Compare and contrast the ways in which ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’ by Tom Stoppard and ‘Waiting for Godot’ by Samuel Beckett teach important insights about the human condition.
Inspired by Beckett’s literary style, particularly in ‘Waiting for Godot’, Stoppard wrote ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’. As a result of this, many comparisons can be drawn between these two plays. Stoppard’s writing was also influenced by Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as minor characters exist within Shakespeare’s world providing Stoppard with his protagonists. However, the play is not an attempt to rewrite ‘Waiting for Godot’ in a framework of Shakespeare’s drama.
In studying these texts, the reader is provoked into analysing, comparing and contrasting them. In particular the characters in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’ provide intriguing material to consider the human condition. The characters, their personality traits and responses to stimuli, as well as what directs and motivates them, is worthy of discussion.
Stoppard gives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern an existence outside ‘Hamlet’, although it is one of little significance and they idle away their time only having a purpose to their lives when the play rejoins the ‘Hamlet’ plot, after they have been called by the King’s messenger: “There was a messenger…that’s right. We were sent for.” Their lives end tragically due to this connection with ‘Hamlet’, predetermined by the title, but the role provided them with a purpose to their otherwise futile lives, making them bearable. Their deaths evoke sadness and sympathy leaving the reader grieving for them.
In contrast to Stoppard’s play ‘Waiting for Godot’ is much bleaker in the respect that Vladimir and Estragon seem to have no purpose or direction in their lives. Their only hope rests on the mysterious Godot who never comes, however they do remain alive at the end. This leads the reader to question which pair of characters are the most unfortunate. Rosencrantz and Guildensten may not have been saved from death but they have been saved from the futility of life which Vladimir and Estragon exclaim: “We can’t go on like this” yet ironically they are left to do so.
In ‘Waiting for Godot’, we know little concerning the protagonists, indeed from their comments they appear to know little about themselves and seem bewildered and confused as to the extent of their existence. Their situation is obscure and Vladimir and Estragon spend the day (representative of their lives) waiting for the mysterious Godot, interacting with each other with quick and short speech. Although Beckett’s characters seem to expect so little from life, Vivian Mercier observes that they are never the less frustrated. “They expect so little from life, and yet their minimal expectations are frustrated.” (1) We laugh at the character’s because the scenes are humorous, yet it is human unhappiness that we are laughing at. Beckett creates this humour in such a way that there is no discernible purpose behind it.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two Elizabethans not easily told apart who play games to idle away the time, relying on others for amusement and impetus. They resemble Vladimir and Estragon in their interdependent relationship with one another, however characteristically they are very different. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are incompetent and unfortunate. They continually appear to be bemused and lost, unaware of what they are doing and why they are doing it, yet still feel omnipotent and able to escape. Martin Esslin comments on their situation; “Beckett’s characters are no antique heroes and they are mostly unaware of the depth of their predicament.” (2)
At one point Guildenstern says “We are entitled to some direction…I would have thought”. Guildenstern begins to accept this feeling that his life is out of his control and says “We move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation” “We’ll know better next time”.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s deaths shows how effectively Stoppard created these characters by the audience’s emotional reaction to their vulnerability and predicament.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unable to get their own names correct and similarly other characters in the play confuse them, highlighting their insignificance: “My name is Guildenstern, and this is Rosencrantz. I’m sorry – his name’s Guildenstern and I’m Rosencrantz”. They obviously cannot register their own identities or value. This strange lack of identity and individuality is odd as they are actually quite different.
Human nature is such that we believe we are the centre of our world and yet we are merely insignificant in someone else’s. Stoppard exemplifies this in ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’ by the unique connection the play has with Shakespeare’s ‘‘Hamlet’ on which it is based. Stoppard integrates the two plays by drawing out two minor characters from ‘Hamlet’ turning them into the protagonists, bringing them to the forefront of the stage in his play. He creates an identity for them separate to that in ‘Hamlet’. Likewise the protagonists in ‘Hamlet’ are reduced to minor characters in Stoppard’s production. Stoppard is known for grafting much of his best works onto plays that are already well established, such as his play ‘On the Razzle’ (1981) which is an adaptation of an Austrian play ‘Einen Jux will er sich machen’ by Johann Nestroy.
The first reference to ‘Hamlet’ shows Rosencrantz and Guildernstern’s role in Shakespeare’s play. They are sent for by Claudius although they don’t know for what purpose. Claudius greets them “The need we have to use you did provoke our hasty sending.”
Rosencrantz “We were sent for”
Rosencrantz “Thats why were here”
Despite their confusion and hesitation, they seem to regain their identity and purpose when they re-enter the ‘Hamlet’ plot. Hamlet greets them “My excellent good friends! How dost thou Guildenstern?”
The other story they become a part of is that of the Player and the Tragedians. From their speeches it becomes clear how important it is for them to have an audience. The Player illustrates their dependence on others, because good performers are nothing without an audience and in this quest for an audience they “look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else.”
Central to both plays is the theme of futile waiting and nothing happening which the audience can relate to the feelings of frustration and ineffectiveness. In ‘Waiting for Godot’, Vladimir and Estragon live their lives in paralysed anticipation in case Godot comes but they may not even recognise him if he does. This shows the resilience of humans to retain hope, often until the end. Their whole lives are resting on ‘Godot’ which is never defined. Whether it is supposed to be God or death or something else is unclear. Every evening they wait for this ‘Godot’ who they have probably never met; “He’s a kind of acquaintance”, “We hardly know him”. They seek to pass the time, representative of human fear that the end will come but also afraid that it will not. Stoppard suggests the outcome to this will be as a result of fate or chance and tries to show how chance can be a key part of human life.
The possibility of chance is discussed in the first few pages where the two protagonists are tossing coins and the outcome is left to fate and probability. All the possible meanings of the word ‘chance’ are shown in the following quotes illustrating its importance.
Player “It was chance, then?” (coincidental)
Guildenstern “You found us.”
Player “Oh yes.”
Guildenstern “You were looking?” (deliberate)
Player “Oh no”
Guildenstern “Chance then” (Luck)
Player “Or fate.” (Predestination, fixed destiny idea)
Guildenstern “Yours or ours?” (subtle irony hinting at the ending of the play)
Player “It could hardly be one without the other”
Guildenstern “Fate then”
Player “Oh yes. We have no control.” The Player readily accepts destiny and the unknown future, unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who like to feel that they do have control in their lives.
In ‘Waiting for Godot’ the subject of chance and probability is also considered:
Estragon “I don’t know, there’s an even chance, or nearly.”
Vladimir “Well, what’ll we do?”
Estragon “Well, don’t lets do anything, its safer.”