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Theatre / Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

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"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."
First Ambassador in Hamlet, Act V, Scene II

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) stars Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz, Tim Roth as Guildenstern, Iain Glen as Hamlet, 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:

  • All There in the Script: The characters themselves aren't sure which of them is Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern. The script (and movie credits) say that the one who keeps winning the coin tosses is Rosencrantz, and the one who keeps worrying about what's happening is Guildenstern.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: It's all over the place.
    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.
  • Anyone Can Die: One of the play's major themes is the fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were mostly innocent go-betweens and messengers in the whole Elsinore intrigue surrounding Hamlet and Claudius, and yet they still paid for their peripheral participating with their lives.
  • 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...
  • Ascended Extra: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were both very minor characters in Hamlet. In this play, they're the main characters and are significantly more fleshed out.
  • 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:
    The Player: 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.)
    (Later in that same scene.)
    The Player: We're more of the love, blood, and rhetoric school. Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three concurrent or consecutive. But we can't give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory. They're all blood, you see.
  • 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 put 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.
  • Comically Missing the Point:
    • On the boat:
      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 Player correctly identifies that "Bet me the year of my birth doubled is an odd number" is a sucker bet, but misses why, assuming that it's because Guildenstern knows his own year of birth and has worked it out in advance. He's quite happy to bet his own year of birth doubled is an odd number.
  • The Cuckoolander Was Right: Rosencrantz, frequently. Guildenstern is the smarter of the two in terms of being the first to understand what's going on, 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.
  • Deconstruction: Not just of Hamlet but of theater conventions in general.
  • Developing Doomed Characters: It's in the title, so you know exactly how it's going to end.
  • The Dividual: Exaggerated with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. Even they themselves can't tell which one is which.note  This goes back to a joke in Hamlet. When R and G appear at court, the King addresses them with "Thanks Rosencrantz, and gentle Guildenstern", and the Queen says "Thanks Guildenstern, and gentle Rosencrantz." Though the script doesn't say so, this is almost invariably performed as the Queen correcting the King, who mixed their names up.
  • Doomed by Canon: It's in the title, so you know exactly how it's going to end.
  • Downer Ending: It's in the title, so you know exactly how it's going to end.
  • 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.
  • Establishing Character Moment: The opening scene establishes that Guildenstern is questioning the nature of their existence in this place, but unable to reach any conclusions about it (he recognises that the constant stream of heads is vanishingly improbable, but can't figure out what it means) and Rosencrantz as more empathic and more inclined to accept the situation (he doesn't seem to recognise the improbability, but does feel a bit guilty that Guildenstern keeps losing).
  • Establishing Series Moment: The play opens with the two title characters flipping a coin, only for it to defy the laws of probability and land on heads every time. Guildenstern then remarks they this means they have wandered into a place that defies random chance and conventional time-tables you would find in Real Life. This establishes the metatextual nature of the story, the play a dramatization of Hamlet that draws attention to the artificiality of theatre so indicative of Absurdist media.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: It's in the title, so you know exactly how it's going to end.
  • 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)
  • Genius Ditz: Rosencrantz. In the movie, in spite of being rather slow to understand what is going on around him, he has a great deal of scientific curiosity and insight - to the point of replicating some of Archimedes and Galileo's key experiments.
  • "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. Only in the movie.
  • 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.
  • The Hero Dies: As the title suggests, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are executed as in Hamlet.
  • Hero of Another Story: Hamlet.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: The titular duo.
  • Innocent Bystander: Played with. The two have no knowledge of or desire to participate in the power struggle between Hamlet and Claudius, and are unwittingly recruited by the latter as informants and messengers. This marginal participation costs them their lives. However, they aren't entirely innocent, since they discover the contents of Claudius's letter to the King of England ordering the death of Hamlet, but decided to carry on with their mission regardless.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Guildenstern comforts a panicking Rosencrantz after their meeting with Claudius. In general he tries to look after Rosencrantz and comfort him, even if he's quick to snap at him too.
  • Lampshading
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall
  • Let Me Get This Straight...: Unsure that their recent rapid-fire discussion has clarified anything, they restate both their friend Hamlet's condition and the larger plot thusly:
    Rosencrantz (possibly): To sum up: your father, whom you love, dies. You are his heir. You come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother pops onto his throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice. Now... why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?
    Guildenstern (maybe): I can't imagine.
  • 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.
    • The 2023 Edinburgh Fringe production by Necessary Cat had Hamlet as a matinee and R&G as an evening performance on the same days, which the theatre program says was "widely regarded as insanity. And that wide regard was right".
  • 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.
    • The Player, on the other hand, absolutely has Medium Awareness and has accepted it, which is probably why he's so cheerfully sardonic about everything. If all the world's a stage, that's fine, because he needs an 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.
  • One-Book Author: Tom Stoppard's Self-Adaptation of the play was the only film he directed.
  • Ontological Mystery: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's attempts at understanding the nature of their own existence.
  • Overly-Long Gag: Rosencrantz tossing the coin and it always coming down as heads. In the film, it's implied that he's been doing this for hours, and at one point, while he's riding a horse and tossing the coin, he drops it and the camera follows it as it falls down a ravine, bouncing from rock to rock, and finally landing on the ground as... heads.
  • Perspective Flip
  • Pinball Protagonists: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
    • For all their raging at their own helplessness, here is arguably one moment in the play when they could have broken out of the flow of events — which they totally ignore. They actually read Claudius's letter to the English king and discover that it's all a ploy to have Hamlet killed... and they decide to do absolutely nothing about it, passively accepting their pinball status.
  • Pop-Cultural 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 Is Unrealistic: The Player talks about how he once got permission to have a condemned actor hanged as part of a show... and it was terribly unconvincing. The reason being that the condemned actor was gibbering and crying the whole time instead of performing his lines.
  • 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).
  • Sliding Scale of Adaptation Modification: Type 5. Aside from the newer content, the inserts from Hamlet are taken verbatim from the original play.
  • Supporting Protagonist
  • 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. (The Player considers his own performance to be "merely competent.")
  • Title Drop: The film's final line.
    • Another earlier hint at the title is when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern see the silent play version of Hamlet, and the Player summarizes it as a "slaughterhouse" with eight dead main characters.
    Guildenstern (after counting): ...six!
    The Player: Eight.
    (A "thunk!" is heard as two more actors pantomime themselves hanging on the gallows on stage. These are clearly the in-play versions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves.)
    Guildenstern: Who are they?
    The Player: They're dead!
  • Tragedy: Deconstructed.
  • Wholesome Cross Dresser: Averted with Alfred. In addition to being a male actor playing female characters on the stage, it's strongly implied that Alfred helps supplement the acting troupe's income by working as a male prostitute, with The Player as his pimp.
  • The Wicked Stage: The Player is duplicitous and willing to put on erotic adventures if the price is right, which will also include the hapless Alfred, the young crossdresser in the troupe.
  • William Fakespeare: The eponymous characters have a lot of interaction with the Player (King) that Hamlet hires, and Stoppard's play clearly uses him as part of its overall parody of Hamlet specifically, as well as Shakespeare generally, and in some productions, he looks like a very seedy William Shakespeare). Shakespeare's use of of male actors to play female characters as well as his plays' frequent Ho Yay is represented by the Player's use of Alfred, a young actor who he frequently sexually harasses. Not only does Alfred function as both Ms. Fanservice and Mr. Fanservice in the Player's plays, but the Player prostitutes him to earn extra funds. Additionally, Stoppard satirizes the violent nature of Shakespeare's tragedies with a quote from the Player about the type of plays his troop performs (despite the fact that Shakespeare wrote a lot of comedies and romances that all had happy endings):
    The Player: We're more of the love, blood, and rhetoric school. Well, we can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and we can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and we can do you all three concurrent or consecutive. But we can't give you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory. They're all blood, you see.
  • World Limited to the Plot: It's pretty much the entire point of the play.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Twice in the movie, 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 [a ball] would fall faster than this [a feather], wouldn't you? (He drops them. The feather, encountering more air resistance, is much the slower to fall.) ...And you'd be absolutely right.
  • Your Princess Is in Another Castle!: The death of The Player.
    Guildenstern: There must have been a moment... at the beginning, when we could have said "no." Somehow we missed it. Well... we'll know better next time.
    Player: Till then.

Alternative Title(s): Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead