Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

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This article is about Tom Stoppard's play. For the 1990 film, see Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (film).
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead
Written by Tom Stoppard
Characters Rosencrantz
The Player
King Claudius
Soldiers, courtiers, and musicians
Date premiered 24 August 1966
Place premiered Edinburgh Fringe
Edinburgh, Scotland
Original language English
Genre Tragic comedy
Setting Shakespeare's Hamlet

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, often referred to as just Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, is an absurdist, existentialist tragicomedy by Tom Stoppard, first staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1966.[1][2] The play expands upon the exploits of two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet, the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The action of Stoppard's play takes place mainly "in the wings" of Shakespeare's, with brief appearances of major characters from Hamlet who enact fragments of the original's scenes. Between these episodes the two protagonists voice their confusion at the progress of events of which—occurring onstage without them in Hamlet—they have no direct knowledge.


The main source of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is Shakespeare's Hamlet. Comparisons have also been drawn with Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot,[3] for the presence of two central characters who almost appear to be two halves of a single character. Many plot features are similar as well: the characters pass time by playing Questions, impersonating other characters, and interrupting each other or remaining silent for long periods of time.


The title is taken directly from the final scene of Shakespeare's Hamlet. In earlier scenes, Prince Hamlet, having been exiled to England by the treacherous King of Denmark (his uncle, who murdered Hamlet's father to obtain the throne) discovered en route a letter from the King carried by his old but now untrusted friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The letter commanded Hamlet's death upon his arrival in England. Hamlet rewrote the letter to command Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's death and escaped back to Denmark. By the end of Shakespeare's play, Prince Hamlet, Laertes, Ophelia, Polonius, King Claudius and Gertrude all lie dead. An ambassador from England arrives to bluntly report "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead" (Hamlet. Act V, Scene II, line 411) and so they join all the stabbed, poisoned, and drowned key characters. By the end of Hamlet, Horatio is the only main figure left alive.


  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: a pair of schoolmates and childhood friends of Hamlet. They forget who they are quite often and most people speculate that even though that provides a sort of comedy to the play it's also because it really doesn't matter which is which because the two shall always revive that same fate and the same life. Rosencrantz is very simple minded and is okay with taking things at face value and letting other people think into it. Guildenstern is more of a thinker and worries what the consequences of an action will have on him and what the implications will be.
  • The Player: A traveling actor with his fair share of wits. He speaks of theatre being only about Love, Blood, and Rhetoric. Stating that everything must contain blood, that it is compulsory and that most things end in death. The player seems to like to do thing onstage that would normally happen off, like death, rape, sex, and torture and point out to the partners that he thinks of every exit somewhere is an entrance to somewhere else. He is often keeping tabs on the young boy Alfred (one of his tragedians) for a reason some say is because he and the boy have some sort of relationship going on behind the scenes.
  • Hamlet: the Prince of Denmark, nephew to Claudius. He seems to have a fairly minor role in the play, but still displays his usual quirkiness. Throughout the play he seems to be putting on a different face for different people much like what he does in the Shakespeare, and we see him play some of the scenes from that version.
  • Tragedians: traveling with the Player, including Alfred. They provide a chorus for the audience and react to specific things that the player says. He seems to have them all on strings and is often called a puppet master because of the way he controls them as well as everyone else in the play.
  • King Claudius: the King of Denmark, Hamlet's uncle and stepfather. Sends for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to glean what afflicts Hamlet. Then send the three off to England with a letter to the English king stating that, as a favour to him and Denmark, Hamlet be killed on the spot.
  • Gertrude: the Queen of Denmark, and Hamlet's mother. Is seen mostly worrying about her son but also displaying affection to her new husband. She switches from worrying to queenly and seems to mix up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from time to time.
  • Polonius: Claudius's chief adviser. He sees through most of Hamlet's lies and acts but doesn't care enough to bring it to too much attention. He is very fond of himself and tends to muscle his way into conversation. He tends to get very close to the king because he is of high enough status that he can do so. And he tends to brag about it too.
  • Ophelia: Polonius's daughter. She drifts across the stage from time to time, though no mention of her death is ever present in the play.
  • Horatio: a friend and schoolmate of Hamlet. He has the last line of the play in the scripted work, which is a direct quote from Hamlet. He says these lines as he is holding his dead friend.
  • Fortinbras: the nephew of the King of Norway. Appears at the end of the play to take over Denmark since the hierarchy has fallen.
  • Soldiers, courtiers, and musicians


The play concerns the misadventures and musings of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters from William Shakespeare's Hamlet who are childhood friends of the prince, focusing on their actions with the events of Hamlet as background. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is structured as the inverse of Hamlet; the title characters are the leads, not supporting players, and Hamlet himself has only a small part. The duo appears on stage here when they are off-stage in Shakespeare's play, with the exception of a few short scenes in which the dramatic events of both plays coincide. In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are used by the King in an attempt to discover Hamlet's motives and to plot against him. Hamlet, however, mocks them derisively and outwits them, so that they, rather than he, are executed in the end. Thus, from Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's perspective, the action in Hamlet is largely nonsensical and comical.

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. They are intended to give the English king a message telling him to kill Hamlet. Instead, Hamlet discovers this and switches the letter for another, telling the king to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. During the voyage, the two are ambushed by pirates and lose their prisoner, Hamlet, before resigning themselves to their fate and presumably dying thereafter.


Act One[edit]

The play opens with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betting on coin flips. Rosencrantz, who bets heads each time, wins ninety-two flips in a row. The extreme unlikeliness of this event according to the laws of probability leads Guildenstern to suggest that they may be "within un-, sub- or supernatural forces". The audience learns why they are where they are: the King has sent for them. Guildenstern theorizes on the nature of reality, focusing on how an event becomes increasingly real as more people witness it.

A troupe of Tragedians arrives and offers the two men a show. They seem capable only of performances involving bloodbaths. The next two scenes are from the plot of Hamlet. The first, involving Hamlet and Ophelia, takes place off-stage in the Shakespeare (the stage directions repeat exactly the words in which Ophelia, in the original, describes the event to Polonius). The second is taken directly from Hamlet, and is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's first appearance in that play. Here the Danish king and queen, Claudius and Gertrude, ask the two to discover the nature of Hamlet's recent madness. The royal couple demonstrate an inability to distinguish the two courtiers from one another, as indeed do the characters themselves to their irritation.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempt to practise for their meeting with the Prince by one pretending to be Hamlet and the other asking him questions, but they glean no new information from it. The act closes with another scene from Hamlet in which they finally meet the Prince face to face.

Act Two[edit]

The act opens with the end of the conversation between Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Hamlet. Guildenstern tries to look on the bright side, while Rosencrantz makes it clear that the pair had made no progress, that Hamlet had entirely outwitted them.

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. 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 The Murder of Gonzago, set to be put on in front of Hamlet and the King and Queen.

The royal couple enters and begins another short scene taken directly from Hamlet: they ask about the duo's encounter with the Prince, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inform them about his 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 interrogate him.

The Tragedians return and perform their dress rehearsal of The Murder of Gonzago. The play moves beyond the scope of what the reader sees in Hamlet; characters resembling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are seen taking a sea voyage and meeting their deaths at the hands of English courtiers, foreshadowing their true fate. Rosencrantz does not 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. After many false starts they eventually find Hamlet, who leaves with the King.

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.

Act Three[edit]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves on a ship that has already set sail. The audience is led to believe that the pair has no knowledge of how they got there. At first, they try to determine whether they are still alive. Eventually, they recognize that they are not dead and are on board a boat. They remember that Claudius had given them a letter to deliver to England. After some brief confusion over who actually has the letter, they find it and end up opening it. 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, an act which takes place off stage in Hamlet.

The pair discovers that the Tragedians are hidden ('impossibly', according to the stage directions) in several barrels on deck. They are fleeing Denmark, because their play has offended Claudius. When Rosencrantz complains that there is not enough action, pirates attack. Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern and the Player all hide in separate barrels. The lights dim.

When the lights come on again, Hamlet has vanished (in Hamlet it is reported that he was kidnapped by pirates from the ship). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern panic, and re-read the letter to find that it now calls for them to be put to death instead of the prince. 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, revealing the knife to be a theatrical one with a retractable blade. The Tragedians then act out the deaths from the final scene of Hamlet.

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, as the Ambassador from England announces that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.

Motifs and ideas[edit]

Stoppard emphasizes the randomness of the world. In the beginning of Act One, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bet on coin flips and Rosencrantz wins with heads ninety-two times in a row. Guildenstern creates a series of syllogisms in order to interpret this phenomenon, but nothing truly coincides with the law of probability. The impossible becomes possible through exploiting the minimal chance of a coin flip turning up heads ninety-two times in a row. The action is absurd, but possible. This incident demonstrates the absurdity of humans basing many of their actions on the probability or likelihood of an event to happen. The random appearances of the other characters, which often confuses the title characters, contributes to the same idea.[4]
Art vs. Reality
The players help demonstrate the conflict between art and reality. The world in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern live lacks order. However, art allows people that live in this world, as Stoppard hints that we do, to find order. As the Player says, "There's a design at work in all art." Art and the real world are in conflict. The Player is overjoyed to find Rosencrantz and Guildenstern because his art, his control, is nothing without an audience. Yet this art angers Guildenstern to the point where he strikes the Player because this theater makes it seem as if there are definite answers to all of Guildenstern's philosophical questions. In order to reach out to the only reality he can be sure of, Guildenstern exclaims, "No one gets up after death-there is no applause-there is only silence and some second-hand clothes, and that's death." The tension created by this theme is that the audience is watching or reading a play; the author comments on the ultimate lack of order in the world by presenting the audience with an ordered medium.[5] Stoppard also uses his characters to comment on the believability of theatre. While Guildenstern criticises the Player for his portrayal of death, he believes the Player's performance when Guildenstern thinks he has stabbed him with a knife. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern believe exactly what the actors want them to believe. However, Stoppard complicates the idea that people believe what they expect because he never shows the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The reader expects this event to come, but it never does. By extension, the reader should not believe that the pair dies; the reader is expected to accept that they are literary figures that live on today.[4] In another scene, Rosencrantz screams out "Fire!", ostensibly to call attention to a real fire in the actual theatre in which the play is being performed, but laughs it off as a reason why there should be limits to free speech, and thus blurring of the line between action in the play and action in real life.
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 transitions between scenes. 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.[4]


Metatheatre is a central structural element of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Metatheatrical scenes, that is, scenes that are staged as plays, dumb shows, or commentaries on dramatic theory and practice, are prominent in both Stoppard's play and Shakespeare's original tragedy Hamlet. In Hamlet, metatheatrical elements include the Player's speech (2.2), Hamlet's advice to the Players (3.2), and the meta-play "The Mousetrap" (3.3). Since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are characters from Hamlet itself, Stoppard's entire play can be considered a piece of metatheatre. However, this first level of metatheatre is deepened and complicated by frequent briefer and more intense metatheatrical episodes; see, for example, the Players' pantomimes of Hamlet in Acts 2 and 3, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's obsessive role-playing, and the Player's "death" in Act 3. Bernardina da Silveira Pinheiro observes that Stoppard uses metatheatrical devices to produce a "parody" of the key elements of Shakespeare's Hamlet that includes foregrounding two minor characters considered "nonentities" in the original tragedy.[6] Pinheiro notes that Stoppard alters the focus of Hamlet's "play-within-a-play" so that it reveals the ultimate fate of the tragicomedy's anti-heroes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. However, this alteration ultimately culminates in an absurdist anti-climax that runs counter to the effect of "The Mousetrap" in Hamlet, which effectively reveals the guilt of the King. While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern confront a mirror image of their future deaths in the metadramatic spectacle staged by the Players, they fail to recognise themselves in it or gain any insight into their identities or purpose.[6]

Notable productions[edit]

United Kingdom[edit]

The play had its first incarnation as a 1964 one-act, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear. The expanded version under the current title was first staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe on 24 August 1966, by the Oxford Theatre Group. The play debuted in London with a National Theatre production directed by Derek Goldby and designed by Desmond Heeley at the Old Vic. It premiered on 11 April 1967, with John Stride as Rosencrantz, Edward Petherbridge as Guildenstern, Graham Crowden as the Player, and John McEnery as Hamlet.[7] In 2011 the play was revived in a production directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, opening at Chichester Festival Theatre before transferring to the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London's West End (June–August 2011). It starred Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker. Tim Curry was originally scheduled to appear, but dropped out due to ill health and was replaced by Chris Andrew Mellon. In 2013, an excerpt of the play was performed by Benedict Cumberbatch (Rosencrantz) and Kobna Hold Brook-Smith (Guildenstern) on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the National Theatre.[8]

Broadway and Off-Broadway[edit]

The Royal National Theatre production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had a year-long Broadway run from 9 October 1967, through 19 October 1968, initially at the Alvin Theatre, then transferring to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on 8 January 1968. The production, which was Stoppard's first on Broadway, totalled eight previews and 420 performances.[2] It was directed by Derek Goldby and designed by Desmond Heeley and starred Paul Hecht as the Player, Brian Murray as Rosencrantz and John Wood as Guildenstern. The play was nominated for eight Tony Awards, and won four: Best Play, Scenic and Costume Design, and Producer; the director and the three leading actors were nominated for Tonys, but did not win.[9] The play also won Best Play from the New York Drama Critics Circle in 1968, and Outstanding Production from the Outer Critics Circle in 1969.

A revival in Burbank, California during the early 1980s featured Matthew Faison as Guildenstern and Lane Davies as Rosencrantz.

The play had a 1987 New York revival by Roundabout Theatre at the Union Square Theatre,[2] 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 29 April to 28 June 1987.

Several times since 1995, the American Shakespeare Center has mounted repertories that included both Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with the same actors performing the same roles in each; in their 2001 and 2009 seasons the two plays were "directed, designed, and rehearsed together to make the most out of the shared scenes and situations".[10]

Radio adaptation[edit]

The play has been adapted twice for BBC Radio 3, first on 24 December 1978 directed by John Tydeman; the cast included Edward Petherbridge as Guildenstern, Edward Hardwicke as Rosencrantz, Freddie Jones as The Player, Robert Lang as Claudius, Maxine Audley as Gertrude, Angela Pleasance as Ophelia, and Martin Jarvis as Hamlet. The second adaptation was broadcast on 15 July 2007 as part of a celebration of Stoppard's 70th birthday; the production was directed by Peter Kavanagh with Danny Webb as Rosencrantz, Andrew Lincoln as Guildenstern, Desmond Barrit as The Player, John Rowe as Polonius, Abigail Hollick as Ophelia, Liza Sadovy as Gertrude, Simon Treves as Claudius and John Dougall as Hamlet.

Film adaptation[edit]

Film rights to the play were originally bought by MGM in 1968 for a reported $350,000 plus 10% of the profits. John Boorman was announced as director with Bob Chartoff and Irwin Winkler to produce. However the film did not eventuate.[11]

The play was eventually adapted for a film released in February 1990, with screenplay and direction by Stoppard. The motion picture is Stoppard's only film directing credit: "[I]t began to become clear that it might be a good idea if I did it myself—at least the director wouldn't have to keep wondering what the author meant. It just seemed that I'd be the only person who could treat the play with the necessary disrespect."[12] The cast included Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz, Tim Roth as Guildenstern, Richard Dreyfuss as the Player, Joanna Roth as Ophelia, Ian Richardson as Polonius, Joanna Miles as Gertrude, Donald Sumpter as Claudius, and Iain Glen as Hamlet.


Upon its release, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead achieved critical acclamation and became a massive success, making Stoppard renowned practically overnight. Clive Barnes of The New York Times described his play as "very funny, very brilliant, very chilling."[13]


Reviewers of the Disney animated film The Lion King 1½ have suggested it was somewhat influenced by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, in which the eponymous characters are seen in every major event of Hamlet.[14][15][16][17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Edinburgh: Cradle of shows that conquered the world" Independent 2 August 2010
  2. ^ a b c Michael H. Hutchins (14 August 2006). "A Tom Stoppard Bibliography: Chronology". The Stephen Sondheim Reference Guide. Retrieved 2008-06-23. 
  3. ^ Jim Hunter (2000). Tom Stoppard: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, Jumpers, Travesties, Arcadia. Macmillan. 
  4. ^ a b c Garrett Ziegler (2008). "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: Themes, Motifs & Symbols". SparkNotes. Retrieved 2008-06-23. 
  5. ^ Johnston, Ian (April 10, 1997). "Lecture on Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead". 
  6. ^ a b Pinheiro, Bernardina da Silveira (2002). "Stoppard's and Shakespeare's Views on Metatheater". In Resende, Aimara da Cunha; Burns, Thomas LaBorie. Foreign Accents: Brazilian Readings of Shakespeare. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press. pp. 185, 194. ISBN 0-87413-753-5. Retrieved 2015-05-26. 
  7. ^ Michael Berry (24 May 2004). "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead". Michael Berry's Web Pages. Retrieved 23 June 2008. 
  8. ^ Alberge, Dalya (2 November 2013). "National Theatre: Night of the stars celebrates 50 years". The Guardian. 
  9. ^ "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Tony Award Info". BroadwayWorld. 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-23. 
  10. ^ Warren, Jim. "Director's Notes". American Shakespeare Center. Retrieved 2009-06-20. 
  11. ^ Only Die Twice By A. H. WEILER. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 25 Feb 1968: D17.
  12. ^ Brunette, Peter (20 February 1991). "Stoppard Finds the Right Man to Direct His Film". The Los Angeles Times. 
  13. ^ Kabatchnik, Amnon. Blood on the Stage, 1975-2000: Milestone Plays of Crime, Mystery, and Detection. p. 344. 
  14. ^ Nancy Churnin. Catch the `King' when he was a cub. Dallas Morning News. February 17, 2004
  15. ^ Joe Leydon. "The Lion King 1½". Variety. Retrieved 20 August 2015. 
  16. ^ "The Lion King 1 1/2 -". Entertainment Weekly's Retrieved 20 August 2015. 
  17. ^ The Lion King 1½. VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever

Further reading[edit]

  • Stoppard, Tom (1967). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. London: Faber and Faber. OCLC 228670971. 

External links[edit]