Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

It is important to note that Hamlet itself is a transformation, of form as well as ideas, which is based upon other transformations. Indeed the metatheme of Hamlet is transformation (whereas Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is about the inability to effect transformation or change). Tom McAlindon, in an article entitled What is a Shakespearean Tragedy, draws our attention to the fact that Hamlet, like Shakespeare’s other tragedies, has an intense focus on the phenomenon of change:

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… change is not just one of worldly fortunes; it is above all else interpersonal, moral, and psychological change. An essential part of the hero’s experience is the horrified discovery that the world he knows and values, the people he loves and trusts, are changing or have changed utterly. He feels cheated and betrayed ‘to the very heart of loss’. (p.6)
Shakespeare was writing in the tradition of Revenge Tragedy, sometimes referred to as Theatre of the Blood. Elizabethan and Jacobean versions of revenge tragedy borrowed heavily from the tragedies of Seneca (4 BC-65 AD), a Roman dramatist whose tragedies were published in 1581. Seneca, in turn, based his tragedies on Greek mythology and he appeared to have been influenced by Aristotle (384-322 BC). Students should acquaint themselves with the features of these tragedies.
Shakespeare borrowed, and indeed transformed his tragedies from the classical form in a number of ways, such as the inclusion of comic elements (comic relief, satire, mocking, parody etc), the “common man” character and showing on stage acts of violent passion.
Shakespeare also appears to have borrowed quite extensively from a contemporary of his, Thomas Kyd (1558-1594) whose revenge tragedy The Spanish Tragedy was not only enormously popular but very influential to all in the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama industry.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Stoppard has written three, what some would refer to as irreverent, transformations of Shakespeare’s tragedies: Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. This enterprise is quite audacious as he is not just transforming plays but modern classics. When asked why he chose Hamlet he responded: “[Hamlet] is the most famous play in any language, it is part of a sort of common mythology”.
Stoppard also writes in a tradition; in his case the tradition of the Theatre of the Absurd. The literary term Theatre of the Absurd was coined by the critic Martin Esslin and refers to tendencies in drama to portray life as meaningless and absurd which emerged in Paris in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Absurdist Theatre itself can be seen as a transformation of Dadaism and Surrealism, two early twentieth century aesthetic philosophies which focused on a sense of bewilderment at the violence, depravity, and hopelessness they believed endemic to the human condition in the twentieth century. By challenging conventional theatre and traditional views The Theatre of the Absurd attempted to shock the audience into questioning its own values and assumptions. The drama portrayed was not meant to be regarded in the same terms as realist drama but rather as a drama of ideas. Dramatic features often included meaningless exchanges due to a distrust of language as a means of communication, a portrayal of life as meaningless through a lack of dramatic suspense, abstracted and minimalist settings, comic treatment of traditional themes and a blurring of reality and fiction. There is often a sense of playfulness at times drawing attention to their own artifice.
There is also a close link with existentialism. Existentialism is a philosophical movement that explores the question of existence and how it is defined, particularly in a world in which meaning appears to have disappeared. The terrible events of the two World Wars accelerated the waning of religious faith which had started with the Enlightenment. There was a general mood of disillusionment with so called civilized values. The absurd plays of dramatists such as Ionesco, Genet, Beckett and Pinter all depict humanity as bewildered and anxious in the face of a loss of meaning. Stoppard uses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead as a vehicle to express these ideas and draws upon what is probably Shakespeare’s most existential work, Hamlet. Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech is the intertextual echo that resounds throughout Stoppard’s play.
Stoppard has also appropriated Beckett’s influential absurdist play Waiting for Godot. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern mirror the predicament of Vladimir and Estragon, “two lost souls waiting for something to happen”. They are stranded between modernity and postmodernity. They long for the security of a grand narrative to make sense of their lives but can only engage in futile speculation about the meaning of it all. They are on the verge of a breakthrough to an acceptance of their postmodern condition of fragmentation, but don’t quite make it.
Stoppard’s transformation of Hamlet can be seen as a formalized 20th century statement regarding the nature of truth: it is contingent, contextual and ultimately unknowable. This, of course, is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s dilemma; they are trapped in limbo between knowing and not knowing.
Stoppard has been criticized for omitting certain scenes (e.g. III, ii and iii) which portray Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a light other than “two bewildered innocents”. However it should be remembered Stoppard is interested in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as victims. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is his creation. He has taken an idea from Hamlet and developed it dramatically. What he is not interested in is critiquing Hamlet.
Students should make lists of the scenes in Hamlet which have been incorporated into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and write down what has been added and what has been changed. Then you should consider how these contribute to Stoppard’s purpose.
The flourishing of Revenge Tragedy in Shakespeare’s time was fuelled by the enormous changes taking place in Elizabethan and Jacobean society. His was an age characterized by turmoil and uncertainty. The division of the church in England divided the people into Catholics and Protestants. Religious doubt, albeit carefully disguised, was becoming more prevalent. The consequent unrest and suspicion often resulted in surveillance and betrayal in personal relations as well as in the broader social and political sphere. Assassination attempts on Elizabeth and James resulted in cruel and brutal retaliations.
There was also the ever present threat of foreign invasion to add to the feelings of insecurity.
Medieval feudalism was in decline, but it was dying a defiant death; the aristocracy resorted to harsh measures to shore up its authority and maintain the hierarchical order which had served it so well.
Hamlet dramatically reflects this challenge to tradition, the political instability of his society and the religious questioning.
Medieval-renaissance-modern; feudalism-sceptism-humanism-individualism; old world moral absolutes-new world rational scepticism; religious certainties-inner doubt and psychological probing.
Humanism and notion of identity. Hamlet asks the modern questions, who am I? and what am I doing here?
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Stoppard began writing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in 1964 and it was first performed in 1966 at the Edinburgh Fringe Theatre. The 20th century, and more specifically the late 20th century, was a time of change and turmoil.
The sixties was characterized by an irreverent mood born out of a period of rebellion and challenge to existing structures and beliefs. In all areas of social activity Stoppard’s society (which is mainly first world, capitalist, democratic and relatively affluent) was undergoing transformation. Many characterize this historical period as the “turn on, tune in, drop out” generation because of its experimentation with drugs, alternative lifestyles and sexually promiscuous attitudes. Others characterize the sixties as a decade of student political protest. They cite the anti-Vietnam campaigns, nuclear disarmament protests and the Paris student riots as important landmarks in the politicization of young people. The British popular culture scene included television comedy in the form of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and England’s first soap opera Coronation Street, the pop music explosion kick started by the Beatles, stage musicals such as Oliver, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar.
The mood of questioning, rebellion and playfulness can be seen in the way that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead travesties Hamlet; the tragedians, serious in their treatment of Death and holding a “mirror up to life” in Hamlet are now reduced to comedians and potential pornographers in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The treatment of death has also undergone a transformation from the profound to the comic, from high tragedy to slapstick comedy.
20th Century despair-nihilism-death of god-existentialism and the notion of identity-swinging sixties-optimism and disillusionment-modernism-postmodernism-Theatre of the Absurd-nonheroic-Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ask the modern questions, who am I? and what am I doing here?

* Consistency and inconsistency
* Tradition and progress
Hamlet is about change and transition whereas Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is about the inability to effect transformation or change. Where Hamlet undergoes a transformation in perspective and acts to influence events, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are seen as impotent little men unable to influence events.
* What is death?
* What is it to die?
Throughout literature there is a strong connection between truth and death. The quest for meaning is seen in terms of killing and death. The tragedians offer yet another view: they see death as the climax of great tragedy.
The humanist model (see Liberal Humanist reading below) sees Hamlet as epitomizing the human condition. It takes for granted a universalism of human nature and identity which transcends time and place.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have no fixed identities. Stoppard is exploring the 20th century notion of existentialism which is essentially concerned with the problem of self identity. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as representatives of the human condition, have no control over their fate and are the victims of arbitrary circumstances. They have no past and no future and only exist through other people’s definitions of them, and are unable to accept the lack of guidance and fashion their own future out of the here and now. Their existential position is echoed throughout the play as they continually try to find an explanation for their existence. In the same way that Hamlet functions as a metaphor for the human condition so do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent modern humanity’s existential despair.
Providence, fate, destiny
The notions of free will and determinism are central to both plays. Hamlet has the free will to act but is thwarted by his belief system. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent the idea that our lives are predetermined because even though we do have choices in life, we do not have enough information to choose intelligently.
Existentialism, religion and the meaning of life
Shakespeare’s England was very religious. The Christian church was an active participant in all areas of social and political life. Hamlet too operates in this Christian context and all events in the play should be regarded in this light; indeed religious belief is often a instigator or inhibitor of dramatic action.
The 20th century is often referred to as the century that killed God. In Western society there has been a decline in the number of Christians and of the significance of the church in everyday life.
Stoppard evokes the mood of 20th century despair through his appropriation of the philosophical movement called existentialism. By dramatizing the loss of centers resulting in a despairing desire to know and to believe, Stoppard is commenting on the nature of 20th century existence.
Appearance and reality, illusion and truth
The player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead says, “truth is only that which is taken to be true. It’s the currency of living. There may be nothing behind it, but it doesn’t make any difference so long as it is honored. One acts on assumptions.”
Consider the concept of truth as it is dramatically realized in Hamlet.
Examine how both plays use things such as imagery, symbols, clothing, the play-within-a-play device, role-playing and language to set up mirrors for reality through which to challenge our notions of illusion and truth.
Appearance and reality is a dominant theme in Hamlet and Elizabethan audiences would understand that there is a truth behind the disguise.
Rational reason and scientific rationalism
Rational reason was the basis of Humanism and was the working philosophy of Shakespeare’s time. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempt to discover patterns and purposes in their existence by use of scientific logic.
Theatre as a metaphor for life (and the nature of art)
There are several examples in both plays where the boundaries between the actors and the audience are erased. Shakespeare and Stoppard employ metatheatre in order to comment on the analogy between drama and life: both construct realities.
Hamlet is a theatrical play. It is about acting and, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is full of theatrical references. Theatrical terminology and imagery abounds, characters act or attempt to act, characters are instructed and instruct others in the art of acting, there are plays within plays and the audience are reminded that it are not only watching a play but that it might be the actors in someone else’s play! Both playwrights cleverly use structure and form to draw our attention to the nature of truth and reality. Stoppard himself is acting upon Shakespeare’s text.
The genre-Tragedy-Revenge Tragedy-Aristotle-Seneca-Elizabethan/Jacobean-Shakespeare
Structure-stagecraft-dramatic techniques (ghost, soliloquy, play within a play)-language-imagery-setting
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
The genre, Theatre of the Absurd, modern and postmodern characteristics (pastiche, irony, parody, word games, vaudeville, burlesque, self reflexivity, absence of a frame of reference)
Intertextuality (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T S Eliot and Waiting for Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett about impotence and despair, view of life as hopeless). Prufrock and Godot are both examples of modernist texts where the romantic tragic hero is regarded as a myth. We have the anti-hero or ordinary person on centre stage cut adrift in a drama over which he or she has no control, aimless and looking for direction and speculating about the meaning of it all. Modernism is characterized by nostalgia for the certainty, faith and authority of the past. Thus there is a tone of lament, pessimism and despair.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is modernist in this sense but there are aspects of postmodernism, e.g. the philosophizing, speculating and agonizing by Hamlet over grand issues (such as meaning of life, death and religion) is treated in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead as farce through the modes of satire, irony, burlesque and parody.
Stoppard’s use of Hamlet is in some ways a postmodern gesture. By appropriating such an iconic text as Hamlet and presenting it from the perspective of peripheral characters and then “playing” upon them for his own purposes, Stoppard demonstrates that the human experience cannot be fully understood by focusing on the dominant narrative.
The depiction of reality as a game or “spectacle”, the destabilization of identity and the inability of language to offer security of meaning are further pointers to the postmodern condition of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are indeed bewildered innocents cast adrift in a disinterested and dispassionate universe. The questioning and dismantling of the individual authorial self conclusively marks the text as a postmodern inquiry into how meaning is constructed.
Remember that the vital difference between modernism and postmodernism is that the former laments fragmentation and the latter celebrates it. So be cautious in referring to R&G as a postmodern text. It is a modernist text that has some postmodernist characteristics. The intense seriousness of the modernists is diluted by the humor and parody of the postmodernists.


The role of language in Hamlet is to create meaning. It is the utterance of the “paragon of animals”. It is a sublime human achievement, and indeed Shakespeare’s language has been valued throughout the centuries as the pinnacle of linguistic artistry. Language in Hamlet expresses beauty, truth and reason as well as being a tool of deception and manipulation. It therefore has transcendent meaning which when analyzed will reveal “truth”. Traditional criticism, based as it is on Liberal Humanist values, focuses on a universal humanity which can be understood through a close analysis of language and form.
In Hamlet we find Shakespeare’s full repertoire of language skills: verse, prose, formal, colloquial, dialogue, soliloquies, aside, puns, irony, parody, a range of imagery, etc.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Stoppard’s language on the other hand expresses the ambiguous nature of truth. There is no underlying fixed meaning in words. The lack of control over their lives is mirrored in the fragmentation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s language and their persistent use of question.
The language games that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s engage in owes an intertextual debt to the influential 20th century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Stoppard has appropriated one of Wittgenstein’s theories of language which essentially states that language cannot express a universal truth. Language resembles “moves” in a game and outside of the game has no meaning whatsoever. This notion of language having no transcendent value is another point of difference between the two plays.
Stoppard also reveals his range of verbal artistry. His play is rich in the playful use of cliché, black humour, irony, puns, burlesque, cultural reference, etc. His use of colloquial and clichéd language to state humankind’s existential dilemma serves to undermine the value traditionally attached to Shakespeare’s elevated poetry. The numinous authority of Shakespeare’s language is thus deflated.
Notwithstanding all this, we should never lose sight of the fact that Stoppard is a playwright and his intention is to entertain us. Stoppard’s style, especially his humor, wit and comedic timing, is the means by which the bleakness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s (and by analogy our own) predicament is made palatable through the medium of drama.
The audience response to both texts is determined by values, culture and context. Remember, our course this semester has focused on a “study of the language of texts, consideration of purposes and audiences, and analysis of the content, values and attitudes conveyed through a range of readings”.
With that in mind, you need to understand the following critical approaches and acquaint yourselves with the theoretical principles underpinning each of the approaches.
* Traditional Criticism which is based upon a Liberal Humanist approach.
* Modern Criticism which is based upon a Post-structuralist and New Historicist approach.
The essential difference between the two approaches is that the first tends to focus on character and the universality of “the human condition” and the latter emphasizes the influence of context and the application of theory to the process of reading.