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Is God a Playwright?

And Other Existential Crises Explored in Tom Stoppard’s 'Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead'

Guildenstern (Tim Roth) and Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) before the inevitable demise

William Shakespeare famously writes in his play As You Like It that, “All the world’s a stage, and the men and women merely its players.” Tom Stoppard, playwright, director, and student of Shakespeare, explores the full potential of this ideology in the film adaptation of his play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. Tom Stoppard’s first and only film is an experimental tragicomedy that depicts the events of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet as experienced by the titular Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) and Guildenstern (Tim Roth), two minor characters sent for by the King to determine the cause of Prince Hamlet’s troubled disposition. Throughout the film the two heroes grapple with their predetermined fate and their seemingly meaningless existences as they encounter the unnatural forces of theatricality, forces that dictate reality as explained by the wit of The Lead Player (Richard Dreyfuss).

The majority of Shakespeare’s works emphasize how performance and theatre can serve as metaphors for reality; specifically, Hamlet affords consideration of Hamlet’s performance of madness as his truest self. Stoppard’s film exaggerates this relationship between theatricality and reality, transforming Shakespeare’s performative ideology into an inescapable ultimatum for his characters and, by extension, their audiences. Through the use of metatheatrics and the supernatural, Tom Stoppard heightens the connections between theatre and reality in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead to further understand our own predetermined fates and ultimately our deaths.

The film begins with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern en route to Elsinore, discussing their inability to remember any moment from their lives before being called for by the King. This establishes the reality of the film for the audience, in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern only exist within the context of someone else’s story, as evidenced by their lack of history or backstory. The only history they are ever given comes from the written word of Shakespeare’s original text, in which the King and Queen mention that the two men are old friends of Hamlet from their school days. Their lack of history seems to stem from their nonexistence before the story of Hamlet even begins. This is further emphasized by their supernatural tendency to change locations without ever stepping foot. The very first scene in the movie features Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on their journey to Elsinore before meeting the players, just as described in Shakespeare’s text. As soon as this event has played out, the two are immediately transported to their next “scene,” in which they witness Hamlet acting oddly with Ophelia, just as described in the text. This further indicates that the two characters do not exist outside of Hamlet, and their existence is meant only to serve a greater story.

Stoppard uses the supernatural to indicates that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exist specifically for the purpose of serving in Hamlet, and that this fate is inescapable as they are at the mercy of the story. This is foreshadowed early in the film when Rosencrantz finds a coin that only lands on heads. The coin is a symbol of the characters’ fates, because the coin will only ever land on heads just as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will only ever die in Hamlet and nothing else. There is no changing of the story for those that are actually in the story, further evidenced in the scene when Rosencrantz is holding the trap door below the two closed. As their entrance in Hamlet inches closer, it becomes increasingly difficult for Rosencrantz to hold on to the handle. Once it gets too heavy he lets go, and the two enter a scene in Hamlet as if on cue. This predetermined reality can only be altered by The Lead Player, as evidenced during his introduction when Rosencrantz flips the coin and bets him it will have landed on heads. This is the only instance in which the coin lands on tails, implying that The Lead Player has some sway over the events of the narrative. The Lead Player serves as a surrogate for the role of a playwright, further evidencing the idea that reality and theatre are one and the same, and that it is the playwright (or perhaps some other god-figure) that determines fate.

Another example of how Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead connects theatre and reality can be seen in the recurring motif of circles. At one point in the film Guildenstern notes that they’ve been walking in circles. Later on, after the end of The Mousetrap, the two leave the room, walk down the hall, up the stairs, and enter the same room they left. This circular nature of the characters’ reality directly parallels the story circle as described by Joseph Campbell in A Hero with a Thousand Faces. The story circle is a very barebones outline for the majority of all plays and stories, an outline the Campbell argues is attractive because it is based on our real life experiences. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exist within a literal and metaphorical story circle, which can be interpreted as a representation for reality since reality is the basis for which the story circle’s genesis. This correlation between reality and theatre is given even more depth when one considers that the Globe Theatre in which Shakespeare’s plays were performed was a large circle, and therefore Guildenstern’s assertion that, “this place is made of circles” is true both within their reality and our own.

Stoppard, a theatre lover and theatre scholar, takes great care to imbue his film with small details that establish when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are “on-stage” and “off-stage.” As a fellow thespian, I greatly appreciated how Stoppard captures the world of the stage so precisely on film. For example, whenever Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are “on-stage”, their ability to speak fluently and “follow script” is impeccable, but as soon as the cast has made their exits the two can hardly remember how to spell the word “which.” Furthermore, Stoppard has crafted an atmosphere that perfectly resembles the world of the backstage. Sandbags and trapped doors, running from place to place to make entrances and exits, a setting that would be awkward in reality but is framed perfectly for a viewing audience, and most importantly, conversations about the meaning of life to pass the time. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is a film about a play about a play about a play, a layering of metatheatrics that becomes palpable with every detail, every mysterious prop, and every strewn about sheet of a script.

This metatheatricality is best explored through the play-within-a-play "The Mousetrap." During the scene in which The Lead Player describes the play to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the protagonist of "The Mousetrap" puts on a play to expose his murderous uncle, just as Hamlet does when he organizes "The Mousetrap" in the first place. This is portrayed through a puppet show, which displays the same events of "The Mousetrap," which displays the same events of Hamlet, a chain of plays that begs the audience to consider the possibility that our own layer of reality is just as much a play as Hamlet or "The Mousetrap." This layering of realities most resolutely reveals Stoppard’s ideology with regards to Shakespeare’s belief in the theatricality of reality. Whereas Shakespeare considers theatre a metaphor of reality, Stoppard believes that theatre is reality and reality is theatre in the most literal sense.

Shakespeare is famous for his use of dramatic irony to heighten the tension of his tragedies, as in Romeo and Juliet, or to increase the humor of his comedies, as in Twelfth Night. Stoppard borrows a page from Shakespeare by using this device to both effects in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, beginning with the title of the film. Most Shakespeare enthusiasts are aware of the fate that befalls Hamlet’s colleagues, but by using a direct quote from the original text in the title, Stoppard reminds the audience immediately that the two lead characters are marked for death. Stoppard also uses the characters’ names as a means of stripping the power of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s deaths. The film refuses to give Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the comfort of knowledge that their deaths will be worthwhile by playing on the repeated confusion over their names by the entirety of the court, themselves included. By throwing into question the validity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s lives, Stoppard offers a worldview in which we are all born to die and nothing more.

This “born to die” mentality is connected to the theatricality of living as evidenced by The Lead Player’s fascination with death as an actor. Throughout the film, The Lead Player foreshadows to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that they will die, as best seen when his troupe performs "The Mousetrap." The Lead Player mentions that the play ends with a body-count of eight, and when Guildenstern protests that only six characters died, the fictionalized versions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are hanged. The Lead Player explains through a lens of theatre that, “Generally speaking, things have gone about as far as they can possibly go when things have got about as bad as they can reasonably get.” When asked who decides this, The Lead Player invokes fate by saying “It is written!” Through The Lead Player, Stoppard understands death to be the end and nothing more; no matter the means or manner of death, it will happen to all and cannot be avoided.

Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead explores how theatre can help us understand fate and death by equating theatre with reality and vice versa. The film forces the audience to consider to what extent fiction can be considered reality, and what the implications of their equation might be. On one hand, if all of reality is a play, we might not worry so much about the inevitability of death as it is the end of a story rather than the end of a life. On the other hand, if all fiction is analogous to our reality, there are some dangerous and genuinely horrifying truths we must accept as a creative species. Do fictional characters of our creation experience real pain and heartache? Are we crafting worlds like gods, are gods crafting our worlds like stories, or both? Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is not a film meant to answer these questions, but rather a film meant to ask the questions in the first place. It takes these high-concept questions and fears and makes them funny by allowing us to experience the existentialism within their reality rather than our own. By granting us a filmic world to explore fate and death, Stoppard has given us a chance to answer humanity’s greatest questions in an environment that can both entertain and enlighten, and it is for this reason that all the world is truly a stage.

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