Rosencrantz and Guildenstern… the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of “Hamlet”. In Shakespeare’s play, they are minor characters; we can usually only remember that one of them was called a “sponge” by Hamlet, though which one that was, only blank stares can answer.(ANSWER: It is Rosencrantz!!) Telling them apart becomes more difficult than reciting all of Hamlet’s soliloquies. They even speak at the same time, like when they tell Claudius “We will haste us”. It is all very amusing.
Unfortunately, we don’t really get to laugh enough at these two characters. This is where Tom Stoppard’s modernist externalist play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” comes in. A tragicomedy, it develops the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are reinvented as protagonists. Although it is important to remember that this play is separate to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (it is an interpretation- the events and what happens to the characters in this play should not be mixed up with Shakespeare’s) the play is nevertheless exceedingly humorous, effective in encouraging us to rethink our initial perception of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Opening with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern flipping coins, it continues to amuse us until its end.
If the action is splendid, the banter between these two characters is simply wonderful. The characters themselves realise they get each other’s names mixed up, and it is simply fantastic. Some of the dialogue is short, making it harder to realise who is saying what, which makes it even more conspicuous than it already is. Some top moments:Stoppard brings these characters to life in his play. They are funny, yet thoughtful. This is exemplified perhaps most prominently when they discuss death, with Guildenstern musing: “As Socrates so philosophically put it, since we don’t know what death is, it is illogical to fear it. It might be… very nice”.
It is the depth that Stoppard gives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that seems to humanise them. Rosencrantz’s guilt upon reading Claudius’ letter sentencing Hamlet to death challenges the audience to alter their perception of these two characters. Whilst in “Hamlet” they are presented as instruments- mere servants to Claudius, “not near” Hamlet’s conscience, this play complexifies them, generating pathos in an audience which might have, prior to watching this play, looked down in contempt at these minor characters as Hamlet did. By the end of the play, the audience is laughing sadly at their somehow funny conversation before their deaths Stoppard prompts the audience to appreciate the minor characters in “Hamlet”, subtly altering the way we might respond to Shakespeare’s play, and perhaps all other pieces of literature. We are encouraged to look deeper into small details in “Hamlet” and more thoroughly analyse the play. Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” is immensely clever, greatly witty and immeasurably enjoyable, in that whilst it increases our interest in the original play, it inspires us in its innovation and arresting imagination. I wholeheartedly recommend this play to everyone, whether you enjoyed “Hamlet” or want a good laugh.
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