Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead | Themes



From its vague setting to the vagaries of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's mission, Stoppard's play is a catalogue of one uncertainty after another. The playwright begins his exploration of uncertainty with the first line, which reads, "Two Elizabethans passing the time in a place without any visible character." Without typical markers of scene description to set the time and place, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to exist out of place and time. The effect on the audience is one of uncertainty. The audience doesn't know where they are or why they are there.

Over the course of the play, uncertainty appears in many other contexts and on many levels. It begins with the coin toss. The very occurrence of the coin landing the same way 76 times in a row makes the universe of the play an absurd and uncertain one. Guildenstern's comment that such an event would cause a man to "re-examine his faith, if in nothing else at least in the law of probability," suggests that this uncertainty is a cause for reexamination. Guildenstern's need reflects the larger cultural anxieties of the "uncertain" time in which the play was written.

Over the course of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain perpetually uncertain about what they are doing and why they are doing it. When Guildenstern says, "You seem to have no conception of where we stand," he is expressing uncertainty not only about which direction they are going, but also about what their relationship is to the larger forces at work within the play.

Science versus Religion

When the law of probability falls apart at the beginning of the play, Guildenstern begins his reexamination of religion and science, two traditional ways of organizing and understanding the universe. Each in its own way defines the world and makes it knowable. Western religion relies on a determining force called "God," which allows humans to turn seemingly random and meaningless events into a preordained fate or destiny. Science, on the other hand, explains away uncertainty through the organizing tenets of the scientific method, mathematics, and statistics. At the very outset of the play, uncertainty prevails, and these structures are found to be lacking.

According to Guildenstern, the law of probability is really just a scientific attempt to understand luck and chance. That is to say, it is an attempt to make certain something that is inherently uncertain. Reflecting on the coin-toss game, Guildenstern says, "The equanimity of your average tosser of coins depends upon a law, or rather a tendency, or let us say a probability, or at any rate a mathematically calculable chance." As the sentence moves from the certainty of a "law" to the uncertainty of "chance," so does Guildenstern's confidence in science as a definitive source of truth become unstable. Despite his attempts to apply the scientific method and reason to their predicament, Guildenstern comes no closer to understanding the true nature of their world.

Guildenstern's jokes about religion—and his refrain "Give us this day our daily ..."—betray an anxiety about the role religion plays in defining and explaining the world. His refrain is a reference to the Lord's Prayer, the central prayer and expression of the Christian ethos. The comic way he adds words to this refrain suggests he does not actually expect his prayer to be answered. Rather, it functions as a source of comfort more than a serious plea for divine intervention.

Ultimately Guildenstern concludes that science, like religion, is simply "a defense against the pure emotion of fear." The source of fear is, it would seem, uncertainty and the unknown.

Free Will versus Destiny

When the Player says, "Traitors hoist by their own petard?—or victims of the gods?" he is commenting on the dress rehearsal the Tragedians have just performed and also putting into relief the theme of free will versus destiny. Did they choose their fate, or was it determined for them? Rather than suggest a simple either/or answer, Stoppard's play seems to offer something more complex, something encapsulated by the symbol of the boat. Guildenstern explains it thus: "We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current." In this way Guildenstern acknowledges the limits of free will in the face of larger forces.

It is significant to note that these larger forces are not the Christian God or the immutable laws of science. Rather, they are entirely human forces. In the case of the play, the forces are political—it is Claudius's corruption and greed that have set these wheels in motion. In terms of Stoppard's milieu—which included World War II, the Holocaust, and the Vietnam War—this theme suggests a larger comment about the impact of politics and war on humankind as a whole.


In a play that calls all things into question, death seems to stand as the only certainty. It is a certainty guaranteed by the play's title and one that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—despite their desperate questioning—are powerless to avoid. On one hand, this is a course dictated by the story of Hamlet. On the other, it is a course dictated by the human condition. Indeed, it is an answer to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's perpetual questions about which direction they are going as well as an answer to their questions about fate. Death, as it is for all people, is both their destination and their destiny.

When asked, Guildenstern concludes that "Death is ... not. Death isn't. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being." In this way death is the ultimate certainty (as all humans die) while also being the ultimate uncertainty (no one knows what death is). All Guildenstern can presume is that death is the opposite of life.

Guildenstern's desire for meaning extends to his understanding of death and his disagreement with the Player. Whereas Guildenstern believes death is too significant and meaningful to ever be adequately portrayed on stage, the Player sees no difference between a real death and a performed one. To the Player, death has no special import but is rather the most certain—and therefore commonplace—thing of all.

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