The use and modification of the themes of the importance and role of the individual, fate, death and the search for truth in Shakespeare‟s Hamlet and Tom Stoppard‟s
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead shows a transformation of values and
attitudes as representation of that shift in the composers‟ respective cultures. By responding to and commenting on an older text and an older value system, Stoppard reflects upon and represents the shift to the contrasting paradigm of his context.
The role and importance of the individual is represented in Hamlet as a reflection of
the God-centred world of its Elizabethan context. The form of tragedy used by Shakespeare is drawn from Senecan or Ancient Greek tragedy, concentrating on the integral figure of the Tragic Hero. One of Hamlet‟s main features as a tragic hero is
his noble class, being a Prince. According to the Elizabethan „Chain of Being‟, Hamlet‟s class puts him closer to God, emphasising his importance as an individual and thus the importance of the consequences of his action. He appreciates this; “What
a piece of work is man… How like a God!”, and the concentration on his character as the protagonist and the effects of his actions in the structure of the play reflect this. Tom Stoppard uses this theme but modifies it as a representation of his context, the Godless, existentialist world of 1960s America. He subverts the Tragic Hero form by relocating Hamlet to a minor figure in the play. His removal of Hamlet‟s previously insightful soliloquies undermines his authority and importance as an individual, as is seen in the “mime” scene where Hamlet‟s “antic disposition” goes unexplained. The binary protagonists of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead are minor figures of
relatively little importance elevated to main characters, as with no „Chain of Being‟ or
God, the power is in the hands of all men, and thus all men are equally powerless.
Ros and Guil are not even depicted as being separately important; instead they are interchangeable, as is reflected in their stage directions when Hamlet confuses their names.
The importance of the individual in Hamlet is dictated by his role according to Fate.
The concept of pre-ordained fate by God is reflected in the strict five-act structure of the play, as well as the central complication as the Ghost orders Hamlet avenge his death. Hamlet acknowledges this; “The time is out of joint/ O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right” and it is also referenced to throughout the play numerous times as “fortune” and “the wheels of fortune”. But Hamlet seeks to avoid his destiny, and this becomes his Tragic Flaw, leading ultimately to his death but also to the restoration of order.
Stoppard‟s use of the concept of fate but modification of it reflects the post modern
view of his context, as well as the absence of God. Ros and Guil are controlled and struggle for freedom like Hamlet, but they are controlled by Hamlet‟s pre-ordained
narrative, not God‟s pre-ordained destiny, as is represented in the dramatic irony of the titile. Their destination is already set for them, as they realise when they intercept Hamlet‟s letter directing their execution, however their actual paths are not – Guil
asks, “But for God‟s sake what are we supposed to do!”. The answer is offered by a “tragedia” player, a parody not only of Hamlet‟s actors but of the play Hamlet itself:
“Relax, Respond. That‟s what people do. You can‟t go through life questioning your situation at every turn.” But Guil claims, “We don‟t know how to act!” reflecting the existentialist ennui of a country caught in the midst of the Cold War and shell shocked after WWII.
Hamlet‟s avoidance of completing his fate stems strongly from his qualms about death, another central theme in Hamlet. The presence of the Ghost from the outset
represents a soul in purgatory, indicating death as a time of further consequence and uncertainty. “To die, to sleep – to sleep, perchance to dream”, Hamlet states,
contemplating death as he also does in his literal confrontation of death in the symbol of Yorick‟s skull. He also ruminates on whether it is right to kill, for both his consequences and his victims, seen when he will not kill Claudius in prayer. Stoppard uses this theme of death but modifies the perspective in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The uncertainty of death is transformed into a certainty, as is represented in the present tense of the title. Indeed, Ros and Guil are not worried by death as it represents the onle thing certain in their world. “The only beginning is birth and the only ending is death – if you can‟t count on that, what can you count on?”, the
player states. The notion of afterlife, as dictated by the absence of God, is similarly rejected, as is discussed in the “being awake in a box” speech.
The concept of truth is tangible and existent in Hamlet, though obscured by the
Machiavellian political workings of Elsinore. Deception is a common theme, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern masquerade as friends, Hamlet puts on an “antic disposition” and Laertes has his secret plot. This idea of discerning the truth is
represented in the opening of the play, with the first words as “Who‟s there?” Similarly, Hamlet is unsure of the Ghost: “The spirit that I have seen/ May be a devil” and his use of rhetorical questions in his soliloquies; “To be, or not to be, that is the
question” represents his constant search for truth.
Stoppard modifies this theme to represent his nihilistic and Dadaist paradigm. The absence of truth is reflected in the absence of natural law, as is seen in the opening scene with the impossible coin-tossing, as well as Ros and Guil‟s uncertainty of
compass directions or even where the sun rises. Absurdist reductions “The colours red, blue and green are real. The colour yellow is a mystical experience imagined by everybody” and even the reference to England as merely “a conspiracy of
cartographers” emphasises the undermining of the authority of truth. As a reference to the Dadaist rebellion and mockery of traditionalism, Stoppard uses and modifies the theatrical form to undermine the authority of canonical texts.
It is through the use and modification of the themes of the individual, fate, death and truth as well as forms and structures that Stoppard reflects upon Hamlet to represent a
transformed set of values and attitudes in his new context.