Even Shakespearean “Losers” Have the Existential Blues
(Published in UPEI Arts Review. Spring 2013. Print)
Tom Stoppard’s characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, tackle the principle problems of existentialism as seen in the absurdity of their lives, their incessant questioning, and their constant confusion as to what human life is all about. Stoppard’s play and film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead takes on these very minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and thrusts their existentialist crises to the forefront, and shows that the questioning of existence affects everybody equally because it it is a widespread condition of humanity.
While Hamlet ponders “To be or not to be” (Hamlet III.I), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern struggle to remember any details of their lives. They cannot recall how they arrived at Elsinore. It is only when they connect with their emotions rather than stimulating their reason that they can recollect anything at all. Rosencrantz questions Guildenstern about where they were in the past and he demands to know what Guildenstern can remember, but Guildenstern cannot provide an answer until he taps into his feelings rather than his thoughts. Guildenstern realizes “I have no desires. None,” and it is that apathy, or lack of passion, that prompts his memory of being sent for by a messenger (Stoppard 17). He then observes “the scientific approach of the examination of phenomena is a defense against the pure emotion of fear”, showing us that the characters themselves realize that emotion is greater and more powerful than science or any other discipline (Stoppard 17).
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in constant turmoil as they attempt to figure out who they are. This is a fundamental problem for the pair, and they are not merely postulating the sweeping question of what the value and functionality of humanity is, but they cannot, in fact, remember something as simple, but important, as their names. They both struggle throughout the narrative to figure out “who is who”. They are not the only ones who do not know which one is which; every character they encounter is at a loss as to which one of them is Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern. The Queen and “Uncle King” of Denmark, the very people who sent for them in the first place, cannot determine which of them is Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern. Rosencrantz, or it could be Guildenstern, panics at this confusion and Guildenstern, or Rosencrantz, has to alleviate his fear. This is the beginning of the characters’ existentialist crises. Rosencrantz heatedly says, “I used to remember my own name – and yours, oh yes! There were answers everywhere you looked. There was no questions about it – people knew who I was and if they didn’t they asked and I told them” (Stoppard 38).
Forgetting their own names signifies the loss of their authenticity. How can they become authentic when they do not even remember their names? Since they cannot recognize themselves, no one else can, either. It is this loss of identification that leads to a further disintegration of the meaning of their lives. They have no idea who they are much less what they are supposed to accomplish. The beginning of the play has the two in a nondescript setting, with nothing solid to anchor them to any particular place. They could be in some sort of purgatory or limbo or they simply may not be aware enough to know their location. The film version treats this beginning differently and has the two walking against a vast landscape backdrop that emphasizes their insignificance in such a large world.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern live in a world of falsehoods and truths. Guildenstern observes “all your life you live so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque” (Stoppard 39). The world is full of truths yet no one sees them because it is more painful to see and recognize the truth than it is to live a life full of falsity and ignorance. Guildenstern says we have no choice, but “at least we are presented with alternatives” (Stoppard 39), those alternatives being the different ways in which to look at life. The two attempt to “trick” themselves into realizing their identity by releasing cognition and adopting pure instinct. Using a game of “Questions” they ask each other the main answers they seek, which are: why are they in Elsinore, where did they come from, where are they going, and who are they in the first place? They do not find specific answers, but they are at least taking small strides towards illumination.
The way Rosencrantz and Guildenstern question their own identities supports scholar Alirez Mahdipour’s assertion that “the idea of Self, a central existential idea, is derived from the view that there is no fixed essence within man and man is to create himself (his self) through ceaseless choosing of actions” (Stoppard 49). The way in which human beings reach this self awareness is the biggest question of all, and it is one that Guildenstern gets close to figuring out when he asserts that it, [“it” taking a double meaning of Hamlet’s affliction and the more vast question of humanity], is “a matter of asking the right questions – and giving away as little as we can” since it is all a “game” (Stoppard 40). When Guildenstern later claims “words, words. They’re all we have to go on” (Stoppard 40) it brings to mind Heidegger’s hermeneutics and the idea of the necessity of phenomenology and possessing proper vocabulary to explain these experiences and how it all fits into the puzzle of human existence.
Rosencrantz speaks of feeling “like a spectator” and how “the only thing that makes it bearable is the irrational belief that somebody interesting will come on in a minute”, (Stoppard 41) yet he never finds that person to make it all bearable. He is becoming aware of his own inactivity in his life. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are only now becoming aware, although it is very possible that they may have possessed this self awareness before and forgotten it, necessitating the need to start all over again since they have no idea who, or what, they were previous to this adventure.
This question of time is essential to their story. Guildenstern wonders whether time “has stopped dead” when the coin lands on ‘heads’ each time it is tossed for more than one hundred consecutive times (Stoppard 16). Another possibility they conjure is one that echoes Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. Guildenstern thinks they may have lived this life before and that they will live it again in the future since there is a never ending past and a limitless future that bookends the present. “We have been spinning coins together since – this is not the first time we have spun coins” Guildenstern shouts to which Rosencrantz replies “Oh no – we’ve been spinning coins for as long as I remember” (Stoppard 14-15). The question becomes whether this memory is restricted to the life they are now living or if it is a memory from a previous life, and if that is the case, then it is safe to assume this memory will occur an infinite amount of times as they continue to relive their lives over and over again.
Nihilistic elements appear throughout the story as well. Guildenstern laments “we’ve travelled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope or explanation” (Stoppard 121) because they have realized that everything is pointless, life is absurd, [“Don’t be absurd! – Easily!” (Stoppard 14)], and that nothing really matters since everything is doomed to recur, although this disparage of a lack of reprieve is in contrast with Nietzsche’s suggestion that a person can alter and better his or her eternal recurrence if he or she embodies his or her “will to power”. Rosencrantz offers a thought provoking sentiment when he advises “be happy – if you’re not even happy what’s so good about surviving?” (Stoppard 121). Once again, one of the most elemental questions concerning existential thought is brought up by the characters.
Scholar and author Walter Kaufmann speaks of how “Godless existentialism” claims “we are told, by a bleak doctrine that proclaims that man is not at home in the world but thrown into it, that he has no divine father and is abandoned to a life of care, anxiety, and failure that will end with death, with nothing after that” (Stoppard 2), which is the point of view taken by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Guildenstern says “wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are – condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one” and nothing they do will matter because, he says, “if we happened to discover, or even suspect, that our spontaneity was part of their order, we’d know that we were lost” (Stoppard 60). This has repercussions concerning their search for authenticity; he is saying they are not free to seek their authentic selves and to cultivate their individual identities. Guildenstern also realizes that “death is not anything – death is not. It’s the absence of presence, nothing more” (Stoppard 124).
Stoppard ends Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s story with their bleak realization that they are doomed to repeat these events for an infinite amount of time. Guildenstern wonders whether they will ever be able to alter their lives and change their eternal recurrence into a more pleasing one. He says “there must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said – no. But somehow we missed it” (Stoppard 125) and then he reassures himself that they will “know better next time” (Stoppard 126), yet it is clear they will not “know better”. They are doomed to repeat this dismal life throughout their own eternal recurrence. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may serve as a warning to others, prompting readers to be authentic to themselves in order to live a happier life, or lives, if eternal occurrence is indeed true.
Kaufmann, Walter. From Shakespeare to Existentialism. Princeton: New Jersey, 1980. Print.
Mahdipour, Alireza. “The Existential idea of Self in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: A justification for the Renaissance convention of play-within-the-play”. Research on Foreign Languages. Journal of Faculty of Letters and Humanities. Year 49. No. 200. Web. 16 June 2012.
Nietzsche, Freidrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Penguin: New York, 1966. Print.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Dir. Tom Stoppard. Perf. Tim Roth and Gary Oldman. Cinecom Pictures, 1990. Film.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. Arden: China, 2006. Print.
Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Grove: New York, 1967. Print.