Beckett’s Bones in Shakespeare’s Sandbox: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard

If you haven’t read Waiting for Godot, stop everything and do it now.

No, seriously.

I’ll wait.

Without Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett there is no Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Stoppard is indebted to Beckett for the skeleton of his play. Two men talk, wait. The occasional visitor disrupts the status quo, but only until they depart. The two men go on waiting, playing games, contemplating their existence.

Like Godot, Stoppard’s play is funny. In Act I, Rosencrantz asks Guildenstern “What are you playing at?” and Guildenstern replies “Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.” Stoppard’s gift for wordplay crackles through the script. “Play” is a good descriptor of the play’s humor for, in addition to words, both characters use and play with the space on the stage that they are seemingly confined to. Like Godot, Stoppard’s play is philosophical. Chance, fate, free-will, and death are obsessions; obsessions for which there are no definite answers, perhaps not even good ones; obsessions which are talked about endlessly, circularly. Like Godot, the fate of Stoppard’s main characters is pre-ordained, referenced in the title of the play. Stoppard is, after all, playing in Shakespeare’s 350-year-old sandbox.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead takes two minor characters from Hamlet and gives them an existence outside their role in Shakespeare’s plot. But unlike the myriad fanfiction authors who use this premise to allow minor characters to go on grand adventures in obscure corners of the original work’s world, Stoppard marshals Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the stage for the sake of nihilism. Without Hamlet, these two are nothing, have nothing, can be nothing, and they can never quite reason out why this is the case. It makes Hamlet’s ultimate betrayal surprising and poignant for its selfishness, even though it is hardly unexpected. Over three acts, you can’t help but become endeared to these esoteric fools. The ending of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead earns the play’s tragicomic label.

Beckett’s Structure. Shakespeare’s Characters. Stoppard’s Wit. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a masterwork of 20th Century drama.

Up Next: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Why? It is a shame on my Princeton English education that I have never read anything by Virginia Woolf

 

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