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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Transcript of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Self-Proclamation of Mortality
Comparison with other Shakespearean figures
The Role of Acting
What is death?
“Life in a box is better than no life at all. You’d be helpless wouldn’t you?” Rosencrantz
This is one of the most important quotes in the entire play. With this statement Rosencrantz explicitly draws a parallel between death and being helpless. He claims that he would rather be alive in a box, with functioning mental faculties than be dead and impotent. However, throughout the entire play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not make any decisions for themselves, and their lives are dictated by someone else. Using Rosencrantz’s own perspective, we can see the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are truly dead, because they are truly helpless. They are helpless in the sense that they cannot shape their own path in life and, consequently, they cannot prove themselves to be individuals. They are simply the conventions or means by which the will of another person is accomplished.
Further Notion of Haplessness
“Do you think death is a like a boat?” and “Where we went wrong was getting on a boat. Our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us as inexorably as the wind and current.”
Traditionally, a boat symbolizes security, safety, and protection. We know this from the story of Noah’s ark, where his boat saved his family and his animals from the menacing floods outside. However, in this context, we get a different perspective on the symbolism behind a boat. Guildenstern clearly implies that his freedom is constrained within the boat, that he is not control of his absolute movement. And immediately we are reminded of Rosencrantz’s suggestion, “Do you think death is like a boat?” As mentioned earlier, Rosencrantz drew a parallel between death and helplessness, and so we can consequently make a connection between death and a boat. With this riveting connection, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern further the notion of their own haplessness, and, subsequently, they further the notion of their own death.
"Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace to which we are- condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one- that is the meaning of order." and "We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke and a presumption that once our eyes watered."
Memories and experiences are the defining forces within one's individuality and uniqueness. What happened in the past may be subjugating or empowering in the future. For example, juvenile delinquents will often lead a life of crime, brutality, and drugs, because, as Guildenstern said, "Wheels have been set in motion... we are condemned." Once their life of crime starts, it is almost impossible to be corrected. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, however, seem to move arbitrarily, and without purpose. This is because they have nothing with which they can build upon; they "burn" the bridges they cross and subsequently have no identity. They comply perfectly with Bram Stoker's statement: "For life is after all, only a waiting for something else than what we're doing; and death be all that we can rightly depend on." They are faceless, men who cannot even remember the most basic of necessities: their name. Everyone around them, and even themselves, cannot help but confuse their names. And because their names are seamlessly interchangeable, they ultimately lack individuality, uniqueness, but more importantly, they lack life.
The polar opposites of tragic heroes
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are very different from the familiar Shakespearean tragic heroes. Primarily, they do not satisfy the basic criterion required for any tragic hero: nobility. Second, and much more importantly, they do not, in any way, experience a fall from greatness. Ever since the beginning of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have not exhibited any characteristic that would render them “alive” even, let alone “great”. When compared to a great tragic hero such as Macbeth, who not only makes decisions, but monumental choices that challenge the natural order of things, they are clearly seen to be without the “sound and fury” that manifest the life within an individual.
Why did Stoppard make R and G dead?
Although Macbeth falls from greatness as a result of his poor decisions, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern merely happen to be in an inconvenient position that renders them physically dead, the audience feels no pathos towards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, yet commiserate profusely at Macbeth’s execution. And that brings us to our next point, pity. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern invoke no pity whatsoever from the audience because their death is not majestic, and because the audience did not develop any sort of emotional reverence towards these characters initially. Stoppard intentionally denigrates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to positions of lowliness, or perhaps even contempt so that the audience might learn not to resemble these characters in their psychological “death”. In comparison with other tragic heroes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are given much less “life”.
The two "artists"
“I recognized you at once, as fellow artists.”
Actors are constrained in their art by the audience. As the Player King said, “audiences know what to expect and that is all they are prepared to believe in”. They cannot venture beyond the grasp of the audience’s expectations, it is simply forbidden. The Player King’s recognition of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as “fellow artists” is very important in defining who they are. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern too, are held within constraints of their unrecalled past, and are forbidden from making their own decisions. Their title as “artists” renders them “dead” once again.
The Stage of Life
The most important characteristic of acting is that the actor is constrained. The Player King is constrained by the audience’s expectation, and we are constrained by social expectations and our “condemning” past. Our lives are uncertain, inconsistent and relentless. As the Player King said: “uncertainty is the normal state.” The moment we step off the stage and cease to be actors, cease to represent what we are not and embrace reality, we embrace death. Albert Camus once said, “There is only one philosophical question, and that is suicide.” According to Shakespeare, “Man is strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage.” All our lives we are putting on a show, dictated by society and our unforgiving past. Death weds us to reality and removes us from our ignorance and futility. When we step off the stage of life, we take off the mask of haplessness and embrace the true, relentless reality.
Throughout the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Although they move about and breathe, they are carried along "inexorably" by fate. Their death is manifested by their acquiescence to the wills of others, and by their lack of individuality. They invoke no pity for their deaths; in fact, they are regarded with contempt for not holding the reins of their own lives. The audience is not presented with an onstage execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern because because the title of the play alludes to them being dead throughout the entire play.Their legacy serves as a reminder throughout the ages that man must, at some point, say no, and take a stand against the status quo. They serve as a reminder for man to cease being an actor, and begin to live. To conclude, I pose a question to you: are you satisfied with being an actor, "strutting about your hour on the stage", or will you cease to live in haplessness and choose to experience the fervor and certainty that is "life"?
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were never alive
Throughout the course of the entire play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exhibit no viable characteristics that would render them “alive”; in fact, they implicitly classify themselves as “dead” in an endeavor for answers. The notion of their “death” is corroborated by their inability to make independent decisions; ever since the beginning of the play, when they blindly followed orders saying that they were sent for, until the end, where they acquiesce to the murder of their childhood friend. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are robbed of all pathos because when they are given one final chance to prove themselves as legitimate, living individuals, they decide to back down from the burden of responsibility and surrender their will to that of another’s.
Life vs fate
“Uncertainty is the normal state”
Macbeth bravely refused to acquiesce to fate, and decides to challenge it “to the utterance”. Although fate may seem palpable and scripted, since we are unaware of it, we move along life certain of nothing but death. Macbeth challenges fate and attempts to make his life certain, and in doing so he is filled to the brim with the pure essence of “life”. According to Jack London, “life is an offense… for life is movement, and man is the most restless of creatures.” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, however, do not challenge anything, and move along the script of fate very easily. Because they allow themselves to be manipulated, they do not exhibit any characteristics of being "alive".
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern compared to people
While it is true that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are veritable representations of people, they are not representative of “life” whatsoever. Most people are in fact “dead”. Humans subconsciously conform to societal expectations and pre-destined beliefs; in doing so, they surrender any control they had over their own lives. We are deceived by the notion of “freedom” when in reality, we are like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the boat, moving about “freely” but towards England nonetheless. Although we are not at the point where we forget our names and lose our identities completely, we are moving along a path unforgivingly determined by our past, “condemned” to experience life at its own pace, travelling deeper and deeper “where each move is dictated by the one before it” until we reach a point where the only reality strikes and no decisions can be made. We move along this line “inexorably” until we embrace death.