Are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Dead?
Over the years, the stories spun by Shakespeare have been told and re-told countless of times. There have been films based on his works such as My Own Private Idaho, Ten Things I Hate About You and West Side Story, reimaginings such as the anime Romeo X Juliet and classic adaptations for the screen such as last year’s The Tempest or Baz Lhurman’s Romeo + Juliet.
Shakespeare has been part of the literary canon for so long that certain writers have been taking the original plays of Shakespeare and turning on their heads, shedding new light and looking through the events of the plays through different eyes and points of view, similar to what Gregory Maguire did with his reimagining of the Wicked Witch of the West of Wizard of Oz fame in his novel, Wicked. An example of a Shakespearean work that went through this process would be Margaret Atwood’s Gertrude Talks Back a short story where Gertrude reveals to Hamlet that she was the one who killed his father.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the focus of this essay, is of the same nature as Gertude Talks Back and Wicked. Also based and entrenched in Hamlet, the play was the brain child of one Tom Stoppard, first staged in 1966 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Eventually, a film was shot in 1990, also directed by Tom Stoppard (his only directorial credit), starring Tim Roth as Guildenstern, Richard Dreyfuss as the Player and Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz.
The title comes from one the last scene of the last act of Hamlet, when a messenger arrives and announced that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”
The play has been described as an absurdist, existential tragicomedy. Both the play and the film turn the supporting characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into protagonists, weaving their tale in and out of the play in Hamlet, incorporating all of their scenes in the original play into their story.
Structured as an Inverse to Hamlet, the play begins with the titular characters making their way to the King at Elsinore, who has summoned them to find out what’s happening with the prince. En route, the pair starts betting on coin flips. Rosencrantz bets on “heads” and wins ninety two flips in a row. The extreme unlikeliness of this event due to it being extremely improbable due to the laws of probability leads Guildenstern to the assumption that forces far beyond them, perhaps something supernatural, is at work, that reality is broken or that something is wrong with it.
They eventually comes across a traveling troupe of tragederians led by The Player. After a quick demonstration of what performances they can render the pair, in the middle of the a conversation with the Player, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are mysteriously transported to Elsinore. Disoriented and confused, they try to determine what’s going on by wandering around the castle and listening to the other characters play out their parts in the main Hamlet story.
The rest of the story follows most of the main story beats of Hamlet, mixed up with scenes of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempting to “practice” questioning Hamlet and other at times unexplainable and absurd preoccupations that question the “reality” the two characters find themselves in. The Player eventually arrives to perform The Murder of Gonzago, playing out the scenes in Hamlet, as well as brand new ones that hint at the eventual fate of the two titular characters.
The last act of the story takes place on a ship that has set sail. Its hinted that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have no idea how they ended up there. They read the letter they’ve been tasked to deliver, the one that calls for Hamlet’s execution, and decide to pretend they never saw it. In line with the play, Hamlet replaces the letter with one that calls for their death instead of his and then escapes via an attacking pirate ship.
It ends with the Player reading the letter and both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are hanged.
The play and the film differs slightly due to the flexibility and capabilities of each medium, but more or less the story remains the same.
Absurdity (the coin toss), art and reality (the players and the foreshadowing they provide, “metatheatre”), and free will (the ultimate fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are the main themes the play and the film deal with. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as well as many of the other characters, forget who they were or which one of them is which, calling to question their identity as people and as characters within the play and the film.
Another thing the play and the film tackles is the limits of language, seeing that a lot of the characters fail to express what they feel or want to say properly through language.
In 2009, a film called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead, written and directed by Jordan Galland, was released. The comedy film uses the “play within a play” element, as the main character of the film is the director of an off-Broadway show entitled “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead”
In the end, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was a wonderful film and, although I didn’t catch it, a great play as well if the film is any indication. The way the author used the two minor characters and weaved a tale that poked fun not only at Shakespeare, but at theatre and its conventions as well, is a testament to what one can still do with the groundwork and Shakespeare’s established with his plays.
That and its damned good fun.