What with the holidays and end-of-the-semester work loads, it’s been some time since I updated on my reading – but I’m back on track, and at long last, I’ve arrived at the play that started it all, both for Stoppard and for me: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Most people with any knowledge of Stoppard know him for this play, his first major success, which launched his career and which introduces so many of the themes he later went on to write about in his subsequent career: identity, metatheatricality, doubling, plays-within-plays, interlaced dialogue, plays ‘without plots’, self-knowledge, the tenuous nature of all knowledge — the list goes on and on, and every reading reveals a new level of complexity. I have personally read the text at least four times, performed it twice (therefore also watching parts of it rehearsed and performed dozens and dozens of times), and seen one professional production, and I still come across passages that have never made sense before, only to have a light bulb suddenly click on after the umpteenth time. This is the brilliance of this play – it’s bottomless, there is always yet another level below the surface.

This past summer I was fortunate enough to see a professional production, by the American Shakespeare Center’s touring company. R&G are Dead was performed in conjunction with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the actors played the same roles, with the same costumes and very similar staging and blocking, in both plays – and for the first time, I understood R&G are Dead as intricately connected with another play. I really had the sense, for the first time, that when the court exited, the action of Hamlet was continuing backstage while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern floundered on the margins. I actually read R&G are Dead before I ever read Hamlet, so I’ve always seen R&G as far more significant characters than they actually are. Watching ASC’s production really drove home the futility and pointlessness of the title characters’ roles, but at the same time, despite knowing that they would achieve absolutely nothing except dying young (and despite knowing most of the lines before they were said), I was completely engrossed.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are entertaining, witty, stupid, sarcastic, blundering, endearing, and aggravating all at once – but while each of them certainly has distinctive qualities and a personality of their own, they only function in tandem. They can be distinguished, but not separated. Even they themselves eventually lose track of their identities and can no longer remember which one of them is which. Identity becomes arbitrary, as does much of their existence. As Guildenstern points out, the confused pair has only the other characters’ words to rely on to help them determine the truth about their situation. This allows them to distance themselves from their actions and the consequences, because they are merely following directions. This distancing indirectly leads to their own destruction – their callous refusal to save Hamlet by intervening and going against the events already set in motion eventually causes their own deaths. As Guildenstern points out, “there must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said – no.” They’ve in fact had multiple moments to change the course of events, the last and most important being the moment when they opened the warrant for Hamlet’s death, but chose to do nothing to save their friend.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern choose as well to do nothing to save themselves. There is no reason, informed as they are by reading the second letter, that they could not flee and save themselves, but they go willingly to the English court and their deaths. They have nowhere else to go, nothing else to do – their only function is completed. This is one of the many moments in the play when the metatheatrical nature of plays breaks through the fourth wall and overtakes the internal world of the play. R&G can do nothing to save themselves because that is how they are written: they have no freewill because they are fictional characters with a given task to perform. They cannot change the course of events because the events are controlled from outside their world, by the playwrights. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of course, have only the vaguest grasp on this concept; all they know is that they have little or no control over the course of events. The one character who seems to have some insight into the order of things is the Player.

The Player has always been my favorite character, despite his rather dubious morality and general sleaziness. The Player lives his life on the principal that ‘all the world’s a stage,’ and thus is the only character with any comprehension that they’re all actors in a play. His snide comments on the acting profession – “We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people!” – and his reply to Guildenstern’s concern that R&G don’t know how to act (behave): “Act natural.” – all are laden with a double meaning – they resonate not just for the Player and his tragedians within their exhibitions, but also for all of the characters in the larger play. He comments that the actors “pledged our identities, secure in the conventions of our trade, that someone would be watching. And then, gradually, no one was.” This seems to be at the heart of R&G’s problems. They surrender their identities in order to fill their role in the court intrigue: if they were in Hamlet, they would exit, no longer watched or seen by the audience, and resume an identity upon reentering – but unfortunately for them, they’re left on stage and the audience continues watching, and they now have no identity of their own remaining.

It is the Player who points out the reason that R&G have no control over their fate, even when it seems they have a chance to change the course of events:

It is written…We follow directions – there is no choice involved. The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means.”

Although they are part of a comedy rather than a tragedy, the Player’s statement holds true: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and their fellow characters can never change the events of their story. They are unfortunate in that they are just self-aware enough to realize the futility and their powerlessness. The Player and tragedians, accustomed to obeying something scripted and beyond their control, are complacent – it is enough for them just to let things happen as they will and trust in fate. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are far less easy, but just as powerless. They can do nothing more than the tragedians to control their fates – they are constrained, carried away by the action of a story they have no control over:

“We’ve traveled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we more idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation…We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current…”

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