1994 September 2

The Annotated Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead


Cover of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Page numbers are from the 1968 First Evergreen Black Cat Edition of R&G; all Act and Scene designations are from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

p.16 “…the principle that each individual coin spun individually is as likely to come down heads as tails and therefore should cause no surprise each individual time it does.”
The reversal of this principle is commonly known as the “Gambler’s Fallacy”—the mistaken notion that after falling in a black slot five times in a row, the roulette ball must land in a red slot next. Of course, the odds of it landing in either slot never change; the ball has a 1 in 2 chance of falling in either red or black. But we continue to be surprised by the roulette ball’s “beating the odds,” and gamblers continue to lose money betting on fallacious reasoning.
p.18 “…the fingernails grow after death, as does the beard.”
Not really true, but as a dead body’s skin dries out it shrinks—exposing more of the hair and nail that was previously covered.
p.18 “The toenails, on the other hand, never grow at all.”
Though Guildenstern never comments on Rosencrantz’s phrasing, try reading the above sentence without the commas…
p.20 “‘The colours red, blue, and green are real. The colour yellow is a mystical experience shared by everyone.’”
Red, blue, and green are the primary (additive) colors of light. Though common sense tells us that yellow is the proper primary, without which green cannot exist, this is only true with subtractive colors, like paint. A TV screen contains thousands of red, blue, and green pixels—but not a single yellow. Any yellow you see on your TV is therefore a mystical experience.
p.34 “It was tails.”
This is the 100th coin Guil has tossed.
p.34 “And OPHELIA runs on in some alarm, holding up her skirts—followed by HAMLET.”
The stage directions depict the scene that Ophelia describes to her father Polonius in Act II, Scene i, lines 74–81 and 84–97 of Hamlet.
p.35 “Welcome, dear Rosencrantz…” and following
This is Act II, Scene ii—Ros & Guil’s first appearance in the bard’s masterpiece.
p.39 “A man standing in his saddle in the half-lit half-alive dawn banged on the shutters and called two names.”
“…we might have been left to sift the whole field of human nomenclature…at least we have alternatives.”
R&G are in the grip of an identity crisis so deep they cannot even be sure which of them is which. (If you think G has got it straight, note his lapse at the top of page 86.) The messenger called out two names, but neglected to say which name went with which person. And since R&G are never apart from each other (at least not ever in Hamlet), they have no way of learning the correct dispensation of names. On the bright side, G points out that they are not completely awash—they have a 50–50 chance of picking their right names…the same odds as a coin toss, for that matter…
p.41 “Words, words.”
Cf. Hamlet’s echoing of this sentiment at II, ii, 193.
p.42 “We could play at questions.”
This game (invented, as far as I know, by Stoppard himself) has come to be known as “Verbal Tennis” due to its method of scoring. Read this section once to understand the game, and a second time to follow the action behind the questions. Then find someone to play questions with!
p.52 “…for you yourself, sir, should be as old as I…”
II, ii, 204–226.
p.55 “S’Blood, there is something in this more than natural…”
This is the end of the same scene (II, ii) which ended the first act.
p.57 “Twenty-seven—three, and you think he might have had the edge?”
Read R&G’s discussion with Hamlet in II, ii as a game of questions—R’s score is accurate. Bonus points for finding which of Hamlet’s questions were illegal repetitions and rhetoricals. Hamlet is definitely a superior verbal tennis player.
p.60 “A Chinaman of the T’ang dynasty…”
Zhuangzi, 4th century BCE.
p.61 “Come sirs.”
II, ii, 533–548.
p.66 “And I know which way the wind is blowing.”
“Operating on two levels, are we?!”
R&G don’t know which way the wind is blowing in a figurative or a literal sense (cf. p.58–59).
p.66 “We don’t know how to act.
This is hopefully not true of the actors playing R&G.
p.74 “…weighing up the pros and cons of making his quietus.”
AKA “To be or not to be,” III, i. In particular, III, i, 76: “When he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin.”
p.75 “Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered.”
III, i, 88–91.
p.76 “Full thirty times hath Phoebus’ cart”
This is the speech from The Murder of Gonzaga, which makes its appearance in Hamlet at III, ii, 153.
p.76 “Dumbshow first, your confounded majesty!”
The dumbshow, a staple of Elizabethan theater, presented the action of the play in brief as a sort of “preview of coming attractions.” ‘Dumbshow’ because no lines were uttered.
p.78 “Go to, I’ll no more on’t”
III, i, 148
p.78 “Love? His affections do not that way tend”
III, i, 165
p.80–82 The Murder of Gonzaga
All we know of this play from Hamlet is that it begins with the poisoning of a king by his brother. It is of course for this similarity to his own circumstances that Hamlet asks the players to perform it. Stoppard allows us to see the entire play, which he has construed to follow the plot of Hamlet in every detail. If R&G could only recognize that, they’d finally understand the world they have been thrust into.
p.81 “…two smiling accomplices—friends—courtiers—two spies—”
These characters are naturally the Gonzagan equivalents of Ros & Guil. Perhaps it’s just as well they don’t realize that—it wouldn’t help their peace of mind.
p.83 “A slaughterhouse—eight corpses all told.”
We haven’t seen eight people die in the Gonzaga dumbshow, but we know from Hamlet that there will be eight corpses: Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, Hamlet—and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
p.84 “The king rises…”
III, ii, 263
p.86 “Ho, Guildenstern.”
IV, i, 32
p.90 “Hamlet! Lord Hamlet!”
IV, ii, 47
p.91 “How now? What hath befallen?”
IV, iii, 11
p.93 “He’s with a soldier.”
That would be Fortinbras’ Captain, who speaks with Hamlet in IV, iv. This scene, which takes place as Hamlet and R&G are about to board the ship to England, is the last scene in which R&G appear in Hamlet. Thus, one might think that they are at last free; but their author has more plans for them. Their fate is in fact determined by Hamlet’s revelations in IV, vi and V, ii—not to mention the ambassador’s at the very end of the play. (Either play.)
p.105 “We’ve got a letter.”
Which they received in III, iii.
p.110 “We’re his friends.
“How do you know?”
The crux of the problem…Are R&G their own persons, able to choose their lives (and by implication, their friends)? Or do they only exist at the whim of a creator or destiny which has already mapped out every facet of their lives?
p.110 “As Socrates so philosophically put it…”
In, for example, Plato’s Phaedo.
p.115 “…it was getting quite interesting when they stopped it.”
Because of King Claudius’s panic.
p.122 “Who are we that so much should converge on our little deaths?”
“You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That’s enough.”
Time for me to ramble on a bit here…this play is, to my mind, basically an existentialist examination of life: R&G find they have been brought into a world they did not create and cannot control. They didn’t ask to be “born,” and are not consulted about the time and manner of their deaths, which they are powerless to prevent. This description, of course, fits every human being who has ever lived (suicides avoid the last clause, but it’s hardly a solution to the problem). Along the way of their brief lives, R&G attempt to find answers to the questions of identity, free will, and just about everything else, but in the end have only the Player’s assertion above. This is all any of us ever get, and the trick to living a rewarding life is making that statement (“You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” or “You are Elliot Thomas Grant—that’s enough.”) positive and not negative. It may seem so little to go on—a name, a persona, a little life and death—but it’s all we have and to each of us, there is nothing so crucial. We must all make our lives worthwhile so that they are, in fact, sufficient answers to whatever questions we pose.
p.126 “The sight is dismal…”
V, ii, 369 and following.