Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

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The World's Absurdity Theme Analysis

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Death Theme Icon
Individual Identity Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
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The World's Absurdity Theme Icon

As a play investigating the central, unknowable mysteries of existence – death and mortal beings' capacity for free will – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead charts the human struggle to make sense of a universe characterized by utter randomness, harshness towards human life (the universe itself could be seen as the dramatic "bloodbath" described by the Player), and complete apathy towards the human condition. All human meaning is undermined by the meaninglessness of the environment humans are forced to inhabit. The effort to make meaning thus grows increasingly absurd.

The play's use of language reflects the absurdity of human attempts to make meaning, incorporating wordplay and pushing the bounds of sense to demonstrate how difficult it is to convey significance. Dialogue in the play frequently replicates the coin toss revelation: what at first seems absurd is actually reality, what seems false is revealed to be true. It's the play's mode of presentation that startles the audience into a seemingly new perspective: the already known is seen anew, and seems unrecognizable. As Guildenstern says: "All your life you live so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque."

Thus, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern frequently misspeak or jumble common idiom, but, listened to carefully, these "mistakes" describe the situation more accurately than the "right" phrasing might. "[O]ver my head body!" Rosencrantz shouts in exasperation, "I tell you it's all stopping to a death, it's boding to a depth, stepping to a head, it's all heading to a dead stop." Though they may first seem like mistakes, his phrasings point out truths: 'head body' describes the living thinking being he is better than the conventional ("correct") expression 'dead body' would; his mis-phrasings of the expression 'coming to a head' end up illuminating the play's actual trajectory towards death. Later, Rosencrantz' description of sunset as "The sun's going down. Or the earth's coming up" rings similarly true.

Furthermore, the play's many instances of mishearing and misunderstanding start to accrue their own sense of accuracy: death, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern repeatedly remind the audience, is the unknown, is beyond the grasp of human perception. When Rosencrantz tries to rationalize death by comparing it to a boat, Guildenstern responds, "No, no, no…Death is…not. Death isn't... Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can't not-be on a boat." By riddling the play with moments of lost meaning, the play's script creates a linguistic experience – 'not-understanding' – akin to the unimaginable not-being of death that renders life in the world so absurd.

The World's Absurdity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The World's Absurdity 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 World's Absurdity 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 World's Absurdity.
Act 1 Quotes

The sun came up about as often as it went down, in the long run, and a coin showed heads about as often as it showed tails. Then a messenger arrived. We had been sent for. Nothing else happened. Ninety-two coins spun consecutively have come down heads ninety-two consecutive times…

Related Characters: Guildenstern (speaker), Rosencrantz
Related Symbols: The Coin
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Guildenstern considers the improbability of their situation: he and Rosencrantz have tossed ninety-two coins and each coin has landed face-up. The more curious and clever of the two, Guildenstern lays out the possible explanations for the phenomenon, including "divine intervention," and then introduces a tricky syllogism. In philosophy, a syllogism is logical statement consisting of two factual statements—the premises—and the consequence of those two statements—the conclusion. Syllogisms (both correct and incorrect) appear throughout Samuel Beckett's play "Waiting for Godot"—this speech is one of many allusions to the absurdist play, which also features two male characters engaging in comic repartee in a sort of theatrical limbo.

Here, Guildenstern describes the "messenger" as a disruptive, disembodied presence, one that pushes the two characters toward their improbable and tragic future. The messenger's arrival marks the beginning of a long chain of events, each one unlikely, unlucky and yet inevitable. The ninety-two tosses are a miniaturized version of the play's general plot. 


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There were always questions. To exchange one set for another is no great matter.

Related Characters: Guildenstern (speaker)
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

Gertrude, Claudius and Polonius have just asked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to comfort Hamlet and uncover the "cause of [his] lunacy." They then depart, leaving the two characters even more befuddled, in a state of confused agitation. 

In this section, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spout a series of comic non sequiturs — though their dialogue does not adhere to the typical logic of conversation, the play's essential absurdity bubbles up, reminding us that the world is unknowable, both on stage and off stage. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern always have questions — they never understand the task at hand or the plot's progression — and yet the questions themselves are irrelevant because no answers exist. In other words, while questions are an essential part of the play, their content, their subject matter, is interchangeable. This statement can comfort readers, too: we should always question the text but we should never focus on answers of simple solutions to our questions. 

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. 

Everything has to be taken on trust; truth is only that which is taken to be true. It's the currency of living. There may be nothing behind it, but it doesn't make any difference so long as it is honoured. One acts on assumptions.

Related Characters: The Player (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Coin
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are relieved that the Tragedians have arrived at Elsinore: Guildenstern explains that they are otherwise alone and that their solitude breeds uncertainty and uneasiness. In response, the Player instructs them to "act natural" and take things on trust, since he considers truth inaccessible. 

This section calls to mind the earlier bet between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and its unlikely outcome. The word "currency" reminds us of the ninety-two coin tosses, all of which landed on heads: both men trusted that the coin would follow a particular law of probability, though it did not. In this way, Stoppard brings our attention to the discrepancy between reality and a governing law, reality and some imagined deeper truth. The Player explains that we all must make decisions relying only an incomplete and faulty understanding of the situation, relying only our assumptions. The verb "acts" is also crucial to this quote, as Stoppard again acknowledges the blurry boundary between the theater and life.  

I mean one thinks of it like being alive in a box, one keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead…which should make all the difference…shouldn't it? I mean you'd never know you were in a box, would you? It would be just like being asleep in a box…

Related Characters: Rosencrantz (speaker)
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

Rosencrantz makes this short speech in response to his own question: "Do you ever think of yourself as actuallydead?" Guildenstern's unsatisfactory reply prompts his companion to describe his morbid, confused vision. 

Of course, the box is a coffin: death is one of the play's essential, tricky questions, stumping the two protagonists at every turn. How can anyone describe death if death is simply non-being? (Guildenstern comes to this problem later on.) Yet here, Rosencrantz's box also brings to mind the thought experiment called "Schrödinger's Cat," in which a cat is locked in a box along with a vial of poison that will be shattered if a single atom of a radioactive substance decays. Atoms don't obey the laws of physics that govern larger objects: they can be in multiple states at once, both whole and decayed. So too is that cat, as long as it remains inside the box, both dead and alive simultaneously. Stoppard often weaves scientific theories into his plays — and this thought experiment in particular deals with problems of observation and simultaneity. As per the title, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead and yet they persist for three acts. The audience's gaze is important for scientific as well as theatrical reasons: to watch something is to make it real. 

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. 

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

No, no, no…Death is…not. Death isn't. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not being. You can't not-be on a boat.

Related Characters: Guildenstern (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Boat
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

This is Guildenstern's earnest reply to Rosencrantz's question: "Do you think death could possibly be on a boat?" As usual, Guildenstern proves more thoughtful than Rosencrantz, and yet his meditations are dead ends — they further upset him and they're at odds with Rosencrantz's more carefree attitude. 

In this moment, we again encounter the tension between death onstage and death offstage, theatrical death and actual death. Guildenstern holds firm to his conviction that an actor cannot fake his or her demise since death simply "isn't." In other words, Guildenstern considers Rosencrantz' question ridiculous: the verb "to be" and the noun "death" cannot coexist in a sentence, since death is simply non-existence and non-being ("not to be," as Hamlet himself famously says). While Guildenstern's claim makes a certain amount of sense, we should also consider Stoppard's textual allusions to Greek mythology, particularly to the River Styx and Charon the ferryman. Stoppard is not the first to represent death as a boat: in the Ancient Greek tradition, dead souls crossed the River Styx (to the afterlife) on a boat captained by Charon. This obvious reference is a sort of counterpoint to Guildenstern's claim that art cannot represent death. 

Life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn't take it.

Related Characters: The Player (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Coin
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

In a brief wordless interlude, Hamlet replaces Claudius' letter with another, this one asking the King of England to execute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern rather than Hamlet. When the protagonists awake, unaware of this unfortunate turn of events, they discover that the Tragedians have been hiding in barrels onboard the ship. The Player explains that Claudius banished them from Denmark because their play offended him. 

This metaphor, comparing life to a risky bet, brings to mind the play's endless coin tossing, the succession of 92 heads in the first scene. When the Player says that "life is a gamble," he means that life is a sort of lucky streak, inevitably cut short by death. And yet this prediction — "if it was a bet you wouldn't take it" — isn't quite true, as both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make unwise bets again and again. They must in order to live: all human life is a ridiculous, impossible bet against death. Such inevitability gives the play both its grim edge and its absurd levity, as death renders sincerity and solemnity futile. 

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. 

No…no…not for us, not like that. Dying is not romantic, and death is not a game which will soon be over…Death is not anything…death is not…It's the absence of presence, nothing more…the endless time of never coming back…a gap you can't see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound…

Related Characters: Guildenstern (speaker)
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, along with the Tragedians, discover that the letter in their possession now orders their execution rather than Hamlet's execution; Guildenstern panics and attacks the Player, who feigns his death and then brushes himself off, unharmed. This final ironic gesture seems to overwhelm Guildenstern: this short, impressionistic speech is one of his last lines in the play. 

Guildenstern circles back to his first argument, dismissing the Tragedians' stage deaths as unconvincing and misleading. An actor cannot mime death because death simply "is not..." Note the abundance of negative constructions in this quote, as well as the obvious contradictions: "the absence of presence" and "the endless time of never coming back." Even the ellipses, the breaks between Guildenstern's disordered thoughts, are "absences" — they are tiny visual and grammatical gaps that hint at Guildenstern's impending disappearance. Each one contains all the "not being" of death. 

The mention of wind in this quote also brings to mind the characters' repeated, bumbling attempts to locate the cardinal points according to the sun's position or the wind's direction. No wind ever blows through Stoppard's play because the characters inhabit a theatrical limbo, a sort of no-man's-land between life and death.