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 World's Absurdity Quotes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
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…
There were always questions. To exchange one set for another is no great matter.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
Life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn't take it.
We've travelled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation.
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…