Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Pdf fan Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)
Themes and Colors
Death Theme Icon
Individual Identity Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Death Theme Icon

The odds of the coin toss that opens Act One – an 100-long streak of "heads" – at first seem impossible, the sure sign of a make-believe world. Yet, as the play goes on, it becomes clear that there's nothing really odd about those odds: they represent the probability of human life. Death wins every time. "Life is a gamble, at terrible odds" the Player explains, "—if it was a bet you wouldn't take it." Above all, this is a play about death. Most obviously, the title – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead - states the death of its protagonists. But the protagonists' deaths are a foregone conclusion even apart from the title, which is in fact a line from Hamlet. As characters drawn from another play, the details of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's deaths are already scripted by Shakespeare's play before Stoppard's play even begins. Everyone in the audience knows exactly how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will die from the first moment of Stoppard's play. By building his play around these characters, Stoppard is thus able to exaggerate the fatedness and inevitability of death.

Yet while death is a sure thing, the play casts it in a fresh, unsettling light. Death itself may be a given, but the human acceptance of death is no given, and the characters struggle against death even in the face of its 100% probability. As inevitable as it is, it seems impossible to accept death. In fact, it seems impossible even to describe it properly. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern argue with the Player and Tragedians about what 'real' death looks like. "What do you know about death?" Guildenstern demands of the Player and, when the Player replies that dying is "what the actors do best," Guildenstern insists death can't be acted because "[t]he fact of it is nothing to do with seeing it happen-it's not gasps and blood and falling about." Indeed, the Player recounts that the time he arranged for one of his actors to actually be hung on stage, the audience booed it as a subpar performance.

Impossible to recognize, death thus remains elusive even as the play never stops dreading its inevitability. All the deaths on stage, after all, are staged, be they performances of plays-within-the-play (such as those that occur during the Tragedians' play and the fatal stabbing enacted by the Player) or supposedly 'real' action (such as Polonius' corpse, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's deaths at play's end, or the corpse-strewn final stage). The play's running meta-theatrical commentary (comments about plays made within a play) keeps the audience hyper-aware of this fact. Guildenstern's frequent critiques of staged deaths makes even the gracefully subtle portrayal of his and Rosencrantz' deaths at play's end – a gore-free, sudden disappearance – seem unsatisfying, questionable, eerily incomplete.

Indeed, Stoppard seems committed to producing this sense of incompleteness that, while it fails to deliver a complete understanding of death, completely captures the human understanding of death - which is, of course, quite incomplete. The play portrays awareness of death as the ever-present yet ever-unknown constant in life. "There must have been…a moment in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don't go on for ever," Rosencrantz reflects, "And yet I can't remember it. It never occurred to me at all." He concludes that he can't remember the moment of realization because no one moment exists. Instead, one is "born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the words for it, before we know that there are words," we know there is death.

Get the entire Rosencrantz & Guildenstern LitChart as a printable PDF.
Rosencrantz and guildenstern are dead.pdf.medium

Death ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Death appears in each act of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
Act length:

Death Quotes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Below you will find the important quotes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead related to the theme of Death.
Act 2 Quotes

I mean one thinks of it like being alive in a box, one keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead…which should make all the difference…shouldn't it? I mean you'd never know you were in a box, would you? It would be just like being asleep in a box…

Related Characters: Rosencrantz (speaker)
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

Rosencrantz makes this short speech in response to his own question: "Do you ever think of yourself as actuallydead?" Guildenstern's unsatisfactory reply prompts his companion to describe his morbid, confused vision. 

Of course, the box is a coffin: death is one of the play's essential, tricky questions, stumping the two protagonists at every turn. How can anyone describe death if death is simply non-being? (Guildenstern comes to this problem later on.) Yet here, Rosencrantz's box also brings to mind the thought experiment called "Schrödinger's Cat," in which a cat is locked in a box along with a vial of poison that will be shattered if a single atom of a radioactive substance decays. Atoms don't obey the laws of physics that govern larger objects: they can be in multiple states at once, both whole and decayed. So too is that cat, as long as it remains inside the box, both dead and alive simultaneously. Stoppard often weaves scientific theories into his plays — and this thought experiment in particular deals with problems of observation and simultaneity. As per the title, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead and yet they persist for three acts. The audience's gaze is important for scientific as well as theatrical reasons: to watch something is to make it real. 


Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!

Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don't go on for ever. It must have been shattering—stamped into one's memory. And yet I can't remember it. It never occurred to me at all. What does one make of that? We must be born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the words for it, before we know that there are words, out we come, bloodied and squalling with the knowledge that for all the compasses in the world, there's only one direction, and time is its only measure.

Related Characters: Rosencrantz (speaker)
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

In a state of increasing agitation, Rosencrantz tells a series of unintelligible jokes about religion and then embarks on this long, one-sided discussion of death and memory. It culminates in the arrival of Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and Ophelia. 

In this speech, Rosencrantz sets out two possibilities: we learn about mortality as children and the discovery is "shattering," or else we "come out, bloodied and squalling with the knowledge" of our own impending deaths. While he seems convinced by both possibilities — he uses the verb "must" in both cases — he sides with the latter option because of his own memories and experience. Here, death is inextricably linked to fatalism: Rosencrantz believes that "there's only one direction," and that we cannot stray from our path.

His mention of the "compasses in the world" should remind us of Hamlet's declaration, "I am but mad north north-west," and the ensuing confusion between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as they scramble to situate themselves with regards to the cardinal directions. This is a comic moment, of course, a misunderstanding of Hamlet's metaphor, but it's further proof that the two exist in a sort of theatrical limbo, neither alive nor dead.

Do you call that an ending?—with practically everyone on his feet? My goodness no—over your dead body.

Related Characters: The Player (speaker), Rosencrantz, Guildenstern
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

The Tragedians begin their rehearsal of "The Murder of Gonzago" only to be interrupted by Hamlet and a wailing Ophelia, who come onstage and promptly break off their engagement. When the tumult has died down and the actors begin their rehearsal anew, Guildenstern asks: "Wasn't that the end?" The Player is shocked, and adamant that a play's ending involve multiple deaths.

Humor plays an essential role in this passage, as it does throughout the text. The Player uses the idiom "over your dead body" to express his dismay at Guildenstern's question; however, the expression also functions on a literal level, as no ending is complete without a pile of dead bodies, in the Player's estimation. Again, the play within a play sheds light on Stoppard's work and Hamlet itself, both of which end with the deaths of major characters. By virtue of his occupational knowledge, the Player understands much about the shared fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While this line does indeed foreshadow the play's grim ending, almost every interaction and pun in the play has a similar effect. Even the title, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, lays out the central plot point. 

It's what the actors do best. They have to exploit whatever talent is given to them, and their talent is dying.

Related Characters: The Player (speaker)
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

Guildenstern, disturbed by the play's gruesome end, has just asked the Player "what [he knows] about death." And the latter, coolly professional, explains that mimicking death in a variety of styles (e.g. heroic, ironic, comic) is an actor's primary skill. 

Stoppard brings our attention back to death, as he does repeatedly throughout his play. Death is the inevitable conclusion of all plot lines, both acted and lived, and all movement, both on stage and off, carries us toward death. Again, the barrier between the theater and real experience is a shaky one — the Tragedians in Stoppard's play have a particular honesty and insightfulness insofar as they understand their collective position, whereas Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain confused, not fully aware that they are simply characters in a play. The play within a play has an obvious artifice that helps us understand the larger work. And the question of death's theatricality is also essential, as Guildenstern later takes issue with the Tragedians' conviction that a true death is not a convincing death. Stoppard poses the question: if death is "not being," can it be acted out? 

I extract significance from melodrama, a significance which it does not in fact contain; but occasionally, from out of this matter, there escapes a thin beam of light that, seen at the right angle, can crack the shell of mortality.

Related Characters: The Player (speaker)
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, the Player elaborates on his earlier definition of an actor's talent: while the other Tragedians can only "exploit" their talent, dying, their spokesperson has the more impressive and "more general" skill of pulling "significance from melodrama."

The Player is the main point of contact between the play within the play and the play itself; as the only self-aware actor, he understands dramatic devices and rules better than Rosencrantz or Guildenstern understand them. When the Player states that melodrama "does not in fact contain" significance, we should follow this claim to its logical conclusion and ask ourselves: does Stoppard's work contain significance? This paradox — between the hilariously, senselessly absurd and the highly philosophical — generates much of the play's power and tension. Can a text seriously declare that it lacks all seriousness? And where can the Player find significance, if not in the melodrama? 

The Player claims that this beam of light can "crack the shell of mortality," suggesting that significance and life are incompatible, that meaning leads to death. The words "shell of mortality" are an echo of Hamlet's famous soliloquy, in which he calls his body a "mortal coil."

On the contrary, it's the only kind they do believe. They're conditioned to it. I had an actor once who was condemned to hang for stealing a sheep…so I got permission to have him hanged in the middle of a play…and you wouldn't believe it, he just wasn't convincing! It was impossible to suspend one's disbelief—and what with the audience jeering and throwing peanuts, the whole thing was a disaster!

Related Characters: The Player (speaker)
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

Guildenstern has expressed indignation at the Player's simplistic and garish understanding of death: he maintains that death is "a disappearance gathering weight" rather than the "mechanics of cheap melodrama." In response, the Player recounts an actor's death onstage and the ensuing negative reception: in his estimation, this proves that an acted death is always more convincing than a true death. 

Of course, the situation itself is an absurd, impossible one. (Note the Player's pun on the expression "suspend disbelief," an allusion to the actor's demise, as well as the anachronistic image of Elizabethan spectators throwing peanuts.) This recurring question — is death a disappearance or a spectacle? — prompts us to imagine and anticipate the inevitable deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; we might also question our own expectations as readers or audience members. While the two buffoonish spies do simply die offstage and disappear in Shakespeare's play, Stoppard takes it upon himself to reexamine the lives (and deaths) of these two minor characters in his adaptation. And do their offstage deaths confirm Guildenstern's conviction, or is Stoppard mocking his protagonist? 

Act 3 Quotes

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. 

Let us keep things in proportion. Assume, if you like, that they're going to kill him. Well, he is a man, he is mortal, death comes to us all, etcetera, and consequently he would have died anyway, sooner or later. Or to look at it from the social point of view—he's just one man among many, the loss would be well within reason and convenience. And then again, what is so terrible about death? As Socrates so philosophically put it, since we don't know what death is, it is illogical to fear it. It might be…very nice…Or to look at it another way—we are little men, we don't know the ins and outs of the matter, there are wheels within wheels, etcetera—it would be presumptuous of us to interfere with the designs of fate or even of kings. All in all, I think we'd be well advised to leave well alone.

Related Characters: Guildenstern (speaker), Rosencrantz, Hamlet
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

Rehearsing their upcoming interaction with the King of England, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern open Cladius' note and discover their role in a plot against Hamlet. This surprises and dismays them, but the two characters soon come to terms with the situation and rationalize their inaction.

They do so by sticking to the play's own disturbing logic: death is inevitable and free will impossible. If they involved themselves or attempted to save Hamlet they would be acting out of character; they would be questioning the play's crucial determinism, which they have relied upon for two and a half acts already. Guildenstern calls any hypothetical interference "presumptuous." Stoppard again alludes to Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" in this section — Guildenstern outlines a lazy syllogism when he mentions Socrates and says "he is a man, he is mortal, death comes to us all, etcetera." Vladimir and Estragon, the two characters in Beckett's play, are in a perpetual state of confusion, unable to comprehend the simple, rigorous logic of a syllogism. Again and again, they begin their attempts with the premise that "all men are mortal." Rosencrantz and Guildenstern speak in similar circles, reaching dubious conclusions. 

Life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn't take it.

Related Characters: The Player (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Coin
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

In a brief wordless interlude, Hamlet replaces Claudius' letter with another, this one asking the King of England to execute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern rather than Hamlet. When the protagonists awake, unaware of this unfortunate turn of events, they discover that the Tragedians have been hiding in barrels onboard the ship. The Player explains that Claudius banished them from Denmark because their play offended him. 

This metaphor, comparing life to a risky bet, brings to mind the play's endless coin tossing, the succession of 92 heads in the first scene. When the Player says that "life is a gamble," he means that life is a sort of lucky streak, inevitably cut short by death. And yet this prediction — "if it was a bet you wouldn't take it" — isn't quite true, as both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make unwise bets again and again. They must in order to live: all human life is a ridiculous, impossible bet against death. Such inevitability gives the play both its grim edge and its absurd levity, as death renders sincerity and solemnity futile. 

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. 

No…no…not for us, not like that. Dying is not romantic, and death is not a game which will soon be over…Death is not anything…death is not…It's the absence of presence, nothing more…the endless time of never coming back…a gap you can't see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound…

Related Characters: Guildenstern (speaker)
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, along with the Tragedians, discover that the letter in their possession now orders their execution rather than Hamlet's execution; Guildenstern panics and attacks the Player, who feigns his death and then brushes himself off, unharmed. This final ironic gesture seems to overwhelm Guildenstern: this short, impressionistic speech is one of his last lines in the play. 

Guildenstern circles back to his first argument, dismissing the Tragedians' stage deaths as unconvincing and misleading. An actor cannot mime death because death simply "is not..." Note the abundance of negative constructions in this quote, as well as the obvious contradictions: "the absence of presence" and "the endless time of never coming back." Even the ellipses, the breaks between Guildenstern's disordered thoughts, are "absences" — they are tiny visual and grammatical gaps that hint at Guildenstern's impending disappearance. Each one contains all the "not being" of death. 

The mention of wind in this quote also brings to mind the characters' repeated, bumbling attempts to locate the cardinal points according to the sun's position or the wind's direction. No wind ever blows through Stoppard's play because the characters inhabit a theatrical limbo, a sort of no-man's-land between life and death. 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.

Related Characters: The Two Ambassadors (speaker), Rosencrantz, Guildenstern
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

Rosencrantz disappears, followed by Guildenstern; a flood of light illuminates a stage littered with corpses. Only Fortinbras (the Norwegian crown prince), Horatio and the Ambassadors have survived the tragedy, and the English Ambassadors announce that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been killed in England. 

This remark, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead," is essentially the play's last intelligible line, since music and darkness drown out Horatio's final speech; in other words, these five words bookend the entire work, raising questions about time and circularity. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have endless, meandering discussions about the "one direction" of time —  however, the play ends right where it began, and we can easily imagine Rosencrantz and Guildenstern popping back into existence and pulling out another betting coin. As per the play's title, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been dead since the first scene.

The words "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" form the subject of the sentence. The two characters grapple with their individual identities for three acts and yet in the final scene, the Ambassadors refer to the two distinct characters as a single unit; in this way, Stoppard ends the work on an unsettling note, at once summing up and dismissing his two protagonist's fears. The two characters are memorialized as one.