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Isn't It Ironic: Postmodernism and 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead'

Updated on September 18, 2011

In order to look at a play, in this case Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (hereafter Rosencrantz) by Tom Stoppard, as something postmodern, it is important to understand the fundamental conventions of the genre. To call something postmodern, there are specific elements the text must include in order to be differentiated as something different than the modern. The key elements in a text, whether it be literary, film or television, are simple, so simple that audiences can even overlook them, missing an important layer of meaning. Some of these elements include Jean-Francois Lyotard’s idea of metanarrative, Jacques Derrida’s concept of play and Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra. But the most recognizable and most often used in postmodern works are irony and intertextuality, which are both present in Rosencrantz. By being both ironic and intertextual, Rosencrantz comments on modern times by juxtaposing the same anxieties found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet during the Renaissance period. Using Rosencrantz, knowledge of Hamlet and John Freeman’s article titled “Holding up the Mirror to Mind’s Nature: Reading “Rosencrantz” “Beyond Absurdity”” I plan to examine the ways in which Stoppard uses postmodern techniques to disseminate his message.

Before addressing Stoppard’s use of irony, it is important to dissect the layers of intertextuality within the play. This is a necessary technique to look at because it acts almost like an inside joke of a text. “Written within the spaces of Hamlet, reconstructing those spaces and creating patterns of interference with Shakespeare's text, Rosencrantz manifested the culture's movement away from the linear text to new, more complex modes of conceptualizing the text” (Freeman 23). When reading, if the audience is aware of what the text is referencing, there is a whole other level of meaning added to it whereas if the audience in this case is not familiar with Hamlet they might not digest the meaning behind the story presented. And although Hamlet is the major intertextual reference, borrowing Shakespeare’s plot and characters, within Rosencrantz there are other texts that are also referenced. In the sense that these two characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are waiting, passing the time, for their purpose to be revealed is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. “Shakespeare's play serves as a reference source by which Stoppard moves beyond the placelessness and the absurdity of Waiting for Godot” (Freeman 20). Having not been familiar with these two works, the audience would have missed the references and therefore would read the play as something other than what it was intended to.

Using Hamlet to base his story around, Stoppard used the perspective of two of the less involved characters to tell a new story. He illustrates the waiting, almost an anti-plot where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern playing games to pass the time between the action in Hamlet. The two texts are interwoven because as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play a role in Hamlet the other characters in Hamlet play a role in Rosencrantz.Rosencrantz experiences 'the intersecting of multiple texts and frames” (Freeman 20). Stoppard exposes the non-action characters go through when an author does not find them useful in a particular scene. It blurs the line between the characters and the actors because Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sit around playing games and that begs to question that, when producing Hamlet what did the actors playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do to pass the time until they were needed again.

And yet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were extremely familiar if one had read Waiting for Godot. They were Stoppard’s own Estragon and Vladimir, waiting for something though all four were unsure of exactly what. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were sure they had a purpose, which Hamlet readers knew but Estragon and Vladimir only knew they were waiting for Godot and nothing else. Both instances can be seen as a comment on the monotony and the mundane of everyday life. It is evident in Waiting for Godot that Estragon and Vladimir wait day after day for Godot, who will never come but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is something different. It is the waiting between important moments in life. It is what fills the time between birth and death because those are really the only sure things in life.

So why use Hamlet, a story from the Renaissance to comment on life? “Stoppard's audience is encouraged to view modern challenges to political, cultural, scientific, and even textual authority in the light of the Renaissance's own anxiety-ridden shift into new modes of conceptualization” (Freeman 21). Because there is a parallel between the anxieties than and those of modern times. “In a more important sense, Shakespeare's play provides Stoppard a larger 'plot' linking the dislocations of his own era with those occurring in the late sixteenth century. Shakespeare, like Stoppard, wrote at a time of paradigm shift, a time in which fundamental reconceptualizations of reality and people's place in it were occurring” (Freeman 20). Also the way in which Stoppard creates his story, immersed with modern science is one of the ironic elements in Rosencrantz. Stoppard’s “movement beyond absurdity is aided by [his] use of decidedly modern elements drawn from the scientific frame of reference that had been forming from the early I930s and that was still being refined in the decade of Rosencrantz's appearance” (Freeman 22). Shakespeare’s play takes place in the late medieval period, but Stoppard’s characters discuss more modern scientific developments like laws of probability and also make very Einsteinian comments, both of which were not around during the early 17th century when Hamlet was written. Stoppard’s “recognition of the discontinuous nature of human identity' and its 'clash of paradigms' as themes particularly relevant to twentieth-century concerns” is how Freeman identifies the multilayer content of the medieval Hamlet and the more contemporary Rosencrantz (21). Stoppard adds a layer to the tragic plotline of Hamlet that would have lent to merit when the play was first produced but in his postmodern play it changed the way audiences viewed and questioned their own life.

This can be better explained by what a modernist writer is versus a postmodern one. The difference between a modernist and a postmodernist is that modernists search for meaning in a chaotic world whereas postmodernists eschew the possibility of meaning creating a parody of this quest. In Rosencrantz Stoppard creates his version of these characters in a way that they are aware that there is something they are supposed to be doing but instead of figuring out their purpose they play games. Over and over they compete with each other whether they are flipping a coin or talking to each other only in questions. This reflects real life because there are people who seem to always be on the quest to figure out the meaning in life or their destiny, and because of that they spend their lives doing things they think will benefit their futures. “The boundaries of the action on the stage blur into the action in the audience's head'. In this blurring between audience and characters, Stoppard creates two characters who are counters for a specific subsystem of that audience's mental processing” (Freeman 23). But for Stoppard, what happens in between birth and death can be seen as something less than valuable. It is all just what people are expected to do.

This can be seen as playing a role. “Stoppard goes from the nihilism of conventional absurdity, 'where men have no role to play and must fabricate reasons for their existence', to one in which 'they must play a role that is strictly defined but still hopelessly unfathomable'” (Freeman 20). Just as the Tragedians pop up throughout Rosencrantz they demonstrate the idea of characters versus reality. They are all characters in Rosencrantz but they are then actors within the play. These layers are something that Pirandello first addressed in Six Characters in Search of an Author. This is also reflected in the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern because previously, they were merely characters within Hamlet but Stoppard has given them a life of their own. Some audiences could even see these characters as more real because they are represented more on stage. Stoppard blurs the line of what is a character and how they function in society by calling into question human existence. Is everyone merely an actor, putting on a show of who or what he or she should be in order to fit into society?

This is another facet of postmodern literature. The focus is not on the action but the language and how it shapes perception and self-identity. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern often get confused by the other characters but instead of correcting anyone, they play along. Who they are does no matter when called to act, which is not always the reality. Not claiming their names is another way the characters in Rosencrantz are aware that they are characters in the work. And in Rosencrantz the art of performance plays a crucial role into retelling Hamlet to audience’s from the change of perspective. Watching the Tragedians put on their play reveals the truth and that’s to say that when reason fails, there is art to lead the way.

Audiences always search for the meaning of a text whether they’re reading or watching, because why else would an author write if not to place some kind of thinking in their heads. For Stoppard, there is not so much a message as observations. The way his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, is the way he sees people and society during this paradigm shift. Writing during postmodern times, Stoppard felt “that the new media would challenge the fixed linearity of the traditional text with their own dimensionalizations of experience” (Freeman 22). The techniques of this new media outlined above, provided a frame that was born out of the Theater of the Absurd, without the same amount of absurdity. The intertextuality, with Hamlet and Waiting for Godot, the awareness the characters have of themselves and most importantly the irony that surrounds Rosencrantz, a text within a text, make this play not only postmodern but an interesting critique of reality. “Hamlet, a play already heavily invested in the themes of introspection and paradigm shift, serves a renewed use as Stoppard explores the audience's role in the complex staging of two plays occupying one space” (Freeman 25). With the complexities in such postmodern plays, it called for audiences to be more well read and in simpler terms, smarter, to view such pieces because if they were not, they would miss the real point of it all.

Works Cited

Freeman, John. "Holding up the Mirror to Mind's Nature: Reading "Rosencrantz"

"Beyond Absurdity"" The Modern Language Review 91.1 (1996): 20-39.

JSTOR. Web. 4 May 2011. <>.

"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." Nine Plays of the Modern Theater. Ed.

Harold Clurman. New York: Grove, 1988. Print.


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