Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

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The Boat Symbol Icon
The boat symbolizes the trajectory of human life and the fundamentally limited and futile nature of human action. As a boat's passengers are able to move at will within the contained space of the vessel but are ultimately swept up in the greater movement of the boat's motion, so too are a human individual's actions and developments dwarfed by the unstoppable progress of his life towards death. Though Act Three's setting on a boat is in line with Shakespeare's original play, the set also resonates with symbolic significance as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hurdle helplessly towards their own deaths. As Guildenstern reflects, describing his and Rosencrantz' situation on board, "We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current…"

The Boat Quotes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Boat. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Death Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Grove Press edition of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead published in 1967.
Act 3 Quotes

Free to move, speak, extemporize, and yet. We have not been cut loose. Our truancy is defined by one fixed star, and our drift represents merely a slight change of angle to it: we may seize the moment, toss it around while the moments pass…but we are brought round full circle to face again the single immutable fact—that we, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, bearing a letter from one king to another, are taking Hamlet to England.

Related Characters: Guildenstern (speaker), Rosencrantz, Hamlet
Related Symbols: The Boat
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

Act 3 begins with darkness: only slowly do the protagonists (and readers) understand that the action has moved to a boat bound for England. In this section, the two have not yet read the letter entrusted to them by Claudius, containing Hamlet's death sentence. Yet the moment is still has an ominous weight to it, a sense of impending doom. 

While only present in the final act, the boat symbolizes a few of the play's major themes, including death and human agency. Guildenstern explains that the ship moves toward a "fixed star" — we can think of this fixed star as death, the inevitable end point of all lives and all stories. The two characters may entertain the illusion that they're free ("to move, speak, extemporize") but they're stuck on a boat they cannot steer. In other words, they're stuck living out a story that they cannot control. The boat represents the ultimate paradox of free will: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern experience moments of apparent freedom while both acknowledging that they "have not been cut loose."

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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.

Related Characters: Guildenstern (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Boat
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

This is Guildenstern's earnest reply to Rosencrantz's question: "Do you think death could possibly be on a boat?" As usual, Guildenstern proves more thoughtful than Rosencrantz, and yet his meditations are dead ends — they further upset him and they're at odds with Rosencrantz's more carefree attitude. 

In this moment, we again encounter the tension between death onstage and death offstage, theatrical death and actual death. Guildenstern holds firm to his conviction that an actor cannot fake his or her demise since death simply "isn't." In other words, Guildenstern considers Rosencrantz' question ridiculous: the verb "to be" and the noun "death" cannot coexist in a sentence, since death is simply non-existence and non-being ("not to be," as Hamlet himself famously says). While Guildenstern's claim makes a certain amount of sense, we should also consider Stoppard's textual allusions to Greek mythology, particularly to the River Styx and Charon the ferryman. Stoppard is not the first to represent death as a boat: in the Ancient Greek tradition, dead souls crossed the River Styx (to the afterlife) on a boat captained by Charon. This obvious reference is a sort of counterpoint to Guildenstern's claim that art cannot represent death. 

We've travelled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation.

Related Characters: Guildenstern (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Boat
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the Tragedians discover that Hamlet has disappeared during the Pirates' attack. The two protagonists are at a loss, since they cannot give the King of England the letter if they do not also deliver Hamlet. And yet as usual, they rationalize their inaction and make no effort to change their unfortunate situation. 

However, Stoppard does not depict their response as reprehensible or disappointing; instead, it follows the play's own logic. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have no free will and can only act out the parts they inherited from Shakespeare's work. The literal and the abstract converge in this moment, as the two characters "move idly towards eternity" on the boat as well as in the script. And the noun "momentum" does similar work, reminding us that our protagonists are mere objects in space that obey physical laws as well as the endearing pawns of kings and queens. They are indeed "idle" here as they contemplate their bleak futures, but this idleness is an acceptance, an acknowledgment of their limited roles. 

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The Boat Symbol Timeline in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Boat appears in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 3
Death Theme Icon
Individual Identity Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
...Guildenstern's. Sounds of sailors rise and it becomes clear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are on a boat. They reflect that it is "dark for day" but write it off to the assumption... (full context)
Free Will Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
..."In where?" Rosencrantz asks. "Out here," Guildenstern explains. They reflect on how much they like boats and Guildenstern is pleased that, on a boat, one needn't "worry about which way to... (full context)
Death Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
...saying they might as well be dead. He asks Guildenstern if death might be a boat. No, Guildenstern replies, "Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can't not-be on a boat."... (full context)
Death Theme Icon
Individual Identity Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
"Where we went wrong," Guildenstern says quietly, "was getting on a boat. We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within... (full context)