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.
The Theater Theme Icon

As a play written within the structure of another play (Shakespeare's Hamlet), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead offers a complex meditation on the nature of the theater and the relationship between drama and lived human life. The play articulates a wide range of views on the theater, from a harsh critique of theater's artifice and inability to represent death (articulated by Guildenstern) to an unreflective willingness to embrace dramatic entertainment as diversion from life (exemplified by Rosencrantz) to a cynical conviction that humanity's entire notion of truth is made up by the stage and that humans have no frameworks to understand death apart from those the theater gives them (articulated by the Player).

Apart from using characters to articulate perspectives on the nature of drama, the play's very structure explores theater's possibilities and potential similarities to human life. Stoppard's play takes two characters from Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who, in Hamlet, have a fairly limited role, and turns those characters into this play's protagonists Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In so doing, Stoppard seems to offer a kind of inside-out view of the original play, where the stars have become mere supporting characters and the supporting characters have become stars. Still, though freed from their original bit parts and launched into the spotlight, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all along remain trapped by their old roles as Hamlets original plot structure proves inescapable, its inexorability becoming a metaphor for the inevitable progression of life towards death. Stoppard thereby uses the dramatic form itself to comment on the shape of human existence.

In addition to illuminating the structural similarity of a play to human life, Stoppard uses frequent repetition, allusion, and metatheatrical observations to create a sense of claustrophobia in the play akin to the human feeling of being trapped inside mortality. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem locked into repeating numerous small actions –playing with coins, playing at questions, trying and failing to remember the past – and are, of course, also locked into repeating the larger action of their already scripted roles from Hamlet. Hamlet itself contains a play within a play (in the middle of Hamlet, Prince Hamlet hires actors to perform a play that he hopes will expose Claudius' guilt). That play-within-a-play is contained in this play too: Stoppard's Hamlet hires the Player and Tragedians to perform it, creating a play-within-a-play-within-a-play. Amidst everything else, Stoppard also scatters metacommentary throughout his script so that a disappointed Rosencrantz is crushed not only by his own disappointment but by the knowledge that it's deflating the dramatic scene: "Now we've lost the tension," he says.

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The Theater ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Theater 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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The Theater 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 The Theater.
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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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. 

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. 

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. 

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? 

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

Now we've lost the tension.

Related Characters: Rosencrantz (speaker)
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern explain to each other again and again why they boarded the boat and how they will proceed once they've disembarked, Rosencrantz discovers that he has misplaced Claudius's letter to the King of England. The two panic, only to find the letter in Guildenstern's jacket. They're relieved, but then they can't quite remember what to do with letter: they've "lost the tension."

In this moment, both characters seem to shed their roles, speaking as two actors rather than as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The "tension" is the dramatic tension, the suspense that has been pushing the story along. Stoppard directs our attention to the boundary between acting and living and then applies pressure to that boundary: this meta-theatrical moment implies that all human life is as artificial as theater, and that we can only understand the simple and digestible versions of the world offered by actors.

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.