Study Guide

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Mortality

By Tom Stoppard


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.