Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is an absurdist, existentialist tragicomedy by Tom Stoppard, first staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1966. The play expands upon the exploits of two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet.
The title is taken directly from a passage by an ambassador in the final scene of Hamlet that is quoted in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
The two characters, brought into being within the puzzling universe of Stoppard's play by an act of the playwright's creation, often confuse their names, as they have generally interchangeable, yet periodically unique, identities. They are portrayed as two clowns or fools in a world that is beyond their understanding; they cannot identify any reliable feature or the significance in words or events. Their own memories are not reliable or complete and they misunderstand each other as they stumble through philosophical arguments while not realizing the implications to themselves. They often state deep philosophical truths during their nonsensical ramblings, yet they depart from these ideas as quickly as they come to them. At times Guildenstern appears to be more enlightened than Rosencrantz; at times both of them appear to be equally confounded by the events occurring around them.
After the two characters witness a performance of The Murder of Gonzago - the story within a story in the play Hamlet - they find themselves on a boat taking prince Hamlet to England with the troupe that staged the performance. During the voyage, they are ambushed by pirates and lose their prisoner, Hamlet, before resigning themselves to their fate. By the end of the play, the title characters have learned that they are not truly free; they cannot deviate from the life set out for them in Shakespeare's script.
Major themes of the play include existentialism, free will vs. determinism, the search for value, and the impossibility of certainty. As with many of Tom Stoppard's works, the play has a love for cleverness and language. It treats language as a confounding system fraught with ambiguity.
The Tragedians arrive. The Player inquires of the two men if they would like a show. Guildenstern and the Player cannot decide whether chance or fate have brought them together. The Player reveals that the troupe has not had much acting work of late and have actually become more like prostitutes than actors. Rosencrantz is intrigued, Guildenstern appalled. Guildenstern scares the Tragedians off when he asks them to perform a real play.
The next part of the scene comes directly from Shakespeare's Hamlet. The Danish king and queen, Claudius and Gertrude, ask Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to discover the nature of Hamlet's recent madness.
Rosencrantz is offended by the royal couple's inability to tell the difference between him and Guildenstern. While Guildenstern consoles him, Rosencrantz laments his own inability to separate his identity from that of his friend. He desires consistency, a quality lacking in the world in which he lives. The pair then engages in a ridiculous game of questions. When Hamlet runs across the stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remember what they are there to do. Guildenstern proposes that Rosencrantz pretend he is Hamlet and ask him questions. Rosencrantz fails to understand the concept at first, which enrages Guildenstern, who resigns himself to the ineptness of his partner. Eventually, they actually manage to enact the role play, but they glean no new information from it. The act closes with another scene from Hamlet in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern finally meet Hamlet face to face.
The Player returns to the stage. He is angry that the pair had not earlier stayed to watch their play because, without an audience, his Tragedians are nothing. The Player is rather harsh, telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that uncertainty is the natural state of living and that they should get used to it. He tells them to stop questioning their existence because, upon examination, life appears too chaotic to comprehend. The Player, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern lose themselves in yet another illogical conversation that demonstrates the limits of language. The Player leaves in order to prepare for his production of the "Murder of Gonzago," set to be put on in front of Hamlet and the king and queen.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are left alone again. Rosencrantz begins to ponder what actually happens when someone dies, whether a corpse feels anything inside a coffin, and the positives and negatives of spending time in a coffin. While he looks at important issues about man's helplessness in front of death and eternity, he appears ridiculous in his discourse. While Guildenstern is at first angered by his partner's ramblings, he eventually agrees with Rosencrantz's fear of death and eternity.
The royal couple enters and asks about the duo's encounter with Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inform them about Hamlet's interest in the Tragedians' production. After the king and queen leave, the partners contemplate their job. They see Hamlet walk by but fail to seize the opportunity to interview him. In an incident of physical comedy, Rosencrantz puts his hands over the eyes of whom he perceives to be the queen and shouts, "Guess who?" It turns out to be the boy Alfred, a member of the Tragedians. The Player reenters.
The Tragedians perform their dress rehearsal. The Player speaks about how, as actors, they do what is written. They have no choice in how their lives unfold. The play moves beyond the scope of what the reader sees in Hamlet; the Tragedians predict the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the hands of the English courtiers. Rosencrantz doesn't quite make the connection, but Guildenstern is frightened into a verbal attack on the Tragedians' inability to capture the real essence of death. The stage becomes dark.
When the stage is once again visible, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lie in the same position as had the actors portraying their deaths. The partners are upset that they have become the pawns of the royal couple. Claudius enters again and tells them to find where Hamlet has hidden Polonius' corpse. The pair bumbles about, walking in opposite directions and discussing all the possible ways of going about their duty; their conversation focuses again on probability and on how it is impossible to determine exactly what will happen next. They set a trap for Hamlet by tying their belts together, but Hamlet unwittingly avoids it. They eventually find Hamlet and try to bring him to Claudius. He leaves while the pair is bowing in the direction they believe Claudius is entering. When he enters from behind, they look ridiculous. Hamlet comes back on stage and leaves with Claudius.
Rosencrantz is delighted to find that his mission is complete, but Guildenstern knows it is not over. Hamlet enters, speaking with a Norwegian soldier. Rosencrantz decides that he is happy to accompany Hamlet to England because it means freedom from the orders of the Danish court. Guildenstern understands that wherever they go, they are still trapped in this world. The act ends here.
They notice Hamlet and contemplate what their next step should be. Guildenstern becomes distraught because of their uncertainty. To make him feel better, Rosencrantz pretends to put a coin in both of his fists and asks Guildenstern to choose which fist has the coin. He puts coins in both hands, so that Guildenstern will win every time: an equally ridiculous but opposite outcome to the outcome of the game at the beginning of the play. Guildenstern gets angry at Rosencrantz for his lack of original thought, but then begins to comfort him when he sees that he has hurt Rosencrantz's feelings.
The duo remembers that Claudius had given them a letter. After some brief confusion over who actually has the letter, they find it. Rosencrantz mentions how he does not actually believe in England, that he does not expect them ever to arrive. They pretend to arrive at the English court and end up opening the letter. They realize that Claudius has asked for Hamlet to be killed. While Rosencrantz seems hesitant to follow their orders now, Guildenstern convinces him that they are not worthy of interfering with fate and with the plans of kings. The stage becomes black and, presumably, the characters go to sleep. Hamlet switches the letter with one he has written himself.
The pair wakes up to the faint sound of music. Eventually, they discover that the Tragedians are hidden in several barrels on deck. They are fleeing Denmark, because their play has offended Claudius. The Player tries to help Rosencrantz and Guildenstern determine from which malady Hamlet is suffering. In the midst of their contemplation, pirates attack. Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern and the Player all hide in separate barrels. The lights dim.
When the lights come on again, only the title characters' and the Player's barrels remain. Guildenstern is devastated by Hamlet's disappearance; he is so distraught that he has trouble putting his feelings into words. He feels as if he has no purpose without Hamlet. Guildenstern cannot contain his emotions. He shouts at Rosencrantz, who is simply trying to make him feel better. In a moment of rage, he snatches the letter and reads it again, discovering that it now calls for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be put to death. Guildenstern cannot understand why he and Rosencrantz are so important as to necessitate their executions.
The Player tells Guildenstern that all paths end in death. Guildenstern snaps and draws the Player's dagger from his belt, shouting at him that his portrayals of death do not do justice to the real thing. He stabs the Player and the Player appears to die. Guildenstern honestly believes he has killed the Player. Seconds later, the Tragedians begin to clap and the Player stands up and brushes himself off.
The Player tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that they believed his performance because they expected it. The Tragedians then act out the deaths from the final scene of Hamlet. Guildenstern still puts up a weak defense, claiming that death is the absence of presence and no one can truly represent it.
The lighting shifts so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the only ones visible. Rosencrantz still does not understand why they must die. Still, he resigns himself to his fate and his character disappears. Guildenstern wonders when he passed the point where he could have stopped the series of events that has brought him to this point. He disappears as well.
The final scene features the last few lines from Shakespeare's Hamlet. The Ambassador from England announces that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.
Limits of Language: Some of the conversations in the play indicate the author's belief that language places a limit on what people can express. The characters must confine their feelings within the boundaries of words. Stoppard mocks language in sequences where the characters fail to express what they are thinking because words cannot exactly capture their thoughts. Instead, they appear ridiculous.
Insignificance: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern often feel as if they are unable to make any choices that will actually have an impact on their lives. They acknowledge that they must act at the random whims of the other characters, but do not make any effort to fight this lack of control. Stoppard manifests this theme in his transition between themes. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not choose to move from setting to setting, but they appear in a new place without deciding to go there. For instance, they move from the woods with the Tragedians into the castle to a conversation with the king and queen without actually saying they want to enter Elsinore. When deciding whether to bring Hamlet to England, Rosencrantz concludes that they might as well continue on the path on which they are already. Stoppard criticizes this passivity. The title characters are able to make a life-changing decision when they discover that their letter contains an order to kill Hamlet. Instead, they decide to do nothing and the result is their deaths.
The play had a 1987 New York revival by Roundabout Theatre at the Union Square Theatre, directed by Robert Carsen and featuring John Wood as the Player, Stephen Lang as Rosencrantz and John Rubinstein as Guildenstern. It ran for 40 performances from April 29 to June 28, 1987.