Study Guide

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Fate and Free Will

By Tom Stoppard

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Fate and Free Will

This theme is introduced in the very first scene of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, where the long string of coins tosses coming up "heads" seems to suggest that the laws of probability have been suspended. The way that fate operates in the play is largely through the words of William Shakespeare. Since Stoppard's play works within the framework of Shakespeare's Hamlet, his characters are bound to undergo a certain series of events – their fate was "written" in 1600. Main characters Guil and Ros have the most freedom when they manage to get out of the action of the Hamlet storyline, but in these times they often find themselves bored and listless. The relationship between Stoppard's play and Shakespeare's allows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to ask the question: to what degree do fate and chance control our own lives?

Questions About Fate and Free Will

  1. How can the fact that the action of Stoppard's play is already determined by Hamlet be used as a metaphor for fate?
  2. Do the characters seem happiest when they feel that they have free will or when they sense that their fate has already been written?
  3. What is the relationship between fate and free will that is symbolized by the boat? Do Ros and Guil find this a desirable relationship? Should they?

Chew on This

In the beginning of the play, Guil sees fate and free will as two sides of a coin. Either there is such a thing as fate and they have no free will, or there is such a thing as free will but then their actions are arbitrary.

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