Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

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Death Theme Icon
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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.
Death Theme Icon

The odds of the coin toss that opens Act One – an 100-long streak of "heads" – at first seem impossible, the sure sign of a make-believe world. Yet, as the play goes on, it becomes clear that there's nothing really odd about those odds: they represent the probability of human life. Death wins every time. "Life is a gamble, at terrible odds" the Player explains, "—if it was a bet you wouldn't take it." Above all, this is a play about death. Most obviously, the title – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead - states the death of its protagonists. But the protagonists' deaths are a foregone conclusion even apart from the title, which is in fact a line from Hamlet. As characters drawn from another play, the details of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's deaths are already scripted by Shakespeare's play before Stoppard's play even begins. Everyone in the audience knows exactly how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will die from the first moment of Stoppard's play. By building his play around these characters, Stoppard is thus able to exaggerate the fatedness and inevitability of death.

Yet while death is a sure thing, the play casts it in a fresh, unsettling light. Death itself may be a given, but the human acceptance of death is no given, and the characters struggle against death even in the face of its 100% probability. As inevitable as it is, it seems impossible to accept death. In fact, it seems impossible even to describe it properly. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern argue with the Player and Tragedians about what 'real' death looks like. "What do you know about death?" Guildenstern demands of the Player and, when the Player replies that dying is "what the actors do best," Guildenstern insists death can't be acted because "[t]he fact of it is nothing to do with seeing it happen-it's not gasps and blood and falling about." Indeed, the Player recounts that the time he arranged for one of his actors to actually be hung on stage, the audience booed it as a subpar performance.

Impossible to recognize, death thus remains elusive even as the play never stops dreading its inevitability. All the deaths on stage, after all, are staged, be they performances of plays-within-the-play (such as those that occur during the Tragedians' play and the fatal stabbing enacted by the Player) or supposedly 'real' action (such as Polonius' corpse, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's deaths at play's end, or the corpse-strewn final stage). The play's running meta-theatrical commentary (comments about plays made within a play) keeps the audience hyper-aware of this fact. Guildenstern's frequent critiques of staged deaths makes even the gracefully subtle portrayal of his and Rosencrantz' deaths at play's end – a gore-free, sudden disappearance – seem unsatisfying, questionable, eerily incomplete.

Indeed, Stoppard seems committed to producing this sense of incompleteness that, while it fails to deliver a complete understanding of death, completely captures the human understanding of death - which is, of course, quite incomplete. The play portrays awareness of death as the ever-present yet ever-unknown constant in life. "There must have been…a moment in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don't go on for ever," Rosencrantz reflects, "And yet I can't remember it. It never occurred to me at all." He concludes that he can't remember the moment of realization because no one moment exists. Instead, one is "born with an intuition of mortality. Before we know the words for it, before we know that there are words," we know there is death.

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Death ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Death 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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Death 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 Death.
Act 2 Quotes

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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Let us keep things in proportion. Assume, if you like, that they're going to kill him. Well, he is a man, he is mortal, death comes to us all, etcetera, and consequently he would have died anyway, sooner or later. Or to look at it from the social point of view—he's just one man among many, the loss would be well within reason and convenience. And then again, what is so terrible about death? As Socrates so philosophically put it, since we don't know what death is, it is illogical to fear it. It might be…very nice…Or to look at it another way—we are little men, we don't know the ins and outs of the matter, there are wheels within wheels, etcetera—it would be presumptuous of us to interfere with the designs of fate or even of kings. All in all, I think we'd be well advised to leave well alone.

Related Characters: Guildenstern (speaker), Rosencrantz, Hamlet
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.

Related Characters: The Two Ambassadors (speaker), Rosencrantz, Guildenstern
Page Number: 126
Explanation and Analysis:

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