Study Guide

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Isolation

By Tom Stoppard


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?