Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was Tom Stoppard's breakthrough play. It was a huge critical and commercial success, making him famous practically overnight. Though written in 1964, the play was published in 1967, and it played on Broadway in 1968, where it won the Tony for best play.
The play cleverly re-interprets Shakespeare's Hamlet from the point of view of two minor characters: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The Laurel-and-Hardy-like pair are totally incidental to the action of Hamlet, subject to the whims of the King Claudius – who gets them to betray Hamlet – and then tricked by Hamlet into delivering a letter that condemns them to death (check out the Shmoop's guide to Hamlet; it's useful to know the basic plot). Stoppard's play turns Hamlet on its head by giving these two the main roles and reducing all of Shakespeare's major characters (including Hamlet) to minor roles. Written around and in-between the lines of Shakespeare's play, Stoppard brilliantly takes the main concerns of contemporary theater – absurdism, the inevitability of death, breakdown in communication and feeling – and inserts them into the text of a much earlier play.
The absurdist tradition that Stoppard is writing in suggests another enormous influence: Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1952). Beckett's play is just as important to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead as Hamlet is. Waiting for Godot consists of two tramps sitting on-stage bantering back and forth and waiting for someone named Godot, who never comes (check out Shmoop's guide to Waiting for Godot for more detail).
Waiting for Godot changed theater by undermining many of its traditional values: plot, characterization, and dialogue that move the action of the play forward. By portraying the act of "waiting" on stage, Beckett's play also opened up new ideas about meta-theatrics (plays that are about plays – how they're made, how they're seen, and/or how they interact with society). Since the characters in Godot are in the same position as the audience – waiting for something to happen – much of their dialogue works on multiple levels and seems to hint at awareness on the part of the tramps that they're actually two characters in a play.
Stoppard wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in this absurdist and meta-theatrical tradition. It is very much influenced by Beckett, and much of the silly dialogue between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern simply would not have been seen in the theater before Waiting for Godot. It's as if Stoppard uses the innovations that Beckett brought to contemporary theater in order to pry open the minor Shakespearean characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Some critics think that Stoppard was too much under the influence of Beckett at this point in his career, but we think that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is something unique and independent of both Waiting for Godot and Hamlet. It is an almost universally acknowledged masterpiece of contemporary theater.
If life were a play, most of us would be minor characters in it. Sure, we might imagine it differently, but very few of us live our lives as Hamlets. In general, we more closely resemble the silly characters that only occasionally get caught up in the central action, characters like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. We call ourselves "masters of our domains," but when we think about how many things in our lives we actually have control over, it's not necessarily a long list.
If there's one thing that we don't have control over at all, one thing that's absolutely certain, it's that we're going to die. We don't think about this too often – it's not a cheerful subject – but we see and hear about people dying all the time: on the news, in books and plays, in video games, and in our personal lives as well. It's one of the most common things in the world, and yet when you get down to it none of us knows a thing about it. It's a real mystery, not a detective story with an interesting twist at the end, but a real unknown: a mystery that endures. In some ways, it's impossible to think about. Your mind just can't fathom it, and your imagination falls short.
Stoppard's play cleverly explores all of these issues surrounding death. It doesn't give us heroic or tragic deaths like we get in Hamlet, but it tries to figure about what's significant when a "minor character" dies – someone unimportant who dies by their own folly. Insignificance, Stoppard seems to argue, is just as important a theme to be explore as significance.