Shakespeare's Hamlet is one of the most famous plays in the history of literature. We all know the story, even if we haven't read the play. The same may not be true about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard, but his retelling of two of the minor characters of Shakespeare's play is worth a glance, especially from a Formalist lens.
But first, in case you've been living under a rock in a graveyard, a bit about the original Hamlet. The main dude is a Danish prince named Hamlet who's pretty sure that his uncle killed his dad to snatch the throne and the queen, but for some reason Hammy can't get his act together and just kill the guy. He keeps procrastinating, and procrastinating, and procrastinating. And you thought studying for tests was hard.
So Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They're Hamlet's childhood friends. And Hamlet's uncle sends them to spy on Hamlet to figure out what his deal is. But Hamlet finds out, tricks his former buddies, and they end up dead in Shakespeare's play. Uncle aside, at least he got a couple murders right (even if it was like, not really his fault with those guys).
In the 1960s, when Shakespeare himself was already long gone, Tom Stoppard got the idea of writing a play that would take place mostly on the sidelines of Shakespeare's Hamlet. That is, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are offstage in Shakespeare's Hamlet, we see them onstage in Stoppard's play. Every now and again the major characters from Shakespeare's play (including the hammy man himself) show up in Stoppard's play, and bits of Shakepeare's Hamlet are sometimes incorporated. Overall, though, it's a whole different ballgame.
Stoppard's play is a pretty big deal from a Formalist point of view because it's a great example of this big idea that the Formalists were keen on: that a work of literature is defined by its relationship to the works that came before it. If Shakespeare hadn't written Hamlet, Stoppard wouldn't have written Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. So in order to understand Stoppard's play, we need to understand its relationship to Hamlet. And you thought the Formalists didn't care about context!
Here's a section from Act Two of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. It begins with a section of Shakespeare's Hamlet when the little prince is making fun of Polonius, the father of his betrothed, Ophelia, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are trying to find out what's going on with Hamlet, as instructed by Claudius. Enough going on for ya? Anyway, the former buddies aren't having much success.