In Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the titular characters Rosencrantz (Ros) and Guildenstern (Guil) experience what Palestinian American literary theorist and cultural critic Edward Said termed an “unhealable rift.” Ros and Guil struggle through the play over the dichotomy between reality and illusion, never quite coming to understand the difference therein. They experience an exile of essence, an irreconcilable schism between existence and identity: their lack of purpose degrades them to mere pawns whose absurd, tragic end arrives despite any attempt to subvert fate.
Ros and Guil evince the split between reality and illusion through their interactions with themselves and with other characters. For example, Ros and Guil open the play with an incredible run of 92 heads to 0 tails in a coin toss. When they question each other, neither can remember anything prior to appearing on the stage, save for “a man, a foreigner,” who banged on their shutters and demanded their presence. That man—Shakespeare—and his play—Hamlet—are what define Ros and Guil and give them purpose. As such, the juxtaposition between the outside world and that of Hamlet drives Ros and Guil to question their reality in an exploration of existentialism, as exemplified by Guil’s comment about seeing a unicorn: the more people who see something extraordinary or contradictory with expectation, the greater the distortion of collective reality and the less mystical the experience in question becomes as society attempts to assimilate the anomaly into the fabric of what is deemed as “reality.” This theme of division and obscurity of reality develops when the Player and his Tragedians enter and break the record streak of heads. Because the Player is from Hamlet, the sudden appearance of tails indicates the presence of a rift in time—there exists a sense of timeless fluidity when Ros and Guil are alone, where each moment melts together like ice in hot sun without any identifiable beginning or end. By contrast, the Player injects order and time into the slush of Ros and Guil’s existence with his physical presence. Additionally, Ros and Guil bumble when introducing themselves to the Player because they have no innate individualism; as one’s name symbolizes one’s identity, Ros and Guil’s confusion of their own names highlights their flawed and lacking nature—their identities, rather than being separate and distinct, are ambiguous ad fluid, just like their experience of time. Stoppard further augments Ros and Guil’s exile from reality through the common occurrence of question and answer. With Ros taking the part of Ros and Guil and Guil taking the part of Hamlet, Ros and Guil directly establish, through a question game, the exact cause of Hamlet’s madness—his father’s death and his mother’s “o’re hasty marriage” to the usurper Claudius. Despite the wholesome veracity of their deductions, Ros and Guil ironically dismiss their conclusion with a sigh as mere “common property”—they cannot realize the significance of their discovery because they are devoid of essence; they are stuck in the present and thus lack hindsight or foresight. Ros and Guil, through their non-sequitur exchanges and observations, clearly exhibit their detachment from their reality.
Beyond their confusion of reality, Ros and Guil demonstrate a total lack of free will, which invariably manifests itself in their tragic fated end—an exile from life. A paramount moment in the play occurs in Act Two, when Ros snaps and has his “shattering” moment—his parallel to Hamlet’s “To Be” speech—of ardent questioning of whether it is better to be alive or dead in a box. Ros, going back to the coin game, has always passively accepted his situation, unlike Guil, who has attempted to use logic. In this section, Ros finally realizes that he is alone in this world, and religion is but something to cling to. Furthermore, Ros and Guil effectively live their lives in the box of fate as orchestrated by Shakespeare, the grandmaster of their fate; as the Player says, “it [their fate] is written.” Though Ros illustrates some inkling of a realization that he and Guil are helpless against the strong current of fate, Ros still believes they can paddle to safety beneath a different sky, despite the fact that their fates are declared and destined from the beginning to all eternity— “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” When Hamlet leaves with the pirates as Ros and Guil are taking him to England, Ros and Guil lose their purpose, as their entire job was to deliver Hamlet. Suddenly, the mood of the play shifts from light-hearted and comedic to somber and tragic. Everything becomes real, as the ink dries on Shakespeare’s parchment and Ros and Guil’s true purpose is only to die. In an act of protestation, Guil the existentialist stands up to Shakespeare and grabs a dagger and stabs the Player in the throat. However, after “dying,” the Player rises to applause; Guil, who had so vehemently insisted throughout the play upon the absurdity of death in acting, who had taken action but been denied any results, finally sees the insurmountable divide between himself and reality. In the end, logic deteriorates into jumbled speech, as with the original Question Game, and silence reigns supreme, as reflected in the Theater of the Absurd and the disillusionment with the Vietnam War. The greatest tragedy of the work, however, is that despite being alienated from reality, Ros and Guil never gain the “enriching” aspect of exile that Said depicted—while the Player goes through each iteration of the play with freedom and knowledge of the outcome, Ros and Guil remain hopelessly condemned to regress into uncertainty without any ability to foresee or alter their fate.
In the words of poet T. S. Eliot, Ros and Guil are “hollow men,” stripped of essence and chained in perpetuity to the stage, who die “not with a bang but a whimper”—not by poison, nor by stabbing, but by simply ceasing to exist and by returning to their little boxes in exile until Shakespeare decides to pluck them into the torrent of fate to drown once more.
I wrote the above essay for Mrs. Selfridge’s AP Literature class for the following prompt:
Select a novel, play, or epic in which a character experiences a rift and becomes cut off from “home,” whether that home is the character’s birthplace, family, homeland, or other special place. Then write an essay in which you analyze how the character’s experience with exile is both alienating and enriching, and how this experience illuminates the meaning of the work as a whole.