Existentialism is the philosophical movement that focuses on the plight of the individual to seek meaning and purpose in a vast universe. Ultimately, the individual is responsible for his or her own actions despite the prevailing uncertainty about right or wrong. Many have examined plays such as Beckett's Waiting for Godot, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search for an Author , and Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead through an existential lens. Key characteristics of an existential work include the presence of anti-heroes, unstable knowledge of the past, and unstable identities.
In Shakespeare's work, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not given distinct personalities. In Hamlet they are stock characters whose staccato dialogue and Elizabethan wit serve merely as comedic devices. Their primary purpose is to relieve the dramatic tension present within the rest of Hamlet. Stoppard lifts these characters from Shakespeare, but places them in the foreground, although together they lack the depth to sustain the action that Hamlet sustains alone. Yet Stoppard's genius lies in using their lack of depth and inability to sustain action as the very center of the events in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. For all intents and purposes, the two are indistinguishable and dispensable. Characters such as Claudius, Gertrude, and even Hamlet often call them by the wrong names; in fact Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are often unable to distinguish themselves. In[Hamlet], they are dispensable, executed for no real reason and unable to garner much sympathy from the audience. In Stoppard's play, however, although they meet the same fate the journey that they take to get there is far different. Stoppard humanizes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by imbuing them with a deep-seated universal desire: the need for meaning. Even though they do not achieve any redeeming purpose, the audience can sympathize with the characters as they vacillate between awareness and understanding - never really achieving the latter.
Philosophically, alienation refers to a imminent sense of estrangement and exile, a concept clearly illustrated in Camus' Stranger. In modern theatre, alienation also refers a technique used in many absurd dramas. In order to alienate the audience, the playwright typically uses language as a barrier to communication. Language becomes confusing; logic becomes circular. In these plays, the world is depicted as overwhelmingly incomprehensible and opaque; the characters are never able to achieve true understanding. Stoppard exercises many of these techniques in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Part of the duo's comedy is their verbal play. Evasion is the very object of the game "Questions". Although they are talking to one another, nothing is being said; no communication is being achieved. Stoppard also builds on the motif of how incomprehensible the world is through the character of Guildenstern. Guildenstern constantly seeks to understand the world around him. He wants to know how it is possible for a coin to land almost a hundred times in a row heads up. He wants to know what is in the letter they have been sent. And finally, when they discover that death is inevitable, Guildenstern is enraged primarily because they have been told so little throughout the process. The goal of alienation is to remove the illusions of purpose and meaning infused into people's daily existence so that the audience gets a sense of their true existential condition.
Throughout the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are painstakingly aware that there is a design within which they operate. Stoppard chooses Shakespeare's Hamlet as the framework the characters are constrained by. Although the audience and the Player are fully aware of the plot, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not. When seeking Guildenstern's critique of the play the troupe has just rehearsed, the Player states, "There's a design at work in all art - surely you know that? Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral and logical conclusion." The plot has been predetermined. The characters have very limited autonomy, and are forced to entertain themselves while they wait or until further action takes place. When Rosencrantz wants to hasten the progress of things, Guildenstern warns his friend, "Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are...condemned." The script of Hamlet defines Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, controlling their very sense of identity and limiting their agency. In his play, Stoppard uses Shakespeare's script as a device with which to explore the very nature of being written versus writing, and the haunting possibility that the stage is a more accurate depiction of human existence than previous religious or philosophical theories.
Free will is an illusion in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Instead of true choice, they are presented with limited alternatives. In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the two characters are not given distinct identities. When Rosencrantz becomes frustrated about never knowing for sure whether his name is Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, Guildenstern replies, "We are comparatively fortunate; we might have been left to sift the whole field of human nomenclature, like two blind men looting a bazaar for their own portraits...At least we are presented with alternatives." In other words, their freedom has significant limits. When Rosencrantz attempts to talk to Hamlet on his own terms ("off-script"), he is unable to do so. When Rosencrantz attempts to play with the Queen, his efforts are averted when he realizes that his target is actually Alfred dressed in women's clothing. In many ways, England represents freedom to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They believe that once they arrive they will be rid of Hamlet and free to continue on as they please, having completed their royal duties. On the surface, the boat becomes the means by which they gain their freedom, an escape from the demands of the court. The characters are led to believe that they have choice, but it ultimately emerges that they only have alternatives. By the end of the play, they realize that what they thought would bring them freedom actually is actually a vessel carrying them towards the inevitable: death.
Awareness of Self
Part of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's inability to pin down their own identities lies in the lack of character development given to each in Shakespeare's original work. In Hamlet they are not intended to be individuals with deep philosophical ideas; they are nothing more than comedic stock characters. They are written to be fools, and with that destiny comes an lack of self-awareness. Rosencrantz introduces himself by the wrong name, and neither of them recognizes themselves as the spies in the dumb-show. Thy are unable to see themselves reflected in the art of theater; they cannot foresee their fates, and thus cannot avert their own deaths.
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