Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was written by Tom Stoppard and produced for the first time as an amateur play in 1966. It was later produced professionally in New York and London in 1967 and catapulted Stoppard to international fame and he came to be considered a major playwright of absurdist theatre of the twentieth century.
In the play, story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet has been retold by reversing the importance of the minor characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, into the main characters of this play. This play has been compared with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot because of the absurdity of these men’s situation where they are caught up in events that they understand nor have any control over.
1. What I think about this absurd theater.
“Uncertainty is the normal state. You’re nobody special.” (Act II).
It is a cleverly contrived play in which the playwright has focused on the perspective of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with regard to Hamlet’s story. In Shakespeare’s play, these two are perhaps the most minor characters and do not really have an impact on the plot of the play. In this play, however, these two characters have become the major characters while Hamlet, Claudius and Gertrude, etc. have become minor in comparison. At the beginning of the play both of them are seen traveling through wilderness and do not understand what they are meant to do and why they have been summoned by the King. Their perplexity and the absurdity of the play are underscored by their flipping of the coins and their absurd conversation.
As in the opinion of the Player, the events are portrayed “inside out” and what should be off-stage is presented on-stage. The absurdity is emphasized by the interchange of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s names without any rationale. Another example is when they find themselves observing Ophelia and Hamlet for a brief moment on stage and then are suddenly drawn into the drama with the entrance of Claudius, Gertrude and courtiers and none of them understands what is happening. In an attempt to get Hamlet’s confidence and understand what ails him they practice asking questions and get so confused by what they want to ask that it reinforces the absurdity of the play.
While traveling to England in the ship with Hamlet and Claudius’s letter with instructions for Hamlet’s execution, both characters of this play get very involved with the question of death. They despair when they find out that Hamlet has changed the letter and instead ordered Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s execution. The fact that they break down at the thought of their deaths and philosophize about it is in this context is absurd as they could have changed the situation by writing a different letter or escaping like Hamlet had done. In the end all characters, major as well as minor, are dead. The concluding speech was delivered by Horatio and the playwright has adhered to the original end as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
2. How does the play relate to Hamlet?
The Play is derived from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet and has been treated differently. The story line of Hamlet’s tragedy has not been changed much. The events of the play remain more-or-less the same. Claudius and Gertrude are concerned about Hamlet’s madness and call upon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his friends, to find out what ails him.
Then Hamlet kills Polonius by mistake and is then transported to England along with his friends with orders for his execution. The only major change is the difference in perspectives of the characters of the play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are made out as the protagonists and have been given definitive characters with their opinions being voiced and considered as it had been ignored in Shakespeare’s play. The last scene where Horatio announces that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead remains almost completely unchanged.
3. Is the universe absurd in both plays?
No, the universe is not absurd in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet assumes “an antic disposition” but there is nothing absurd about the plot of the play which is very deliberate and well planned. However, in Tom Stoppard’s play, the plot itself is absurd. The whole episode of Hamlet’s madness and the events that follow are being projected through the perspective of the two most insignificant characters and their confusion about their roles in the drama is absurd. So the universe in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is absurd and perplexing.
Guildenstern: “Words, words. They’re all we have to go on” (Act I).
Stoppard has used witty dialogue to highlight the absurdity and the incomprehensibility of the situation. The characters indulge in a lot of witty banter and play of words but the absurdity is that neither is able to truly express what he wants to say nor do they truly comprehend what others are telling them. Language has been used ambiguously in this play and has helped to add to the sense of confusion and perplexity of the play.
4. Are the main characters portrayed as they were in Hamlet?
There is a noticeable role reversal in the play from that of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The main characters perform the same actions in this play as well; however, the importance given to the minor characters like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as well as that of the Player and the Tragedians has been highlighted. Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes etc, all fulfill the same roles and perform the same functions in the play but as their story becomes the backdrop and the absurd reality of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come to the forefront we are confused about the objective of the portrayals. In Shakespeare’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are made out to be somewhat villainous as they help Claudius to deport Hamlet for his execution, but in this play they are more victims of their indecision and ambiguity of the messages they receive and in their turn communicate.
Stoppard, T. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. New York: Grove Press. 1991. Print.
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