Since death is inevitable, the play goes on to ask, what does one make of a single human life? What is individual identity? Though most of the characters in the play are characters appropriated from Hamlet (whose characters were in turn based on other literary historical characters), Hamlet's main characters (Hamlet, Claudius, Horatio, and Ophelia) are here greatly diluted and constantly fade in and out of sight, seeming more like representations of ghosts than like representations of people. In turn, two of Hamlet's most minor characters – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – are Stoppard's play's protagonists and speak the vast majority of its lines. The play also foregrounds another minor character by giving Alfred, the lowliest member of the Tragedians, more attention than any of the troupe's other actors. In choosing to highlight his play's characters this way, Stoppard foregrounds powerlessness and lowliness, further emphasizing the helplessness of the individual human life against the prevailing force of death.
Yet beyond choosing to feature powerless individuals and washing out powerful ones, Stoppard's play also questions the specific identities of his characters and suggests that not only is the human self lowly and powerless, but it may not even be a "self." Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's identities prove extremely porous. They are constantly losing track of themselves and mix up their own names, even their own body parts, as Rosencrantz thinks Guildenstern's leg is his in the dark at the beginning of Act Three. When facing exact depictions of themselves in the Tragedians' play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are intrigued but unable to recognize them. "Well, if it isn't--! No, wait a minute, don't tell me….I never forget a face…not that I know yours, that is," Rosencrantz tells the character representing him, then loses his grip of the situation and mistakes the character for himself by implying that the character has almost recognized Rosencrantz whereas it's in fact Rosencrantz who has almost recognized the character: "For a moment I thought—no, I don't know you, do I? Yes, I'm afraid you're quite wrong. You must have mistaken me for someone else," Rosencrantz says.
Other characters struggle, too, to recognize individual identity and Claudius and Hamlet confuse Rosencrantz and Guildenstern while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's conversation with the Player confuses Hamlet's, Claudius', and Polonius' relationships to Ophelia. Stoppard himself once described his play's protagonists as "two halves of the same personality." By presenting characters that seem to flicker back and forth between identities, Stoppard questions the notion of identity at large. If every human individual is condemned to die, what distinguishes one from another?
Individual Identity ThemeTracker
Individual Identity Quotes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
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.
You don't understand the humiliation of it—to be tricked out of the single assumption which makes our existence viable—that somebody is watching…
Hamlet is not himself, outside or in.
Well, if it isn't—! No, wait a minute, don't tell me—it's a long time since—where was it? Ah, this is taking me back to—when was it? I know you, don't I? I never forget a face—…not that I know yours, that is. For a moment I thought—no, I don't know you, do I? Yes, I'm afraid you're quite wrong. You must have mistaken me for someone else.
It's what the actors do best. They have to exploit whatever talent is given to them, and their talent is dying.