Study Guide

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Fate and Free Will

By Tom Stoppard

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?