Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: An Exploration of the “Art” of Living

By Caroline Kranick

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Photo by Rob Laughter on Unsplash

Artists need viewers to appreciate their works of creativity. Musicians require a crowd to listen as they demonstrate their talents. If an audience is not present to witness actors perform a play, then that which happens on the stage is pointless. These artistic endeavors are undergone for someone, an audience that is intended to observe the proceedings and, in doing so, endow the work with purpose. In the absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard raises provocative questions that relate these concepts to human existence: to what extent is life itself comparable to a performance undergone for the satisfaction of others? Are autonomous individuals truly no more than actors fulfilling required roles as they maneuver through life? Ros and Guil are characters constantly in the service of others; at various points of the play, the two find themselves carrying out orders and executing duties that are required of them. There is a clear "audience" that Ros and Guil attempt to gratify by their actions. Even beyond these moments of distinct servitude, however, Ros and Guil demonstrate a continued desire that their behavior be directed toward some tangible goal, as if still hoping to please an unseen, unknown "audience." Thus, the Player's comment that these two men of the court are actually his "fellow artists" (Stoppard 8) contains more truth than one might initially expect. Despite their own aversion to actors and the disgust which such a comparison incites within them, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's constant desire to act not of their own accord, but with the intention of satiating their "audiences" and fulfilling the roles in which they find themselves throughout Stoppard's play, confirms the Player's assertion that the two men are indeed actors just like him.

The strongest objection to such a claim—that Ros and Guil are indeed the "fellow artists" (18) of the Player and his Tragedians—would likely arise from Ros and Guil themselves. Within the setting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the Tragedians occupy a lowly position in society. Their line of work is viewed as frivolous and bearing little value; Ros, it seems, is "horrified" (20 [stage directions]) by the notion of paying "ten guilders!" (20) just for a performance by the actors. To be likened to these low-ranking figures would be a great offense, particularly for gentlemen like Ros and Guil, who occupy a superior position in the social hierarchy and "have influence" (21) in court.

Beyond the social implications of such a comparison, however, Ros and Guil would never wish to be identified alongside those whom they call "a comic pornographer and a rabble of prostitutes" (22). The Tragedians, it seems, partake in a school of acting involving what Ros refers to as "exhibitions" (23), evidently pornographic performances put on for "voyeurs" (19) and allowing viewers to "get caught up in the action" (19). This form of performative prostitution is, as one might expect, supposed to be looked down upon by civilized society. Guil, "shaking with rage and fright" (22 [stage directions]) when confronted by such an exhibition, denounces the entire affair as "obscene" (22), while Ros similarly attacks the Tragedians' "disgusting" (24) displays and condemns them as utter "filth" (24). The pair makes it clear that they, like any respectable members of society, view these actors as "perverts" (24) with "no dignity" (22). By the sheer ferocity of Ros and Guil's objections to the immoral and vulgar nature of the Tragedians, the two men appear to have convinced at least themselves of their complete dissociation from such a troupe. Such distinct abhorrence demonstrated by Ros and Guil for these actors must then undermine the validity of the Player's assertion that the two could ever be his "fellow artists" (18).

However, consideration of a variety of factors indicates that Ros and Guil's attempts to separate themselves from the Tragedians are not as successful as the pair might have hoped. The gentlemen's criticisms of these actors, while seemingly offered as a denouncement of the Tragedians' crude behavior, are in fact rather hypocritical in nature. Ros and Guil are genuinely intrigued by the provocative displays of the troupe, and the two go on to ask questions about "some of the things people ask [the Tragedians] to do" (23) and even pay to witness "just an idea" (24) of the performances they present. It is not until Ros is "shamed into fury" (24 [stage directions]) by his interest in the Tragedians and their ultimate dismissal of him that he even thinks to take issue with the inappropriate nature of their performances. Ros and Guil's condemnation of the Tragedians does not stem from some moral righteousness or virtuous superiority on their part, but, rather, it represents an attempt by the two men to hide their own condemnable desires and better conform to the expectations of society. Ros and Guil's disgust for the actors, then, is illegitimate, and it cannot be used to prove the disparity between the Tragedians and the gentlemen.

Furthermore, a deeper understanding of the Tragedians' behavior and motivations reveals that contempt for what the actors do is misplaced when directed at the actors themselves. The Player and his company "have no control" (21) over the sort of shows they put on, for the very nature of their occupation leaves them subject to the will of their audience. The actors only present what people will pay to see. The Tragedians' plays are simply the product of "times being what they are" (19); "better times" (22) allowed the troupe to be dramatic "purists" (22), while their new variety of performance is the unfortunate result of the changing desires of their audience. The Player demonstrates his own personal passivity as to the nature of their performances when he asks "what precisely is [Guil's] pleasure?" (19) and acknowledges that the troop will "stoop to anything if that's [Ros's] bent" (20). The provocative exhibitions that give the Tragedians their poor reputation are not products of their own perverted minds, but representations of the society to which the actors hope to appeal. The Tragedians themselves cannot then be blamed for the nature of their performances—indeed, the Tragedians themselves cannot truly be known, for they have "pledged [their] identities" (57) to their audience. These actors relinquish their autonomy in the understanding "that someone would be watching" (57) and the belief that such observance would imbue their actions with "meaning" (58). Their identities and behavior are molded by the wishes of their audience.

Therein lies the true link between the Tragedians and Ros and Guil, the connection by which two gentlemen of the court can be considered the Player's "fellow artists" (18), despite the fact that they do not make their living upon the stage. Just as the Tragedians' behavior is directed by their continuous desire to please their audience, so, too, do Ros and Guil consistently make decisions based solely upon the will of some "audience" they believe to be watching them. Like the Tragedians, Ros and Guil frequently exhibit behavior representative not of who they are as individuals, but of what their audience requires of them as performers. Rarely do the two act of their own volition; in fact, it is difficult to determine exactly what acting of their own volition would even entail, for scarcely a moment passes when Ros and Guil do not act with the ulterior motive of satisfying someone else. Ros himself acknowledges that "we [Ros and Guil] don't question, we don't doubt. We perform" (100). Whereas one ordinarily would question the situations in which he finds himself in order to determine how to react, the artists Ros and Guil already know that they must "perform" (100), or react in accordance with audience expectations. The result of such performative behavior is that the Tragedians and Ros and Guil share a lack of true identity stemming from their constant manipulation of self in order to fit required roles. The Tragedians openly acknowledge this absence of individuality and take a sort of pride in being "always in character" (29). For Ros and Guil, the gradual realization that their roles as actors have stripped them of individuality is far more unsettling, and it results in Guil frantically asking Ros "WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?" (39). Ros does not know how to answer this question, as it is clear that he "depend[s] on" "their word" (102), the word of his audience, to form his identity, and he is unable to do so on his own. Guil's remark that he "ha[s] no desires. None" (13) is another indication of the lack of personal involvement the two men actually have in shaping their own identities. They do not act based on their own desires, for it is not their desires that drive them; the men are directed by the wills of the various individuals who fulfill the role of their audience.

This audience takes a number of different forms throughout Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and yet Ros and Guil's desire to please each of these audiences remains constant at every turn. Perhaps the most distinct example of the titular characters behaving as actors subject to the will of their audience can be found in their relationship with Claudius. From the earliest of their interactions, it is made clear that Ros and Guil occupy a subservient position in relation to the King. Ros and Guil are brought to the kingdom only by Claudius's "need […] to use" (30) them, and the King and Queen beseech the two men to spy on Hamlet with the promise that doing so will result in "receiv[ing] such thanks as fits a king's remembrance" (31). By this account, there is virtually no notable distinction between Ros and Guil and the Tragedians, who are "travelling people" (20) that put on shows "for a jingle of coin" (18). Ros and Guil go on to act just in the way that their audience, the King and Queen, demand of them, as they resolve to "find out what's the matter" (35) with Hamlet at the royals' behest. In a demonstration of just how committed they are to fulfilling their new roles, Ros and Guil even rehearse how they will approach the Prince of Denmark—Guil "pretend[s]" to be Hamlet, while Ros "ask[s]" the "questions" (43) that they hope will elicit information from their target. Thus, they prepare for the presence of yet another audience, Hamlet, for whom they must modify and tailor their performances into those of concerned and unsuspecting friends.

Even as the requirements of their roles grow greater, Ros and Guil remain committed to their parts as actors on behalf of Claudius. When the letter given to them by Claudius reveals its intentions to have Hamlet killed, for example, Ros initially holds some reservations about continuing the performance; the two men are supposed to be Hamlet's "friends" (103), after all. However, their own personal involvement and feelings in the matter truly mean nothing, for they are getting paid to be actors, not to be Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The two ultimately decide that they cannot "interfere with the designs […] of kings" (102) and must forge onward in their roles until they are "finished" (103) and their audience satiated. Their actions in response to the letter are not the actions of Ros and Guil, men who purportedly have known Hamlet from their "young days brought up with him" (102). Instead, the behavior is that of actors whose audience wishes for them to "escor[t Hamlet] […] to England" (103), regardless of what is to happen when he arrives there. Ros and Guil are, quite simply, actors committed to the performance that they have promised to their audience, the king.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also intermittently attempt to trick and, in doing so, satisfy themselves by their own performances. In the case of the letter sentencing Hamlet to death, for example, Ros tries to convince himself that he and Guil "don't know what's in the letter" (103) before they are to deliver it, despite the fact that they have already read it and are aware of its deadly implications. As they do not wish to believe themselves to be bad people or to have done anything wrong, Ros and Guil essentially become their own audience, an audience that the two artists hope to convince of their own innocence in all of the play's proceedings. Ros's "cry" that he and Guil have "done nothing wrong!" (116) is not a proclamation against their guilt so much as a continuation of a performance in which they attempt to remove culpability from their actions. Even while they consciously and deliberately carry out acts by their own free will, Ros and Guil are able to assuage their guilt by their own false assurances that they are powerless in the situations in which they find themselves. The two agree, of their own volition, to undertake the task of spying set forth by Claudius, and yet Guil still insists that things are "all done for [them]," as if they are being "taken in the hand and led, like […] a child" (35). Taking on roles as actors does not remove Ros and Guil's moral responsibility in their actions, and yet the two hope to convince themselves that they cannot actually be held accountable for actions done for the sake of someone else. Despite the fact that Ros and Guil have just made a conscious decision to act on the King's behalf, they remain faithful to the characters that they have conceived for themselves of naive and innocent victims of circumstance. In this case, Ros and Guil themselves take on the roles of artists and consumers of the art, serving as both the individuals creating the desired performance and the audience seeing only that which they wish to see.

Ros and Guil's proclivity to put on such shows, even if just for an audience comprised of themselves, demonstrates the play's underlying message regarding life and performance: the art of acting is so deeply ingrained in human existence that not even in moments of solitude is one freed from the constraints of the "stage." Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are indeed the Player's "fellow artists" (18), not because they don silly costumes and act out charades for a crowd, but because the inherent state of humanity is a state of acting, of constantly putting on a performance for some form of audience or another. This sentiment is supported at every turn within Stoppard's play, as Ros and Guil consistently act only because they believe it satisfies the wishes of some interested party. The men embark on a mission to "glean what afflicts" (35) Hamlet because it is the desire of their audience, the king, and they employ different methods of deceit when performing for the audiences of both Hamlet and themselves. The very reason Ros and Guil engage in any of the events of the play in the first place is that they received a "summons" (16) and had their "names shouted" (15) by an ambiguous man whom neither can clearly remember, but whom they both perceive to be a sort of audience whose summons and wishes must be obeyed. The two follow this man, their original audience, with "no questions asked" (15), thereby setting a precedent for the passive acceptance of their roles that Ros and Guil go on to demonstrate in the remainder of the play. They rely unflinchingly upon their audiences to give meaning and purpose to their lives.

This dependence upon an audience to offer meaning to their existence highlights once more the similarities between the Player and Ros and Guil, his "fellow artists" (18). To the Player and his Tragedians, "the single assumption which makes [their] existence viable [is] that somebody is watching" (57). As such, the actors are outraged and full of "humiliation" (57) when Ros and Guil leave them "stripped naked in the middle of nowhere" (57), in the midst of putting on a performance for no one. It is not the compromising position of such a performance that bothers the Tragedians, but, rather, the fact that no one watched the exhibition and it was therefore void of meaning. The troupe "ransomed [their] dignity to the clouds, and the uncomprehending birds listened" (57)—they were actors left "high and dry" (57), performing without an audience and, thus, without a purpose. This humiliation mirrors that which Ros and Guil experience at the end of Act Three, when the two face their deaths alone in the absolute "silence" (115 [stage direction]) of an empty stage. Despite their demands for explanation—"What was it all about? When did it begin?" (116)—there are no other characters present to offer elucidation, no "audience" to guide them toward what they should do next. Just as the Tragedians are confronted by the embarrassing and pointless circumstances of performing without an audience, Ros and Guil meet a seemingly purposeless demise that not even the actual audience of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead get to witness in the play. The moment that these two actors no longer have an audience, the people who are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern no longer have life. Their existence concludes when it no longer has that which imbues it with meaning.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are certainly not actors in the traditional sense; the men themselves demonstrate an apparent disdain for the occupation, which makes it unlikely that they will ever recite a monologue or set foot on an actual stage. However, the behavior of these titular characters is uncanny in its resemblance to the behavior of actors. Ros and Guil are, in essence, performers, desiring in all matters to satiate the wants of their audiences: Claudius, Hamlet, themselves. Even beyond these particular circumstances within Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Ros and Guil can be considered the Player's "fellow artists" (18) merely for their status as members of the human race. In the eyes of Stoppard, all of humanity, regardless of stature, is caught in a perpetual state of acting in attempts to appease others. To be human is to act, and thus to exist only matters if "somebody is watching" (57).