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Dramatic criticism of the play by Tom Stoppard

Very few theatregoers come "pure" to Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, for invariably we filter the play through our experience with Hamlet. Besides, Stoppard preserves intact the seven scenes in which the courtiers appear in Shakespeare's tragedy, as well as the Ambassador's and Horatio's speeches from the closing moments.... Stoppard's work has its own integrity; it should and can stand on its own. Yet not everyone has acknowledged the fact. To some observers, including the jury that rejected the play when it was first submitted to the Edinburgh Drama Festival, it is too derivative, its playwright a pigmy sitting on Shakespeare's back, offering us nothing more than another play about "the business."

SIDNEY HOMAN, "A Mirror for Staging Hamlet," Directing Shakespeare

Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead ... is a very funny play about death. Very funny, very brilliant, very chilling; it has the dust of thought about it and the particles glitter excitingly in the theatrical air.

CLIVE BARNES, The New York Times Book of Broadway

I was not in the least interested in doing any sort of pastiche, for a start, or in doing a criticism of Hamlet--that was simply one of the by-products. The chief interest and objective was to exploit a situation which seemed to me to have enormous dramatic and comic potential--of these two guys who in Shakespeare's context don't really know what they're doing. The little they are told is mainly lies, and there's no reason to suppose that they ever find out why they are killed. And, probably more in the early 1960s than at any other time, that would strike a young playwright as being a pretty good thing to explore. I mean, it has the right combination of specificity and vague generality which was interesting at that time to (it seemed) eight out of ten playwrights. That's why, when the play appeared, it got subjected to so many different kinds of interpretation, all of them plausible, but none of them calculated.

TOM STOPPARD, Stoppard's Theatre: Finding Order Amid Chaos

For the most part, critics describe the composition of Stoppard's play as if it had been neatly prescribed by a recipe: plot and characters from Shakespeare folded into a Beckettian ambiance, or vice versa; a dash of concept, echo or tone from the other dramatic or literary sources; and Wittgenstein's philosophy cracked, its language-games separated and used to bind the other ingredients. Yet the texture of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead hardly resembles that of a pudding, or any other confection assembled in a predictable way.

JILL L. LEVENSON, "Hamlet Andante/Hamlet Allegro: Tom Stoppard's Two Versions"

Baffled, imprisoned in a play they did not write, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must act out their prearranged dramatic destines. Like Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon, they carry on vaudeville routines, engage in verbal battles and games, and discourse on the issues of life and death. However, whereas Beckett's play, like Shakespeare's, defies easy categories and explanations, and remains elusive in the best sense of the word, suggesting the mystery of life, Stoppard's play welcomes categories, prods for clarity of explanation, and seems more interested in substance than shadow.

NORMAND BERLIN, The Secret Cause: Discussion of Tragedy

Its virtue is not in its import but it its writing. It is bedecked with well-turned quips: "Life is a gamble, at terrible odds--if it were a bet you wouldn't take it." The man's mouthpiece amuses and dazzles.

HAROLD CLURMAN, Nine Plays of the Modern Theater

Although it is possible, even tempting, to read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for a consistent existentialist narrative -- "unaccommodated man" once more cut short by an indifferent, meaningless universe which he fails to comprehend -- the play's sheer delight in extravagant minimalism belies such a tough philosophical through-line. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is very much a young man's play, part of whose attractiveness is the exuberant playwright's wink and the receptive audience's nod. We've all read the same texts and we're all "in" on this together, even and especially when the joke is on us.

ENOCH BRATER, "Tom Stoppard's Brit/lit/crit"

In Rosguil, critics often find what they bring to it; their own values are reflected back.

JOHN FLEMING, Stoppard's Theatre: Finding Order Amid Chaos

If the courtiers' world mirrors our own then ours it not just an existential void. It may be a world which does not seem to make sense, which refuses to follow the rules we might expect. But to the extent that the world of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern mirrors our own it shows us the inability of all mankind to understand those forces ultimately in control of their lives and fates at the same time that it asserts that such forces beyond human control or understanding do exist.... Ultimately Stoppard's play leads us to recognise that whether we can comprehend it or not there is "design at work" in life as well as art, that there is order and coherence beyond man's ability to grasp.

PAUL DELANEY, Moral Vision

Stoppard succeeds where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail: he manages to act upon Shakespeare's original, restyling it with Beckett's help. In effect, an act of criticism -- that is both interpretive and transformational -- becomes, in a way that is simultaneously Wildean and characteristically postmodern, an act of creation.

NEIL SAMMELLS, "The Early Stage Plays," The Cambridge Companion to Tom Stoppard

Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ... are used to explore comically the kind of existential angst expressed more formally by Shakespeare's Hamlet. For Stoppard's duo, the ship [on which they escort Hamlet toward England] is a metaphor for life: "Where we went wrong was getting on a boat. We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current..."

IAN HARRISON, The Book of Duos

At the beginning of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the two central characters are flipping coins and arguing about their tendency to come up heads every time. At the end, all the characters in both plays (Stoppard's, and Shakespeare's Hamlet, which has been running along in the background) die--except for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who disappear in a cloud of sentence fragments. What movement has there been? At the beginning of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are assuming that there must be an explanation for the phenomenal run of heads; they are still operating under the "old" idea of order in the world. At the play's end, they have given up the idea of explanations.

SUSAN WISE BAUER, The Well-Educated Mind

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Hamlet meets Waiting for Godot, and Waiting for Godot wins.

PAUL A. CANTOR, Shakespeare: Hamlet

The play has been the subject of all sorts of critical interpretations, notably as a statement of existential or absurdist intent or as a serious critique of Shakespeare's Hamlet, and those views have led to what might be called the Catch 22 of Stoppardian criticism: his theatrical fireworks masquerade as important ideas; his important ideas are trivialized by theatrical trickery. The fallacy behind this comes from supposing that frivolity and seriousness are incompatible opposites (and Stoppard has always sought to unite the two) or, in the particular case of Rosencrantz, to mistake the farcical framework (derived from Waiting for Godot and Hamlet) as the play's serious thesis. What Stoppard does is to exploit the comic potential of Ros and Guil's situation in Hamlet, a confused paralysis most cogently expressed in modern terms by Estragon and Vladimir's circumstances in Godot, in order to arrive at a statement about death that is both serious and of universal application.

ANTHONY JENKINS, The Theatre of Tom Stoppard

The "Dead" of the title is the key word in the play. Not only are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern going to their deaths, but for Stoppard the two characters, representing modern man, are dead, although seemingly alive. They died their off-stage deaths in Shakespeare's Hamlet and therefore must die here, victims of a literary determinism. But they also are men, and men must die. The twin issues of death and determinism that inform Shakespeare's Hamlet also inform this play derived from Hamlet. However, to move from Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is to move from tragedy to something else, because Stoppard's play, brilliant though it is, does not allow us to feel the secret cause; it touches the mind, not the heart. In it the mystery is not felt experience.

NORMAND BERLIN, The Secret Cause: Discussion of Tragedy

Formally, this is a play constructed on those fragments of Hamlet that contain speeches by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Effectively, it is the most notable contribution in contemporary English drama (saving Pinter) to the theatre of the absurd. Hamlet's problem, of making sense out of his universe, is bequeathed downwards to his friends; together they constitute an anti-hero, a dual image of two uncomprehending and unlucky lads who find their assignment beyond their powers.

RALPH BERRY, Changing Styles in Shakespeare

Each human being ... plays a part inevitably ending in death--a part perhaps written by God whose existence (or at least intention), nonetheless, remains suspect. In a certain sense, the "divine" author behind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is simply Shakespeare, and in that sense, Stoppard's play chronicles the dissolution of British culture and its Shakespeare-olatry in a pluralistic United Kingdom.

JAMES WHITLARK, Behind the Great Wall

In the opening coin-flipping scene, "heads" comes up ninety-two consecutive times. Guildenstern, who has bet and lost each time, speculates on possible explanations of this most unlikely series and proposes, among other alternatives, that he is somehow willing himself to lose, that divine intervention keeps interposing itself, and that "time has stopped dead, and the single experience of one coin being spun once has been repeated ninety times..." By forcibly juxtaposing a chance world of limitless possibility to a closely regulated world of preestablished fixidity, Stoppard creates a compelling ontological drama of the representation of the limitless and the circumscribing of the liminal.

BRIAN RICHARDSON, Unlikely Stories

As in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are hardly distinguishable from each other. They are young men who are inadequate for the task that chance and the playwright have set out for them. They must spy, but they are unequipped for spying. They simply are not duplicitous by nature. In their very blundering, incompetent ordinariness, they ultimately find self-recognition and evoke pity in the audience. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern learn nothing from their participation in a tragedy except that they have had no control over the parts they play in the events leading to their execution. Their struggle is so far from monumental that they appear almost antlike in the world of kings and princes--and even performing artists.

SANFORD V. STERNLICHT, Masterpieces of Modern British and Irish Drama

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead ... shows an irrational, deadly world as it might be viewed by those very unimportant characters in Hamlet if they came center stage. They are fumbling and foolish, and at sea--literally at see, in act 3--and all their clever talk is whistling in the dark; but they have a certain dignity, as doomed human beings, and we are made to feel for them as we would for ourselves. It is a brilliant play, in conception and execution. Although it parodies Hamlet and makes that troubled prince and all the court look extremely silly, as they must look in a modern realistic light, it succeeds in bringing alive the pain and terror of Hamlet, the sense of meaningless and the chill of death, which have been obscured for us by the familiar beauty of Shakespeare's lines.

KENNETH J. RECKFORD, Aristophanes' Old-And-New Comedy

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