The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Play Review
Sam: Did you hear Tom? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead?
Tom: Really dead?
Sam: Really dead.
Sam: Really, really.
Tom: Really, really, really?
Sam: Really, really, really.
Tom: Really, really, really, really?
Sam: Would you stop that? Rosencrantz is dead as dead can be – which is actually pretty dead.
Tom: Pretty dead indeed.
Sam: But (pauses) they’re not the pretty dead.
Tom: Few are pretty when dead.
Sam: To be sure.
Tom: Was it murder?
Sam: Oh yes, t’was a murder of a show. All the crowd demanded a refund right there.
Tom: For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s death they did not care?
Sam: Stop that, we’re no minstrels to be finishing each other’s rhymes.
Tom (aside): Or cleaning up the other’s crimes.
Sam: I’ve half a mind to let you join Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, can’t you see our audience is growing tired of such absurdity? Though absurdity may be our part (the two men speak together) absurdity for a laugh quickly loses all sense of art.
Tom: As I heard it, I believe that Hamlet may be to blame for the deaths of those two men. I heard that he replaced a letter – with instructions to kill him – with one bearing instructions for their death.
Sam: Quite the rumour. Where did this original letter come from I wonder?
Tom: Oh, that’s quite easy to tell. It came from Claudius, Hamlet’s dear uncle.
Sam: So was said letter – of which we have not seen…
Tom: Much as we have not seen Rosencrantz or Guildenstern…
Sam: …therefore a letter to put master Hamlet out of his funky misery?
(Enter Dr. John Watson and Sherlock Holmes)
John Watson: I say, Sherlock, we don’t even belong in this type of fiction.
Sherlock Holmes: My dear Watson, you forget that this is now a murder mystery. And murder is quite within our realm of expertise.
Both Peasants: (turn to the audience) Aside from committing them we hope.
Watson: Then, I presume you have come to a decision about this case by now Holmes?
Holmes: Indubitably, my good fellow. The solution is rather obvious.
Watson: So it was Hamlet after all, his hands are certainly most guilty.
Holmes: Why of course not Watson. Don’t be ridiculous. It was not Hamlet after all who initiated the beginnings of this murder.
Watson: Claudius then, it was his letter that sent two men to their dooms.
Holmes: Ah, Watson, you see but you do not observe.
Watson: Surely, you do not mean to insist that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are responsible for the deaths themselves?
Holmes: Try to keep up Watson, I said murder, and I meant murder. This is no suicide case, it is a murder following an attempted regicide, most foul.
Watson: Why then, Holmes, whatever the Dickens could be the solution?
Holmes: There is clearly nothing more elusive to you Watson than an obvious fact. We are looking at a murder committed centuries ago, murder that continues to haunt the here and now. In several different worlds at this time, several versions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are being murdered all over again. The true criminal – the one which remains as truth – is clearly the old bard himself. Mr William Shakespeare.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet
“We’re tragedians you see. We follow directions – there is no choice involved. The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.”
Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most popular works. In essence because it touches on the themes that he wrote about so well: revenge, love, death and tragedy. And yet, curiously at the same time Hamlet is a play concerned about plays. In that sense it becomes a kind of meta-play, a work of fiction concerned as much about its art form and dissecting what it is that it does, as about the story it tells. So it is curious then that Tom Stoppard has taken two characters from Hamlet and utilised their perspectives to tell a modernist play about fate, existentialism, death and the art of the play.
As with another modernist play, Waiting for Godot, Stoppard’s work is an absurdist one, full of wordplay and wit. It both takes the reader or viewer behind the stage of the Hamlet play, to observe the idle leisure that Ros and Guil themselves get up to. For instance, in the most intriguing fashion, this play opens with Ros idly flipping coins, with the coin itself wagered based on which side it lands. This sequence is clearly devised to add the initial sense of the ridiculous and to portray the inane nature of these two characters, characters who in Shakespeare’s play are nothing more than side characters. In Star Trek terms, they are red-shirts, in Shakespeare’s play they are disposable props.
Re-writing Original Text
It seems a tendency of modern authors and playwrights to revisit pre-existing works. As is the case with The Hours or Wide Sargasso Sea. And, with each revisiting, a new interpretation and angle is presented, to open up a new perspective on the original text as well as creating a new work of literary art. For all literature rests on the shoulders of pre-existing literature, as language relies upon pre-existing knowledge of the world. One cannot understand simple words in English such as ‘ball’ or ‘water’ unless one has some form of experience with the items represented by those words. Otherwise it is incomprehensible. The same stands for literature. One cannot understand this play to its fullest without knowing Hamlet, nor can one understand some of the symbolism and meaning without understanding particular ideologies. Instead the audience is left with their own experience and therefore interpretation.
The idea of the play
This play is to an extent about how false reality can prove to be; and conversely how real falsehoods can become. There is a vein of thought that holds that Hamlet is all hallucinogenic and that the uncle committed no crime. The false reality of a play creates a true reality through a re-enactment.
Similarly, the play is also about being lost within the crowd. The sense that an individual can be so insignificant when compared to the overwhelming majority. And yet, curiously, Hamlet is a play all about individuals. The individuals such as Hamlet, Ophelia and Claudius are all significant figures in Shakespeare’s work as well as literature in general. It is a theme of modernism that the individual becomes lost against the backdrop and in a way Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are revealed as those lost individuals, concealed in Shakespeare’s play – who have a greater purpose than to be secondary characters.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in the end, die because the reader perceives them as worthless. Regardless this is something Tom Stoppard subtly prompts the reader or viewer to consider. Are the minor characters in your lives and in your literature truly so inconspicuous as made out to be? Is the modern audience, not Shakespeare, responsible for the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a slow death by minimisation? This is a play that is fun, energetic, abstract and crazy. It is a play of brilliant genius and fun that stands on the shoulders of other works and screams out ‘I am not inconspicuous, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not have to die!’