Existentialism is the philosophical movement that focuses on the plight of the individual to seek meaning and purpose in a vast universe. Ultimately, the individual is responsible for his or her own actions despite the prevailing uncertainty about right or wrong. Many have examined plays such as Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search for an Author , and Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead through an existential lens. Key characteristics of an existential work include the presence of anti-heroes, unstable knowledge of the past, and unstable identities.
In Shakespeare's work, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not given distinct personalities. In Hamlet they are stock characters whose staccato dialogue and Elizabethan wit serve merely as comedic devices. Their primary purpose is to relieve the dramatic tension present within the rest of Hamlet. Stoppard lifts these characters from Shakespeare, but places them in the foreground, although together they lack the depth to sustain the action that Hamlet sustains alone. Yet Stoppard's genius lies in using their lack of depth and inability to sustain action as the very center of the events in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. For all intents and purposes, the two are indistinguishable and dispensable. Characters such as Claudius, Gertrude, and even Hamlet often call them by the wrong names; in fact Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are often unable to distinguish themselves. In[Hamlet], they are dispensable, executed for no real reason and unable to garner much sympathy from the audience. In Stoppard's play, however, although they meet the same fate the journey that they take to get there is far different. Stoppard humanizes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by imbuing them with a deep-seated universal desire: the need for meaning. Even though they do not achieve any redeeming purpose, the audience can sympathize with the characters as they vacillate between awareness and understanding - never really achieving the latter.
Philosophically, alienation refers to a imminent sense of estrangement and exile, a concept clearly illustrated in Camus' Stranger. In modern theatre, alienation also refers a technique used in many absurd dramas. In order to alienate the audience, the playwright typically uses language as a barrier to communication. Language becomes confusing; logic becomes circular. In these plays, the world is depicted as overwhelmingly incomprehensible and opaque; the characters are never able to achieve true understanding. Stoppard exercises many of these techniques in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Part of the duo's comedy is their verbal play. Evasion is the very object of the game "Questions". Although they are talking to one another, nothing is being said; no communication is being achieved. Stoppard also builds on the motif of how incomprehensible the world is through the character of Guildenstern. Guildenstern constantly seeks to understand the world around him. He wants to know how it is possible for a coin to land almost a hundred times in a row heads up. He wants to know what is in the letter they have been sent. And finally, when they discover that death is inevitable, Guildenstern is enraged primarily because they have been told so little throughout the process. The goal of alienation is to remove the illusions of purpose and meaning infused into people's daily existence so that the audience gets a sense of their true existential condition.
Throughout the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are painstakingly aware that there is a design within which they operate. Stoppard chooses Shakespeare's Hamlet as the framework the characters are constrained by. Although the audience and the Player are fully aware of the plot, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not. When seeking Guildenstern's critique of the play the troupe has just rehearsed, the Player states, "There's a design at work in all art - surely you know that? Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral and logical conclusion." The plot has been predetermined. The characters have very limited autonomy, and are forced to entertain themselves while they wait or until further action takes place. When Rosencrantz wants to hasten the progress of things, Guildenstern warns his friend, "Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are...condemned." The script of Hamlet defines Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, controlling their very sense of identity and limiting their agency. In his play, Stoppard uses Shakespeare's script as a device with which to explore the very nature of being written versus writing, and the haunting possibility that the stage is a more accurate depiction of human existence than previous religious or philosophical theories.
Free will is an illusion in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Instead of true choice, they are presented with limited alternatives. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the two characters are not given distinct identities. When Rosencrantz becomes frustrated about never knowing for sure whether his name is Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, Guildenstern replies, "We are comparatively fortunate; we might have been left to sift the whole field of human nomenclature, like two blind men looting a bazaar for their own portraits...At least we are presented with alternatives." In other words, their freedom has significant limits. When Rosencrantz attempts to talk to Hamlet on his own terms ("off-script"), he is unable to do so. When Rosencrantz attempts to play with the Queen, his efforts are averted when he realizes that his target is actually Alfred dressed in women's clothing. In many ways, England represents freedom to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They believe that once they arrive they will be rid of Hamlet and free to continue on as they please, having completed their royal duties. On the surface, the boat becomes the means by which they gain their freedom, an escape from the demands of the court. The characters are led to believe that they have choice, but it ultimately emerges that they only have alternatives. By the end of the play, they realize that what they thought would bring them freedom actually is actually a vessel carrying them towards the inevitable: death.
Part of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's inability to pin down their own identities lies in the lack of character development given to each in Shakespeare's original work. In Hamlet they are not intended to be individuals with deep philosophical ideas; they are nothing more than comedic stock characters. They are written to be fools, and with that destiny comes an lack of self-awareness. Rosencrantz introduces himself by the wrong name, and neither of them recognizes themselves as the spies in the dumb-show. Thy are unable to see themselves reflected in the art of theater; they cannot foresee their fates, and thus cannot avert their own deaths.
The Incomprehensibility of the World
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead highlights the fundamental mystery of the world. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend the entirety of the play in total confusion, lacking such basic information as their own identities. From the play’s opening, which depicts them as unable to remember where they are headed and how they began their journey, to their very last moments, in which they are bewildered by their imminent deaths, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot understand the world around them. Their confusion stems from both the sheer randomness of the universe, illustrated by the bizarre coin-tossing episode, and the ambiguous and unclear motives of the other characters, who pop onstage and deliver brief, perplexing speeches before quickly exiting. While Stoppard frequently uses their confusion for comic effect, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern occasionally become so frustrated by the world’s incomprehensibility that they fall into despair. The play ultimately suggests that the prominent role of chance in our lives, coupled with the difficulty of discerning the true intentions and desires of other people, leads to almost paralyzing confusion. Although this experience may sometimes be amusing or seem funny when it happens to others, in the end it is one of the most dreadful aspects of existence.
The Difficulty of Making Meaningful Choices
The constant confusion in which they find themselves leaves Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feeling unable to make any significant choices in their lives. They are pushed along toward their deaths by what appear to be random forces, and they fail to respond to their circumstances with anything but total passivity. Their lack of agency is underscored by Stoppard’s decision to transport them from scene to scene without any choice on their part. One minute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in the woods with the Tragedians, and the next they are in Elsinore being asked to probe Hamlet’s distressed mind, a request they accept without even understanding what they have been asked to do. Even at the end of Act II, when they ask each other if they should go to England, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not make a choice but instead merely continue on the path that has been laid out for them. Since they have already come this far, Rosencrantz says, they may as well keep going. Their passive approach to their lives reflects how difficult it is to make decisions in a world that we do not fully understand, in which any choice can seem meaningless and therefore not worth making.
Stoppard demonstrates the danger of this passivity by giving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the opportunity to make a very meaningful choice, which they fail to do. This moment occurs when they discover that they have a letter ordering Hamlet’s death upon their arrival in England: if they destroy it, Hamlet lives, but if they do nothing, he dies. While Rosencrantz hesitates about what to do, Guildenstern argues that they should not take any action, since they might not understand what is at stake. Although this decision may seem like an unfeeling rationalization for moral laziness, it is in fact simply an extension of the passivity that has marked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern throughout the play. By failing to make a significant choice when they have the opportunity to do so, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern incur terrible consequences, as Hamlet discovers the letter and switches it with one ordering their deaths rather than his own. Even though deciding which actions we should take in life is at times so difficult that we might be tempted to succumb to total passivity, failing to act is itself a decision, one that the play presents as not merely immoral but self-destructive.
The Relationship Between Life and the Stage
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead emphasizes the close connection between real life and the world of theatrical performance. Numerous features of the play work to underscore this connection, not least of which is the fact that the play asks its audience to assume that the characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet are real and deserve to have their story told from another perspective. Within the play, the connection between life and the stage is revealed to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by the presence of the Tragedians, who perform a play that depicts parallel events to those in which the two men find themselves. This play shows that the characters most similar to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are ultimately killed, which is precisely the fate that befalls Stoppard’s main characters. As they watch the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern see that the two actors playing the roles parallel their own are dressed exactly as they are. This confuses Rosencrantz so much that he wonders why he recognizes the actor dressed as himself but then tells the actor that he is not who the actor believed he was. In other words, theater reflects life so well that Rosencrantz cannot tell which is which.
Guildenstern criticizes the Player for assuming that theatrical performance can depict real feelings, especially the terror of death. The Player’s response is twofold—he claims that theatrical death is the only kind people believe in because it is what they expect, and then he demonstrates that point to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by convincingly performing his own death when Guildenstern stabs him with a stage knife. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are completely persuaded by the Player’s performance, which lends credence to his claim that people really do believe in the things that theater has led them to expect. Indeed, the characters only believe in death when it looks theatrical, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot quite bring themselves to believe in their own impending deaths, for which they are unable to form any expectations. The audience cannot believe in their deaths either, at least according to the logic of the play and the Player, since the audience’s expectation that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will die is never fulfilled. By refusing to depict their deaths and refusing to give the audience what it knows is coming, Stoppard keeps Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from dying and instead turns them into living literary characters.
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