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Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead
The play is structured as the inverse of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Two minor characters in the original, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are the leads in this play; they are on-stage here when they are off-stage in Shakespeare's play, with the exception of a few short scenes taken directly from the original. They find themselves within the puzzling universe of the play, brought into existence as an act of the playwright's creation.
The two characters and those they encounter often confuse their names, as they have interchangeable yet periodically unique identities. They are portrayed as two clowns or fools in a world that is beyond their understanding; they cannot identify any reliable feature or the significance in words or events. Their own memories are not reliable or complete and they misunderstand each other as they stumble through philosophical arguments while not realizing the implications to themselves. They often state deep philosophical truths during their nonsensical ramblings, however they depart from these ideas as quickly as they come to them. At times one appears to be more enlightened than the other; however this position is traded-off throughout the course of the drama.
Several important themes in the play:
- Existentialism - why are we here? Why should Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do anything unless someone asks them to? They find themselves as pawns in a gigantic game of chess, yet make no effort whatsoever to escape.
- Free will vs. determinism - is it their choice to perform actions, or are they fated to live the way they do? The implication the play gives is that it doesn't matter what choices Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make, they are trapped within the logic of the play, and cannot escape, being fated to follow a destiny determined by the plot. Hamlet ends with the news of their deaths, so they have to die.
- Search for value - what is important? What is not? Does anything matter? If we are all going to die, why do we continue to live?
These themes, and the presence of two central characters who almost appear to be two halves of a single character, are shared with Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, and the two plays are often compared. The theme of characters living the strange world of an author's creative imagination (without being fully aware of it) has also been explored in other works, for example Frank Baker's classic Miss Hargreaves: A Fantasy, and Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World.
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