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Free Study Guide-Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
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PLOT ANALYSIS (Structure)

It is difficult to comment on the plot of R&G as a whole, because it is composed of so many disparate ideas. One moment there is talk of the nature of probability, next, death and what it means to die, followed directly by jokes about how to appease an angry king. This is, however, exactly what Stoppard wanted: he has avoided coherence at all costs.

The comic scenes undercut the solemn scenes, which undercut the absurd scenes. Hamlet considers committing suicide, then spits into the wind, hitting himself in the eye, then happily sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. In the midst of it all, pirates attack. The play references extremely serious works, such as Waiting for Godot and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Both of these are concerned with what to do in a world where nothing is required, no one cares what you do and, sometimes, there is nothing to do. R&G is, of course, also about these issues, but in a much less serious way. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not two people trying to find meaning in their lives after a loss of faith, for example. They have never had any meaning, because they are essentially paper dolls.

This is where the comedy often comes in: though they might be disturbed by their lack of purpose or relevance in the world they live in, we recognize them as minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and thus can never take them seriously.

They are not people in search of meaning, they are characters in search of motivation. They ask for explanations and directions, but free will is beyond them: they only exist for the pleasure of Claudius and Gertrude--and, we are given to understand, the audience and Stoppard himself. Stoppard plays with them constantly.

They stalk around the stage, scheming, then slowly "decide" not to do anything at all, returning to their exact original spots. Even though they desperately want to change their situation, the audience recognizes that, since they are only characters, not people, what they "want" doesn’t matter--they must always obey their writer. This theme is paralleled within the play by the situation at court. No matter what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern want, they must completely forget their own goals and obey the King.


Much like their writer/creator, Stoppard, the King asks much of them but never offers them anything in return. He asks them to help Hamlet and then checks on them periodically, but offers them no concrete instructions. He uses them as he wishes and then forgets about them: to him, they only serve to advance his plot. This infuriates them: they want to be told exactly what to do, rather than be thrown into a mess and instructed to sort it all out. This puts them in a strange position, and it is the ultimate form of "the audience knows what the characters on stage do not." They believe that their problem is that they are not directed enough: if someone would just come in and tell them to do something, they would gladly do it. What really bothers them is trying to decipher the puzzle of Hamlet on their own. We the audience know, however, that the real problem is that they are completely and unchangeably controlled by outside forces. They have not really been left to their own devices, as they believe. They are being swept along by a current so strong and swift that they do not even notice it: the plot. If they were somehow able to assert themselves, identify their wants and needs, then perhaps they might have had a chance. But they have been created without real wants or needs.

They think, at the beginning, that they want to go home. But soon enough, even that fades away. "We’ve got nothing," they agree on the boat, but it’s only partially true. They have a purpose they had no part in creating, and the smallest realization of that fact. What they lack is any way of changing that.

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