Hamlet And Rosenkrantz And Guildenstern

**Comparison: Hamlet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

According to Martin Esslin, the major difference between Absurdist and conventional drama is that in conventional drama the audience is anticipating the action, wondering what will happen next; while in an absurdist play the audience is mainly caught up in wondering what is happening now.

Context and background: #

The values of the 17th century and its violence and dramatics are juxtaposed with that of the 1960’s postmodernism existentialism and absurdism through the transformation of Hamlet to RNG, with indications to influences upon society from the respective eras in which the texts were composed. The contextual significance is evident through the thematic content between the two texts, as well as through the attitudes towards the concept of theatre. In many ways, R & G is a transformed version of Hamlet, yet to some extent it is an inversion. While it appropriates many of same issues, it differs markedly in technique and it can be concluded that it is transformed by context and perspective. Similar to T.S Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, the transformation reveals man diminished from hero to victim, losing direction entirely; ‘I am not Prince Hamlet, I am an attendant lord…almost at times the fool.’


A monolithic unanimous ordered society; uniformity of thought, religion ideology and economics. Hierarchical and socially rigid; a place for everything and everything in its place. Clockwork organisation. Unquestioned religious beliefs with certitude about purpose of life and surety of an afterlife.

Hamlet is an Aristotelian model of a classical drama there is an overall logic to the action, and the plot has a discernible shape: a beginning, middle, and end. By the conclusion of the play, in other words, through the actions of the participants, something has been dealt with, resolved. Shakespeare, while innovative with language and thought, is very conservative in politics and theatrical conventions.

Suffering is inherent in the human condition, leads man to a noble form of dignity.

Men as Heroes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead R&G belongs to the Absurdist school of literature.*
Causes of Absurd Literature: • The decline of religious faith, • the destruction of the belief in automatic social and biological progress, • the discovery of vast areas of irrational and unconscious forces within the human psyche, • the loss of a sense of control over human development in an age of totalitarianism, and weapons of mass destruction and mass persuasion, have all eroded individuals sense of confidence in the future of the world and given them a sense of alienation and disempowerment. • Pluralism, we value diversity, variety, individualism.*

Interest in the course of the action not the result

Suffering is degrading and dehumanising, leading to desensitisation or brutalisation, promoting the instinct of self-preservation.

Men as powerless Victims

Technique and Style #


Theatre of illusion. The audience deluded into thinking they are watching real time events

The structure of the plays change the way the audience is presented with the concepts of life. Hamlet is a climactic structure, sequentially ordered from beginning, middle and end, has motifs to bond it, with cause and affect.

##Theatre of Action and emotional involvement##

The involvement of the audience from Hamlet to R&G changes the response and emotions of the audience. In Hamlet we have a hero and avenger who build up to a climax. Hamlet suffers melancholy, depression and builds anger and frustration eventually leading to the dramatic death of Laertes, Claudius, Polonius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Ophelia and Hamlet himself. We identify and relate to Hamlet and this involvement becomes a vicarious experience of suffering arousing pity and fear leading to Catharsis, or release of tension, and a purging, soothing to the soul.

This experience has a temporary affect and no lasting consequences on the readers feelings.

Emphasis on structure, causation, unity, cohesion…. (see notes on motifs in Hamlet)

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Theatre of realism The conventions of illusion are broken by the actors joining the audience and talking directly to us. They become part of the audience during “Hamlet”

. R&G has an amorphous structure, with random events and ideas. Life is random and completely unstructured and incomprehensible.

Theatre of Alienation – isolation #

In R&G the audience is distanced and alienated from the action and critically evaluate it. Instead of becoming emotional involved with R&G’s situation, we are detached and objectively analyse them. Theatre of intellectualism aims to change the way the audience permanently thinks, and affect the way we act in society.

Appeals to the masses, the collective psyche

It involves mass suffering. We are distanced or alienated (estranged) from the action and critically evaluate it. Instead of getting emotionally involved we are detached and objective.

Instead of playing with our emotions, E.T. affects the mind and moves us to action leading to social remedies.

Often disconnected scenes, Confusing dialogue, perplexing situations, what is happening?

Characters: #

In Hamlet, R&G are indistinguishable while in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern there are minor delineations but not necessarily consistency.

R & G Guildenstern’s bag is nearly empty.

Rosencrantz’s bag is nearly full. Sets the mood of the play from the beginning. Defines Rosencrantz as the optimist, and Guildenstern as, if not the pessimist, then at least the realist. Guil. The scientific approach … is a defence against the pure emotion of fear. After this quote Ros. starts rambling about beards. Emphasises the distinction between the two characters - Guil. is nervous about his situation and tries to rationalise it with scientific method, Ros. is unconcerned: “what will happen, will happen”. Guil. Player You’ve been here before. And I know which way the wind is blowing. “Operating on two levels! How clever!” exclaims Rosencrantz, and it is quite true: the Player, for a while at least, knows what will happen and how the situation will turn out. Player Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral, and logical conclusion. A comment on plays in general, this also foreshadows the conclusions of “Hamlet”.

Guil. “We drift down time, clutching at straws … but what good’s a brick to a drowning man? IE, hope is vital, but to be told exactly what will happen next is deadly. To know that he has no control over what happens next would be destroy Guil. - which is why he is so desperate to keep the level of spontaneity high.

##Issues: Life - Existentialism*##


Assumes a rational moral order in the universe

Fate is controlled by Nemesis; divine retribution – poetic justice.

Meaning of life

The question of the ultimate meaning of existence in what is basically an irrational world. Hamlet searches for the ultimate meaning of life in most of his soliloquies which dwell on his quest to understand life.

Providence or destiny: (Deterministic, predestination)

*Assumes a moral order in the universe “Our wills and fates do so contrary run, That our devices still are overthrown, Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own (III 2 210)

                        *“and that should learn us

*There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will” (V 2 9 )

There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow (V 2 217)

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Assumes a universe governed by chance, capricious fate

No certitude, only birth and death.

Meaning of life: These are problems raised by another Absurdist dramatist, Samuel Becket in his plays, especially, Waiting for Godot.

Guildenstern attempts to use syllogisms to deduct the nature of his existence from a priori premises. (Pg 6-8) but when this fails they resort to inductive or pragmatic logic.

Providence or destiny: Chance, random, capricious, open

Assumes a universe governed by chance

There’s a logic at work - it’s all done for you, don’t worry. Enjoy it. Relax. Player: “Uncertainty is the normal state. You’re nobody special.

Free to act? This can be seen when Guildenstern states; “We are not restricted. No boundaries have been defined, no inhibitions imposed.” However this is juxtaposed to when Guil realises his own destiny after reading the letter addressed to the King of England as he states, “We can change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along”

2.Existentialism is a 19th C. philosophy that rejects the determinist view that the universe is preordained or programmed. *If there is a god he/she has abandoned us to our own freely willed fate. The individual is fully responsible for their own destiny. Life is generally depicted as austere, full of anguish, and pointless. According to Nietzsche each of us has to rise above our limitations and become an “Ubermensch” (superman) and be a god unto himself or alternatively become an “untermench (loser) who can only follow orders. Existentialism has come to mean an individual’s perspective on life, its purpose, direction and meaning.

Issues: Death #


Death: Acknowledged in “to be or not to be” Soliloquy when Hamlet speculates on dreams *“ah, there’s the rub,…. What dreams may come? .. the dread of something after death”.

Claudius concerned about his soul.

Hamlet hesitates killing a shriven soul.

Hamlet contemplates suicide, Ophelia commits it.

Death as equaliser in graveyard scene: *Noble dust of Alexander or Caesar turned to dust, earth, loam to a bunghole stopper for a beer barrel. A beggar may catch a fish with a worm that has eaten a king.

Prevalence of death in Hamlet: Old Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, Hamlet, and insignificantly R&G.

Death of main characters sweeps clean paving the way for a new order.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Consequences of the “Afterlife”

Death merely an Absence – No Afterlife.

Death: Two kinds: The conventional, contrived death portrayed by an actor (The Player) or the real, actual death of two people, R&G.

Death is an abstract portrayal – competent convincing acting. Death is staged – not real or as Guil says: *“I’m talking about death- and you’ve never experienced that. And you cannot act it. ….. But no one gets up after death – there is no applause – there is only silence and some second hand clothes, and that’s death.

In Hamlet, the deaths of R&G are inconsequential to the audience whereas in this play we have been conditioned by the title and the characters preoccupation with death to feel empathy and apprehension throughout the play and identify with their impotence and the inevitability of their (out) predicament.

Issue: Absurdities #

Hamlet Absurdities: The time is out of joint: O cursed spite That ever I was born to set it right. -

• Hamlet’s reaction to the state of Denmark There was a method to his madness: His antic disposition.

• Ophelia’s ramblings represent a mind no longer rational

• How Fortinbras engaged in senseless war mongering can represent restoration of order is beyond me. **Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead


  1. spinning coins – the laws of probability cease to function – but resume when Hamlet is on stage.

  2. playing word games – also a ploy in Hamlet (see Lang Tech.)

  3. establishing the points of the compass – they don’t know where they are.

  4. telling the time of day or what day it is. Involuntary ones

  5. muddling their names (13)

  6. losing their trousers

Issue: Lack of meaning/communication #


While Hamlet can speak of “words, words, words”, as Guildenstern says, *“They’re all we’ve got to go on”.

Polonius, the supreme diplomat uses language to obfuscate or confuse rather than clarify and Hamlet reacts by playing on his insincerity and sycophancy: Pol: *“Will you walk out of the air?” Haml: * “Into my grave?” (2.2.202 -3) Or:

Haml: *“Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in the shape of a camel?” Pol: “Tis like a camel indeed”. Haml: “Methinks it is like a weasel”. Pol: “ It is backed like a weasel” Ham: “Or lik e a whale”. Pol: “ Very like a Whale.”

The lack of genuine communication as words have lost their meaning and language is not always a reliable tool for genuine discourse.

**Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Language is used to reveal the shallowness of relationships and the emptiness of modern society.

In R & G, the PLAYER says in response to Guil.’s question:* “What’s the dumbshow (mime) for?

*Well, it’s a device, really – it makes the action that follows more or less comprehensible; you understand we are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style. (69)

Appearance and reality or Deception-things not as they “seem” #

Hamlet Is Hamlet mad? To his mother: “Seems madam? Nay it is, I know not seems.” To Horatio: *“I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on-“

Hamlet’s dilemma:

  1. Is the Ghost true or a trick of devil?
  2. Is his mother knowingly disloyal?
  3. Is Claudius guilty of incest and murder?
  4. Has Ophelia betrayed him? Ros. - Reality? Earthier, confused, reactive, obtuse.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Guil. - Illusion? Intellectual, cultured, abstract, poetic, philosophical, insecure, questioning. Death is staged – not real or as Guil says: “I’m talking about death- and you’ve never experienced that. And you cannot act it. …..

Player: “We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people!” (55)

Issue: Play as a test of reality #

Hamlet Hamlet is an example of “Metatheatre”, or “Theatre about Theatre”. Shakespeare capitalises on opportunities to comment on the nature of drama and actors when he has the Hamlet advise the players on how to say their lines. (3.2) Hamlet and Polonius discuss his acting at University.

Polonius flaunts his knowledge on the various genres of drama.

**Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

R&G is an example of “Metatheatre”, or “Theatre about Theatre”. Decline of standards – dumbing down. Player: “We’ll stoop to anything if that’s your bent”. (15) Guild: ..”But it’s this, is it? No enigma, no dignity, nothing classical, portentous, only this – a comic pornographer and a rabble of prostitutes…” Player: “You should have caught us in better times. We were purists then. (18) “…We do on stage the things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else.”

The players take many opportunities to discuss the difference between real life and life on the boards, especially concerning the portrayal of death.

Note that Stoppard considers this a play to be experienced rather than studied. Free to act? This can be seen when Guildenstern states; *“We are not restricted. No boundaries have been defined, no inhibitions imposed.” * However this is juxtaposed to when Guil realises his own destiny after reading the letter addressed to the King of England as he states, “We can change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along”