Hamlet/Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: The importance of the individual,
death and truth.
The importance of the individual’s actions:
; HAMLET The Tragic Hero – Senecan Tragedy: noble class = high
importance (Chain of Being). Addressed as “my lord and “hail to your
; “What a piece of work is man! … How like a god!” Hamlet’s superiority
complex allows him to commit regicide and overtake the highest of the chain
; Soliloquies = introspection = tragic flaw.
; R&G subversion of Tragic Hero by shift of Hamlet to a minor character. His
authority is undermined by the omission of his soliloquies. His “antic
disposition” goes unexplained, as in the mime scene. “Guil: What is he
doing?/Ros: Talking./ Guil: To himself?”
; Juxtaposition of Shakespearean verse and the modern idiom depicts Hamlet as
pretentious rather than poignant. Mocking.
; R&G are hardly even sure of their own identities, as the stage directions
indicate when Hamlet mixes them up.
; With power in the hands of men, all men are equally powerless.
The role of fate:
; HAMLET Strict structure of play, complication of the ghost’s orders to
Hamlet and constant references to fortune and the wheels of fortune reflect
Elizabethan notion of fate.
; Hamlet struggles with this lack of freedom “The time is out of joint/O cursed
spite, that ever I was born to set it right.”
; Procrastination and avoidance of fate = tragic flaw.
; Hamlet is controlled by fate, even though he tries to act otherwise.
; R&G Absence of god = absence of fate, only constructs of man. This is seen
in the relatively formless structure.
; It is through the pre-ordained narrative of Hamlet that R&G are controlled, not
through the pre-ordained fate of God that controls Hamlet, and in any case it is
only their destination that is dictated, shown through the dramatic irony of the
; The question is instead “But for God’s sake what are we supposed to do!” The
answer offered by the player “Relax, respond. That’s what people do. You
can’t go through life questioning your situation at every turn.” Guil responds,
“But we don’t know what’s going on, or what to do with ourselves. We don’t
know how to act.”
; Hamlet knows what he must do but avoids it, R&G have no idea whatsoever.
; Not in control of anything, even language, as is shown my mixed clichés
“Over my step over my head body!”
; “Ros: We could play at questions. Guil: What good would that do?” – their
lives’ events are made meaningless. Existential ennui of the 60s.
The role of death:
; HAMLET the ever-present ghost acts a symbol of the afterlife. “To die, to
sleep – To sleep, perchance to dream.” And Alas poor Yorick soliloquy.
Literal confrontation of death in the form of a skull.
; Is it right to kill? Hamlet will not kill Claudius in prayer, and orders R&G to
be executed without an opportunity to repent.
; Constant interplay of reflection and black humour shows Hamlet’s inability to
deal with death.
; R&G No problems accepting death – it is the only thing constant and reliable.
“The only beginning is birth and the only end is death – if you can’t count on
that, what can you count on?”
; There is no afterlife, as is pointed out by the “being asleep in a box”
; Death is a certainty – R&G are Dead, not R&G will be Dead (use of present
tense), as well as the interception of Hamlet’s letter, and thus death is
comforting in a world with nothing else reliable.
Uncertainties of reality and illusion and the search for truth:
; HAMLET Opening lines “Who’s there?” summarises the problem of
discerning the real and the unreal.
; Truth is scene as tangible and existent yet easily distorted due to the deceptive
nature of Elsinore’s Machiavellian politics.
; Is the ghost Hamlet’s father? “The spirit that I have seen/ May be a devil”
; Antic disposition is a deception of character
; R&G disguise themselves as friends when they are really spies
; Polonius’s hiding spot in Gertrude’s bedroom
; “To be, or not to be, that is the question” – Hamlet often speaks in rhetorical
questions and rarely in meaningful statements, constantly questioning truth but
rarely finding it.
; R&G also use questions, but not because they are searching for a tangible
truth like Hamlet (nihilism), even when they try to “glean what afflicts
[Hamlet]”. They are aware of the absence of truth, “truth is only that which is
taken to be true.”
; Like truth, probability and natural law are absent as seen in the impossible
coin tossing opening scene, and “The colours red, blue and green are real. The
colour yellow is a mystical experience shared by everybody.”
; Uncertainty of compass directions of even where the sun rises as well as
“we’re going round in circles” reflects this absence of natural law,
undermining previous authorities on truth.
; This is also reflected in the post-modern style of the play, as a rebellion
against the authorities of accepted form and concepts of originality; Dadaism.