Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

A Play Within a Play: Metatheatrical Distinctions Between Actor and Character in Shakespeare and Stoppard College

Metatheatre, a form of self-reflexivity in drama, plays a pivotal role in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Tom Stoppard’s parodic version, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Self-reflexivity is conveyed through metatheatrical scenes, or scenes that are staged as plays, “dumb shows”, and the extensive commentary made on the mechanics and structural qualities of theatre, in both plays. In the Shakespearean original, the characters participate self-consciously in such instances as the Player’s practice speech, Hamlet’s instruction to the players and their support in “The Mousetrap”. Hamlet also adopts the importance of linguistic expression over physical expression in the theatre. Similarly, in Stoppard’s play, the characters literally ‘play’ with language and reduce it to its bare, communicative purposes. Ros and Guild imitate Hamlet and various other characters obsessively throughout the text and similar production to the “Mousetrap” leaves the pair confused and questioning their existence. Though metatheatrical qualities are prominent in both Shakespeare’s tragedy and Stoppard’s tragi-comedy, the function is divergent: in Hamlet, self-reflexivity is used to cast revenge on Claudius’ guilty soul and reveal ultimate Truth, while in...

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