Jul 24, 2019 in Literature

Little Characters of a Huge Meaning and Unjust Destiny

Has anybody ever thought about what minor characters of world plays’ plots think? Tom Stoppard has. His play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is devoted to what could Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell about the world of Hamlet if somebody had ever asked them.
This kind of chewing the scenery of the world famous play is sometimes called Anti-Hamlet, as it is an example of a special kind of antitypes, which are to counteract with ‘eternal prototypes’, suggested in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. How to transfer a tragedy into a comedy? Tom Stoppard knows this well.

The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead had a successful welcome with both literal and theatrical critics, but the literal overview was not as huge and explosive as the theatrical one. Actually, the whole world knows this story thanks to the theatre: a small episode of a historical reality became the reality of the world art in it. Stoppard had built three new rooms in the house of Hamlet if one can say so, with three acts of his innovative play. Usually a reader (or a viewer) does not think of what is happening with minor characters of a story when they are not on a stage, but without this piece of mosaic, life loses its ‘volume’, becomes flat and one-sided. Therefore, giving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern more words than they have in Hamlet, writing for them their personal scenes, the author does not only extend the play. He gives it a new breath, a second side, which is more likely for the real life stories.

Literally Known. The Specific Features of Language

This literature has full right to be known as both philological and philosophical example of writing. Its unique language contains paraphrases, change-ringing, quoting passages verbatim, addresses to secondary reality, and so on and so forth. Such literature is usually closer to a brain than to a heart, and so it found its critics and analyzers among such scientists as Anja Easterling and her article “Shakespearean Parallels and Affinities with the Theatre of the Absurd in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, John Fleming in his work Stoppard's Theatre: Finding Order amid Chaos, and others.
It is it, with which Tom Stoppard has become famous in one night. According to the words of most critics, the play belongs to the theatre of absurd. “The play’s hints of absurdist theater and its appropriation of a classical piece of literature invite varying critical conclusions about it”. Some critics deny its belonging to canon of absurdist genre, but most agree that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a good early example of theatre of absurd.

A little person, very dependent on the huge world, - that was a theme that had been used by writers so many times that it seemed exhausted. However, Stoppard found a non-obvious way to take out of the iconic tragedy a drama of less meaning, but not less power. As Hamlet is a story for all times and characters, the little plot of pieces, which has been unseen before, becomes eternal in the same way. In the last acting area, drama writer makes the prince play a new role, adding little people to his immortality. There, where unconfident and undisclosed quietus of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is eclipsed with a whale of kingly corpses, little persons are the ones in the center of the author’s imagination. They are put near the eternal tragic hero, showing that little people – ex-friends, ex-classmates – have their right to shine in the rays of a glory of the biggest characters of that world.

As a part of a literal canon, this work can pretend to be an early version of what is called the theatre of absurd right now. The major difference, which they can find with this genre, is that here, on the contrary of canonical anti-drama Waiting for Godot, one finds more comic elements, than tragic and dark interpretations. Heroes of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead create a composed feeling, when one does not know whether to cry at their destiny or to laugh at their behavior. They cannot even be called heroes in a full size of a word, for they are just wretched cogs in a machine of big kingly game.

Lost and scared, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern know only one thing: somebody called them out of their shade to find out Hamlet’s secret. They cannot even refuse while it is incomprehensible, who is more dangerous to them: a tyrannical king who cannot live without his throne or a mad prince. Each act brings them to a new danger. As Guildenstern tells to Actor in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, "You die in thousands casual deaths and come back in different hats, but nobody gets up after death. There’s no applause, only silence in the second-hand cloth. That’s the death!"

Here, elements of tragedy are played in a strong intellectual game – syllogisms, paraphrases, ‘questions volleyball’; and it has the more passionate emotional power, the deeper viewers or readers can understand that this is the death of characters, who are known and despised. They died so many times, and nobody felt a piece of compassion in them. Therefore, now the play writer suggests it, and it is great! No, Tom Stoppard does not justify or improve their characters; he just gives us a chance to feel: they feel pain too. They feel torturous fear. They can acknowledge only one thing: that they caught hell and cannot be relieved. A fate of a little man, amidst the big ones of the world, a story of ones who do not have a choice, just their duty… All of this sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, always on the edge of absurd – the play makes one doubt in one’s logical skills. At the same time, it creates enthusiastic impression of what is called drama of absurd.


The most impressive linguistic chapter of the whole play is the one with ‘questions volleyball’. This piece is showy from the point of constant communication between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, where they behave as if they are a couple, married long time ago, both members of which are ironic to each other, but always forgiving each other. In the whole communication of theirs, there is a noticeable light flirt, which is accustomed to the conversations of old friends. They are so much together, that they even do not distinguish who is who. Nobody distinguishes them from each other, except for an Actor. For example, the Queen and the King in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead speak to them in such manner: “Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz! Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern!”

Tom Stoppard noticed that his main characters play endless leapfrog with the words. This method creates special feeling of comics, somehow put into the play with tragic and dark end. The absurdity of heroes is alike to the manner of mad prince’s behavior. This way one can notice that Tom Stoppard does not debate with Shakespeare, it looks as if he just makes an interesting dialogue with him. Thus, being absurdist themselves, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become able to find out the depth and poignancy in the words of mad prince. These methods help the author to fill the inner world of a reader (a viewer) with more rich and full spiritual understanding of not only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but also Hamlet as a character.

Theatrically Known. The Charm of the Performance

As a part of a theater canon, the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has become not only innovative in its genre, but also famous all over the world. It is theater, in which this play got almost all its fame and honor. In details, the performance premiered in 1966 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and then it got its extreme success at the London National Theatre in 1967. These premieres led to a debut of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead on Broadway in the USA the same year, but a little later. Thanks to it, Stoppard was the one to win the Evening Standard Award (1967) for the Most Promising Playwright, then the Plays and Players Best Play Award (1967) and at last the Tony Award (1968) for the Best Play. The movie directed by Tom Stoppard got the Golden Lion in the Venice International Film Festival (1990) and nominated with Gary Oldman as the best actor in the Independent Spirit Awards (1991).

This play strengthens the connection of the world of a story, which is told on a theatrical scene, with the real life world. Giving another perspective of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it does assure the audience that the story of minor characters of the famous tragedy deserves to be told on scene. This gives the play, or better say, both plays 4D-volume of a reality, improving the story from the point of view of morality and completeness of the whole picture. The presence of Tragedians adds its spice, allowing viewers to depict strict parallel between two worlds and making them even closer than before.

For example, watching the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern see the two actors playing roles parallel to theirs are dressed like them. Therefore, Rosencrantz is so much confused that first, he wonders why the actor is dressed like himself, but then he tells this actor that he is not the one who the actor must have thought him to be. This shows, how well theater reflects life, for even Rosencrantz cannot find out, which is which.

The topic of death is one of the most interesting themes in the whole play. Whether Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, nobody can know for sure, as the aduience never sees them dead. This confirms Guildenstern’s last speech where he is talking of the death on a scene comparing it with real death. Here, reality touches a soul of a viewer, for this speech must be the straightest reminder of that what is happening on a stage. It must reflect the real life and real death with real pain, sorrow, and non-understanding, which are so well explained in the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

“The theatrical experience of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" …was an intellectual tennis game between playwright and audience, with Shakespeare's original text as the net,” says Roger Ebert in his review. Pointed at the intellectual training, this play must, at first sight, call for less emotions and more thinking of a viewer, but the theatrical performance fulfills it with emotional power at viewers’ feelings, which is not reached completely at the time of reading. Scenes with these two characters talking between themselves about their role in these kingly games call out for compassion of a viewer for the injustice of their fate.
The genre of the play is tragicomedy. This term is usually used for the descriptions of tragic stories with happy conclusions, but here everything is in contrast. The end of the story means to be tragic, which is seen even in its title, but the whole play is full with comic elements, which make a viewer laugh, or better say, quietly smile at the time of the whole performance. More of it, as no death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is visible on stage, it is doubtful, whether their end is as tragic as, it seems, it should be.

Stoppard’s minimalistic style is demonstrated in short replicas of characters through the whole text. It makes all the dialogs a little bit mysterious. If a viewer is inattentive in a moment of a performance, he/she will surely lose the train of thought and will be guessing what it was until the end of an act. However, thanks to it, there appears such a sophisticated irony in a text, which gives almost material pleasure to readers’ minds. Moreover, shortness of phrases and high speed, with which the characters usually make their conversations (according to the movie) is the method, with which the author reaches real shock of mind in a viewer. Many positive reviews of both the movie and the performance confirm it.

Conclusion. Meaning and Uniqueness of the Play

This play is taught at schools as a magnificent example of filigree usage of Shakespeare’s theme with accent on little roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, set against the mad prince with his features, mostly negatively presented in the play. Here, Hamlet is demonstrated from the point of view of ones, who were killed by him, but did not know even for what actions this destiny was given to them. Thus, there is a wider sight of what happened in Shakespeare’s tragedy, but at the same time, this view does not conflict with the original story of Hamlet.

This play’s belonging to fashionable modern theatre of absurd makes it unique even basing only on date of its creation, as it is one of the earliest presentations of this genre. At the same time, strong linguistic techniques, used in the text, make it useful for reading from the point of view of literal and even philosophical studies. Allegories, paraphrases, syllogisms, and philosophic approach to the concept of destiny and death – they are woven together, creating a magnificent specific character of this play, making it interesting and useful for studies, performances and just reading for pleasure.


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