Transformations - Rosenkrantz and Guildentern are Dead #
What the syllabus says:
Transformations of texts have occurred for centuries, as stories have been adapted to contemporary situations. The inspiration of the known reflects upon the new, while the new resonates with the known. This process provides the basis for study in this elective.
Students choose a pair of texts and consider the ways in which transformations generate reflections on the texts, contexts and the ways in which texts can be transformed.
The Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes declares that “there is nothing new under the sun”.
Many critics claim there are no new plots, only variations on a few standard structures. Even Chaucer, writing in the 14th C. based many of the stories of his Canterbury Tales on French, Celtic or Italian sources. Chaucer, remarked with amusing diffidence:
“that other poets have already reaped before me and carried away the grain. And I come after, gleaning here and there, and am very glad if I can find an ear of any goodly word, which they have left behind."
Most of Shakespeare’s Plays are adaptations of any raw material he could get his hands on. Hamlet is based on the 12th C. Danish primitive legend first printed in 1514. In other plays, Shakespeare had no scruples about stealing plots, names, dialogue and even titles. Parts of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra consist of passages of texts lifted verbatim from Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutrach. Shakespeare excelled in taking dormant works and breathing life into them with his mastery of language, as in Romeo and Juliet.
George Bernard Shaw, said “Shakespeare was a wonderful teller of stories so long as someone else had told them first”, and when accused of borrowing a plot, said, “If I find in a book anything I can make use of, I take it gratefully.
He also said “I often quote myself; it adds spice to my conversation.”
John Dryden reworked Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida because of its ungrammatical, coarse and figurative expressions. Nearly everybody agreed that Dryden’s version, Truth found too Late was a vast improvement. “You found it dirt but have made it gold” gushed the poet Richard Duke. (Bryson)
Charles Dickens is often credited with the saying “the law is an ass” but he was not the first to write it and fails to credit to any source.
T. S. Eliot claimed that “Good poets borrow; Great poets steal.”
Or in another version: “immature poets imitate, Mature poets steal”. His early poems are often described as “Pastiche” - patchwork, as they contain lines taken from other classics as allusions to create a new work of Art.
Most music is influenced by preceding performers, so the Beatles borrowed heavily from Buddy Holly, Elvis and Mozart. Recently Simon Hattenstone described Lady Gaga as “a musical magpie” as she brazenly nicked and nicked and nicked to create something of her own. She admits influences from Led Zeppelin, Iggy Pop, the Sex Pistols, Madonna, Bowie and Prince.
We can conclude that most literature (as in most areas of life) is a transformation of an idea derived from, or inspired by another source or as Harry Mathews puts it, “all books come from other books".
While Einstein said, “we are all pygmies standing on the shoulders of giants,” Sir Issac Newton had said much the same thing, 200 years earlier, confirming the idea.
Finally, To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research. I forget where I stole that one from.
Transformations can be effected by: #
updating, contemporising, modernising, resurrection …
transposing the geographical setting or the epoch of time - transposition
adaptation to a different medium, to a film, stage, poem, novel, or even a parody.
appropriation; borrowing, stealing, imitation, plagiarizing, quoting, literary piracy, a pastiche, derivative.
an inversion or change of perspective.
A subversion changing the meaning of the text by undercutting it.
a spin-off – taking lesser aspects of plot or characters and making them central to a new work.
A Parody – imitation is the highest form of flattery.
Characters can be counter-pointed, replicated, parodied or made counterparts;
Situations or plots correspond, or are parallel or consistent with the original source.
Themes can be reinforced, contemporised or subverted; changing the meaning of the text by undercutting it.
Adaptations of texts to film is a hard call. Not many good books translate well onto the cinematic screen. While reading, the responder has time to reflect and for introspection, that the pace of a movie often denies; there is no time or space to absorb, pause, think or process the events. The most successful transformed novels are those with plenty of description and dialogue, such as Thomas Hardy, Dickens or Austen.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern #
Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern however can be seen as a genuine transformation rather than an update or a contemporary or modernised version of Hamlet. This play turns Shakespeare’s inside out; it is an inversion. In the Player’s words “we see on stage things that are supposed to happen off” or in the words of the actor-manager, “in life every exit is an entrance somewhere else, so in R & G every exit is an entrance to somewhere in Hamlet.
Furthermore it is a conversion from tragedy to comedy. It is also a post modern appropriation, derivation or pastiche of several other texts: The Bible, Oscar Wilde, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and T.S. Eliot.
Modern life requires an inversion of the assumptions which, in Stoppard’s view at any rate, underlie Hamlet. We no longer live in a uniform, unilateral or logical universe. Diversity, non-conformity and individualism rule. Much of life is senseless and absurd and so we accept the premises of the play.
In Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, George Moore, the main character, a philosopher, finally realises that he is living in a changed world, outside the traditional modes of reason.
Lewis Carroll has several absurdist exchanges at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party:
Alice laughed, “one can’t believe impossible things.”
Well, we live, now, in post-ironical times, where we are expected to dutifully believe six impossible things before breakfast. White Queen – Alice in Wonderland
“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m > mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 6)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can be described variously as:
a jig saw puzzle (complimenting the other work),
a pocket turned inside out,
a worm’s eye view of the world,
an attempt to “see the chessboard from the pawn’s point of view”
or simply an identical play written in a new context from new perspectives of two nobodies.
With Stoppard’s play at first we seem to be in quite a different world. A common reaction to a script like that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is confusion, bewilderment. Where are we? What are the rules of this world we are in? How am I supposed to understand exactly what is going on and why, when I’m not sure at any particular moment about what’s going on, what sort of reality I’m dealing with, and why characters are behaving the way they are. Too much of this seems either incomprehensible or just a silly game, the point of which escapes me. So what’s going on? extract from a lecture prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimom BC,
One of the inconsistencies emphasises their role as spectators, (in Hamlet they play no major role) Stoppard has incorporated scenes where R & G are spectators pure and simple. In fact they are an extension of the audience and deliver many of their speeches directly to the audience and sometimes speak from the audience inducing us to relate to them.
The two central characters are attendant lords, so unimportant (insignificant) that Olivier removed them from Hamlet and nobody commented. They are also childhood friends of Hamlet, but side-lined, receive confidences, carry out commissions and do any minor work for their master, Claudius. They are lackeys, minions, or in today’s world craven bureaucrats.
This is **Oscar Wilde’**s impression:
In De Profundis he discusses their characters at some length. He is filled with admiration for Shakespeare’s creation of them:
I know of nothing in all Drama more incomparable from the point of view of Art, or more suggestive in its subtlety of observation, than Shakespeare’s drawing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are Hamlet’s college friends. They have been his companions. They bring with them memories of pleasant days together. At the moment when they come across him in the play he is staggering under the weight of a burden intolerable to one of his temperament. . . . Of all this Rosencrantz and Guildenstern realise nothing. They bow and smirk and smile, and what one says the other echoes with sicklier iteration.
When at last, by means of the play within the play, and the puppets in their dalliance. Hamlet catches the conscience of the King”, and drives the wretched man in terror from his throne, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz see no more in his conduct than a rather painful breach of court etiquette. That is as far as they can attain to. They are close to his secret and know nothing of it. Nor would there be a use in telling them. They are little cups that can hold so much and no more.
Towards the close it is suggested that, caught in a cunning spring set for another, they have met, or may meet, with a violent and sudden death. But a tragic ending of this kind . . . is not really for such as they. They never die. . . . Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are immortal as Angelo and Tartuffe, and should rank with them. They are what modern life has contributed to the antique ideal of friendship. They are types fixed for all time. To censure them would show a lack of appreciation. They are merely out of their sphere: that is all.*
T. S. Eliot in his poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, perhaps captures their quality, though his context is different:
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be:
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince: no doubt, an easy tool.
Deferential, glad to be of use.
Politic, cautious, and meticulous.
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse:
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous— Almost, at times, the Fool .
Some would believe that this describes R&G aptly; they are mindless minions who cannot think for themselves but merely carry out the instructions of others.