Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
by Tom Stoppard
Hamlet, the title character of Shakespeare's tragedy, here gets a minor role. It's as if the play were turned on its head, with Ros and Guil getting Hamlet's major role and him taking theirs. He acts moody and distracted – perhaps insane – in the few scenes that he appears in, but he admits to Ros and Guil that his madness is calculated. He is much sharper than his friends and quickly realizes that they are questioning him on the King's business.
Though he has much reason to be upset – given that his uncle killed his father and married his mother – the audience is not made to have as much sympathy for him as they would in Shakespeare's play. Here he seems overly self-absorbed, and his motives are often unclear. He stabs Polonius, and, given the opportunity, saves himself by altering his death sentence (in the letter) so that his friends, Ros and Guil, are instead condemned to death.
One of the weirder scenes Hamlet has in the play is when he walks to the front of the stage and spits, then wipes his eye. It is almost as if the egotistical Hamlet is trapped in this play as a minor character. Like a selfish child, he is angry with the audience for paying more attention to Ros and Guil than to him, and so he spits on the audience. Yet Hamlet is the one who gets hit in the eye with something or another (like he spit into the wind and it came back and hit him in the face). It becomes apparent that, in this version of Hamlet, Hamlet too is just part of the audience – even if he fails to realize it.