Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead | Quotes


Man might be moved to re-examine his faith ... in the law of probability.

Guildenstern, Act 1

Guildenstern has been flipping a coin, and for the last 76 times, it has turned up heads. He finds this foreboding and indicative of some larger breach of cosmic laws. Here he suggests reexamining faith and the law of probability. Faith and the law of probability are significant because they represent religion and science, two ways of traditionally organizing and understanding the world.


The scientific approach to the examination of phenomena is ... defense against the ... emotion of fear.

Guildenstern, Act 1

In seeking to understand why he keeps flipping heads, Guildenstern ponders the various meaning-making systems humans employ. Science is a defense against fear because it eliminates the unknown. As Guildenstern discovers, it doesn't eliminate the unknown so much as mask it.


It related the fortuitous and the ordained into a reassuring union.

Guildenstern, Act 1

Given the oddity of flipping heads 76 times in a row, Guildenstern contemplates the meaning of life. Here he examines the law of probability as a scientific explanation for chance. It creates what amounts to a false bridge between pure luck (the fortuitous) and the idea of a predetermined destiny (the ordained).


Reality, the name we give to the common experience.

Guildenstern, Act 1

Guildenstern is reflecting on the way in which "reality" is created and defined by the masses. Reality, and what people take to be normal or common experience, is a matter of consensus, not individual experience.


They are two sides of the same coin.

The Player, Act 1

The Player is suggesting that there is no difference between acting and life. This is a theme he returns to often. His mention of the coin recalls one of the play's most important symbols and reminds the audience of other binaries that have been introduced, such as luck and fate, certainty and uncertainty, and religion and science.


Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance somewhere.

The Player, Act 1

For the Player, there is no difference between acting and living. Because of this, there is no place where the stage stops and life begins. Rather, life is one connected stage that one never really exits.


I entreat you both ... to gather so much as from occasion you may glean.

Claudius, Act 1

Claudius has summoned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Elsinore in order to figure out what is wrong with Hamlet. His true motivation (to know if Hamlet suspects him of killing his father) remains hidden to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for the entirety of the play. It is a truth they desperately want to understand and ostensibly what sets their inevitable deaths in motion.


I remember when there were no questions.

Rosencrantz, Act 1

Perplexed by their inability to understand what is happening, Rosencrantz longs for a simpler time when answers were easy. If the audience considers Guildenstern's earlier quote about faith and science, it is easy to see Rosencrantz's claim as reflecting a desire to return to a time when faith and science provided plausible and believable answers to life's major questions. Guildenstern later rejects this idea by asserting there have always been questions—they are just different questions now.


Words, words. They're all we have to go on.

Guildenstern, Act 1

On one level, Guildenstern is commenting on his and Rosencrantz's frustrations in trying to understand Hamlet's nonsensical statements. On another, he is commenting on a larger concern of absurdist and postmodern authors: that of the instability of language as an ambiguous and imperfect medium of communication.


You seem to have no conception of where we stand.

Guildenstern, Act 2

This quote speaks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's inability to figure out where they are, both in a literal and figurative sense. It calls back to the idea of direction, while also articulating the bigger problem—that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don't understand the motives and machinations that are at work around them.


Somebody might come in. It's what we're counting on, after all.

Guildenstern, Act 2

One of the play's running gags is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's paralysis by analysis. Given their inability to act, they spend most of the play waiting for someone to tell them what is going on. This plot device has a clear resonance with the perpetual and similarly futile waiting of Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Becket's iconic Waiting for Godot.


Traitors hoist by their own petard?—or victims of the gods?

The Player, Act 2

While he is ostensibly referring to the dress rehearsal the Tragedians have just completed, the Player is also commenting on the existential dilemma that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves in. To be traitors is to have made a choice to betray Hamlet; whereas to be a victim of the gods is to have had no choice in the matter. The philosophical question posed here—and by the play as a whole—is whether a person is free to act, or if their actions are predetermined by some supernatural decree.


We act on scraps of information ... sifting half-remembered directions ... we can hardly separate from instinct.

Guildenstern, Act 3

Guildenstern is complaining about the lack of clear answers that contributed to his and Rosencrantz's inability to come to any meaningful conclusion about the forces at work around them. Throughout the play, they have been acting on limited information, half-truths, and lies. Guildenstern's comment also works as a commentary about the nature of existence and about how humans live without a full understanding of the meaning of life and/or death.


We can move ... but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along.

Guildenstern, Act 3

After realizing he and Rosencrantz have been marked for death, Guildenstern ponders where things went wrong. He concludes that the boat—which he thought was a symbol of freedom—was a deception. While one is free to move around on the boat, the boat's destination is predetermined and beyond one's control. Here, Guildenstern resolves the play's discussion of free will and predestination by rejecting an either/or binary and suggesting that human beings are both free to act and compelled by forces beyond their control.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.

Ambassador, Act 3

The ambassador's final proclamation that the titular characters are dead reminds the audience that the framing context of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is William Shakespeare's Hamlet. Stoppard's play, like The Murder of Gonzago, is a play within a play. This line also returns the audience to a consideration of the theme of free will versus destiny. Ultimately, it seems to assert that the only certain destination or destiny humans have is death.

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