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Clip from Hamlet:


"What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension; how like... a god... The beauty of the world; the paragon of animals; And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?" --- Prince Hamlet

Note that Stoppard considers this a play to be experienced rather than studied.

Useful Quotes

Character
Quote
Explanation

Guildenstern's bag is nearly empty.
Rosencrantz's bag is nearly full.
Sets the mood of the play from the beginning. Defines Rosencrantz as the optimist, and Guildenstern as, if not the pessimist, then at least the realist.
Guil.
The scientific approach ... is a defense against the pure emotion of fear.
After this quote Rosencrantz starts rambling about beards. Emphasizes the distinction between the two characters - Guildenstern is nervous about his situation and tries to rationalize it with scientific method, Ros. is unconcerned: "what will happen, will happen".
Guil.
Player
You've been here before.
And I know which way the wind is blowing.
"Operating on two levels! How clever!" exclaims Rosencrantz, and it is quite true: the Player, for a while at least, knows what will happen and how the situation will turn out.
Player
Events must play themselves out to asthetic, moral, and logical conclusion.
A comment on plays in general, this also foreshadows the conclusions of "Hamlet".
Guil.
We drift down time, clutching at straws ... but what good's a brick to a drowning man?
i.e., hope is vital, but to be told exactly what will happen next is deadly. To know that he has no control over what happens next would be destroy Guil. - which is why he is so desperate to keep the level of spontaneity high.

Themes

  • A sense of timelessness throughout the entire play, starting with the "place of no visible character". Enhancing this sense, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can't remember their past: "We've only got their word for it". Guildenstern also mentions strange times and places (for example, "A Chinaman of the T'ang Dynasty").
  • Guildenstern keeps trying to come to grips with the situation. "You said something about getting caught up in the action," he says to the Player, hoping at least partially to get some sense of purpose, but he is continually denied this sense. (In this case, the Player interprets this obscenely). This ties in with the "Illusion vs Reality" theme of the play. Some more quotes:
    • Player: It is written. Guildenstern, of course, wants to see the book (ie, too see either this play script or Hamlet), but that would be "Cheating".
    • Player: Uncertainty is the normal state. You're nobody special.
    • There's a logic at work - it's all done for you, don't worry. Enjoy it. Relax.
    • Guildenstern's constant questioning, and the questions games he plays with Rosencrantz also illustrate this point.
    • What's the game? Where are the rules?
    Like the rest of us, Guildenstern would like a better idea of how things will turn out in the end.
    Guil: From now on, reason will prevail.
    Player: I have lines to learn.
    Guil: Pass!
  • We see from the start that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are aware that they are in a strange, controlled world: the stage directions have the characters explore the boundaries of the stage; chance is warped as a spun coin continually comes up heads. Guildenstern's dogged persistence parallels the real-life struggle everybody must eventually face, of trying to come to grips with their environment, and make sense of their situation.
  • In a way Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Albert are similar: both are aware that they are in a sordid world over which they have no control, and both are aware that they are under the watchful eye of voyeurs: in Albert's case, the "audience" to the Player's productions, in R and G's case, the audience watching the play.
  • The play is full of dramatic irony.
    Ros. He murdered us.
    Ros. They'll have us hanging about 'till we're dead!
    While Hamlet can speak of "words, words, words", as Guildenstern says, "They're all we've got to go on".
  • Generally, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" is an attempt to "See the chessboard from the pawn's point of view". In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are killed off in the most perfunctory way for doing what they'd been told. In Hamlet, the audience is left with little sympathy for them - they betrayed their long-time friend! - but in this play, Stoppard investigates what might have happened if things had been a little different.

To remember

  • Literary work is the sum of all its interpretations. No single interpretation is ever "correct". "I never wrote plays for discussion" - Tom Stoppard. There are two schools of thought on interpreting literature: the "avocado principle" - dig through the outer layer until you get to the core - and the "onion principle": Keep finding layer upon layer of meaning, but in the end, there is no single truth. Tom Stoppard, among many other authors, claims to have had no single meaning in mind when writing R and G; in this sense, then, the play is undoubtedly an onion.
  • R and G is an example of "Metatheatre", or "Theatre about Theatre".
  • As absurd and existentialist playwrights, parallels have been drawn between Stoppard and Beckett. There are many differences, but here are two:
    • While Beckett's characters in Waiting for Godot do their best to make time pass quickly, R and G attempt to do something constructive with their time (even if it is a "short, blunt human pyramid"). Instead of killing time, they attempt to fill time.
    • Inevitably, Vladimir and Estragon (in Beckett's play) fall into silence. But "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead" is held together by the affection R and G have for each other, and instead of falling into silence, R and G take to comforting each other.

Need to Know . . .
Background: Absurd theatre, existentialism, theatre of criticism, experimental, intellectual, making fun of Hamlet text.

Setting: "a place without any visible character."

Characters: R and G - two aspects of one person? Interchangeable, interdependent but alone.

Ros. - Reality? Earthier, confused, reactive, obtuse.

Guil. - Illusion? Intellectual, cultured, abstract, poetic, philosophical, insecure, questioning.

Both show self-awareness of the way things are in the human condition and they "tragically" realise they cannot alter the way things are. The play consists of R&G's quasi-philosophical speculation about why they are here and what their death will be like.

Structure: Three acts, intertextuality of Hamlet, what is the climax? (G's "killing" the player?) Boat scene / sea travel a theme that helps the central theme of directionlessness.

Themes: Self-awareness, death-awareness, fortune / destiny, acting, mirror on art, art vs life, self-identity, existentialist philosophy, uncertainty of man's origin, unpredictability of life, lack of control, fate / chance, inaction / filling in time with words / poor communication / poor connections with people (Beats, pauses, ambiguity), futility of human activity causes characters to abandon hope of any significant action, marking time / passing time, purposelessness, failing memory, conflict of real world and illusion, role-playing in life, man's isolation, life is a mystery, the only certainty is death.

Language: Blank verse / prose, simple / complex, confused, ambiguous, frequent references to fate ('wheels' in the "wheels within wheels" quote), rhetorical questions, repetitions, witty banter / repartee (comic routine) short / long passages, word games, biblical references, references to literature, echoes of the Hamlet text, breakdown of language / communication, Act 3 (short and preoccupied with death - the end is near).

Player: Contrast in philosophies to R&G, sardonic, unquestioning, accepting, he mirrors the conflict between real world and illusion, real, assertive, self-assured, confident, never unclear about his identity ("Relax ... respond.").

Dramatic Techniques: Intertextuality of Hamlet, self-conscious use of stage (actors go down to footlights, bring in audience to identify with R&G's dilemma, Hamlet spitting in the audience (can he change his destiny?)), dumb-show, role-playing, pratfall, body movement, coin tossing, experiments, lighting / blackout, music (drums / flutes - suspense - in the constant Players' tune), sets (unreal), conjuring tricks (players in barrels), silences / pauses / beats, word games, humor, stage directions (references to directions shows awareness of being trapped in a theatrical situation)
.