their lives. They are pushed along toward their deaths by what appear to be random forces, and they fail to respond to their circumstances with anything but total passivity. Their lack of agency is underscored by Stoppard’s decision to transport them from scene to scene without any choice on their part. One minute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in the woods with the Tragedians, and the next they are in Elsinore being asked to probe Hamlet’s distressed mind, a request they accept without even understanding what they have been asked to do. Even at the end of Act II, when they ask each other if they should go to England, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not make a choice but instead merely continue on the path that has been laid out for them. Since they have already come this far, Rosencrantz says, they may as well keep going. Their passive approach to their lives reflects how difficult it is to make decisions in a world that we do not fully understand, in which any choice can seem meaningless and therefore not worth making.
Stoppard demonstrates the danger of this passivity by giving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the opportunity to make a very meaningful choice, which they fail to do. This moment occurs when they discover that they have a letter ordering Hamlet’s death upon their arrival in England: if they destroy it, Hamlet lives, but if they do nothing, he dies. While Rosencrantz hesitates about what to do, Guildenstern argues that they should not take any action, since they might not understand what is at stake. Although this decision may seem like an unfeeling rationalization for moral laziness, it is in fact simply an extension of the passivity that has marked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern throughout the play. By failing to make a significant choice when they have the opportunity to do so, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern incur terrible consequences, as Hamlet discovers the letter and switches it with one ordering their deaths rather than his own. Even though deciding which actions we should take in life is at times so difficult that we might be tempted to succumb to total passivity, failing to act is itself a decision, one that the play presents as not merely immoral but self-destructive.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead emphasizes the close connection between real life and the world of theatrical performance. Numerous features of the play work to underscore this connection, not least of which is the fact that the play asks its audience to assume that the characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet are real and deserve to have their story told from another perspective. Within the play, the connection between life and the stage is revealed to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by the presence of the Tragedians, who perform a play that depicts parallel events to those in which the two men find themselves. This play shows that the characters most similar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are ultimately killed, which is precisely the fate that befalls Stoppard’s main characters. As they watch the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern see that the two actors playing the roles parallel their own are dressed exactly as they are. This confuses Rosencrantz so much that he wonders why he recognizes the actor dressed as himself but then tells the actor that he is not who the actor believed he was. In other words, theater reflects life so well that Rosencrantz cannot tell which is which.
Guildenstern criticizes the Player for assuming that theatrical performance can depict real feelings, especially the terror of death. The Player’s response is twofold—he claims that theatrical death is the only kind people believe in because it is what they expect, and then he demonstrates that point to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by convincingly performing his own death when Guildenstern stabs him with a stage knife. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are completely persuaded by the Player’s performance, which lends credence to his claim that people really do believe in the things that theater has led them to expect. Indeed, the characters only believe in death when it looks theatrical, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot quite bring themselves to believe in their own impending deaths, for which they are unable to form any expectations. The audience cannot believe in their deaths either, at least according to the logic of the play and the Player, since the audience’s expectation that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will die is never fulfilled. By refusing to depict their deaths and refusing to give the audience what it knows is coming, Stoppard keeps Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from dying and instead turns them into living literary characters.