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.
Free Will ThemeTracker
Free Will Quotes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
We have no control. Tonight we play to the court. Or the night after. Or to the tavern. Or not.
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…
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.
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.
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.
Do you call that an ending?—with practically everyone on his feet? My goodness no—over your dead body.
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.
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.
We've travelled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation.