Study Guide

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Language and Communication

By Tom Stoppard

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?