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.
The Theater ThemeTracker
The Theater Quotes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
We have no control. Tonight we play to the court. Or the night after. Or to the tavern. Or not.
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.
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…
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!
Now we've lost the tension.