Theatre: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with a lid on it?

The sight is dismal,
And our affairs from England come too late.
The ears are senseless that should give us hearing
To tell him his commandment is fulfilled,
That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.

A 1966 play by Tom Stoppard. A Perspective Flip of Hamlet, heavily inspired by Waiting for Godot. The 1990 film version (also directed by Stoppard) is the best known adaptation. It stars Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz, Tim Roth as Guildenstern, and Richard Dreyfuss as the Player.

The leads are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who were only minor characters in the Shakespearean Hamlet. Their dilemma: being minor characters, they were never granted much of a backstory, and as a result they have no memory of their lives. Including which of them is supposed to be which. They're utterly, hopelessly stuck in a World Limited to the Plot: all they know, instinctively, are the lines they're meant to say to Hamlet and the rest of the cast. They're appropriately freaked out by this.

As in Hamlet, they're called to visit their college friend Prince Hamlet, and they don't dare refuse because King Claudius did the asking. The whole play is about their lack of control of events, and their failures to know and remember things they ought to know. But just like King Claudius summoned them to talk to Hamlet, Hamlet has summoned a troupe of actors to influence King Claudius. The leader of that troupe (the Player) takes it upon himself to address Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in all their existential confusion, almost pushing them into awareness of the fourth wall — but never quite beyond it.

Real sections of Hamlet are inserted where appropriate.

There is much literate and absurdist humor in this play, angling into philosophy. The play has become highly influential and helped cement the Those Two Guys trope in modern literature. The perspective flip has also left a mark on culture: whereas the 1948 Laurence Olivier film of Hamlet omitted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern because, well, they were minor characters, modern productions now treat the characters as integral to the plot and often briefly reference Stoppard.


This play provides examples of:

  • Ambiguous Syntax:
    The Player: The old man thinks he's in love with his daughter.
    Rosencrantz: Good God. We're out of our depths here.
    The Player: No, no, no! He hasn't got a daughter! The old man thinks he's in love with his daughter.
    Rosencrantz: The old man is?
    The Player: Hamlet... in love... with the old man's daughter... the old man... thinks.
    Rosencrantz: Ah.
    • In fact, it's all over the place.
  • Are You Pondering What I'm Pondering?
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: At the end of Guildenstern's Long List of Hamlet's "symptoms."
    Guildenstern: "...stabbing his elders, abusing his parents, insulting his lover, and appearing hatless in public..."
  • Beat: Queen Gertrude as she's trying to remember which of them is which.
    Gertrude: "Good (fractional suspense) gentlemen…"
  • Berserk Button: Don't talk to Guildenstern about death. Especially if you're an actor.
  • Big Word Shout: Two of them in the movie by Guildenstern, which cause an echo that can be heard by everyone in the court.
  • Black Comedy Rape: Rape seems to form a good part of the Tragedians' repertory. In particular, the Player offers to enact "a private and uncut performance of the Rape of the Sabine Women—or rather woman, or rather Alfred," with an extra fee for Audience Participation.
  • Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs:
    "We can show you rapiers!" Players mimic a man and woman fencing "Or rape!" Players mimic the woman jumping on the man's crotch. "Or both!" Players mimic the woman raping the man while fencing another man.
  • But Thou Must: A dramatic version. Whenever Hamlet kicks in, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves speaking the "right" lines, only to go back to being lost immediately afterwards.
  • Captain Obvious: Act Three of the play begins in darkness. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wake up and exchange a few lines. Cue sea noises, gulls, extensive outbreak of shouted nautical jargon that goes on for some time. Until finally:
    Rosencrantz: We're on a boat.
  • Cessation of Existence: The ending of the play. Guildenstern also frequently insists upon it when the Players discuss staging death.
    • Though Guildenstern's final lines arguably puts it in a different context. He wants to know what he could have done to change the course of events, when he could have said "no". You are, of course, free to watch the play or movie all you like. He'll never say anything to change the events even if he lives the story a thousand times.
    • And another common interpretation is that the pair never left the empty stage in the beginning, saying "no", and leaving with the actors instead of playing their role.
  • Comic Role Play: Guildenstern pretends to be Hamlet to practice questioning. Later they both take turns as the English King.
  • Completely Missing the Point: In an in-story example which also counts as a Crowning Moment of Funny:
    Rosencrantz: Do you think death could possibly be a boat?
    Guildenstern: No, no, no…Death is…not. Death isn't. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can't not-be on a boat.
    Rosencrantz: I've frequently not been on boats.
    Guildenstern: No, no, no – what you've been is not on boats.
  • The Cuckoolander Was Right: Rosencrantz, frequently. Guildenstern is the smarter of the two in terms of raw cognitive power, but has a tendency to think in circles. Rosencrantz comes closer to actual brilliance, but falls short of the mark trying to vocalize or demonstrate his thoughts to Guildenstern.
  • Critical Existence Failure
  • Deadpan Snarker: Guildenstern.
  • Deconstruction: Not just of Hamlet but of theater conventions in general.
  • Downer Ending: It's in the title, so you know exactly how it's going to end.
  • Escort Mission: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves on a boat, escorting Hamlet to England.
  • Eskimos Aren't Real: Invoked when Rosencrantz claims not to believe in England, meaning he has no mental picture of what's going to happen once they get there, and Guildenstern sarcastically replies "Just a conspiracy of cartographers, you mean?" Later they have the same exchange in reverse.
  • Fan Fiction: In a manner of speaking.
  • Follow the Plotted Line: Stoppard has great fun constructing his plot this way: however far off topic they seem to get, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern always find themselves slotted back into Hamlet.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Believe it or not, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die. Or maybe they don't and are in a time loop. Or maybe not. And in any case, they're only stage deaths... aren't they?
  • Gainax Ending: Death? A time loop based on the play being played multiple times? Simply leaving the focus of the play? "Well, we'll know better next time. Now you see me, now you –" (disappears)
  • "Groundhog Day" Loop: Explicitly invoked at the end. Even though Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, they'll return as soon as the messenger calls. Unfortunately, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both suffer from Laser-Guided Amnesia; only the Player has Ripple Effect-Proof Memory.
  • Genius Ditz: Rosencrantz.
  • Heads or Tails: They periodically flip coins, but it is established early on that the coins always lands heads up, as a symptom of You Can't Fight Fate. Until the one time it lands tails.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Guildenstern comforts a panicking Rosencrantz after their meeting with Claudius.
  • Lampshading
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall
  • Lower Deck Episode: The entire play.
    • At least one production was presented back to back with Hamlet - Hamlet ran for a few weeks first with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead being the next play at the theatre. With the same cast. In the same roles. With the 'Shakespeare' scenes staged exactly the same way.
    • Sometimes in the late 80s, the Stratford, Ontario Shakespeare Festival ran Hamlet and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead on alternate nights with the same cast. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's entrance in Hamlet had them flipping a coin.
  • Medium Awareness: Kind of, almost. They know something funny is going on ("Heads... Heads... Heads...."), and one of them has a sneaking suspicion that it could be something like "We're just two minor characters in someone else's story."
    • More attention called to this in stage productions. The characters spend the entire time on the stage while the rest of the play sweeps in and out, and their private musings between the two are often spent looking out across the audience or 'into the camera' as it were. In some versions, Hamlet even walks forward and spits into the audience.
  • Nuclear Candle: Act Three opens in near-darkness. When Hamlet lights a single oil-lamp, the stage lights all come on. The stage directions even note that this is highly unrealistic.
  • Off Stage Waiting Room: Subverted, as this is the main setting of the play.
  • Oh, and X Dies: This play, among other things, deconstructs the rather casual way in which they are announced dead in Hamlet: by way of messenger, off stage, and rather unnecessarily.
  • Ontological Mystery: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's attempts at understanding the nature of their own existence.
  • Perspective Flip
  • Pinball Protagonists: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
  • Popcultural Osmosis: Even people who haven't seen the play and know nothing of its contents are aware of it - and its leads.
  • Postmodernism: Yeah. Much of the play is a roundabout method of deconstructing the suspension of disbelief.
  • Random Number God: At the beginning of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern flip a coin 92 times and it comes up heads each time. One of Guildenstern's proposed explanations is "divine intervention": God wants Rosencrantz (betting on heads) to win, or Guildenstern to lose. The subtext is that he's right, it is divine intervention: the author of the play wants the coins to come up heads over and over again.
  • Reality Ensues: Twice Rosencrantz thinks he's found more objects behaving unusually just like the coin that proves their world is being manipulated. The two instances are a dropped ball and feather, and a set of pots arranged like a Newton's Cradle. In the case of the pots, they break instead of swinging. In the case of the ball and feather...
    Rosencrantz: You would think this [ball] would fall faster than this [feather], wouldn't you? *drops them* ...And you'd be absolutely right.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Rosencrantz is red to Guildenstern's blue.
  • Requisite Royal Regalia: A rare case where we see the regalia come off after the king and queen are done having an audience.
  • Ripple Effect-Proof Memory: The Player, who knows perfectly well that he's been here before.
  • Shout-Out: The Player's definition of tragedy is a misquote of Oscar Wilde's definition of fiction in The Importance of Being Earnest.
    The Player: 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.
  • Show Within a Show: The Murder of Gonzago. The movie adaptation makes it incredibly meta—as you know, Hamlet stages The Murder of Gonzago, which has the same basic plot outline as Hamlet, to startle his uncle into confessing. Well, the main character of Gonzago also stages a puppet show with the same basic plot outline as Gonzago to startle his uncle into confessing... It's basically Hamlet Within Hamlet Within Hamlet. Within Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Which is within Hamlet.
    • There's also that scene in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come on the Players performing Hamlet for a group of peasants. One of the show's hallmarks is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern keep coming into contact with the story of Hamlet and don't recognize it as their life.
    • The silent play they see is actually in Hamlet as well where it serves as a prelude to The Murder of Gonzago. Virtually all directors just leave it out because it's such a nonsensical bit of writing (even Kenneth Branagh had it done in less than thirty seconds).
  • Supporting Protagonist
  • Those Two Guys and/or Those Two Bad Guys: Much of the play is a deconstruction of these.
  • Title Drop: The film's final line.
  • Theatrics Of Pain: Demonstrated when Guildenstern seizes the Player's dagger and tries to stab him to death. Guildenstern thinks the Player has been Killed Off for Real, when the Tragedians start applauding and congratulating the Player on a death scene well played. (He considers his own performance "merely competent.")
  • The Dividual
  • Tragedy: Deconstructed
  • World Limited to the Plot: It's pretty much the entire point of the play.
  • Your Princess Is in Another Castle: The death of The Player.

Alternative Title(s):

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead
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