One by one the players emerge, impossibly, from the barrel, and form a casually menacing circle round ROS and GUIL who are still appalled and mesmerised.
GUIL: (quietly) Where we went wrong was getting on a boat. We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current…
ROS: They had it in for us, didn’t they? Right from the beginning. Who’d have thought that we were so important?
GUIL: But why? Was it all for this? Who are we that so much should converge on our little deaths? (In anguish to the PLAYER.) Who are we?
PLAYER: You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That’s enough.
GUIL: No – it is not enough. To be told so little – to such an end – and still, finally, to be denied an explanation…
PLAYER: In our experience, most things end in death.
PLAYER: (activated, arms spread, the professional) Deaths for all ages and occasions! Deaths by suspension, convulsion, consumption, incision, execution, asphyxiation and malnutrition-! Climatic carnage, by poison and by steel-! Double deaths by duel-! Show!
ALFRED, still in his queen’s costume, dies by poison: the PLAYER, with rapier, kills the “KING” and duels with a fourth TRAGEDIAN, inflicting and receiving a wound: the two remaining tragedians, the two “SPIES” dressed in the same coats as ROS and GUIL, are stabbed, as before.
And the light is fading over the deaths which take place right upstage.
Dying amid the dying-tragically; romantically.
So there’s an end to that-it’s commonplace: light goes with life, and in the winter of your years the dark comes early…
GUIL: (tired, drained, but stilt an edge of impatience; over the mime) No… no… not for us, not like that. Dying is not romantic, and death is not a game which will soon be over… Death is not anything … death is not… It’s the absence of presence, nothing more … the endless time of never coming back … a gap you can’t see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound…
The light has gone upstage. Only GUIL and ROS are visible as ROS’s; clapping falters to silence.
ROS: That’s it, then, is it? (No answer, he looks out front.) The sun’s going down. Or the earth’s coming up, as the fashionable theory has it. (Small pause.) Not that it makes any difference. (Pause.) What was it all about? When did it begin? (Pause, no answer.) Couldn’t we just stay put? I mean no one is going to come on and drag us off…. They’ll just have to wait. We’re still young … fit… we’ve got years… (Pause. No answer.) (A cry) We’ve nothing wrong! We didn’t harm anyone. Did we?
GUIL: I can’t remember.
ROS pulls himself together.
ROS: All right, then. I don’t care. I’ve had enough. To tell you the truth, I’m relieved.
And he disappears from view.
GUIL does not notice.
GUIL: Our names shouted in a certain dawn… a message … a summons… there must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said-no. But somehow we missed it. (He looks round and sees he is alone.) Rosen–? Guil-? (He gathers himself.) Well, we’ll know better next time. Now you see me, now you –
Immediately the whole stage is lit up, revealing, upstage, arranged in the approximate positions last held by the dead TRAGEDIANS, the tableau of court and corpses which is the last scene of “Hamlet”.
That is: The KING, QUEEN, LAERTES and HAMLET all dead. HORATIO holds HAMLET. FORTINBRAS is there.
So are two AMBASSADORS from England.
AMBASSADORS: The signal is dismal;
And our affairs from England come too late.
The ears are senseless that should give us hearing
To tell him his commandment is fulfilled,
That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.
Where should we have our thanks?
HORATIO: Not from his mouth,
Had it the ability of life to thank you:
He never gave commandment for their death.
But since, so jump upon this bloody question,
You from the Polack wars, and you from England,
Are here arrived, give order that these bodies
High on a stage be placed to the view;
And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about: so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgements, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fallen on the inventors’ heads: all this can I
But during the above speech the play fades, overtaken by dark and music.
The titular duo in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead navigate around the setting of Hamlet which is treated as though it were an autonomous realm. In doing so, their encounters with the Shakespearean play’s featuring characters form significant portions of the plot, as well as their simultaneous discussions on modern scientific and philosophical theories. Most apparent of these is existentialism, and so a comparison is drawn between the modernist ideas of mankind’s state of being, deprived of definite meaning, and the structural traditions of tragedy that are given to ideas of fate and predestination.
The theme of death serves as a lens through which these two concepts are examined and appear to converge, thereby underlining death’s close relation to our perceptions of endings. So ingrained within our thoughts as the absolute discontinuation, death seems an appropriate conclusion to drama. Yet, there is variety in this singular inevitability; not just within its causation but also in its portrayal and the multiple viewpoints it may inspire.
Throughout Stoppard’s play R and G operate in between two streams of textual reality, interacting with both the characters of Hamlet who are unaware of their true role within a play or sub-reality, and the band of actors lead by The Player who work to police and guide the narrative by ensuring the rules and conventions of tragedy, their craft, are adhered to. Therefore, the struggle faced by the two protagonists lies in their attempts to synthesise these two streams of textual reality into an understanding; they must fulfill their roles as part of the play whilst being made aware that they are merely roles.
The frustration resulting from this clash of self-awareness and narratorial compliance is underlined by juxtaposing symbols and imagery within my chosen extract. Firstly, the scene which is to portray the demise of R and G takes place upon a boat which bears all sorts of connotations associated with life. These include travel, possibility, journey as well as femininity, the latter directly related to the creation of life. There is also a wealth of literature that invokes this metaphor connecting the nautical with the idea of life, ranging from Saint Basil of Caesarea’s Catholic prayer, The Ship of Life, to Jose Saramago’s The Tale of the Unknown Island. However, as G points out, there are ultimately parameters in place which negate the freedom suggested by these associations: “We can, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and the current…” Here, wind and current signify natural forces or imperatives and there is a mindlessness about them which cannot be reasoned with or petitioned for an explanation.
Much in the same way The Player, whom R and G have come to rely on for information throughout the play, himself gives only vague answers when questioned by G on why so much must converge on their “little deaths”. For The Player, death should not be considered through meaningful questions but expressed physically as a spectacle to be enjoyed viscerally, and as a satisfactory conclusion to the drama: “Player: (activated, arms spread, the professional) Deaths for all ages and occasions!… Climactic carnage, by poison and steel – ! Double deaths by duel – ! Show!”
He is possessed of the idea that the relationship between death and endings is arranged by the dramatic and his speech and the language he uses confirm this. Death’s significance lies in the how rather than the why; more specifically how it is portrayed to the audience. Much emphasis therefore rests upon its delivery and so it should seem appropriate that his declaration itself employs multiple dramatic devices. Among these are assonance and alliteration which imbue The Player’s lines with a lyrical flowing quality, thereby invoking a sensory and visceral connection with the audience: “Deaths by suspension, convulsion, consumption, incision, execution, asphyxiation and malnutrition – !” Further, this syntactical device of enumeration collects and consolidates these varied causes of death as though they were homogeneous and interchangeable; contrived to serve one purpose which The Player summarises in one word as “Show!”
Contrarily, for R and G the relationship between death and endings is arranged by theory, and so their approach relies more upon a different kind of rhetoric involving enquiry. After the application of deductive thought death is deemed, fearfully, to be the ultimate negative or absence and so G’s response to The Player’s flamboyant announcement is duly littered with ellipses signifying the omission of speech in reflection of death as the omission of life or existence: “Death is not anything… death is not… It’s the absence of presence, nothing more… the endless time of never coming back… a gap you can’t see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound…”
The fluidity which characterises the account of the theatrical perception of death held by The Player is held in stark contrast to the staggered, desperate voice of G. G’s appeal to an intellectual processing of the concept of death is revealed by the metaphorical connections he makes between it and the senses. Said senses appear wholly negated by death, as is the case with the eventual demise of the duo which occurs after their gradual acceptance and resignation: “Ros: All right, then. I don’t care. I’ve had enough. To tell you the truth, I’m relieved. / And he disappears from view. Guil does not notice.” The stage directions also contribute to this air of termination as the surroundings slowly shut down signalling the impending end, “The light has gone upstage. Only Guil and Ros are visible as Ros’s clapping falters to silence.”
In one sense, this gradual fading out is antithetic to the ending of Hamlet which is also depicted within the selected extract. The tragedian’s ending is emphatically punctuated by violence and sensation and the theatrical value of the set-piece is then underlined by the rendition of Horatio’s eulogy. However, our examination of this particular ending may also lead us to discern shared sentiments between two literary periods separated by centuries. And so, whether through spectacle or a slow slipping away, in both cases circumstance conspires to ensure death is the only possible eventuation. Fate is vindicated in these deaths, instilling a sense of order and conclusion. Yet, the subtleties of the narratives provoke questions, and so meaning might be traced by the reader who wonders whether their fates might have been avoided, just as does G in his final words.