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Themes

In Shakespeare's Hamlet, the play-within-a-play is packed within a clear context and is used by Hamlet to send a message to Claudius. For us as the audience of Stoppard's play, however, the distinctions between a play and reality get totally jumbled. First, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is nothing but a play on the stage. Secondly, it is a play that interacts with the action of an earlier play, Shakespeare's Hamlet. Third, it is unclear to what extent the Player and his Tragedians are driving the action of the play and to what extent the "real" characters are in control of what is happening. The difference between drama and reality is called into question, most explicitly in the arguments between Guil and the Player.

Questions About Versions of Reality

  1. How many distinct realities are there within the play? Is the reality inhabited by Ros and Guil different than that inhabited by the Player, than that inhabited by Claudius and Hamlet? If these realities are different, then how are they different?
  2. Do drama and real life constitute two different versions of reality? How does the play distinguish between them? Does this distinction ever break down?
  3. How can you explain the fact that the characters sometimes act as if they know that they are in a play? Are these moments different from the rest of the play? Does it interfere with your ability to understand the rest of the play? Does it make the play seem fake and contrived?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

There is no one version of reality presented in the play, and the idea of one coherent reality is presented as a fiction. Only those that can act in a multiplicity of realities make it out of the play unscathed.

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