Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is a humorous, absurdist, tragic and existentialist play by Tom Stoppard, first staged in 1966. A 1990 film version starred Gary Oldman and Tim Roth as the title characters and featured Richard Dreyfuss as the Player. The play expands upon the exploits of two minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet.
The play concerns the misadventures and musings of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters from William Shakespeare's Hamlet who are friends of the Prince, focusing on their actions while the events of Hamlet occur as background. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is structured as the inverse of Hamlet; the title characters are the leads, not minor players, and Hamlet himself has only a small part. The duo appears on stage here when they are off-stage in Shakespeare's play, with the exception of a few short scenes in which the dramatic events of both plays coincide. In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are used by the king in an attempt to find out about Hamlet's motives and to plot against him. Hamlet however mocks them derisively and outwits them, so that they, rather than he, are killed in the end. Thus from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's perspective, the action in Hamlet does not make much sense. By contrast, the Player, also a minor character from Hamlet, seems to know a great deal about theatrical conventions and Hamlet in particular, despite being a character in the play himself.
The two characters, brought into being within the puzzling universe of the play, by an act of the playwright's creation, and those they encounter, often confuse their names, as they have interchangeable yet periodically unique identities. They are portrayed as two clowns or fools in a world that is beyond their understanding; they cannot identify any reliable feature or the significance in words or events. Their own memories are not reliable or complete and they misunderstand each other as they stumble through philosophical arguments while not realizing the implications to themselves. They often state deep philosophical truths during their nonsensical ramblings, however they depart from these ideas as quickly as they come to them. At times one appears to be more enlightened than the other; however this position is traded-off throughout the course of the drama.
After the two characters find themselves witnessing a performance of the Murder of Gonzago, they take a boat to England with the troupe, are ambushed by pirates and lose their prisoner before resigning themselves to fate.
As with many of Tom Stoppard's works, the play has a love for cleverness and language. It treats language as a joy, a toy and a confounding system fraught with ambiguity.
These themes, and the presence of two central characters who almost appear to be two halves of a single character, are shared with Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and the two plays are often compared. Many plot features are similar as well. The characters pass time by playing Questions, impersonating other characters, and interrupting each other or remaining silent for long periods of time. Other authors have also experimented with characters who (partially) understand that they are fictional — for example, in Frank Baker's classic Miss Hargreaves: A Fantasy, in Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World, in Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus! trilogy and in Paul Wühr's Das falsche Buch. Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series also makes heavy use of characters who understand that they are fictional.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead in Television and Cinema