The Lost Country

Fall 2015 • Vol. 5, No. 1

issn 2326-5310 (online)

One Path, Two Directions: Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

By Maria Stromberg

This work was published in the Fall 2015 issue of The Lost Country. You may purchase a copy of this issue from us or, if you prefer, from Amazon.

On a rocky path along a cliff side, two men are riding horses. One of them tosses a coin repeatedly, catching it and turning it over on the back of his other hand. Every time he does, it comes up heads. A certain amount of conversation reveals that neither of them can remember anything before the morning’s summons which woke them up. At last one of them says to the other: “We have not been picked out…simply to be abandoned…set loose to find our own way…we are entitled to some direction…I would have thought.” This scene is the introduction to Tom Stoppard’s film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, an adaptation of his own play about two of the most minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.1 Stoppard provides a highly engaging and sympathetic picture of these two semi-comic, semi-tragic figures, whose unfortunate end seems so quickly glossed over by Hamlet and by Shakespeare himself.

The critical consensus reads Stoppard’s film not only as a dramatic rewriting of the Shakespearean play, from the point of view of these two characters, but as an existential critique of the absurdity and injustice of their “fate.” Doomed to replay their roles, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, innocent, ignorant of themselves and their surroundings, looking only for understanding, find themselves drawn into an end they cannot avoid, but which they have not deserved: “living a narrow, pre-determined life in ignorance of the forces controlling it.”2 From this the critic can easily draw comparisons to human life—like them, mankind is fated, unaware of it, and unable to change its destiny: “Human life is basically predetermined because, even though humans do have choices in this life, they do not have enough information to choose intelligently.”3 Richard Corballis suggests that the play’s basic theme is that “modern life requires an inversion of those assumptions which, in Stoppard’s view at any rate, underlie Hamlet.” Comparison to other works of absurdist and modern literature, such as Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, or T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, helps to fuel this interpretation.4

One crucial point, however, must be kept in mind while making comparisons between life and the fictional world of the film—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are re-reading and re-writing their own roles in the world of another author’s play. Stoppard’s dialogue with Shakespeare takes the main action of Hamlet as a backdrop, using many scenes verbatim, but only from the point of view of the two eponymous characters. Hamlet’s world is strangely transformed; in Shakespeare’s Hamlet we are presented with a main character who must learn to understand his situation and then to act accordingly. Whether one interprets Hamlet as succeeding or failing in this attempt, it cannot be denied that his “reading” and his “writing” of the world are far superior to that of Stoppard’s characters. Just as in Shakespeare’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are fools; but Stoppard makes them far more sympathetic in various ways. They have no knowledge of who they are, no memory of their past; they cannot even tell which one of them is which. They are thrust into a situation they do not understand, interact with characters who tell them very little, and are finally put to death. Rosencrantz, as Gary Oldman plays him, is rather endearing: he has flashes of “scientific” insight, the ability to craft little mechanical devices and make realistic animal sounds. Tim Roth’s Guildenstern is less appealing, but more astute; he tries to understand his situation, and puts up with his comrade’s ingenuousness patiently, at least for the most part. By giving his characters such individuality, Stoppard might be making them more sympathetic to the audience; but his ultimate judgment of their flaws may be just as merciless, and shows all the clearer in contrast to what is appealing in their personalities. Neither Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern can read their situation on a more than literal level; and they are even less capable of writing their own roles—in other words, of making a choice of their own. Is this because their roles are already fated, or because they unthinkingly submit to a fate they could have avoided? The title of the movie, a quote from Shakespeare’s play, makes clear the reality of what is happening. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead; even if not literally so, they are dead because they do not act as living men. They die by Hamlet’s orders, but, in Stoppard’s reading of Shakespeare, they may already be dead by their own choice.

Such a daring statement requires demonstration, especially since the film could easily be interpreted as a story about the inability of modern man to live in an absurd world, in which there is no meaning, and in which he has no choice or direction. However, especially since Shakespeare’s Hamlet provides the background of the action, one can also make the argument that the absurd world exists only in the minds of the two characters, as an excuse for their inability to act.5 The first proof is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sometimes understand what is happening far better than they care to admit. When rehearsing the scene in which they are to interrogate Hamlet, Rosencrantz sums up the situation as they know it: his father has died, his uncle has usurped his throne and married his mother. At this point, no clues have been given to show that the king murdered his brother, but there is enough there to provoke sympathy for Hamlet, as well as distrust of the king. “Now,” Rosencrantz says, to Guildenstern playing Hamlet’s role, “why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?” “I can’t imagine!” Guildenstern replies, and Tim Roth speaks the line in a clearly ironic tone, then turns the conversation immediately to another subject. Of the two of them, he at least knows as much about the action of the play as any audience could discover, even an audience that does not know Shakespeare’s Hamlet.6 However, he is more concerned with his own situation, and has no sympathy to spare for anyone but himself.

In a later scene, watching the actors rehearse their play, in which the whole story of Hamlet is told in mime, at least two versions of the king’s murder of his brother are played in front of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This is the point at which they show their inability to read beyond a literal level; in other words, they cannot read analogously. They cannot make a comparison between the play they are watching and the one they are in, a comparison that the king himself has no difficulty making. “It wasn’t that bad,” Guildenstern says about the acting, watching the king rush out of the room. The line is played for humor, as in the previously cited scene, but the humor itself is a chilling demonstration of what is wrong with the main characters. Even an audience who has not read Hamlet will find the line funny, because they can read what Guildenstern cannot: that the king is guilty. Although it can be argued that the audience of Shakespeare’s play cannot know the king’s guilt for certain until his soliloquy, two points can be made to support this interpretation. Firstly, in Hamlet, Claudius would never react with obvious guilt as long as he is in public, but the very strain of keeping up a false front forces him to leave as soon as Hamlet describes the queen’s re-marriage to her husband’s murderer. It is evident that it is this action which galls him. Secondly, in Stoppard’s film, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have realized, quite clearly, the pattern of death and re-marriage in Hamlet’s life. The same pattern, clearly acted out twice in front of their eyes, (in the Players’ rehearsal and the puppet ‘play within a play’) as well as the “mousetrap” situation, acted out, and then seen in their real experience, is more than enough to alert them that the King’s motives may be impure. A comparison of the two would show a clear analogy between the real King and the Player King. Claudius’ reaction in the film only strengthens this reading; a viewer who does not know Hamlet could make the proper inferences from the amount of information Stoppard gives, even if one argues that Hamlet itself is ambiguous in the scene. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as Stoppard presents them, are far below the human average in their ability to read the world.

However, if one is to argue that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are guilty, one must look further for the cause of this disability. Is it simply that they are thrown into a story they do not know, playing roles they cannot understand? This in itself is not so different from the human condition. It might then be fate, as the Player suggests. Two things, however, can be established: that the two can read on a literal level, and that they cannot read on an analogical one. The distinction is literary. The literal level establishes what is happening on the surface of the story; the analogical level draws conclusions and interpretations based on analogies between parts of the story.7 Without a certain amount of literal knowledge, analogical knowledge cannot be reached—but it also requires a willingness to see connections between things outside of oneself, and without reference to oneself. As long as an absolutely literal relation between person and fact remains, an analogical relation between that fact and another, giving a more universal kind of knowledge, is impossible. On the path to knowledge, there are thus two directions; one that is outward, towards universal knowledge, the other that is inward, towards self-knowledge. The irony of the situation is that clinging to self-knowledge is finally destructive, and reaching for universal knowledge gives self-knowledge that comes in perspective.8

The question must be asked at this point: What are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern trying to read, if anything? The answer is, quite clearly, that they are trying to read their own situation. They are completely uninterested in anything outside of themselves, unless it explains them to themselves. They cannot read Hamlet or the king because they are not trying to do so; they are trying to read themselves from what others say to them. This is where Stoppard goes beyond Shakespeare’s sketching of the characters, in showing self to be the guiding principle behind their actions; not self-promotion or advancement, but simply self-knowledge.

A noble search, one might be tempted to say, but Stoppard does not show it to be so in this case. Just as they read on the literal level, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern only want to understand themselves on a literal level: which of them is which, and what they are meant to do from now on. Or to put it a little differently, what role has been written for them. In this play of “Hamlet,” two actors have wandered on the stage without their scripts, only knowing the names of their two characters, and they are trying to do what they are meant to do. Yet therein lies the problem: they are letting others write their roles for them.9 As soon as they interact with other characters, in a scene taken from the original play, they lose almost all the individuality and interest of their personalities. They are driven, in one scene, by rushing crowds of people that carry them along; an excellent image of how non-existent is their power of free choice. Yet they are there because they want to talk to the king, a man whom they should mistrust, except that he sent for them and therefore might be able to tell them who they are. Everyone around them is a possible source of knowledge; in other words, not a person with whom they can interact, but an object that might help them. In approaching the world like this, they end by allowing themselves to be manipulated by these very “objects.” If Tom Stoppard is indeed speaking to the modern world, there are a dozen analogies that could be made here. However, the real question remains: is there another path that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could have chosen? Could they have read their world in such a way that they could have written their own roles, instead of allowing them to be written?

The answer is hinted at in the very opening and ending scenes of the movie. At the beginning, the two main characters ride down a path on a rocky cliff face, towards the left. When the movie ends, the players’ traveling stage, on which one might argue that the whole of the action had taken place, travels back up the path, in the opposite direction. There may in fact be only one path, but there are two possible directions. The same is true for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Their characters, their situation, could not have been changed; but they could have gone in the opposite direction. Instead of choosing to read themselves at the expense of others, they might have read others first, even at their own expense. In sympathy for another, they might have come to play the role of Horatio, who is one of the few that lives on to tell Hamlet’s story. People tend to pity Horatio because he must “in this harsh world draw [his] breath in pain”10, yet they fail to take into account that he continues to live; and that is no small matter, especially compared to Stoppard’s characters, who are dead even in life. No one lives without pain, and that pain is caused by self-sacrifice. The alternative is passivity and death. Even if the choice appears harsh, it is still a choice. It is interesting to note, therefore, that while Guildenstern, in his last moments of life, admits that there must have been such a choice, Rosencrantz replies that he is relieved to die.11

In spite of the great difference in their style and treatment, Shakespeare and Stoppard come to the same final understanding of life. The self-centered human being can neither read nor write his life properly, because he is only looking for his own meaning. In seeking meaning outside of himself, he finds his proper role. Hamlet is content, at the end of Shakespeare’s play, to allow his part to be written by providence, even if he himself cannot understand it. How is this different from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s submission to “fate?” The answer lies in the difference of attitude. Either fate, or providence, is the road; the direction is the “reason for which” the character acts. Clinging to self or emptying oneself makes all the difference: Hamlet trusts providence at his own expense and for the sake of his kingdom, and dies content. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s “providence,” if the play Hamlet is by analogy their providence, becomes their downfall because they see it as their fate. Providence, as opposed to fate, orders the world by providing consequences to freely chosen actions, taking into consideration the intent of the one who acts. If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern agree to Claudius’ plots, the consequence is death. Their tragedy, in Stoppard’s film, is not simply that they fail to understand this, but that their attempt to understand it blinds them to all other possibilities. Trying to understand fate by letting it happen is dangerous—as the image of the coin represents. Even if one side is always hidden by chance, the other side can be seen by choice—in this rewritten world of Hamlet, only by deliberate and perhaps painful choice—which they never exercise. In Hamlet’s case, his providence is just as unclear, but his choice to submit to it, when made, is not for the sake of unraveling the mystery. He chooses to do the right thing, when providence gives him the opportunity. If Stoppard’s protagonists were at all like Hamlet, they would have first understood the situation, pondered what was right to do, and having at last decided it, allowed the opportunity for proper action to present itself. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who want only to understand their own roles, allow themselves to be written by every other character, and in the end find no contentment at all. On the same path, they are moving in opposite directions.

  1. Susan Abbotson argues that the film is Stoppard’s mature reworking of the play to give it clarity: “In the film, Stoppard has tied up those loose ends to ensure that his audience is given clear guidance towards his central message.” p. 172. For this reason I am reading the film, not the play, as the definitive version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. A more detailed version of the differences between the two, for which there is no room here, can be found in Abbotson’s essay, which argues that “Stoppard directs us to recognize the characters’ human responsibilities…indeed, this strong emphasis on moral responsibility is the key difference between play and film.” p. 172.

  2. Brassell, p. 66.

  3. Nassaar, p. 91.

  4. Cf. Joseph Hynes’ article in the Virginia Quarterly Review and Felicia Londré’s book, Tom Stoppard, for a comparison with Beckett. Cf. also Ronald Hayman’s book, Tom Stoppard, for a comparison with both Beckett and Eliot, and a more extended study of the technical aspects of the play.

  5. Manfred Draudt reads the two characters as “desperately try[ing] to avoid becoming embroiled in the action in order to maintain their positions as ‘spectators’, never realizing that actor and spectator are interchangeable roles, that is, two sides of the same coin.” p. 350.

  6. Joseph Hynes argues that “Stoppard’s play must be confusing or even incomprehensible to one who has not heard of the Shakespeare tragedy.” p. 642. It is difficult to generalize about how much could be understood without the backdrop of Hamlet, since it is such a widely known play, and few people who have not read it are likely to watch Stoppard’s version. This is clearly intended on the author’s part. However, one can distinguish between particular and general understanding. On the whole, Stoppard’s film requires a knowledge of Hamlet. In particular moments, nothing beyond the information given by Stoppard himself is necessary to understand the humor. In the above mentioned scene, knowledge of the Ghost and Claudius’s guilt is not given; but Hamlet’s melancholy disposition does have its earliest roots in his father’s death and mother’s remarriage. This interpretation is made clear to the audience through Stoppard’s dialogue. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s inability to make that interpretation is rendered more striking through the audience’s knowledge of Hamlet, but does not free them from the charge of intentional blindness. Guildenstern sees the interpretive possibility, but refuses to follow it.

  7. An example of the first: Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle and has married his mother. An example of the second: based on the analogy of puppet play to play, and of play to experience, what are the possible motives of Claudius and Hamlet’s actions?

  8. Though Stoppard may not have had this in mind, Shakespeare certainly would have known the biblical phrase: “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it,” King James Bible, Matthew 10:39. If “for my sake” is understood not simply in a religious way, but as a search for any universal knowledge of the kind I am calling analogical, the quotation applies quite well both to Hamlet and to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

  9. Can they do otherwise? This question is related to an interpretation of the work in which freedom is impossible. If the play, Hamlet, has already been written for them, then the characters may try their best while they are offstage, but any return to the main action forces them back into their roles. William Babula states quite bluntly that “Script is destiny. For Ros and Guil (sic) in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead destiny lies in the plot of an Elizabethan revenge tragedy…If the two men are caught in a universal dilemma, they are also trapped in a script,” p. 279. This reading would be more convincing if Stoppard had not chosen to exclude and change several scenes involving the two characters in the original play. The script does not remain the same: neither the well known scene in which Hamlet berates them for trying to play on him as on an instrument, Act iii Scene 2, nor the scene in which they flatter Claudius with the speech on majesty, Act iii Scene 3. The play, in fact, has been rewritten by them to a certain extent, negatively, by the omission of these moments. Once this is established, the analogy of film, life, & play, predestined fate breaks down. If the play can be changed, even in a miniscule way, then fate is no longer overpowering.

  10. Hamlet Act v Scene 2 291

  11. Margarete Holubetz points out that Rosencrantz’ acceptance of death as “relief from the meaningless hustle of life” (428) is emphasized by the scene of the Player’s fake death, caused by Guildenstern. The change from belief that he has actually been killed, to realization that it is all an act, is a farcical move that satirizes theatrical conventions. This intensifies the un-dramatic reality of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s death. However, particularly in the movie production, it makes the final outcome ambiguous. The stage trappings, the Player’s final words, “See you next time!”, and the visual cues that indicate everything has been happening inside the stage wagon, suggest to the audience that this death is just as “real” or as “false” as the Player’s. In contrast to this possibility, the two characters’ final words become even more significant. Perhaps there will be a chance for Guildenstern to make the right choice next time; on the other hand, Rosencrantz’ desire for oblivion shows even more false in the face of a possible “resurrection.”