Study Guide

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Quotes

  • Language and Communication

    ROS (cracking, high): --over my step over my head body! – I tell you it's all stopping to a death, it's a boding to a depth, stepping to a head, it's all heading to a dead stop – (1.306)

    How can Ros's broken speech be explained in the context of the play? Is it a source of returning to their banter after the elevated Shakespearean speech of the Claudius scene?

    ROS (flaring): I haven't forgotten – how I used to remember my own name – and yours, oh, yes! There were answers everywhere you looked. There was no question about it – people knew who I was and if they didn't they asked and I told them. (1.314)

    What is the significance of their inability to keep track of their names? Is language here taking on more weight than it does normally? In the play, do they equate a weak sense of identity with an inability to remember your name?

    ROS: What are you playing at?
    GUIL: Words, words. They're all we have to go on. (1.348-349)

    What is Guil's obsession with words? If you've read Waiting for Godot, is there any difference in the view of language presented in this play than the view presented in Beckett's?

    ROS: Rhetoric! Game and match! (Pause.) Where's it going to end?
    GUIL: That's the question.
    ROS: It's all questions.
    GUIL: Do you think it matters?
    ROS: Doesn't it matter to you?
    GUIL: Why should it matter?
    ROS: What does it matter why? (1.418-424)

    What are the rules of Ros and Guil's game? Is it all pointless or is there some skill to be gained from it?

    ROS: Fire!
    GUIL: Where?
    ROS: It's all right – I'm demonstrating the misuse of free speech. To prove that it exists. (2.68-70)

    What does it mean to say that we have free speech? Does the speech in the play become so free that it loses the ability to change anything – to affect the action?

    ROS: Took the very word out of my mouth.
    GUIL: You'd be lost for words. (2.92-93)

    Doesn't the fact that Guil has intonated so clearly (so that Ros can get his meaning) also demonstrate the risk of getting lost because of words, because language is ambiguous and slippery and hard to pin down?

    GUIL: We only know what we're told, and that's little enough. And for all we know it isn't even true.
    PLAYER: For all anyone knows, nothing is. Everything has to be taken on trust; truth is only that which is taken to be true. It's the currency of living. There may be nothing behind it, but it doesn't make any difference so long as it is honoured. One acts on assumptions. What do you assume? (2.153-154)

    How much of what we know is taken on someone else's word? How huge is the role that language plays in what we think we know about the world?

    PLAYER: You understand, we are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style. (2.290)

    Could the Player's description of the language he is forced to work with be taken as a larger accusation against twentieth century literature in general?

    ROS: The sun's going down. (Pause.) It'll be night soon. (Pause.) If that's west. (Pause.) Unless we've –
    GUIL (shouts): Shut up! I'm sick of it! Do you think conversation is going to help us now? (3.307-308)

    How does conversation help Ros and Guil at other points in the play? What has changed by the end that makes Guil think it is useless?

    HORATIO: and let me speak to the yet unknowing world
    how these things came about: so shall you hear
    of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts,
    of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
    of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
    and, in this upshot, purposes mistook
    fallen on the inventor's heads: all this can I
    truly deliver. (3.349)

    The play clearly calls into doubt Horatio's ability to tell this tale accurately. What obstacles are there to his being able to explain clearly what has happened? Are these specific to his situation or are many of them apparent whenever one tries to accurately recount a tragic event?

  • Isolation

    GUIL: A man talking sense to himself is no madder than a man talking nonsense not to himself. (1.175)

    Why do the requirements for sanity go up when one is alone? How can Hamlet tell if he is talking sense to himself when there is no one else to measure his sanity for him and tell him if he is making sense?

    GUIL: We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered. (2.79)

    Does the presumption correspond to the fact that we assume that we were sad when certain things came to an end, or could it correspond to something else? How many ways can you interpret this quote, despite the fact that it grabs you by the lapels (at least it grabbed us by the lapels) the first time that you read it?

    PLAYER: There we were – demented children mincing about in clothes that no one ever wore, speaking as no man ever spoke, swearing love in wigs and rhymed couplets, killing each other with wooden swords, hollow protestations of faith hurled after empty promises of vengeance – and every gesture, every pose, vanishing into the thin unpopulated air. (2.114)

    As part of the Player's lament about performing and finding you don't have an audience, does this passage reveal that actors are much like lonely little children, just attempting to get some attention and abate their loneliness?

    PLAYER: You don't understand the humiliation of it – to be tricked out of the single assumption which makes our existence viable – that somebody is watching… (2.112)

    To what extent is the Player's sense of control and confidence based upon an audience? What might be the point of performing a play that no one watches? If life is, as the player imagines, much like a play, doesn't happiness depend upon the belief that someone or something is watching?

    GUIL: We have been left so much to our own devices – after a while one welcomes the uncertainty of being left to other people's.
    PLAYER: Uncertainty is the normal state. You're nobody special. (2.147-148)

    Why does being around other people make Guil less attentive to his own uncertainty? Is it just alleviation from loneliness or is there some assurance in shunting uncertainty to other people?

    GUIL: I like to know where I am. Even if I don't know where I am, I like to know that. If we go there's no knowing. (2.473)

    Does knowledge here become like another character in the play, a third companion to Ros and Guil?

    ROS: We're not finished, then?
    GUIL: Well, we're here, aren't we?
    ROS: Are we? I can't see a thing.
    GUIL: You can still think, can't you?
    ROS: I think so.
    GUIL: You can still talk.
    ROS: What should I say?
    GUIL: Don't bother. You can feel, can't you?
    ROS: Ah! There's life in me yet. (3.7-14)

    Can you imagine anything more isolating than having a mind and not a body, of just being a voice in the dark?

    GUIL: There may be something in the letter to keep us going a bit.
    ROS: And if not?
    GUIL: Then that's it – we're finished.
    ROS: At a loose end?
    GUIL: Yes. (3.126-130)

    To what extent does having or not having a sense of purpose contribute to feelings of isolation? If Ros and Guil had a better idea of what they were doing, would they feel less alienated?

    GUIL (excitedly): Out of the void, finally a sound; while on a boat (admittedly) outside the action (admittedly) the perfect and absolute silence of the wet lazy slap of water against water and the rolling creak of timber – breaks. (3.216)

    Guil, who is usually so worried about isolation, is not in this case. What makes the difference? Does his poetic language become like a cloak of comfort that he puts on in his extreme isolation?

  • Manipulation

    PLAYER: Now for a handful of guilders I happen to have a private and uncut performance of The Rape of the Sabine Women – or rather woman, or rather Alfred – (Over his shoulder.) Get your skirt on, Alfred – (1.187).

    Why does the Player's proposal here offend Guil just a moment later? How is he using Alfred? Is he just being a director or is there something more sinister going on?

    PLAYER: They're hardly divisible, sir – well, I can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and I can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and I can do you all three concurrent or consecutive, but I can't do you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory – they're all blood, you see.
    GUIL: Is that what the people want?
    PLAYER: It's what we do. (1.260-262)

    If blood may or may not be what the people want, is the player manipulating them into thinking that blood is what they want? Is this a power that writers and artists have in general – to determine people's tastes for them?

    CLAUDIUS: Something have you heard
    Of Hamlet's transformation, so call it,
    Sith nor th'exterior nor the inward man
    Resembles that it was. What it should be,
    More than his father's death, that thus hath put him,
    So much from th'understanding of himself,
    I cannot dream of. I entreat you both
    That, being of so young days brought up with him
    And sith so neighboured to his youth and haviour
    That you vouchsafe your rest here in our court
    Some little time, so by your companies
    To draw him on to pleasures, and to gather
    So much as from occasion you may glean,
    Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus,
    That opened lies within our remedy. (1.287)

    Considering that Claudius killed Hamlet's father and married his mother it seems like, if he has his wits about him, he should be able to figure out what's bothering Hamlet. If he might already know what is troubling him, why does he send in Ros and Guil? Is he also betraying Ros and Guil by asking them in such a manner that they won't recognize what they are doing as a betrayal of their friend?

    GUIL: We have been briefed. Hamlet's transformation. What do you recollect?
    ROS: Well, he's changed, hasn't he? The exterior and inward man fails to resemble –
    GUIL: Draw him on to pleasures – glean what afflicts him. (1.331-333)

    Does the fact that Ros imps Claudius's language suggest that Claudius's speech is determining the way that he is thinking? Does it suggest that he's totally under Claudius's sway?

    GUIL: Exactly, it's a matter of asking the right questions and giving away as little as we can. It's a game. (1.337)

    Does the fact that Guil looks at the upcoming encounter with Hamlet keep him from noticing that he is attempting to manipulate his friend into telling him what he wants?

    HAMLET: My uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived?
    GUIL: In what, my dear lord?
    HAMLET: I am but mad north north-west; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw. (2.3-5)

    Is it possible that by feigning madness to control the people around him, Hamlet could become captive to his fake insanity – forced to act as if he were insane?

    ROS: Perhaps they've all trampled each other to death in the rush… Give them a shout. Something provocative. Intrigue them (2.76).

    This is one of many points where Ros attempts to control who comes on and off the stage. How does the fact that he's on a physical stage make it different than if this were a film (which it also is) and he were just trying to get people to come in and out of court rooms (which he does in the film)?

    GUIL: Nobody leaves this room! (Pause, lamely.) Without a very good reason. (2.198)

    Is Guil's desire for everyone to have reasons for their actions an effort to manipulate them (into having reasons, whether or not they actually do)?

    CLAUDIUS (moves): Bring him before us.
    (This hits ROS between the eyes but only his eyes show it. Again his hesitation is fractional. And then with great deliberation he turns to GUIL.)
    ROS: Ho! Bring in the lord.
    (Again there is a fractional moment in which ROS is smug, GUIL is trapped and betrayed. GUIL opens his mouth and closes it.) (2.426)

    Is this the first time that Ros realizes that Claudius has been using them just to get to Hamlet? Why does his betrayal of Guil make him smug – does it really alleviate him of responsibility? This is a peak point of tension between Ros and Guil, but what exactly is going on here?

    The black resolves to moonlight, by which HAMLET approaches the sleeping ROS and GUIL. He extracts the letter and takes it behind his umbrella; the light of his lantern shines through the fabric, HAMLET emerges again with the letter, and replaces it, and retires, blowing out his lantern. (3.212)

    This is what we get of Hamlet's betrayal of Ros and Guil – no angst-filled monologues, no explanation or reflection, just this. Why doesn't Hamlet just throw the letter overboard? Why would he betray Ros and Guil by altering the letter? Is this any clearer in Stoppard's play than it was in Shakespeare's?

  • Fear

    GUIL: Is that what you imagine? Is that it? No fear?
    ROS: Fear?
    GUIL (in fury – flings a coin on the ground): Fear! The crack might flood your brain with light! (1.47-49)

    Why would fear "flood your brain with light," as Guil puts it? Does fear open up new perceptions and change the way we look at things, or does it just paralyze us?

    ROS: I'm afraid –
    GUIL: So am I.
    ROS: I'm afraid it isn't your day.
    GUIL: I'm afraid it is. (1.51-54)

    How is Ros and Guil's fear different here? Ros is just trying to sympathize with Guil, isn't he? Does Guil notice that Ros is being sympathetic, or is he too focused on whether or not the long string of coins coming up heads is a sign?

    GUIL: The scientific approach to the examination of phenomena is a defence against the pure emotion of fear. (1.74)

    Does the world become less frightening when we think that we understand it? Is Guil's statement actually true of science or just of his spontaneous syllogisms?

    ROS leaps up and bellow at the audience.
    ROS: Fire! … Not a move. They should burn to death in their shoes. (2.70)

    As an audience member, why wouldn't one be afraid when a character in a play yells fire? How does fear remain contained within a dramatic context? Does this say something about how much drama can come to affect the way that we think about our daily lives?

    ROS: We're overawed, that's our trouble. When it comes to the point we succumb to their personality… (2.227).

    What does Ros mean by "overawed?" Is it just a fancy term for being afraid? Why do his nerves fail when he approaches Hamlet? Is his shyness a type of fear – what is he afraid of?

    GUIL: You scream and choke and sink to your knees, but it doesn't bring death home to anyone – it doesn't catch them unawares and start the whisper in their skulls that says – "One day you are going to die." (2.338)

    What is the point of being afraid of death? Does Guil just want company in his fear?

    ROS: I think we should stick together. He might be violent.
    GUIL: Good point. I'll come with you.
    ROS: No, I'll come with you.
    GUIL: Right.
    ROS: I'll come with you, my way.
    GUIL: All right. (2.371-376)

    In this foolish little back and forth, doesn't it seem that Ros and Guil are both afraid to be alone and afraid of what will happen when they will find Hamlet? Why don't they just admit it instead of stumbling about trying to think of an efficient way to search for him together?

    ROS (almost in tears): Oh, what's going to become of us!
    GUIL: Don't cry…it's all right…there…there, I'll see we're all right. (3.107-108)

    How do Guil and Ros keep each other from being overwhelmed by fear of their situation? Is this situation typical of how Guil acts toward Ros, or is it different?

    ROS: We drift down time, clutching at straws. But what good's a brick to a drowning man? (3.169)

    Ros sometimes gives in to simpler forms of fear – crying and sniffling and whatnot. What's the difference here? How does fear here enable eloquence?

    PLAYER (Dying amid the dying – tragically; romantically.): So there's an end to that – it's commonplace: light goes with life, and in the winter of your years the dark comes early. (3.342)

    What would it take to bring death home to the player and to make him fear it? How does his language and his manner of speaking help him to float above the fear of death?

  • Foolishness and Folly

    GUIL: What's the first thing you remember?
    ROS: Ah. (Pause.) No, it's no good, it's gone. It was a long time ago.
    GUIL (patient but edged): You don't get my meaning. What is the first thing after all the things you've forgotten?
    ROS: Oh I see. (Pause.) I've forgotten the question. (1.61-64)

    Is there something more significant going on in the misunderstanding here? Isn't Ros revealing that there's not just a set of things you forget and a set of things you remember, but that the two are jumbled and often indistinguishable?

    GUIL: We can't afford anything quite so arbitrary. Nor did we come all this way for a christening. All that – preceded us. But we are comparatively fortunate; we might have been left to sift the whole field of human nomenclature, like two blind men looting a bazaar for their own portraits…At least we are presented with alternatives. (1.317)

    Does foolishness grow out of arbitrariness or does arbitrariness grow out of foolishness?

    HAMLET: …for you yourself, sir, should be as old as I am if like a crab you could go backward.
    POLONIUS (aside): Though this be madness, yet there is method in it. Will you walk out of the air, my lord?
    HAMLET: Into my grave.
    POLONIUS: Indeed, that's out of the air. (1.593-596)

    What is the difference between madness and foolishness? Why is it necessary that they think that Hamlet is mad rather than just being foolish? When might it be advantageous to pretend to be a fool?

    ROS: I think we can say he made us look ridiculous.
    GUIL: We played it close to the chest of course. (2.20-21)

    How is it that Ros is more worried about looking foolish while he is attempting to get information from Hamlet than he is about the fact that, by helping Claudius, he is betraying his friend?

    ROS: I understand you not, my lord.
    HAMLET: I am glad of it: a knavish speech sleeps in a foolish ear. (2.415-416)

    Is Ros's problem not that he is naturally a fool, but that he is just bad at listening to what goes on around him? Are great speakers always great listeners?

    ROS: They'll have us hanging about till we're dead. At least. And the weather will change. (Looks up.) The spring can't last for ever. (2.445)

    Notice how Ros, here as so many other places in the play, manages to predict what will happen to the two of them without even knowing it.

    PLAYER: Yes, we were dead lucky there. If that's the word I'm after.
    ROS (not a pick up): Dead?
    PLAYER: Lucky.
    ROS (he means): Is he dead? (3.284-287)

    Is there more meaning that comes out of this little misunderstanding? Why would Ros pick up on the word "dead" while the player is focused on the word "lucky"?

    ROS (mournfully): Not even England. I don't believe in it anyway.
    GUIL: What?
    ROS: England.
    GUIL: Just a conspiracy of cartographers, you mean. (3.163-166)

    Does Guil attempt to make Ros look more foolish than he actually is? Don't many of Ros's statements, interpreted correctly, actually make more sense than Guil seems to admit?

    ROS: I wish I was dead. (Considers the drop.) I could jump over the side. That would put a spoke in their wheel.
    GUIL: Unless they're counting on it.
    ROS: I shall remain on board. That'll put a spoke in their wheel. (3.177)

    Ros here is attempting not to question things and just to perform and act, but he doesn't seem to be having much success. Examine the way his mind works here and elsewhere: it's just like a wagon wheel, rolling from idea to idea.

    ROS: A compulsion towards philosophical introspection is his chief characteristic, if I may put it like that. It does not mean he is mad. It does not mean he isn't. Very often, it does not mean anything at all. Which may or may not be a kind of madness. (3.261)

    Does Ros stumble into significant insights through his mindless reasoning or not? Is excessive philosophical introspection just folly?

  • Passivity

    GUIL: All this strolling about is getting too arbitrary by half – I'm rapidly losing my grip. From now on reason will prevail. (2.200)

    Is Guil's problem that he thinks reason can impose order? If he is wrong, does this mean that all the time he thinks he is being active and composing order could actually just be time wasted passively?

    GUIL: But for God's sake what are we supposed to do?!
    PLAYER: Relax. Respond. That's what people do. You can't go through life questioning your situation at every turn. (2.149-150)

    Is sitting around questioning things more passive than just relaxing and responding and acting thoughtlessly? Is the Player more passive or is Guil? Is it possible to be reflective but also active?

    GUIL: Let us keep things in proportion. Assume, if you like, that they're going to kill him. Well, he is a man, he is mortal, death comes to us all, etcetera, and consequently he would have died anyway, sooner or later. (2.205)

    Is the fact that Guil is rationalizing away his betrayal a deviation from character or is the fact that he is betraying his friend (even if by rationalizing) a deviation from character?

    A FEMALE FIGURE, ostensibly the QUEEN, enters. ROS marches up behind her, puts his hands over her eyes and says with a desperate frivolity.
    ROS: Guess who?!
    PLAYER (having appeared in a downstage corner): Alfred!
    ROS lets go, spins around. He has been holding ALFRED, in his robe and blond wig. PLAYER is in the downstage corner still. ROS comes down to that exit. The PLAYER does not budge. He and ROS stand toe to toe. (2.263-265)

    We include all of these stage directions because Alfred and the Queen are two of the most passive characters in the play, perhaps even more so than Guil and Ros. Isn't it weird that Alfred gets dressed up as the Queen? What a coincidence.

    GUIL: As soon as we make a move they'll come pouring in from every side, shouting obscure instructions, confusing us with ridiculous remarks, messing us about from here to breakfast and getting our names wrong. (2.352)

    Guil here blames everyone else for their confusion and their situation. Do they ever learn not to get confused by such ridiculous remarks?

    GUIL: And yet it doesn't seem enough; to have breathed such significance. Can that be all? And why us? – anybody would have done. And we have contributed nothing. (2.428)

    Guil is right – they've contributed nothing. How could the two of them possibly be picked out for the task of divining what is wrong with Hamlet? Is it the fact that they contribute nothing?

    GUIL: Let us keep things in proportion. Assume, if you like, that they're going to kill him...we are little men, we don't know the ins and outs of the matter, there are wheels within wheel, etcetera – it would be presumptuous of us to interfere with the designs of fate or even of kings. All in all, I think we'd be well advised to leave well alone. Tie up the letter – there – neatly – like that. (3.205)

    Is this just passivity or is it cowardice? Is Guil breaking character here? Is this something to be suspected? By tying back up the letter and allowing things to take their course are they really just being passive or is this too a kind of action?

    ROS: We hand over the letter, which may or may not have something in it to keep us going, and if not, we are finished and at a loose end, if they have loose ends. We could have done worse. I don't think we missed any chances… Not that we're getting much help… If we stopped breathing, we'd vanish. (3.213)

    Is Ros starting to sound more like Guil here? Are these Ros's own ideas or is he soaking up Guil's manner of speaking?

    PLAYER: We learn something every day, to our cost. But we troupers just go on and on. Do you know what happens to old actors?
    ROS: What?
    PLAYER: Nothing. They're still acting. Surprised, then? (3.244-246)

    What does the Player mean when he says that nothing happens to old actors? Does this mean that, despite the fact that they are always acting in their plays, they are still being passive in the real world?

    ROS: We've done nothing wrong! We didn't harm anyone. Did we? (3.344)

    Does Ros and Guil's passivity throughout the play take on moral significance – is their failure to attempt to alter the course of events immoral?

  • Versions of Reality

    PLAYER: We keep to our usual stuff, more or less, only inside out. We do on stage the things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else. (1.207)

    Is the Player here making a statement not only about what his troupe does, but also about what Stoppard is doing in his play? Does his theory of many entrances and exits suggest that there is one inescapable reality or that there are just infinitely many different realities?

    GUIL: Do you like being…an actor?
    ALFRED: No, sir.
    (GUIL looks around him, at the audience.)
    GUIL: You and I, Alfred – we could create a dramatic precedent here. (1.246-248)

    Assuming that the dramatic precedent would be two actors walking out of a play that they are paid to act in, how does Guil recognize that he is an actor? How can Guil for a moment seem to understand that he is just a character in a Stoppard play? Does he cease to be Guil at this moment and become the actor that plays him?

    GUIL: Well…aren't you going to change into your costume?
    PLAYER: I never change out of it, sir. (1.271-272)

    When the player says that he never changes out of his costume, does this mean that he is attempting to treat reality as he would treat a play or that he is attempting to treat a play as most people treat reality?

    He tosses the coin to GUIL who catches it. Simultaneously – a lighting change sufficient to alter the exterior mood into interior, but nothing violent. (1.285)

    This lighting change, which precedes Hamlet and Ophelia's first entrance on stage, is meant to suggest something about how the setting is changing. What does it suggest? How many different realities are at work in the play and how do they come into contact?

    GUIL: All your life you live so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque. (1.315)

    Is there a difference between truth and reality in the play? How do we live so close to truth without actually noticing it?

    PLAYER: There's a design at work in all art – surely you know that? Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral and logical conclusion. (2.310)

    Is this true of art? Is this the way that art differs from reality? Is it possible to make art out of reality?

    GUIL: Autumnal – nothing to do with leaves. It is to do with a certain brownness at the edges of the day…Brown is creeping up on us, take my word for it…Russets and tangerine shades of old gold flushing the very outside edge of the senses. (2.455)

    What are Guil's standards for determining a season or a setting? Are they different from normal people's standards? How do all the little details add up to one coherent reality?

    PLAYER: Naturally – we didn't get paid, owing to circumstances ever so slightly beyond our control, and all the money we had we lost betting on certainties. Life is a gamble, at terrible odds – if it was a bet you wouldn't take it. Did you know that any number doubled is even? (3.242)

    What type of reality is this if you can lose all of your money betting on certainties? What does the player mean that if life were a bet you wouldn't take it? What would be the terms of the bet? What would it mean to win the bet?

    The light has gone upstage. Only GUIL and ROS are visible as ROS's clapping falters to silence. (3.343)

    How is this another shifting of reality within the play? How do the different spheres of action relate and overlap? Is Ros's clapping, as it fades away, much like the audiences' as they hope that the play will end on a high note? Is the clapping an attempt to forestall their impending fate?

    GUIL: Well, we'll know better next time. Now you see me, now you – (and disappears) (3.347)

    Does this surreal death fit in with the rest of the play? Is there gesturing to the fundamental difference between an acted death and a real one? In the end, is this a realistic play or not?

  • Fate and Free Will

    GUIL: Inside where nothing shows, I am the essence of a man spinning double-headed coins, and betting against himself in private atonement for an unremembered past. (1.56)

    Why does the seeming suspension of the law of probability make Guil so uneasy? Why does he demand an explanation, even if it is more fantastical than the situation itself?

    GUIL: This made for a kind of harmony and a kind of confidence. It related the fortuitous and the ordained into a reassuring union, which we recognized as nature. The sun came up about as often as it went down, in the long run, and a coin showed heads about as often as it showed tails. Then a messenger arrived. We had been sent for. Nothing else happened. Ninety-two coins spun consecutively have come down heads ninety-two consecutive times…and for the last three minutes on the wind of a windless day I have heard the sound of drums and flute… (1.74)

    Is our sense of control over what happens to us based on the simple fact that sometimes things go our way and sometimes they do not? Is it just that things seem to happen randomly enough that we can't figure out a pattern and so we assume that we have free will?

    GUIL: The only beginning is birth and the only end is death – if you can't count on that, what can you count on? (1.325)

    Is the fact that you can count on birth and death a point of assurance for Guil or a cause for more concern?

    GUIL: There's a logic at work – it's all done for you, don't worry. Enjoy it. Relax. To be taken in hand and led, like being a child again, even without the innocence, a child – it's like being given a prize, an extra slice of childhood when you least expect it, as a prize for being good, or compensation for never having had one…Do I contradict myself? (1.329)

    Is Guil contradicting himself, not just logically within the sentence, but by feeling that the lack of control and free will is actually a blessing? How does this foreshadow how Guil will feel on the boat at the end of the play?

    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 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 known 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; his two-fold security. (2.67)

    What does two-fold security mean here? What does the Chinese philosopher have that Guil thinks that they lack? Why don't they still have a way of getting out of their situation?

    ROS: We'll be free.
    GUIL: I don't know. It's the same sky.
    ROS: We've come this far…And besides, anything could happen yet. (2.475)

    Ros's statement is heavily ironic. Is there anyway to still snatch some significance or truth from what he says, or is it overcome by the audience's knowledge that he and Guil are on the way to their deaths?

    GUIL: Allowed, yes. We are not restricted. No boundaries have been defined, no inhibitions imposed. We have, for the while, secured, or blundered into, our release, for the while. Spontaneity and whim are the order of the day. Other wheels are turning but they are not our concern. We can breathe. We can relax. We can do what we like and say what we like to whomever we like, without restriction. (3.258)

    How does the boat provide release? Why does Guil seem so relieved, and how do they have more freedom of action than they did in the court?

    GUIL (quietly): Where we went wrong was getting on a boat. We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current… (3.332)

    How does the boat continue to be a symbol for the interplay between fate and free will? Carrying this metaphor further, what is the significance of their being on the open sea?

    GUIL (broken): We've traveled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly toward eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation. (3.312)

    Is Guil's grand language just a way to escape from the fear of his immediate situation?

    GUIL: Our names shouted in a certain dawn…a message…a summons…There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said – no. But somehow we missed it. (3.347)

    What exactly is the ambiguous message that Ros and Guil refer to throughout the play? Why use this specific memory to symbolize larger processes of fate at work?

  • Mortality

    ROS: It's silly to be depressed by it. I mean one thinks of it like being alive in a box, one keeps forgetting to take into account the fact that one is dead…which should make all the difference…shouldn't it? I mean, you'd never know you were in the box, would you? It would be just like being asleep in a box. Not that I'd like to sleep in a box, mind you, not without any air – you'd wake up dead, for a start, and then where would you be? Apart from inside a box. (2.223)

    Is Ros just being naïve and foolish here, or is he right that everyone else's fear of death is actually irrational? Does he have any less an understanding of death than Guil does?

    GUIL: Death followed by eternity…the worst of both worlds. It is a terrible thought. (2.228)

    What does it mean to experience eternity after your dead? Does Guil understand what Ros has been saying or has he just convoluted it to make his own point?

    PLAYER: There's nothing more unconvincing than an unconvincing death. (2.286)

    What makes an acted death convincing? How can the audience, sitting there and knowing so clearly that the actor is faking his death, still be drawn in by the way that he pretends to die? Shouldn't death be a harder thing to act than almost anything else?

    PLAYER: It's what the actors do best. They have to exploit whatever talent is given to them, and their talent is dying. They can die heroically, comically, ironically, slowly, suddenly, disgustingly, charmingly, or from a great height. My own talent is more general. I extract significance from melodrama, a significance which it does not in fact contain; but occasionally, from out of this matter, there escapes a thin beam of light that, seen at the right angle, can crack the shell of mortality. (2.333)

    Notice how the Player's description of his own talent, the ability to "crack the shell of mortality," echoes Guil's description of fear in the first scene of the play. Though the Player and Guil are constantly arguing, aren't they much more alike than they realize?

    GUIL (fear, derision): Actors! The mechanics of cheap melodrama! That isn't death! (More quietly.) You scream and choke and sink to your knees, but it doesn't bring death home to anyone – it doesn't catch them unawares and start the whisper in their skulls that says – "One day you are going to die." (He straightens up.) You die so many times; how can you expect them to believe in your death? (2.338)

    Does seeing death all the time in films and on the news cheapen it? Does it all make it seem more or less real? What would it take to start the whisper in our skulls, and why should this be a target of theater?

    PLAYER: On the contrary, it's the only kind they do believe. They're conditioned to it. I had an actor once who was condemned to hang for stealing a sheep – or a lamb, I forget which – so I got permission to have him hanged in the middle of a play – had to change the plot a bit but I thought it would be effective, you know – and you wouldn't believe it, he just wasn't convincing! It was impossible to suspend one's disbelief – and what with the audience jeering and throwing peanuts, the whole thing was a disaster! – he did nothing but cry all the time – right out of character – just stood there and cried…Never again. (2.339)

    How could a real death be unconvincing? What are we actually looking for in a performance of a good death? When people actually die are they going to care if there's an audience that's impressed with how they die?

    GUIL: No, no, no…you've got it all wrong…you can't act death. The fact of it is nothing to do with seeing it happen – it's not gasps and blood and falling about – that isn't what makes it death. It's just a man failing to reappear, that's all – now you see him, now you don't, that's the only thing that's real: here one minute and gone the next and never coming back – an exit, unobtrusive and unannounced, a disappearance gathering weight as it goes on, until, finally, it is heavy with death. (2.340)

    Notice how Guil is, in a way, prophesying his own death later on in the play, and yet here he calls death something that is "unannounced."

    ROS (he means): Is he dead?
    PLAYER: Who knows?
    GUIL (rattled): He's not coming back?
    PLAYER: Hardly.
    ROS: He's dead then. He's dead as far as we're concerned
    PLAYER: Or we are as far as he is. (2.288-292)

    How does Ros's common-sense view of death differ from the Player's sense of death as something performed and Guil's sense of death as the ultimate negative?

    GUIL: I'm talking about death – and you've never experienced that. And you cannot act it. You die a thousand casual deaths – with none of that intensity which squeezes out life…and no blood runs cold anywhere. Because even as you die you know that you will come back in a different hat. But no one gets up after death – there is no applause – there is only silence and some second-hand clothes, and that's – death – (3.338)

    Is Guil more motivated by his desire to express what death is truly or by fear of what will happen to him and Ros?

    PLAYER: Deaths for all ages and occasions! Deaths by suspension, convulsion, consumption, incision, execution, asphyxiation and malnutrition – ! Climactic carnage, by poison and by steel – ! Double deaths by duel – ! Show! – So there's an end to that – it's commonplace: light goes with life, and in the winter of your years the dark comes early… (3.342)

    Does the Player's listing of all the different types of death give one a better idea of what death is than Guil's philosophical speculation, or does that only obscure it?

    GUIL: No…no…not for us, not like that. Dying is not romantic, and death is not a game which will soon be over…Death is not anything…Death is not…It's the absence of presence, nothing more…the endless time of never coming back…a gap you can't see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound. (3.343)

    Notice the way that all of the pauses illustrate the difficulty that Guil is having expressing this inexpressible idea.