“How has the composer of the contemporary text used the earlier text to say something new?”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, written in the 1960s by playwright Tom Stoppard, is a transforation of Shakespeare?s Hamlet. Stoppard effectively relocates Shakespeare?s play to the 1960s by reassessing and revaluating the themes and characters of Hamlet and considering core values and attitudes of the 1960s- a time significantly different to that of Shakespeare. He relies on the audience?s already established knowledge of Hamlet and transforms a revenge tragedy into an Absurd drama, which shifts the focus from royalty to common man. Within Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Stoppard uses a play within a play to blur the line that defines reality, and in doing so creates confusion both onstage- with his characters, and offstage- with the audience. Using these techniques, Stoppard is able make a statement about his society, creating a play that reflected the attitudes and circumstances of the 1960s, therefore making it more relevant and relatable to the audiences of that time.
The transformation of a Shakespearean Revenge Tragedy into an Absurd Drama means a considerable change in structure from a well-structured and rigid format, into a chaotic and formless play. Stoppard deliberately alters the configuration of the play to create a confusing atmosphere, which creates the exact feeling of society in the 1960s- no definites or certainties to rely on. Language portrays meaning in both plays- the language of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead differs to that of Hamlet. Stoppard employs meaningless colloquial exchanges, such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?s question game, which strongly contrasts to Shakespearean elaborate and poetic verse, as seen throughout the play, especially in Hamlet?s soliloquies- ?There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.? This is thoughtful and philosophical. Stoppard?s use of language further extends the idea of purposelessness and insignificance.
Stoppard brings two relatively insignificant characters for Hamlet into focus in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Common man into the ?spotlight?, as he represented the majority of society- 1960s? audiences were interested in characters that they could empathize with and relate to. By focussing on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard brings offstage Hamlet onstage. This change in orientation gives audiences a new perspective on Hamlet and a different interpretation of Shakespeare?s most famous play.
The themes of Man?s ability to take action, as well as Destiny and Death in Hamlet, are maintained in Stoppard?s play, but he brings into the text an awareness and understanding of his society, and through these themes, explores different values that were inherent in the 1960s. Man?s ability to take action is an individual?s willingness to accept responsibility for his actions and take control of his life. In Hamlet, Shakespeare uses his characters to show the power a man has when he accepts his purpose, which was preordained by God. Stoppard revises this Elizabethan value through the portrayal of his characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who refuse to take an active role in the running of their life. He reflects on the differences between the societies, and demonstrates the confusion and conflicting beliefs and attitudes of the 1960s as shown in Stoppard?s characters that, out of complete confusion do not understand the ultimate reality of their conditions and therefore do not know how to act. Their refusal to act is the cause of their downfall.
Stoppard portrays Destiny in the 1960s, as a higher power that cannot be altered, emphasizing lack of will individuals had in the 1960s. The turmoil and shattered beliefs of the time meant that people felt defenceless and incapable of taking charge- they thrive on external gratification to provide direction and purpose. As Guildenstern questions this authority, ?Who Decides??, the Player rightly answers him- ?Decides? It is written.? The title chosen by Stoppard also tells audiences the fate of these two helpless characters. We are told from the very beginning that these two are destined to die. It is just before this death that they realise that ?there must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said- no.? However, it is too late. Stoppard acknowledges Shakespeare?s belief that the acceptance of fate empowers an individual, but he chooses to explore the consequences of refusing one?s given purpose- the likely choice in the 1960s.
Death in Hamlet is given significance and value due to Elizabethan society?s strong ties to religion. The uncertainty of the afterlife made the death mysterious, but also greatly feared. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, however, since life is seen as purposeless and directionless, death is seen as rather insignificant. The value of life after the Second World War was questioned and eventually lost. This triviality was communicated by Stoppard as simply disappearing- characters were no longer material or existing.
The play within the play is also utilised effectively by Stoppard to make a statement about his society. In Hamlet, there is clear distinction between reality and acting but this is not case in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. By obscuring the audience?s perception of what is real and what is all an act, he introduces the question of whether man is simply playing a role. Identities and purposes blur and one cannot tell whether a character is genuine or acting. This is shown when Guildenstern appears to have killed the Player. Audiences, as well as the character are fooled into thinking that the stabbing was real, but once again, we are mistaken. By playing with reality, Stoppard casts doubt on audience?s judgement, forcing us to question our own abilities.
Stoppard takes advantage of audiences? knowledge of Hamlet, when using the plot of Shakespeare?s play as the driving force of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. An understanding of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead relies on this basis, to establish a greater awareness and comprehension of 1960s society. Without this assumed knowledge of Hamlet, one cannot truly appreciate Stoppard?s play, which informs society about their nature and shortcomings.
Tom Stoppard is able to make clear statements about the society that has influenced him to create Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. He essentially takes elements of Shakespeare?s Hamlet and transforms them to make a judgement on society. By shifting the focus of his play to common man, he is able to convey values that are relevant to the 1960s. He develops characters that allow audiences to gain a new perspective on Shakespeare?s play and acquire a more informed perception of themselves. Stoppard makes a statement about 1960s society?s lack of direction and pleads viewers to take an active role in improving their own situation.