Existentialism or Karma.
According to most critics and scholars one of the main themes that appear in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is existentialism. This theory is based on the way both characters struggle to define themselves and the world they are in during the course of the play, and their final conclusion that their destiny was ultimately their own fault – that it could have been better had they done things differently. Interestingly enough, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had a previous life that seems to define their end – their fatal destiny is already written in their past life. Perhaps then, Stoppard took these two characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet not with the intention to re-write their story, but just to explain their death, stating that it was actually their own fault.
Atheistic existentialism declares that Existence comes before essence. “Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.” (Sartre) Stoppard is clearly subscribing to this theory by making the characters fall victims to their own actions and then having them regret not doing things differently. In the last scene Guildenstern says “There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said—no. But somehow we missed it.” (He looks around and sees he is alone.) (Stoppard, 125).
On the other hand Hindu philosophy, which believes in life after death, holds the doctrine that if the karma of an individual is good enough, the next birth will be rewarding, and if not, the person may actually devolve and degenerate into a lower life form. Every person is responsible for his or her acts and thoughts, so each person's karma is entirely her own. The law of cause and effect forms an integral part of Hindu philosophy. This law is termed as 'karma', which means to 'act'. In a way the concept of karma is similar to existentialism, the person is responsible for their own existence, the only difference is that Hinduism believes in consecutive lives, and the actions in one life carry on to the next one. In that case, what we do (good or bad actions) in the present life might not show until the next one. (Subhamoy Das)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In the original version this is not a very important event. Stoppard sheds light on these two minor characters, making—I thought– a brilliant choice. In Shakespeare’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear almost as disposable characters, as audience we are worried about the life of the protagonist, Hamlet. He was saved from execution, and we feel relieved. The message that this title is conveying is important: There are important lives and less important lives, and in this play we are going to make the less important ones more important. These two characters are for the most part off-stage in Shakespeare’s version. Here, they are always onstage, as the main characters, and Hamlet has a small part.
Stoppard dives into Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and shows us new layers and parts of the story. The original drama remains intact thou, and some of the scenes appear in his adaptation.
Stoppard articulates several layers of performance. In the first act Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are alone flipping a coin, questioning the real and the un-real, in a tribulation that could be an “invisible” scene from Hamlet. With the arrival of The Tragedians the layers start unfolding. They will present a play. They will include Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the play and the play is Hamlet. Ophelia, Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius enter. The characters are played by The Tragedians, or they are the “real” characters of the tragedy. The confusion of roles, real characters and performed characters is the most interesting part of the drama. The characters tell us what the author is doing with the script. The Player explains to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the technique used by Stoppard in the play: “ We do on stage the things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else.” (Stoppard, 28). Indeed, we will look at the lives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, after they exit—in the original drama—when they are not onstage. These layers inside the drama, with characters who die and come back to life suggest a continuum in the life cycle. The player announces the show of death: “Death for all ages and occasions! Death by suspension, convulsion, consumption, incision, execution, asphyxiation and malnutrition…” (Stoppard, 124) After spending a good portion of act one with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in this new play, the entrance of Ophelia, Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius reciting the lines from Hamlet feels like the arrival of the ghosts or the beginning of acting—they are after all characters from the previous life. “Which way did we come in? I’ve lost my sense of direction” (Stoppard, 58) Says Rosencrantz. They try to find their way, going in and out of the drama—trying to see if they can exist outside of Hamlet. When the pirates attack and they think Hamlet is dead, they question their own existence without him.
“Rosencrantz- He is dead then. He is dead as far as we are concerned.
Player – Or we are as far as he is/
Guildenstern – The whole thing is pointless without him. (Stoppard, 119- 20)
They arrive to the conclusion that they can’t exist without Hamlet. Their struggle to escape and the moments they realize that they can’t exist without their previous life are the ones that move the action. “We are slipping off the map ,” (Stoppard, 108) says Rosencrantz.
At the beginning of Act Two Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feel insecure after interacting with Hamlet. “I think we can say he made us look ridiculous,” says Rosencrantz, “He murdered us” (Stoppard, 56). These comments seem to refer to the way Hamlet made them look ridiculous and murdered them in the original drama. Even if they are trying to think by themselves and exist outside of Shakespeare’s drama, they seem to be trapped—Shakespeare has already written their fate. In the original version Hamlet tells Horatio that he feels no guilt about sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the fate that they were sending him: “Why, man, they did make love to his employment. They are not near my conscience. Their defeat doth by their own insinuation grow.” (Shakespeare, V.2.60). It is clear to Hamlet in the original version that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were responsible for their actions, and that they knew what they were doing. But in Stoppard’s play they don’t seem to remember any wrongdoing.
In both versions The Ambassador from England arrives to announce the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. “This sight is dismal; and our affairs from England come too late. The ears are senseless that should give us hearing to tell him his commandment is fulfilled, that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Where should we have our thanks?” (Stoppard, 56) After a full circle, they meet the same end. Their efforts to escape the drama and their destiny prove to be unproductive. However they end up taking responsibility for their destiny, feeling that it was their fault. “There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said no” (Stoppard, 125). I guess they understand that they could have said no to Claudius, that their destiny, is somehow a consequence of saying yes, accepting their role in the killing or disappearance of Hamlet. Even I they can’t remember that they did it.
“Here is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of it,” (Sartre). But I would argue that in this case the essence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was there before their existence. As characters of a play by Tom Stoppard, the characters were carrying the essence of the play written by Shakespeare. “Even as you die you know that you will come back in a different hat” (Stoppard, 123), says Guildenstern to the Player. Looking at it from this perspective, and probably without any intention by the author, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, is more of a Hindu play than an existentialist one. Their karma seems to be carried on from their previous life. Rosencrantz asks Guildenstern, “We’ve done nothing wrong! We didn’t harm anyone. Did we?
- I can’t remember, responds Guildenstern. (Stoppard, 125)
They don’t seem to remember their previous life, as it’s usually the case, they just feel the effects of it. But as audience we know what happened in Shakespeare’s version, we know that they actually did something wrong by accepting the task to send Hamlet to his murderers. “Well, we’ll know better next time.” (Stoppard, 126) are the last words of Guildenstern before “disappearing”. Because in this version, as in Shakespeare’s one, they don’t die, they disappear, and the drama goes on as if this second life was just contained in the previous one.
Stoppard, Tom, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. New York: Grove Press, 1967.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987
Sarte, Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism.
Written: Lecture given in 1946
Source: Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufman, Meridian Publishing Company, 1989;
First Published: World Publishing Company in 1956;
Translator: Philip Mairet.
Subhamoy Das, What Is Karma? The Law of Cause & Effect