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Free Study Guide-Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
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ACT THREE

SCENE ONE: On The Boat

Notes

Stoppard is still playing jokes: he makes the audience listen to long lists of sailor calls, until they are forced to laugh at the absurdity of it. He wants it to be painfully obvious that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are on a boat, so that it becomes painfully obvious how ridiculous they are. If they had not immediately started debating about where they were, they would have figured it out quickly enough. One also wonders how they got on the boat without knowing it: they truly do seem like paper dolls, placed in different situations for the amusement of their owner.

Stoppard again draws a parallel between the life of a character within a play (who is there to serve a certain purpose) and a courtier (who, most likely, is at court for a similar, and equally unyielding, reason.) And again, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s plight is both funny and tragic--but mostly funny.

Who could feel sorry for a character who cannot tell the difference between a lantern and the rising sun? Indeed, Rosencrantz especially gives no indication that he has any deep concerns or will of his own--he has just awakened, but as soon as he decides it will be night soon and he will "have to" go to sleep, he gets tired again and prepares to do so.

Guildenstern, on the other hand, has made his mind a prison in a different way: he no longer seems to be fighting his situation intellectually. He says that, presumably because of all the unexpected things that have happened to him lately, he can no longer be skeptical about anything. He no longer wants to move, and he seems to be vaguely afraid of what might happen at any moment. Still, Stoppard continues his word games, and the two banter absurdly. The sense of doom creeps in despite, or perhaps because of, these games, in which they talk endlessly without conveying any information, much less reaching any decisions.

Guildenstern claims he likes boats because of their limited possibilities: he could just as well be talking about the court of Denmark, where he is forced to follow the whims of those superior to him. He does not even seem to understand that what he has wanted all along was freedom: in fact, he doesn’t even seem to want freedom anymore. His proclamations sound lame: "One is free on a boat. For a time. Relatively." During this expressive and ominous speech, Rosencrantz threatens to vomit over the side--onto the audience. Stoppard seems to want to avoid letting the viewer get too involved in any of the dialogue. He does not really want us to sympathize with either of his main characters, the way that Beckett might have wanted his audience to see themselves in Vladimir and Estragon. He is most interested in shaking us up, making us laugh in various ways, so that it comes as no surprise that he claims he wrote the play as entertainment.


It most likely appeals to the viewer on many different levels, none of which are too profound. The metaphors Guildenstern uses to describe his feeling of obligation to the King are astronomical: he mentions a "fixed star," and changes of their angle in relation to it. There is a vague feeling of the fates at work behind this speech: he believes that his attachment to the King transcends even the earth, and is of the same nature as the unchanging galaxy itself. Nor do either of them seem to understand that not everyone lives this way: they argue that Hamlet has things easy, since everything has been done for him.

They do not realize that Hamlet, unlike them, is not a pawn in someone else’s game, and therefore does not have to do whatever Claudius says simply because Claudius has written a letter and sent him off. Ironically, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wail about their petty concerns as Hamlet makes real decisions in the background: should he let the English King kill him? (He has had suicidal thoughts in the past.) Should he murder his uncle? Might he just escape the entire scene altogether? Again, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern envy Hamlet in his supposed security. They wish they had what he has: someone who wants him to do something concrete and specific. They would gladly carry out any clear and finite order they were given.

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