Study Guide

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Tom Stoppard

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Coins Galore

A coin can only do one of two things. It can either come up heads or it can come up tails. As bets go, betting on the flip of a coin is pretty straightforward. Yet, in Stoppard's play, a coin toss becomes an immensely complicated thing. When you throw up that quarter, there are many more questions than whether or not it will come down heads or tails.

A coin toss is a classic example in classes on probability. It is one of the first things that comes to mind when we talk about 'chance': heads I win, tails you lose. In the first scene of the play, the coin comes down heads over one hundred times in a row. The chances of this happening are one in 2 to the 100th power. In other words, the chances are very, very small. All of a sudden, it seems that tossing a coin is no longer about chance, but about fate. This is what gets Guil so scared. It's like he is getting a sign from above, like he is seeing the Virgin Mary in the flesh. To him, it's that big.

Usually in books, getting "a sign from above" is a good thing, so why is Guil so scared? The reason is that this sign is ambiguous. It's unclear. One way to think about it: what if God sent you a message in Morse code and you didn't know Morse code? Guil tries to consider a bunch of different explanations for what is going on. One is, in fact, divine intervention. One of the more creative ideas he has is "Inside where nothing shows, I am the essence of a man spinning double-headed coins, and betting against himself in private atonement for the sins of an unremembered past" (6.56). From the very start of the play, the coin focuses in on major issues: are our lives controlled by chance or by fate? If they're controlled by fate, is there any way of knowing what that fate is? Either way, is there any hope of having free will?

This becomes very explicit in Act Two. After speaking with Hamlet, Ros and Guil try to figure out what is going on. Guil says something very important, so important that we're going to include the whole quote right here:

GUIL: Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are … condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one – that is the meaning of order. If we start being arbitrary it'll just be a shambles: at least, let us hope so. Because if we happened, just happened to discover, or even suspect, that our spontaneity was part of their order, we'd know that we were lost. (He sits.) A Chinaman of the T'ang Dynasty – and, by which definition, a philosopher – dreamed he was a butterfly, and from that moment he was never quite sure that he was not a butterfly dreaming it was a Chinese philosopher. Envy him; in his two-fold security. (2.67)

There is no explicit mention of coins here, but there is a lot of talk about fate and order, and "two-fold security" seems to harken back to the way a coin can fall: either heads or tails. Just as someone who throws a coin up in the air knows that it will either fall heads or tails, the Chinaman knows that he is either one thing (a philosopher) or the other (a butterfly). He has only two options, and though he does not know which one is true, he can be reassured that at least he only has two options. Guil, by contrast, is afraid of things becoming too arbitrary. He is so uncertain of his situation that it almost feels like he is trapped in a whirlpool. If someone just told him, "Guil, you are either X or Y, but I can't tell you which one," then he would be immensely relieved.

Now what's all this business about "if we happened, just happened to discover, or even suspect, that our spontaneity was part of their order, we'd know that we were lost." Take some time and meditate on this one – this idea is far out. What Guil is saying is that we have to be able to believe that we can act spontaneously, that not everything in the world is ordered. In other words, we have to believe that we can act freely. If we don't have free will, life starts to seem really meaningless really fast. Go back through and read some of the banter between Ros and Guil: it's like they're trying to prove this line. They're trying to prove that they can act spontaneously, that they can act freely.

The coin is another way that this belief manifests itself. We believe that when we throw up a coin it is not already decided which way it will come down. There must be two possibilities! If we start to believe that the flip of a coin is already predetermined, then fate subsumes chance. What we mean is that all the things that we call "chance" are suddenly seen to be fate, just more subtly expressed. This is what gets Guil so freaked out in the beginning. It's starting to seem like there is no such thing as chance, which means that there is no such thing as free will.

There's one other thing about a coin: it's money. You bet on it because you are acting in your own self-interest. When Guil asks Ros what he would do if all of the coins had come down tails (so Guil would win instead of Ros), Ros says that he would check the coins. Guil then says, "I'm relieved. At least we can still count on self-interest as a predictable factor" (1.40). What this means in the context of our earlier discussion is that all of this stuff about fate and chance isn't just philosophical mumbo jumbo: it's very tied into what matters most to us – whether or not we are free. On another level, self-interest might play a role in the debate about fate and chance. Is it possible to act against one's own self-interest? If it's not, then is anyone really free?

The Wind

There are two key points in the play when the wind comes up in the dialogue, but if you check out the film you'll notice that the wind is constantly blowing. It blows especially hard when scenes are changing and it seems as if things are getting out of control. In the film, the wind is often used to signal a change in events, and when things get chaotic, it's like there's a little hurricane going.

The first major point the wind comes up in the play is when Ros and Guil are trying to determine which way they came to the court at Denmark. Guil gets into an absurdly elaborate scheme where he tries to use the position of the sun to figure out the direction of the wind. For a moment, he completely forgets about the wind, and he is just trying to figure out what time of day it is based on the position of the sun. Ros suggests that he just go and look, and he gets angry. He says, "Pragmatism?! – is that all you have to offer? You seem to have no conception of where we stand!" (2.51). The dialogue continues:

ROS: I merely suggest that the position of the sun, if it is out, would give you a rough idea of the time; alternatively, the clock, if it is going, would give you a rough idea of the position of the sun. I forget which you're trying to establish.
GUIL: I'm trying to establish the direction of the wind.
ROS: There isn't any wind. Draught, yes.
GUIL: In that case, the origin. Trace it to its source and it might give us a rough idea of the way we came in – which might give us a rough idea of south, for further reference. (2.52-55)

A few minutes later, the Player enters and says, "I know which way the wind is blowing" (2.146). In some sense, the joke is very simple. Knowing which way the wind is blowing is having some sense of what's going on, of being able to figure out which way events are headed: it's knowing what's what. The Player uses the metaphor to imply that he knows how events are going to turn out, while just a few minutes ago we watched Guil's ridiculous attempt to find out which way the wind was blowing only to decide that there was no wind. In short, Ros and Guil don't know what's going on.

Yet the wind gets at a major theme of the play: the tension between "pragmatism" and "pure reason." This is actually a big debate in philosophy. It's the difference between something called a priori and a posteriori. A priori means that we can establish something just by thinking about it, just by using our reason. For example, the philosopher Descartes' thought that he could establish his existence just by thinking about it. His famous proof: "I think, therefore I am." A posteriori, by contrast, means that we have to observe empirical data before we come to conclusions; we have to look at the world and see how it works. In the scene with the wind, Guil shows how inept he is at establishing things a posteriori. He's pretty good at speculating about things without any evidence, but he stinks at observing the world around him. Forget all the philosophical talk for a second. The point is: Guil has no common sense.

This gets back to Guil's attempts to determine whether or not things are controlled by fate or by chance. In the opening scene with the coins, he spends a long time considering various possibilities and trying to decide what is going on just by thinking about it. Yet the fact that the wind becomes a symbol of the course of events suggests that maybe the best way to figure out what is going on is just to be very attentive to the world around you. Who needs abstract reasoning when the answer is right under your nose (or at the tip of your licked finger, if we're talking about wind)?

The other place that the wind comes up is in the final act. The wind is filling the sails of the boat that will take Guil and Ros to England. It is at this point in the play that events are set and determined; the wind is directing Guil and Ros to their fates. What before was "just" a metaphor suddenly takes on literal power: it really is taking the two of them to their deaths. But anyway, we'll talk more about that final act in our next section, "The Boat."

The Boat

At the end of "The Wind," we talk about how metaphors suddenly become very literal. The boat is another great example of this. Ros and Guil have a comic exchange on whether or not death could be a boat, but it takes on a more frightening tinge because the audience knows that the boat is taking them to their deaths.

ROS: We might as well be dead. Do you think death could possibly be a boat?
GUIL: No, no, no … Death is … not. Death isn't. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can't not-be on a boat.
ROS: I've frequently not been on boats.
GUIL: No, no, no – what you've been is not on boats.

Underneath the comedy, there's something scary going on here. Words are taking on too much power. A metaphor or a figure of speech becomes a prophecy; it determines what will happen later on in the play. A turn of phrase becomes a cage in which the speaker becomes trapped. Zoom out for a moment. Stoppard is writing in the context of Shakespeare's Hamlet, which means in a very real sense that he and his characters are confined by Shakespeare's words. The fates of both Ros and Guil are written. Words really do determine the course of events.

Getting back to the boat specifically, why would Ros think that death is like a boat? We have a few ideas. One is that a boat journey is long, so long that it's possible to lose faith in your destination. You're just out at sea with no land in sight – not a bad metaphor for eternity. Another is that the course of a boat is fixed, and its direction is beyond the passenger's control. Ros and Guil are just along for the ride. What if that's what death is like? What if you still have a mind and you can still think, but you no longer have any freedom of action? It's a nightmare that is never directly voiced, but it simmers between the lines of Stoppard's text.

In contrast to Ros, Guil rather likes boats. We include his little speech here:

GUIL: Yes, I'm very fond of boats myself. I like the way they're – contained. You don't have to worry about which way to go, or whether to go at all – the question doesn't arise, because you're on a boat, aren't you? Boats are safe areas in the game of tag … the players will hold their positions until the music starts … I think I'll spend most of my life on boats. (3.55)

For Guil, the boat represents something like the perfect relationship between fate and free will. The boat has a direction and a destination, so there is some larger purpose at work that's bigger than Ros and Guil. At the same time, though, they're free to move about the deck, so to speak. They have some freedom, but not too much – not so much that events begin to feel arbitrary.

Now apply this idea to the play as a whole. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. These guys have to die. The boat is going to England, and the play is traveling towards the demise of our main characters. But just as Ros and Guil can move around the deck of the boat, so they can move around the stage during the course of the play's duration. The end point might be fixed, but the intermediary action is not.

Let's pull in a little something from the "Author's Note" to the early editions of the play. It might be a bit of a stretch, but we'll let you decide. In it, Stoppard writes,

This play-text is perhaps unusual in that it incorporates a good many speeches and passages enclosed in square brackets, and the material thus bracketed consists of optional cuts…I doubt that the same text has been performed in two different places anywhere in the world.

In some sense, what Stoppard is writing is just practical: a director can either shorten or lengthen the play based on his resources (the size of his cast or how much money he has). In another, though, he means that within the fixed action of the play, the director has some freedom to decide how the intermediary action will go. Everything is not completely pre-determined. It's this same idea of contained freedom: not too much, not too little. The floor of the stage is beginning to look more and more like the planks of a boat…

The Play-Within-A-Play-Within-A-Play-Within-A…

This is a King Kong-sized discussion, the place where we get into "meta-theater." Quite simply, meta-theater refers to plays about plays. In it, the characters might show an awareness that they are just actors in a play or the themes and dialogue of the play might reflect back on the nature of theater itself.

Hamlet is a very famous early example of meta-theater because it contains a play-within-a-play. The Murder of Gonzago is how Hamlet plans to affect the mind of Claudius, and bring him face-to-face with what he has done. In Shakespeare's play, art is taken from the past and it's meant to change the future. Hamlet sees theater as didactic: he uses it to teach a lesson to his usurping Uncle, and he's not very subtle.

Stoppard's play is extremely meta-theatrical, and for him things are much more complicated than they are for Hamlet. One of the big themes of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is what the distinction is between art and reality. With the Player and the Tragedians running about, dress rehearsals getting broken up by "real life," and plays forecasting events in the real world, it's not too easy to figure out.

In an interview, Stoppard commented that one of the reasons he thought that the play was such a big success was that the character's predicament is very much like the playwright's. We've touched on this here and there, but we'll really try to nail it down. Stoppard is writing within the context of Shakespeare's play. There are certain fixed limits to what he can and cannot do. The action of his play is already pre-determined, but there are certain spaces that he can take advantage of, opportunities for freedom of action, chances for him to be spontaneous.

Now let's look at Guil and Ros. For them, the course of events is controlled by what happens at the court in Denmark. They're hapless and inactive and never have any idea what to do until someone tells them what to do. When Claudius or Hamlet enter the scene, they quickly become wrapped up in events that are bigger than them, events that they cannot control. Yet there are certain moments where they have some "free time." There are moments where they have nothing to do, and they can fill up the time as they please. In these moments, the characters are capable of writing their own fates, so to speak. They are free.

What's great about this is that the meta-theatrical moments feel extremely natural. Many lines resonate with dual meanings because they are said within a theater, but they also make sense in the context of the play. For example, Guil tells the young tragedian Alfred, "we could create a dramatic precedent here" (1.248). This makes sense in the play because Alfred has told Guil that he doesn't like acting. Guil is suggesting that Alfred could quit, which would be a "dramatic precedent." When Alfred begins to cry, he goes on, "Come, come, Alfred, this is no way to fill the theatres of Europe."

In the context of the play, it's just a figure of speech, but because this is said in a play being shown in a theater, it takes on another meaning. The audience becomes involved in the play. Guil is saying that audiences have a certain expectation of actors. They want actors to play the roles that were assigned to them and to do it well and not to make any fuss about it. As a member of the audience, you have to say, "Yeah, I'm one of the people forcing kids like Alfred to act for my entertainment, and no, I never considered whether or not they enjoy it."

There are a couple other moments where the boundaries get pushed even more. One of the most shocking is when Ros screams "Fire!" at the audience. When no one moves, he says, "Not a move. They should burn to death in their shoes" (2.70). There are some tricky questions to answer here in the context of the play: how does Ros know that there are people in the audience watching him? Why does he show this knowledge now and not at other points? We're not too sure about those, but what Ros is doing is demonstrating, very un-subtly, that we – the audience – draw a sharp distinction between a play and real life. If someone in the audience screamed "Fire!" everyone would pay attention and get out of the theater as fast as they could. Yet when someone screams it in a play, it's not real. We don't have to act on it. We don't have to move.

The other instance is when Hamlet tries to spit on the audience. The stage directions read:

HAMLET comes down to footlights and regards the audience. The others watch but don't speak. HAMLET clears his throat noisily and spits into the audience. A split second later he claps his hand to his eye and wipes himself. He goes back upstage. (3.260)

We get into this a bit in Hamlet's "Character Analysis," but we'll go over it from a different angle here. One of the big themes of the play is passivity and inaction. Shortly before Hamlet spits on the audience, he overhears Ros and Guil open the letter that condemns him to death. He also hears them rationalize away delivering him to the king; he hears them betray him. As members of the audience, we sit there and think: "Man, Ros and Guil are just rotten guys. What cowards!" What we don't think is, "hey, we're sitting here passively, too." In some ways, we're even worse than Ros and Guil because we've known what was going to happen all along, and we've done nothing to stop it. Like Ros and Guil, we just let things happen. What Hamlet is basically saying is, "You also betrayed me." It's a direct indictment of the passivity of the audience.

Now, what questions might this raise in a larger context? Here are a few: What's the relationship between art and action? Can art inspire action? What are the unspoken rules that we observe when we come to a play? How can we live with ourselves when we go see so many tragedies where innocent people die and we just sit there and do nothing? Why do we do it?

These are huge questions. We're leaving them unanswered not because we're lazy (well, not completely anyway), but because these questions step too far outside the context of Stoppard's play. Stoppard's play doesn't provide answers to these questions, but it most definitely raises them and it uses meta-theater to do so.

The fact that Stoppard's play doesn't provide answers is key to our last point about meta-theater and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Stoppard is well known for writing plays that are capable of being interpreted many different ways (like almost all good art). It's hard to extract one clear message from his work. One character says one thing and another says the opposite, and the audience is left with no idea which one is the "take home point." We think this is a good thing. After all, if the message is too clear, then what you have is direct address. If you know exactly what you want to say, what's the point of writing a play? Why not just write an essay or deliver a speech?

What we're getting at here is the essence of what makes a play a play. The risk of meta-theater is that, if you're too direct, you're no longer writing a play. You're writing an essay. At other points in the module, we note how the characters almost just step out of the play and say, "Hey, we're just actors. The gig is up," but they never actually do. Why might that be?

The reason is that, as much as the play toys with convention, it still has to obey some basic rules. Perhaps the most basic contract between a playwright and his audience is that the playwright asks the audience to suspend their disbelief for the duration of the play, and the audience agrees. If Jules Roach (the man who played Guil in the first production) were to just come out and say, "Hey, my name is Jules Roach," then it would no longer be a play. It would have collapsed into direct address. This is, we think, the reason that the characters never cross that final line and admit that they're nothing but actors. As soon as they do, the play's over.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory Study Group

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