Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Study Guide." Course Hero. 23 June 2017. Web. 12 Dec. 2018. <>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2017, June 23). Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved December 12, 2018, from

In text

(Course Hero, 2017)



Course Hero. "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Study Guide." June 23, 2017. Accessed December 12, 2018.


Course Hero, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Study Guide," June 23, 2017, accessed December 12, 2018,

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead | Context



Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead takes as its central characters two minor characters from one of William Shakespeare's most famous plays, Hamlet. It tells the story of Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, who is visited by the ghost of his murdered father. This ghost reveals to Hamlet that his father was murdered by his own brother, Hamlet's uncle Claudius. In the time since Hamlet's father's death, Claudius has seduced and married Hamlet's mother, Gertrude. An enraged Hamlet feigns insanity so he can plot his revenge against Claudius. As the plot progresses, the reality of Hamlet's insanity becomes unclear. Claudius becomes fearful that Hamlet may have discovered the truth and summons Hamlet's childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to "glean" what "afflicts him."

As part of his plan for revenge, Hamlet hires a band of actors (the Tragedians in Stoppard's play) to enact a play that closely mirrors what happened to Hamlet's father. Seeing this, Claudius realizes that Hamlet knows too much and orders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to take Hamlet to England along with a letter. What they don't know is that the letter they carry orders Hamlet's death.

When Hamlet discovers the truth, he assumes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have betrayed him and switches the letter. The new letter condemns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death instead. Hamlet escapes back to Elsinore, Denmark, and dies soon after, along with most of the other major characters.

Unlike Hamlet, Stoppard's play is a comedy. Still, Stoppard keeps his play "grounded" in the larger story of Hamlet by incorporating dialogue and action from Shakespeare's play into his own.

Critical Reception

According to many critics, Stoppard joined the ranks of the literary elite when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead opened at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival on August 24, 1966. Influential literary critic Ronald Bryden praised the play, which was later picked up by English director Kenneth Tynan of the National Theatre Company at the legendary Old Vic in London. When Tynan produced Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in 1967, Stoppard earned the distinction of being the youngest playwright to have had a play produced at the Old Vic.

After opening in New York a year later, the play won both a Tony Award and a New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play. Its printed form was chosen as one of the American Library Association's "Notable Books of 1967."

Stoppard was not without his critics, however. As academic Jane Montgomery explained in the Times Literary Supplement, "To his detractors ... his plays are devoid of feeling and sensibility: improbably shallow people saying improbably deep things in an emotionally sterile context."

By his own admission, Stoppard is a playwright of ideas: "I'm not a playwright who is interested in character with a capital K and psychology with a capital S," says Stoppard. "I'm a playwright interested in ideas and forced to invent characters who express those ideas. All my people speak the same way, with the same cadences and sentence structures. They speak as I do."

For Stoppard, theater is "first and foremost a recreation. But it's not just a children's playground; it can be recreation for people who like to stretch their minds."

From World War II to Uncertainty

Despite its overtly comic approach, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead reflects deeper cultural anxieties about how one finds meaning and purpose in the post–World War II world in which it was written. While Stoppard was just a boy during World War II, its impact on his life and artistic perspective cannot be underestimated. He and his family were forced to flee the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, and he had to deal with his father's death at the hands of the Japanese bomber that sank his ship. As a result, death and the meaning of life figure heavily into Stoppard's works.

By 1966 the specter of war was no longer just a thing of the past. The Cold War, a state of political hostility between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) that lasted from 1947 to 1991, was in full effect. The Vietnam War, an extension of the Cold War that pitted U.S.S.R.-backed forces against U.S.-backed forces, was continuing to escalate. At the same time, the civil rights movement, which sought cultural equality for African Americans, and the women's liberation movement, which sought social equality for women, were challenging cultural norms and calling trusted institutions into question. By all accounts, the prevailing sentiment was one of uncertainty. It is from this uncertain world that Stoppard's play emerges.

The Theatre of the Absurd and Existentialism

The Theatre of the Absurd, which is also known as absurdism, was a term first coined by drama scholar Martin Esslin in his book The Theatre of the Absurd (1961). Esslin used it to describe an informal movement of playwrights out of Paris during the 1950s. According to Esslin, "The hallmark of this attitude is its sense that the certitudes and unshakable basic assumptions of former ages have been swept away, that they have been tested and found wanting, that they have been discredited as cheap and somewhat childish illusions."

In this context, the absurd is often described as that which is without purpose, illogical, out of harmony with one's surroundings, devoid of reason, meaningless, chaotic, and/or uncertain. Characters in these kinds of plays are often seen as bewildered players trying to navigate an absurd universe that is either incomprehensible or meaningless.

The values of these absurdist playwrights were based in large part on the philosophy of existentialism. On a basic level, existentialism rejects both religious and secular institutions as the determiners of truth and meaning. Instead it suggests that the individual alone is responsible for his or her actions and life. One consequence of this belief is that without religious or secular doctrine to define the universe, the meaning of life becomes uncertain. Ultimately individual choices become the determining factor for what is to be considered meaningful. Some famous existentialist philosophers are Frenchman Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) and German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900).

Stoppard goes so far as to mimic Nietzsche's often-quoted statement "God is dead" in his title, which proclaims that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, too. It is no coincidence that Time magazine's iconic "Is God Dead?" cover was released in 1966, the same year Stoppard's play premiered. Both Stoppard's play and the magazine cover point to a larger cultural discussion about how one finds meaning in an increasingly secular society. While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never come to an understanding of their world or their place in it, it is their desperate desire to do so that makes the play both tragic and comic.

One absurdist masterpiece to which Stoppard owes a great debt is Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1952). In it Vladimir and Estragon, the only characters in the play, find themselves waiting endlessly for a character named Godot, who never arrives. The action of the play consists almost entirely of Vladimir's and Estragon's nonsensical musings.

Many of the characteristics of Waiting for Godot are typical of absurdist plays: lack of active plot, limited characters, rejection of cause-and-effect logic, wordplay and dialogue that constantly digress, mixture of the comic and the tragic, and minimalist (or barren) set design. While not all of Stoppard's works are considered absurdist, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead contains many absurdist hallmarks.

Stoppard, acknowledging the importance of Waiting for Godot for himself and playwrights in general, has said the play "liberated something for anybody writing plays." Stoppard's introduction of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, "Two Elizabethans passing the time in a place without any visible character," owes a clear debt to the minimalist world of Beckett's work.
Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!