Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

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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.
Free Will Theme Icon

As the play questions the reality of individual identity, it likewise questions free will. What is it? What is choice? What is action or progress? Can one trust all the trappings and signs of existence if one knows that they'll soon be extinguished? As the play proceeds, individual decisions and actions seem more and more inconsequential, nearly equivalent to apathy and passivity. Hamlet is, famously, a play whose crisis swirls within the vortex of Hamlet's passivity. Yet this play reveals that Hamlet's passivity is in fact everyone's. Every individual might as well be motionless, might as well fail to act, since his or her every effort is overridden by a more powerful motion: the trajectory of life towards death. Guildenstern describes this trajectory in terms of being on a boat: "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…"

Indeed, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bustle about on stage but ultimately effect nothing, their attempts at action all thwarted by the plot structure of the original Hamlet, whose inexorable progression is analogous to the inexorable motion of life towards death. (Indeed, the exchange of the letter ordering Hamlet's death for the letter ordering Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's is in fact a plot twist in the original Hamlet.) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try futilely to intercept Hamlet on stage and end up going along with anything the prince and/or Claudius proposes. As in Hamlet, they agree to reason with Hamlet, sail to England, are executed, etc. Even that seemingly spontaneous pirate attack is just playing out a reference already written into Hamlet.

Yet while human will may be powerless against mortality, it can still act meaningfully within the realm of interpersonal relationship and human emotion. Helpless as they are, humans can still choose to be kind to others and to honor friendship and, in so doing, instill their lives with some meaning. Thus, Guildenstern's tenderness towards Alfred and his comforting of Rosencrantz stand out as affecting moments of warmth within the play. Conversely, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's passivity after discovering Hamlet's death-sentence stands out as one of the play's most horrifying instances. Though any action may have been futile, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's choice to not even try to act to save him bespeaks a level of disregard for human life on par with death's itself.

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Free Will ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Free Will appears in each act of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Free Will 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 Free Will.
Act 1 Quotes

We have no control. Tonight we play to the court. Or the night after. Or to the tavern. Or not.

Related Characters: The Player (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have just met the Tragedians, who arrive on stage with a cart full of props. The Player, their spokesperson, first offers them a private performance, making various ribald suggestions, and then he exchanges a few gloomy words with Guildenstern. 

Here, we encounter one of Stoppard's many meta-theatrical flourishes: while the Tragedians are the actors in the play's universe, everyone on stage is an actor in the audience's universe. Stoppard asks us some difficult questions in this section: is the stage all that different from our daily reality? Do we all progress along paths without any agency, just as actors follow their scripts? The Player's repeated and fragmented use of "or" brings to mind the very monotony of a world without free will: each person's path is fixed yet unknown to him. And we see this combination of monotony and confusion throughout the work; characters react to events with an unruffled calm and yet never fully understand the plot's trajectory. 


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There's a logic at work—it's all done for you, don't worry. Enjoy it. Relax. To be taken in hand and led, like being a child again…--it's like being given a prize, an extra slice of childhood…

Related Characters: Guildenstern (speaker)
Page Number: 40
Explanation and Analysis:

Upon glimpsing the complexity of the situation and the extent of his own confusion, Rosencrantz feels a stab of panic; Guildenstern, on the other hand, remains calmer and attempts to soothe his friend. Guildenstern does not seem to think that they must understand the larger situation in order to play their part. 

Despite their different reactions, the two characters exhibit a similar fatalism, making no mention of how they might alter their shared fate. Action is clearly impossible, here. In fact, Guildenstern calls the complete lack of free will a "prize, an extra slice of childhood." (The mention of childhood seems particularly appropriate given Rosencrantz's juvenile whining: "I want to go home.") While this sunny outlook and resignation don't last throughout the play — Guildenstern often despairs at their circumstances — Stoppard does present this as a curious alternative to anguish, particularly if we understand the play to have a "circular" structure, a sort of closed loop. 

Of course, the very idea of "being a child again" is antithetical to the play's almost obsessive interest in time, death, and age. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are hurtling towards death, and their passivity does not reverse the march of time. 

Act 2 Quotes

Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are…condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one—that is the meaning of order. If we start being arbitrary it'll just be a shambles: at least, let us hope so. Because if we happened, just happened to discover, or even suspect, that our spontaneity was part of their order, we'd know that we were lost.

Related Characters: Guildenstern (speaker), Rosencrantz
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of Act 2, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern end a conversation with Hamlet, who then exits with Polonius. Alone on stage, the two protagonists realize that they have made no headway: Hamlet has kept the upper hand and divulged very little useful information about his condition. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are as befuddled as usual, and Guildenstern remarks that they are "condemned" to a narrative over which they have no control.

Most obviously, this is a remark about the impossibility of free will, particularly within the theater. The two characters follow two major scripts: the original Shakespearean storyline and Stoppard's own words. Guildenstern also voices an even more troubling thought, wondering if their "spontaneity" is also inscribed within a larger "order." In other words, perhaps any attempt to break free of the play's logic is vain and impossible, since the play's logic accounts for these actions, as well. This is an absurd, circular proposition, and yet it is in keeping with Stoppard's world, one without logic or any hope of escape. 

We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.

Related Characters: Guildenstern (speaker), Rosencrantz
Page Number: 61
Explanation and Analysis:

Guildenstern makes this statement partway through another digressive, illogical conversation with Rosencrantz, who cannot even remember the past few minutes. He tosses a coin, checks it, then looks away, distracted. His inattention provokes Guildenstern's own non sequitur, a statement that has no connection to the conversation. (Of course, a very subtle connection does exist, insofar as Rosencrantz has only recently yelled "Fire!" for no apparent reason.) 

Here, Guildenstern combines two idioms: to cross a bridge when you come to it (or, to deal with a problem only when you must) and to burn a bridge (or, to sever ties with someone else). While this marriage of the two expressions is startling, it is not unrelated to the play's plot. The two characters do only deal with problems as the problems arise and they do destroy relationships with other characters, including Hamlet himself. 

This quote, coming in the middle of a scene about memory and the continuity of identity, does not move away from these thematic concerns. (And yet it is also moving in its own way as a standalone proverb.) As soon as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cross these proverbial bridges, they forget the whole experience, remembering "the smell of smoke," the "presumption that once our eyes watered" (that they had some kind of emotional or physical reaction to the experience), and nothing more. 

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. 

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."

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. 

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.