Study Guide

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Foolishness and Folly

By Tom Stoppard

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?