ENGL 363: Study Questions and Notes
Stoppard – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
This play is an example of “theater of the absurd.” If you have read some Beckett or Pinter, you will be familiar with the tone and form of some of the dialogue. If not, you will have to try to learn how to read some of the exchanges that seem odd to you. Characters in these plays are often trying to work out basic philosophy: why they are where they are, what happens next in life, and whether we have any control over that destiny. These plays also refer to themselves quite frequently: they acknowledge the stage, audience, writer, and so on; in doing so, they question the line between stage and the world, performance and reality. Try to assess what difference it makes for dialogue to be “strange,” with incomplete thoughts, non sequiturs, and misunderstandings.
p. 11 Notice that Stoppard’s stage directions interact with the reader and the characters.
The coin-flipping episode plays with our assumptions about probability and what we expect of life and of the future. There is, the characters argue, nothing stranger in a coin landing “heads” eighty-five times in a row than in it landing “tails” half the time. A 50-50 chance allows both results. Why is it hard to accept this logic?
p. 12 The characters often attempt to but can’t complete common sayings, concepts, and clichés. The one that Guildenstern cannot complete on this page is that if six monkeys were placed in a room with six typewriters, eventually they would write the works of Shakespeare. This is of course an impossible (or highly unlikely) insight for Guildenstern to have. (In Stoppard’s film, he has Guildenstern come close to other amusing revelations of physics not included in the play text.) What is Stoppard doing by portraying two characters who are simultaneously troubled by incomprehension of their own names and on the edge of such understanding?
p. 15 Stoppard wants you to think about the idioms and phrases that have become so common that we don’t really think about them any more. This is something that Hamlet plays with all the time, especially with the King and with Polonius (as does the gravedigger with Hamlet). Thus when Rosencrantz says “I’m afraid it isn’t your day,” Guildenstern responds “I’m afraid it is.” (You might compare our use of “I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Of course if we were the other person, we would only do what they would do; we’re really saying “I wouldn’t do that if I were in your position” (a very different idea).
p. 16 Why do R&G discuss the first thing they remember?
p. 17 Guildenstern’s response to the questions of happiness and desire is in the form of an examination essay question. Why?
Notice how Guildenstern’s second speech here undoes his first proposition. What is the existential result of his reasoning on this page?
p. 18 Here we start to get the (very limited) story of how they got to where they are now.
p. 21 What do you make of the player? His attitude? Demeanor?
p. 24 Cf. the players description of why they are traveling with Hamlet 2.2.
p. 28 The player proposes that we accept “. . . every exit being an entrance somewhere else.” How does this idea comment on the way characters behave in Hamlet?
p. 33 The player shouts “Thirty-eight!” Why is he shouting it, and why did Stoppard choose that number?
pp. 34-35 The first insertion of a scene from Hamlet comes here (2.1.79ff.) (in this case the playing out of a scene only reported in Hamlet). What is the location? Has the scene moved since the beginning?
pp. 35-37 Can you follow the King’s and Queen’s mistaken identifying of R&G?
p. 39 Why do R&G keep returning to the beginning of the story (the messenger coming for them)?
pp. 41-44 Here R&G practice rhetoric, asking questions and answering with questions so that they will do a good job when they meet Hamlet. They play it like a tennis game.
p. 48 Why does Guildenstern say “Not now—”? . . . “Not now!”
pp. 48-51 Another rehearsal for meeting Hamlet.
p. 52 An insertion from Hamlet 2.2.203 ff.
pp. 56-58 What do you make of R&G’s debriefing after the encounter with Hamlet?
pp. 58-60 Why do R&G slip from this summary of their encounter with Hamlet into a discussion of time of day, direction, and philosophy?
pp. 61-62 Cf. Hamlet 2.2.533ff.
p. 63 What does the player mean by “We’re actors—we’re the opposite of people!” Is he right?
p. 64-69 Notice how R&G’s confusions are interspersed with assumptions about acting and about social class.
pp. 70-71 Rosencrantz’s speech on being dead. Ros’s concern with consciousness after death takes off from Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech: “To die . . . to sleep . . . to dream.” Notice how there are several moments in this play that allude to Hamlet without Stoppard stating the connection directly.
pp. 72-73 Cf. Hamlet 3.1.10ff.
p. 74 To what is Stoppard referring when he gives the stage direction, “Hamlet . . . weighing the pros and cons of making his quietus”?
p. 75 Cf. Hamlet 3.1.90ff.
p. 76 Who or what are the “Two cloaked tragedians”? (See also pp. 81-82)
p. 77 Think about the player’s line, “we are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style.” How is that true? Why does he assert this?
Notice that the play as acted out here by the players is not exactly The Murder of Gonzago that will be played out later. What is the difference, and what difference does it make?
p. 78 Cf. Hamlet 3.1.148ff.
pp. 83-84 Acting death versus real death.
pp. 84-85 Cf. Hamlet 3.2.263ff.
p. 86 Cf. Hamlet 4.1.32ff.
pp. 90-92 Cf. Hamlet 4.2-4.3.
pp. 93-94 Cf. Hamlet 4.4.10ff.
p. 95 What does Guildenstern mean by “I like to know where I am. Even if I don’t know where I am, I like to know that. If we go there’s no knowing”?
pp. 99, 113-14, 118 Why does Stoppard use barrels on the ship for the stage business of entrances and exits?
pp. 100-101 What seem to be R&G’s conclusions about personal freedom and their current situation?
p. 104 Note Guildenstern’s comforting of Rosencrantz. Such comforting has happened earlier. What does it signify?
p. 108 R&G return to contemplate the state of death (and boats).
pp. 109, 122 What difference does it make that R&G actually see both letters to the English King?
p. 112 Notice Guildenstern’s brief reference to Hamlet. Where in Shakespeare’s play does it come from?
pp. 113ff. Why does Stoppard have the players escaping on the boat with R&G?
p. 123 Guildenstern’s description of death as “only silence and some second-hand clothes” refers 1) to the tradition of the executioner getting the dying man’s clothes as part payment for his services and 2) to the tradition of nobles leaving their wardrobes to playing companies or to pawnbrokers who then sold rich clothes to players. (No other nobles would wear second-hand clothing, and no poorer person could afford—or would be allowed by law at the time of Hamlet’s production—to wear rich clothing).
p. 125 What is the “fashionable theory” to which Rosencrantz refers in his line, “The sun’s going down. Or the earth’s coming up, as the fashionable theory has it”?
p. 125 Is Guildenstern right when he says, “There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said—no”?
The one point in the play where the Player loses his composure is when he discovers that his troupe has been performing without an audience. Why is it so imperative for the Player to have an audience? What implications might the need for an audience or even its existence have for philosophical or religious points of view?
As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern participate in frivolous word play and games, they are in search for more than the details of the plot: they are also seeking out their identities. However, this quest is frustrated by their lack of memory and the inability of people, including themselves, to distinguish them from one another. Do you agree or disagree with the assessment that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have no distinct, separate identities? Explain.
Explore the theme of death in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Critics often compare Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot to Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. What are some of the similarities and differences between the two plays?
Critic Normand Berlin has commented that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a play that "thinks." According to Berlin, the play examines deep, probing philosophical topics at a sprinting pace. Discuss some of the philosophical movements and schools of thought that are explored in Stoppard's play.
The Murder of Gonzago is the play within the play of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. What are the similarities and differences between the plots of the two works? Discuss why you think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not grasp the true significance of the play.
Compare and contrast the character of Hamlet in Shakespeare and Stoppard's plays.
Actors and the idea of acting are thematic threads throughout the play. Discuss what implications the fluidity of their identities has upon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's search for a stable sense of self.
Throughout their journey in the play, do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern gain understanding, or are all of their activities pointless and absurd? Explain.
Compare and contrast Stoppard's play with T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."