Elective 1 – Transformations
How has the composer of the contemporary text used the earlier text to say something new?
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (hereafter referred to as R & G Are Dead) is a contemporary play composed in 1967’s by Tom Stoppard. It is essentially a play which takes place during Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Tom Stoppard uses two minor characters – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as well as the figure of the Player to present his own vision of society, that life is meaningless, confusing, and has no purpose; the values which he perceives as being present in society and to comment on the values and ideas present in Hamlet.
Like Shakespeare, Tom Stoppard was writing in a time of great change when people were questioning the existing authority and traditional values. R & G Are Dead, reveals the influence of the intellectual movement known as existentialism. By imposing his own pattern on the existing pattern of Shakespeare’s tragedy, Stoppard presents life as meaningless and confusing. This is shown in the way Stoppard transforms the characters in Hamlet.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from minor characters appearing briefly in Hamlet to his main protagonists in R & G Are Dead. He uses the reflective nature of Hamlet in the character of Guildenstern who like Hamlet, continually questions his surroundings and the events which take place in his life as shown through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s continuous questioning of direction. Guildenstern states “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.”
This meaningless and often confusing existence is also shown through Stoppard’s use of language. Unlike Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continually struggle with language not only to explain their thoughts and reasoning, but to communicate with one another, often leading to indecision such as in the lines Guil: What’s he doing?
Guil: To himself?
This use of language conveys Stoppard’s idea that language is often ambiguous and ineffective, however it is often all the characters have to go on, as summarised by Guildenstern, “Words, words, words. That’s all we have to go on.”
The existentialist school of thought also presents life as without purpose, and as such, raises the question of human existence. Throughout R & G Are Dead, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are continually searching for their purpose in being called to court, and furthermore, their purpose in life. Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, on many occasions ask rhetorical questions such as the questions Guildenstern asks himself when he realises he is going to die, “That’s it then isn’t it?” “What was it all about? When did it all begin?” Their lack of purpose is also shown through their inability to remember what they have done. Stoppard seems to be showing his audience that it is impossible for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be sure of their purpose and have a definite identity because they cannot remember their past. Guildenstern, knows this, and states “We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us with nothing to show for our progress except for a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are shown only to have a purpose when they take part in scenes from Hamlet .
Ultimately, the world of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seems to lack order, and proves to be incomprehensible and meaningless to the protagonists. It is a world where “Everything has to be taken on trust; trust is only that which is taken to be true…. One acts on assumptions.”
This existentialist view is new when compared to Hamlet. Shakespeare’s text was written and performed in a time where values were changing. Composed during the Renaissance, it was a time where a sense of individualism seemed to be replacing the loyalty to the existing order. This view is represented in the character of Claudius. Claudius kills the King, his brother, to claim the throne and does not hesitate to manipulate the people around him to achieve his self interest. An example of this is where Claudius convinces Laertes that Hamlet is responsible for Polonius’ death and convinces Laertes to murder Hamlet. By doing so, Claudius is removing the blame from himself to Hamlet, as well as removing a possible contender to the throne of Denmark.
In contrast is Hamlet, who values loyalty, honour and order although he is disillusioned with life. Many changes have taken place in Hamlet’s life that influences his view of the world. His father is murdered by the man who now holds the throne and married his mother Gertrude. The largest change in Hamlet’s life is the task the ghost of his father entrusts to Hamlet – to upset the balance of order further by killing a King and avenging his father, or to dishonour his father’s memory by letting his killer go free.
This moral dilemma is made more difficult by Hamlet’s pessimistic view of the world, and his view that society has become corrupted. Shakespeare uses Hamlet’s soliloquies to show his pessimism and the recurring motif of corruption. In one Soliloquy Hamlet states This goodly frame of Earth seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy,…. This majestical roof fetted with golden fire – why it appeareth nothing more to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.”
As a result, Hamlet struggles to find purpose in his life and a purpose in human existence by questioning the nature of man; “What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties; in form and moving, how express and admirable, in action, how like an angel; in apprehension, how like a god; the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?” However, unlike R & G Are Dead, which was written in an increasingly secular world, Hamlet is able to find a purpose, thus reflecting the religious context of the time, and the importance f order to Elizabethan society. Hamlet comes to an understanding that it is not his purpose to punish Claudius for his deeds, and finds comfort in the concept of fate. He finds “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be not now, ‘tis not to come, if it be not to come, it will be now, if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.”
Stoppard also uses the earlier text to present his idea of how individuals are insignificant and have little freedom, or choice in there lives. Stoppard uses our knowledge of the earlier play, Hamlet, to show the futility of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s situation – their quest for a purpose – because they are going to die, and because of this, it also illustrates the dramatic irony of much of their discussions. This lack of freedom is shown throughout the play where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unable to leave the stage for its entire duration, and are unable to control the entrances and exits of the other characters. For example, at one stage of the play Rosencrantz yells out into the wings “Keep out then! I forbid anyone to enter!...” Immediately, behind him, a grand procession enters, with the King and Queen at its head.
The lack of freedom and choice is also seen in the transformation of character. In R & G Are Dead, the Player becomes more significant and it is he who often explains events to both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as well as to the audience. The Player, unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, accepts that he has no control, or freedom because he is an actor where he believes life is a play where “There’s a design at work in all art – surely you know that. Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral and logical conclusion” and a world where “We have no control.” and where no one decides because “it is written.”
Eventually, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become aware of their limited freedom and control. They realise
Guil: “….. We can do what we like and say what we like to whomever we like, without restriction.”
Ros: “Within limits, of course.”
Guil: “Certainly within limits.”
This is also shown through Stoppard’s use of the idea of fate when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are on the boat, bearing the King’s letter to England. He introduces an analogy on a boat where the characters are free to do what you like on a boat, but ultimately, you still cannot control where the boat is heading.
While R & G Are Dead presents a view of man having no control, Hamlet presents man as having freedom and being able to make choices thus emphasising the importance of the individual, although the individual cannot be certain of how these choice fit into the overall scheme. This is shown in many scenes throughout Hamlet including the final scene where Hamlet accepts the proposal of Laertes’ duel despite Horaitio’s warming. He Replies There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough – hew them how we will.”
Another example is when Hamlet refuses to kill Claudius’ at prayer I case he is received at Heaven.
Both these texts Hamlet and R & G Are Dead, show the protagonists as struggling with the idea of death although present two very different views on it nature. Stoppard uses Shakespeare’s idea of the inevitable nature of death, but presents death as being the absence of living. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern each try to cope with this characteristic in different ways. Early in the play, Rosencrantz tries to relate death to his physical experience such as “Another curious scientific phenomenon is the fact that the fingernails grow after death as does the beard.” And “Do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, lying in a box with a lid on it?”
Guildenstern takes a more philosophical approach often describing death as “the absence of presence” and “death is …. Not. Death isn’t. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not – being.”
Their view of death reflects the values of the time, both the idea of fate, and the existentialist view, as stated by Guildenstern, “The only beginning is birth, and the only end is death – if you can’t count on that, what can you count on?” It also shows the world as becoming an increasingly secular society as there is no reference to what happens after death. Death is the absence of life, in a world where there seems to be no purpose to existing, other than that you exist, and a man has no control over death, or his life.
Stoppard also seems to make fun of the dramatic image of death in Shakespeare’s plays through the tragedians. Their purpose in the world is to die. The Player states “It’s what actors do best. They have to exploit whatever talent is given to them and their talent is dying. They can dies heroically, comically, ironically, slowly, suddenly, disgustingly, charmingly, or from a great height.” Although momentarily fooled by the player’s death after he is stabbed with a fake knife, Guildenstern is eventually able to distinguish between a staged death, and a real death only to die himself. By doing this, Stoppard has transformed death from the dramatic, to the everyday.
Hamlet also struggles with the inevitability of death and how it makes a mockery of human achievement. Hamlet at first denies the inevitable nature of death although other characters such as Gertrude tell Hamlet “Thou know’st ‘tis common. All that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.”
While making a mockery of human achievement, it holds some attraction to Hamlet because of the corruption he finds himself surrounded by. In one of his soliloquies, Hamlet contemplates suicide “To be, or not to be - that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.
It is only his respect for God’s laws, and the knowledge of the unknown that prevent Hamlet.
By the end of the play, Hamlet comes to accept that people are different, and that the world is not perfect, he also comes to accept the inevitable nature of death and accepts that all great men die. This occurs when he sees the skull of Yorrick, his father’s jester and friend that Hamlet realises “Why, may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till ‘a find it stopping a bunghole?” Hamlet’s acceptance, is shown through humour and rhyme in the lines ”Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.”
Hamlet acceptance of fate and death also shows his acceptance of his religious beliefs, and that death is only another step on his journey to Heaven.
Both these texts were written at a time where values were changing and by imposing his own play upon that of Hamlet, Stoppard has created his own play with different values – than those presented in the earlier text. Stoppard presents a drama where life is meaningless and confusing, and where man’s only purpose is to die. It is a world where individuals are insignificant, have little freedom, and where their only surety in life is death.