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Exploring theatrical intertextuality

both plays; by discussing how Stoppard translates his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Stoppard’s technique of extracting two minor characters from probably the most famous play in literature’s history, hamlet, enables the audience to gain a unique and enlightening perspective of these characters. The way in which Stoppard deals with his play, by exploring many interesting themes, presents the modern idealisms of movements such as existentialism and debates such as free will versus determinism. By referring to Hamlet we are able to gain new insight, as if peeling away the layers of an onion to infinitely seek hidden meanings; perhaps a consequence of our modern thinking.

Stoppard’s play can be described as searching for the meaning of life and the certainty of death, the links of which can be discussed within the context of existentialism. In brief, existentialism refers to “a doctrine that concentrates on the existence of the individual, who, being free and responsible, is held to be what he makes himself by the self-development of his essence through acts of the will.” (OED 27/11/09) With existentialism “opposing any absolutes and that choice is always possible and when an individual fulfils himself, he exists; and that fulfilling can come only through the agony of choices; human existence is thus replete with lack of fulfillment, emptiness, and frustration.” (Stephens 27/11/09)

In discussion to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the two characters Ros and Guil are unable to comprehend their own identities and thus their own individualities, which prevents them from conceiving their own free will. The lack of making choices and taking control of their lives, ultimately leads to them falling into the hands of fate, which leads them to questioning the meaning of life. This is explicit in the opening scene where they discover probabilities. In this regard, they are conscious of a world that seems to be controlled around them, and “chance is warped as a spun coin continually comes up heads.” (HSC Notes 27/11/09) However, one could argue that the characters in Stoppard’s play are bound by their previous existence in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and thus their existence is already contrived as Stoppard deliberately chose to manipulate two characters and reveal their minor story by creating an intertextual play.

Furthermore, in regard to the philosophy of existentialism, Gabriel Marcel states that “no two beings and no two situations are really commensurable with each other.” (Flynn 2006)

By dissecting this comment we can apply the first part “two beings” to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They seem to be two characters, but alternatively they appear to be linked as if they are two sides of the same coin. Even in Hamlet, Gertrude mixes the two characters up, thus contributing to the lack of distinction between each of their identities, and the quest for their purpose in life, portrayed more relentlessly by Guil.

In comparison to Hamlet, the clearest examples of existentialism are in Hamlet’s speech, and his contemplation of suicide near the end of the play. “To be or not to be – that is the question.” (Shakespeare III.i.56-88) On one significant level, one could argue that through an existentialist perspective, the argument of existence, and moving through choices and more poignantly the questions between the choice of life and death can be deciphered through this one line, as Dan Nguyen comments “Hamlet explores his own mortality”. (Nguyen 27/11/09) In exploring the elements of life and death, both plays delve into these themes, and not only because ‘Hamlet’ is a tragedy, but because of the character Hamlet’s, inability to seek the meaning of life and his obsession of death, which consolidates my suspicion of finding truth through death because it seems to the characters of both plays to be the only certainty. As Jimmy Stephens asserts “that life is a mystery and that this mystery ends in death, are the two truths Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do discover as the play proceeds.” (Stephens 27/11/09) Ros and Guil’s refusal to accept responsibility for making choices and taking control of their existence, leads them to suffer almost in a purgatory made inevitably by themselves; which is supported by Nguyen’s statement that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never quite grasp the plight of their destiny, reflecting modern uncertainty and disillusionment of the twentieth century, where “the only beginning is birth, and the only end is death”. (Nguyen 27/11/09) By referring to a definition existent in existentialism, “Because of what I am… I cannot stop time, except through death, suicide, insanity, alcoholism, or narcotics addiction” (Stephens 27/11/09) We can aptly see the universal ideas of existentialism revolving around the theme of death, explicit in both of these plays.

Therefore, in reply to the statement above, by considering the extent of what is lost and what is gained by Stoppard intertextualising his play alongside Shakespeare’s is we see an inextricable link of themes and ideas. However, what is lost by reading both plays separately is the extent of how two minds from two different periods are so alike in their philosophy yet so vastly apart in their language and the outcomes of this consequence dependent on the audience target they seek. Thus as discussed above the elements in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are not apparent in Stoppard’s play, so it would be deduced that the extent of the theme existentialism would not seemingly run parallel throughout the two plays if read separately. Yet if the texts are read concurrently then ultimately much is gained by the reflection of themes within a different historical and social context in comparison to another as we can fully understand appreciate their value within our own contexts as a modern audience.

Moving on, in contemplating what is lost and what is gained, it is important to establish a definition of which this can be measured. By these terms I seek to explore from an audience perspective what is revealed through Stoppard’s play, that we would not necessarily have found through just reading Hamlet alone. As it is common knowledge, Stoppard takes two minor characters from Hamlet and transforms them into two major characters, with much of the action happening in Hamlet, taking place in a minor context in Stoppard’s play. My initial reaction to Hamlet, informed me of the two minor characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, were that they were a function to help move the action of the plot along, they were a device that enabled Shakespeare to enhance further the manipulating and deceiving nature of Claudius. The characters themselves did seem strange in the context that they are Hamlet’s childhood friends, and as Hamlet subtly reveals in Act III scene II, lines 340-63 he perceives them to be conniving. “Hamlet Will you play upon this pipe?” to Guildenstern “… It is as easy as lying…” However, Stoppard’s revelation of the characters provokes a more sympathetic/ pitiful visualization of the two characters. They seem to be unaware of their true existence, forgetting their past and who they are. Recurring expression of the need to seek the true meaning of their existence is prolonged continually up until their death, even when Guildenstern and Rosencrantz learn of their fate they are still unable to comprehend it, and further question what was it all about? In addition the lack of control over their existence and environment possibly lends itself to the religious backdrop that is a subtle subtext. For example, in Hamlet the religious emphasis often inhibits the action of the play in one respect, as he puts off killing his uncle, because he’s afraid he has sought absolution through prayer. However, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (from Stoppard) are taken from that context and placed in an entirely different one, whereby emphasis on God and religion is no longer precedent in the society. Thus everything becomes meaningless to these characters as there are no absolutes, as discussed in the existentialist example above, and they are forever stuck in a purgatory where change is non – existent is some respect. They are unable to influence their environment and thus lack the ability to transform or effect their fate, unlike Hamlet who knows his ability to bring about change, and we can witness this through his psychological state yet Hamlet is confined by fate purely because of the difference in religious backdrops that are set up in either play and the conventions it must adhere to – it is a tragedy in exactly the Shakespearian era sense.

Thus, in conclusion there are many definite links and themes that are inextricably linked within the two plays, which in one sense must be predictable as Stoppard is lending from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. However the set up is extremely clever with Stoppard lending an additional perceptive, by reflecting on common idea’s but with a modern viewpoint he manipulates the text to reveal an uncanny interpretation of two characters and the themes that are present in Hamlet. Therefore it must be said that much is gained, through Stoppard’s creation, however in my opinion it is meant as a source to be read parallel to Hamlet in order to benefit from the subtle undertones that link the sources so well, and to give a picture of modern society and its reaction.


  • Author unknown, “English Stage 6 Transformations”, // Date accessed: 27/11/09.
  • Author unknown, “Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Understanding the Relationship”,…/Rosencrantz%20and%20Guildenstern.doc .Date accessed: 27/11/09.
  • Cannon, Ryan, “Confusing the Critics: Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead”, // Date accessed: 27/11/09.
  • De Vos, Jozef, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: Tom Stoppard’s ‘artistic failure'”, Neophilologus, vol. 61, I, Jan 1977, p. 1.
  • Flynn, R. Thomas, “Existentialism: a very short introduction”, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • HSC Notes: “2 Unit Related English: Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”, // Date accessed: 27/11/09.
  • Mattern, Karl, “Analysis of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”, Norderstedt: Grin Verlag, 2006.
  • Mitchell, Marea, “Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, // Date accessed: 27/11/09.
  • Nguyen Dan, “Transformation of Hamlet to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead”, Date accessed: 27/11/09.
  • Shakespeare, William, “Hamlet”, in Thompson, A. and Taylor, N. (eds) London: The Arden Shakespeare, 2006.
  • Stephens C. Jimmy, “Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, Diem Perdidi – Titus, Student Notes And Exercises”, Date accessed: 27/11/09.
  • Stoppard, Tom, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, London: Faber, 1967., Oxford University Press, 1989. Date accessed: 27/11/09.

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