Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Pdf fan dd71f526917d6085d66d045bd94fb5b55d02a108dd45d836cbdd4abe2d4c043d Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)

Individual Identity Theme Analysis

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.
Individual Identity Theme Icon

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

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Individual Identity 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:
Get the entire Rosencrantz & Guildenstern LitChart as a printable PDF.
Rosencrantz and guildenstern are dead.pdf.medium

Individual Identity 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 Individual Identity.
Act 2 Quotes

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. 


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!

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

Related Characters: The Player (speaker), Rosencrantz, Guildenstern
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

In Act 2, the Tragedians arrive at Elsinore, where they plan to perform "The Murder of Gonzago" at Hamlet's request. The latter has just retired for the night, leaving Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the actors on stage. The Player confronts the two men and explains that their behavior — they walked away midway through the Tragedians' performance — has offended the troupe.

Here, Stoppard again reminds us that his play works on many levels: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are audience members, in a sense, and yet they are also merely characters played by actors. The "somebody watching" in this section is not only Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, but also anyone watching Stoppard's play. The play-within-a-play structure of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" is an allusion to Shakespeare's original, which features the same device, as well as a commentary on the similarities between life in and outside the theater. Of course, actors can only perform if "somebody is watching," but all of us, even off stage, must act and speak before witnesses, people who can attest to our reality. 

Hamlet is not himself, outside or in.

Related Characters: Rosencrantz (speaker), Hamlet
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

Explaining that we all must act "on assumptions," the Player then asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about their own assumptions; in response, they explain that they must "glean" what afflicts Hamlet, since he is not "himself, outside or in."

The more we consider this quote, the more obviously absurd it becomes. We might understand if Hamlet were only externally "not himself" or if he were only internally "not himself' — but the simultaneity of these two conditions is perplexing, raising the question: if you are not yourself "outside or in" are you yourself at all? Is an individual's identity irreducible and essential, more central and basic than his or her body or brain? 

Stoppard already makes it evident that their task is a futile one; Hamlet has far more control over the situation than either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. Even as they describe his symptoms to the Player, they speak in vague and contradictory terms, eventually resorting to the nonsensical diagnosis "stark raving sane." 

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.

Related Characters: Rosencrantz (speaker), The Tragedians
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

The Tragedians continue their rehearsal and "The Murder of Gonzago" follows Hamlet's exact story line. The two spies who bring Lucianus (i.e. Hamlet) to England are the play's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, though Stoppard's play has not yet come to this plot point. When the spies remove their cloaks, revealing that their coats are identical to those of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two protagonists express surprise and confusion.

In this moment of hesitation, Rosencrantz seems at first to recognize his own clothing, then questions his own recognition. The reversal is an absurd one, as Rosencrantz initiates the interaction, then accuses the actor of mistaking him "for someone else." The two main characters experience this eerie uncertainty throughout the play, most notably when neither is sure if he is Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. Gertrude, Hamlet and Claudius cannot keep the two separate and repeatedly mistake one for the other. Stoppard shows, here, that our understandings of personality and identity are arbitrary and fragile. Since true free will does not exist and we all simply follow scripts (on and off stage), what constitutes our "self" or our personality? 

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? 

Act 3 Quotes

He couldn't even be sure of mixing us up.

Related Characters: Guildenstern (speaker), Claudius
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have concluded that Claudius gave them each the same sum, since he cannot "discriminate between" the two. The quote in question, which follows this statement, is representative of the entire text insofar as it marries obvious humor and more unsettling existential worries. On the one hand, Rosencrantz speaks of the King's twofold confusion: he is not certain of the two characters' identities, nor is he certain of his own uncertainty. This brings to mind earlier comic moments, including Rosencrantz' own (very vocal) befuddlement and his faulty recollection of his own name. On the other hand, this quote raises key questions about the self: Are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern truly different characters (particularly if they follow one single trajectory throughout the play)? Can you have an identity if you cannot control your own story? 

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.