Study Guide

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Passivity

By Tom Stoppard


GUIL: All this strolling about is getting too arbitrary by half – I'm rapidly losing my grip. From now on reason will prevail. (2.200)

Is Guil's problem that he thinks reason can impose order? If he is wrong, does this mean that all the time he thinks he is being active and composing order could actually just be time wasted passively?

GUIL: But for God's sake what are we supposed to do?!
PLAYER: Relax. Respond. That's what people do. You can't go through life questioning your situation at every turn. (2.149-150)

Is sitting around questioning things more passive than just relaxing and responding and acting thoughtlessly? Is the Player more passive or is Guil? Is it possible to be reflective but also active?

GUIL: Let us keep things in proportion. Assume, if you like, that they're going to kill him. Well, he is a man, he is mortal, death comes to us all, etcetera, and consequently he would have died anyway, sooner or later. (2.205)

Is the fact that Guil is rationalizing away his betrayal a deviation from character or is the fact that he is betraying his friend (even if by rationalizing) a deviation from character?

A FEMALE FIGURE, ostensibly the QUEEN, enters. ROS marches up behind her, puts his hands over her eyes and says with a desperate frivolity.
ROS: Guess who?!
PLAYER (having appeared in a downstage corner): Alfred!
ROS lets go, spins around. He has been holding ALFRED, in his robe and blond wig. PLAYER is in the downstage corner still. ROS comes down to that exit. The PLAYER does not budge. He and ROS stand toe to toe. (2.263-265)

We include all of these stage directions because Alfred and the Queen are two of the most passive characters in the play, perhaps even more so than Guil and Ros. Isn't it weird that Alfred gets dressed up as the Queen? What a coincidence.

GUIL: As soon as we make a move they'll come pouring in from every side, shouting obscure instructions, confusing us with ridiculous remarks, messing us about from here to breakfast and getting our names wrong. (2.352)

Guil here blames everyone else for their confusion and their situation. Do they ever learn not to get confused by such ridiculous remarks?

GUIL: And yet it doesn't seem enough; to have breathed such significance. Can that be all? And why us? – anybody would have done. And we have contributed nothing. (2.428)

Guil is right – they've contributed nothing. How could the two of them possibly be picked out for the task of divining what is wrong with Hamlet? Is it the fact that they contribute nothing?

GUIL: Let us keep things in proportion. Assume, if you like, that they're going to kill him...we are little men, we don't know the ins and outs of the matter, there are wheels within wheel, etcetera – it would be presumptuous of us to interfere with the designs of fate or even of kings. All in all, I think we'd be well advised to leave well alone. Tie up the letter – there – neatly – like that. (3.205)

Is this just passivity or is it cowardice? Is Guil breaking character here? Is this something to be suspected? By tying back up the letter and allowing things to take their course are they really just being passive or is this too a kind of action?

ROS: We hand over the letter, which may or may not have something in it to keep us going, and if not, we are finished and at a loose end, if they have loose ends. We could have done worse. I don't think we missed any chances… Not that we're getting much help… If we stopped breathing, we'd vanish. (3.213)

Is Ros starting to sound more like Guil here? Are these Ros's own ideas or is he soaking up Guil's manner of speaking?

PLAYER: We learn something every day, to our cost. But we troupers just go on and on. Do you know what happens to old actors?
ROS: What?
PLAYER: Nothing. They're still acting. Surprised, then? (3.244-246)

What does the Player mean when he says that nothing happens to old actors? Does this mean that, despite the fact that they are always acting in their plays, they are still being passive in the real world?

ROS: We've done nothing wrong! We didn't harm anyone. Did we? (3.344)

Does Ros and Guil's passivity throughout the play take on moral significance – is their failure to attempt to alter the course of events immoral?