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Comparison: Hamlet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are  Dead

 

According to Martin Esslin, the major difference between Absurdist and conventional drama is that in conventional drama the audience is anticipating the action, wondering what will happen next; while in an absurdist play the audience is mainly caught up in wondering what is happening now.

Context and background:

The values of the 17th century and its violence and dramatics are juxtaposed with that of the 1960’s postmodernism existentialism and absurdism through the transformation of Hamlet to RNG, with indications to influences upon society from the respective eras in which the texts were composed. The contextual significance is evident through the thematic content between the two texts, as well as through the attitudes towards the concept of theatre. In many ways, R & G is a transformed version of Hamlet, yet to some extent it is an inversion.  While it appropriates many of same issues, it differs markedly in technique and it can be concluded that it is transformed by context and perspective. Similar to T.S Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, the transformation reveals man diminished from hero to victim, losing direction entirely;

‘I am not Prince Hamlet, I am an attendant lord…almost at times the fool.’

 

 

 

Hamlet                                                   Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

 

 

A monolithic unanimous ordered society; uniformity of thought, religion ideology and economics.  Hierarchical and socially rigid; a place for everything and everything in its place.  Clockwork organisation.  Unquestioned religious beliefs with certitude about purpose of life and surety of an afterlife. 

 

Hamlet is an Aristotelian model of a classical drama there is an overall logic  to the action, and the plot has a discernible shape: a beginning, middle, and end. By the conclusion of the play, in other words, through the actions of the participants, something has been dealt with, resolved.

Shakespeare, while innovative with language and thought, is very conservative in politics and theatrical conventions.

 

 

Suffering is inherent in the human condition, leads man to a noble form of dignity.

 

 

Men as Heroes

 

R&G belongs to the Absurdist school of literature.*  

Causes of Absurd Literature:

 

§  The decline of religious faith,

§   the destruction of the belief in automatic social and biological progress,

§  the discovery of vast areas of irrational and unconscious forces within the human psyche,

§  the loss of a sense of control over human development  in an age of totalitarianism, and weapons of mass destruction and mass persuasion, have all eroded individuals  sense of confidence in the future of the world and given them a sense of  alienation and disempowerment.

§  Pluralism, we value diversity, variety, individualism.

 

 

Interest in the course of the action not the result

 

 

Suffering is degrading and dehumanising, leading to desensitisation or brutalisation, promoting the instinct of self-preservation.

 

  • Men as powerless Victims

 

 

 

Technique and Style

 

 

Hamlet                                                   Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

 

 

Theatre of illusion. The audience deluded into thinking they are watching real time events

 

The structure of the plays change the way the audience is presented with the concepts of life. Hamlet is a climactic structure, sequentially ordered from beginning, middle and end, has motifs to bond it, with cause and affect.

Theatre of Action and emotional involvement

 

The  involvement of the audience from Hamlet to R&G changes the response and emotions of the audience. In Hamlet we have a hero and avenger who build up to a climax. Hamlet suffers melancholy, depression and builds anger and frustration eventually leading to the dramatic death of Laertes, Claudius, Polonius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Ophelia and Hamlet himself. We identify and relate to Hamlet and this involvement becomes a  vicarious experience of suffering arousing pity and fear leading to Catharsis, or release of tension, and a purging, soothing to the soul.

 This experience  has a temporary affect and no lasting consequences on the readers feelings.

 

 

Emphasis on structure, causation, unity, cohesion….

(see notes on motifs in Hamlet)

 

Theatre of realism The conventions of illusion are broken by the actors joining the audience and talking directly to us. They  become part of the audience during “Hamlet”

. R&G has an amorphous structure, with random events and ideas. Life is random and completely unstructured and incomprehensible.

Theatre of  Alienation – isolation

 

In R&G the audience is distanced and alienated from the action and critically evaluate it. Instead of becoming emotional involved with R&G’s situation, we are detached and objectively analyse them. Theatre of intellectualism aims to change the way the audience permanently thinks, and affect the way we act in society.

 

Appeals to the masses, the collective psyche

It involves mass suffering.  We are distanced or alienated (estranged) from the action and critically evaluate it.  Instead of getting emotionally involved we are detached and objective.

 

Instead of playing with our emotions, E.T. affects the mind and moves us to action leading to social remedies.

 

Often disconnected scenes, Confusing dialogue, perplexing situations, what is happening?

 

 

Characters:

 In Hamlet, R&G are indistinguishable while in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern there are minor delineations but not necessarily consistency.

Character

Quote

Explanation

 R & G

Guildenstern's bag is nearly empty.
Rosencrantz's bag is nearly full.

Sets the mood of the play from the beginning. Defines Rosencrantz as the optimist, and Guildenstern as, if not the pessimist, then at least the realist.

Guil.

The scientific approach ... is a defence against the pure emotion of fear.

After this quote Ros. starts rambling about beards. Emphasises the distinction between the two characters - Guil. is nervous about his situation and tries to rationalise it with scientific method, Ros. is unconcerned: "what will happen, will happen".

Guil.
Player

You've been here before.
And I know which way the wind is blowing.

"Operating on two levels! How clever!" exclaims Rosencrantz, and it is quite true: the Player, for a while at least, knows what will happen and how the situation will turn out.

Player

Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral, and logical conclusion.

A comment on plays in general, this also foreshadows the conclusions of "Hamlet". 

Guil.

We drift down time, clutching at straws ... but what good's a brick to a drowning man?

IE, hope is vital, but to be told exactly what will happen next is deadly. To know that he has no control over what happens next would be destroy Guil. - which is why he is so desperate to keep the level of spontaneity high.

Issues:  Life  -  Existentialism*

 

 

Hamlet                                                   Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

 

Assumes a rational moral order in the universe

 

Fate is controlled by Nemesis; divine retribution – poetic justice.

 

Meaning of life

 

The question of the ultimate meaning of existence in what is basically an irrational world.

Hamlet searches for the ultimate meaning of life in most of his soliloquies which dwell on his quest to understand life.

 

 

Providence or destiny:   (Deterministic, predestination)

 

Assumes a moral order in the universe

“Our wills and fates do so contrary run,

That our devices still are overthrown,

Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own (III 2  210)

 

                            “and that should learn us

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,

Rough-hew them how we will”                          (V 2 9 )

 

There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow   (V 2 217)

 

 

Assumes a universe governed by chance, capricious fate

 

No certitude, only birth and death.

 

Meaning of life:

These are problems raised by another Absurdist dramatist, Samuel Becket in his plays, especially, Waiting for Godot.

 

 

Guildenstern attempts to use syllogisms to deduct the nature of his existence from a priori premises. (Pg 6-8) but when this fails they resort to inductive or pragmatic logic.

 

 

Providence or destiny:  Chance, random, capricious, open

 

Assumes a universe governed by chance

 

 

There's a logic at work - it's all done for you, don't worry. Enjoy it. Relax.

Player: Uncertainty is the normal state. You're nobody special.

Free to act?

This can be seen when Guildenstern states; “We are not restricted.  No boundaries have been defined, no inhibitions imposed.”  However this is juxtaposed to when Guil realises his own destiny after reading the letter addressed to the King of England as he states, “We can change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along”

 

*2.Existentialism is a 19th C. philosophy that rejects the determinist view that the universe is preordained or programmed.
If there is a god he/she has abandoned us to our own freely willed fate.  The individual is fully responsible for their own destiny.  Life is generally depicted as austere, full of anguish, and pointless.  According to Nietzsche each of us has to rise above our limitations and become an “Ubermensch” (superman) and be a god unto himself or alternatively become an “untermench (loser) who can only follow orders.   Existentialism has come to mean an individual’s perspective on life, its purpose, direction and meaning.

 

 

 

Issues: Death

 

 

 

Hamlet                                                   Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

 

Consequences of the “Afterlife”

 

Death:  Acknowledged in “to be or not to be” Soliloquy when Hamlet speculates on dreams “ah, there’s the rub,…. What dreams may come? .. the dread of something after death”.

 

Claudius concerned about his soul.

Hamlet hesitates killing a shriven soul.

 

Hamlet contemplates suicide, Ophelia commits it.

 

Death as equaliser in graveyard scene:

  Noble dust of Alexander or Caesar turned to dust, earth, loam to a bunghole stopper for a beer barrel.  A beggar may catch a fish with a worm that has eaten a king.

 

Prevalence of death in Hamlet:  Old Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, Hamlet, and insignificantly R&G.

 

Death of main characters sweeps clean paving the way for a new order.

 

 

Death merely an Absence – No Afterlife.

 

Death:  Two kinds:  The conventional, contrived death portrayed by an actor (The Player)  or

the real, actual death of two people, R&G.

 

Death is an abstract portrayal – competent convincing acting. 

Death is staged – not real  or as Guil says:

“I’m talking about death- and you’ve never experienced that. And you cannot act it.  …..

But no one gets up after death – there is no applause – there is only silence and some second hand clothes, and that’s death.

In Hamlet, the deaths of R&G are inconsequential to the audience whereas in this play we have been conditioned by the title and the characters preoccupation with death to feel empathy and apprehension throughout the play and identify with their impotence and the inevitability of their (out) predicament.

 

Issue: Absurdities

 

 

 

Hamlet                                                   Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

 

 

Absurdities:

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite

That ever I was born to set it right. -

  • Hamlet’s reaction to the state of Denmark

There was a method to his madness:  His antic disposition.

 

  • Ophelia’s  ramblings represent a mind no longer rational

 

  • How Fortinbras engaged in  senseless war mongering can represent restoration of order is beyond me.

 

 

Bizarreness: 

  1. spinning coins – the laws of probability cease to function – but resume when Hamlet is on stage.
  2. playing word games – also a ploy in Hamlet (see Lang Tech.)

 

3.    establishing the points of the    compass – they don’t know where they are.

  1. telling the time of day or what day it is.

Involuntary ones

  1. muddling their names  (13)

      6.    losing their trousers

 

 

Issue:  Lack of meaning/communication

 

 

Hamlet                                                   Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

 

 

While Hamlet can speak of "words, words, words", as Guildenstern says, "They're all we've got to go on".

 

Polonius, the supreme diplomat uses language to obfuscate or confuse rather than clarify and Hamlet reacts by playing on his insincerity and sycophancy:

Pol: “Will you walk out of  the air?”

Haml:  “Into my grave?”                  (2.2.202 -3)

Or:

 

Haml: “Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in the shape of a camel?”

Pol: “Tis like a camel indeed”.

Haml: “Methinks it is like a weasel”.

Pol:   “ It is backed like a weasel”

Ham:  “Or lik e a whale”.

Pol:   “ Very like a Whale.”

 

 

 

 

The lack of genuine communication as words have lost their meaning and language is not always a reliable tool for genuine discourse.

Language is used to reveal the shallowness of relationships and the emptiness of modern society.

In Waiting for Godot the two characters, They are speaking, like you and me, to fill a void, to pass the hours, to assert their identities, to pretend that they’re truly connected to someone, anyone else. Making noise is what they do to keep out the silence that’s waiting to step in and devour them. Of course, they like to hear themselves talk. It’s how they make sure they’re alive.  ….But the audience is truly in on the joke of how hollow even our most elaborate conversational rituals are.
BEN BRANTLEY New York Times Review

 

In R & G, the PLAYER says in response to Guil.’s question: “What’s the dumbshow (mime) for?


Well, it’s a device, really – it makes the action that follows more or less comprehensible;
 you understand we are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style.   (69)

 Lack of communication   People can talk to each other without really communicating.    Language is used to conceal your purpose rather than reveal it.
As Rosencrantz says of Hamlet:
“half of what he said meant something else and the other half didn’t mean anything at all”

 

 Appearance and reality or Deception-things not as they “seem”

 

Hamlet                                                   Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Is Hamlet mad? 

To his mother:

“Seems madam? Nay it is, I know not seems.”

To Horatio:  “I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on-“

 

Hamlet’s dilemma: 

  1. Is the Ghost true or a trick of devil?
  2. Is his mother knowingly disloyal?
  3. Is Claudius guilty of incest and murder?
  4. Has Ophelia betrayed him?

 

Ros. - Reality? Earthier, confused, reactive, obtuse.
Guil. - Illusion? Intellectual, cultured, abstract, poetic, philosophical, insecure, questioning.

Death is staged – not real  or as Guil says:

“I’m talking about death- and you’ve never experienced that. And you cannot act it.  …..

 

Player:  “We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people!”  (55)

 Issue:  Play as a test of reality

 

Hamlet                                                   Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Hamlet  is an example of "Metatheatre", or "Theatre about Theatre".

Shakespeare capitalises on opportunities to comment on the nature of drama and actors when he has the Hamlet advise the players on how to say their lines.  (3.2)

Hamlet and Polonius discuss his acting at University.

 

Polonius flaunts his knowledge on the various genres of drama.

R&G is an example of "Metatheatre", or "Theatre about Theatre".

Decline of standards – dumbing down.

Player: “We’ll stoop to anything if that’s your bent”. (15)

Guild: ..”But it’s this, is it? No enigma, no dignity, nothing classical, portentous, only this – a comic pornographer and a rabble of prostitutes…”

Player:  “You should have caught us in better times. We were purists then. (18)

“…We do on stage the things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else.”

The players take many opportunities to discuss the difference between real life and life on the boards, especially concerning the portrayal of death.

 

Note that Stoppard considers this a play to be experienced rather than studied.

 

Free to act?

This can be seen when Guildenstern states; “We are not restricted.  No boundaries have been defined, no inhibitions imposed.”  However this is juxtaposed to when Guil realises his own destiny after reading the letter addressed to the King of England as he states, “We can change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along”


 

Language Techniques:

Lack of communication is a recurring theme in Absurdist plays.  People can talk to each other without really communicating.    Language is used to conceal your purpose rather than reveal it.


As Rosencrantz says of Hamlet: “half of what he said meant something else and the other half didn’t mean anything at all”

v In Waiting for Godot the two characters, They are speaking, like you and me, to fill a void, to pass the hours, to assert their identities, to pretend that they’re truly connected to someone, anyone else. Making noise is what they do to keep out the silence that’s waiting to step in and devour them. Of course, they like to hear themselves talk. It’s how they make sure they’re alive.  ….But the audience is truly in on the joke of how hollow even our most elaborate conversational rituals are.
BEN BRANTLEY New York Times Review

Here are some examples of linguistic obscurities:

Find other examples in the work of how the writer has used language to reveal how our means of communication has become inadequate and words sometimes devoid of meaning or merely misunderstood.

 

¨      Puns:   “Game”  - fun, sport, tennis, daring, sex, ?  Pg. 3.  Word play – Pg. 33.   “played close to the chest..” (47)
Hamlet: Sun/son,   Hamlet and Polonius,” honest man”      Hamlet and Ophelia  - “Are you honest?”

Puns create humour and interest.  They engage people by intriguing the responders.

 

¨      Clichés:   Ros: “I’m out of my step here-  Guild:  “We’ll soon be home and high – dry and home” (29)
Ros: “took the very words out of my mouth”.  Guil: “You’d be lost for words”. Ros: “You’d be tongue tied.  (53)
Player:  “I had an actor once.. condemned to hang for stealing a sheep – or a lamb ..”  Pg. 76. 
Sheep = corrupted,  Lamb = innocence.

Guild:  “The pirates left us there high and dry”  (111)
Player: “ The times being what they are”.  Ros: “What are they?”  Player:  “Indifferent”.

Guild:   “we’re still finding our feet”.  Player:  “I’d concentrate on not losing your heads.”
Player:  I know which way the wind is blowing”.  A reference to an earlier discussion between Ros and Guild.


             “All in the same boat”.

The fact that Ros and Guild use and misuse a lot of clichés indicates their inarticulateness.   They have few original thoughts and are at a loss to express themselves with their own sentences.

 

¨      Parody: (Biblical)  Guild:  “Give us this day our daily mask”  (30)  ,  “cue”  (93) ,   and “tune” (105) 
Player: It is written.

Parody creates a gravitas or universalism to a work.  It imbues a work with significance.

 

¨      Language somersaults -  Ros: “He talks to himself, which might be madness” …
Guild: ”…a man talking sense to himself is no madder than a man talking nonsense not to himself”.

Ros:  … “Stark raving sane”       (Oxymoron) Page 59 – 60. 

 

 King’s remembrance,(reward) Ros: “how much?”

 Guild:  “ Retentive-he’s a very retentive king, a royal retainer…”

 

 Ros: “What are you playing at?”

 Guild: “Words, words, They’re all we have to go on.”  This echoes Hamlet’s reply to Polonius’s question, “What do you read?”

¨      Innuendo/double entendre:

 

 Guil: “He slipped in”  As King and as lover/husband.
            Ros: His body was still warm

  Guil: So was hers.  (41)

Hamlet:  “have you a daughter?”

Pol:  “I have my Lord.”

       “Let her not walk i’ th’ sun. Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive –Friend, look to’t.”
                                                                                                                         2.2. 179-183
Pol: “Will you walk out of the air sir?  “Into my grave”   2.2. 201


 Ham. To Ophelia: “Do you think I meant country matters?  3.2. 104
 Ham:  Get thee to a nunnery.


Their equilibrium is related to Fortuna’s body where they live not on her cap or the soles of her shoe, so Hamlet concludes:

“Then you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favours?

Guild: “Faith, her privates we.

 Ham:  “In the secret parts of Fortune? ..she is a strumpet.”


Sexual references always generate interest or engagement.  They grab people’s interest.

 

 

§  Semantics:  
               Ros:  ….”is that enough?  Player:  “For an audience, disappointing.  For voyeurs, about  average”.

 Chance/fate (16) Quote(they meet the Players)  

 Performances/exhibitions (18)  

 intrigued/enlightened (33)

 wind/draught (50)

§  Use of comedy (to shock us into the realisation of the disintegration of society also to detach us emotionally and engage us cerebrally.)

§  Farce:  Because of the absurdity of many situations, the humour is often farcical or:

§  Slapstick-  Video blurb describes them as the Shakespearean equivalents of Laurel and Hardy.

§  Black humour
             Guild: “We’re still finding our feet”.

Player: “I should concentrate on not losing your head”. (57)


Ros. He
murdered us.
Ros. They'll have us hanging about 'till we're dead! (Also irony)

§  romantic:  not connected to the real world

§  Understatement:  
Guil: “Now mind your tongue, or we’ll have it out and throw the rest of you away,….

§  Guil:  You’d be lost for words.
Ros:   You’d be tongue-tied.
Guil:  Your diction would go to pieces.   ………   Pg. 53-4.

§  Latin Phrases:   tend to add gravitas or significance. 

 

The following words originating in Latin or Greek referring to Killing are less emotive than our more common words. 

 

Uxoricide fratricide germicide sororicide infanticide insecticide femicide, genocide

    

Matricide filicide   parricide  patricide   regicide   suicide     homicide  omnicide

 

 

Each relate to killing:

 

1.    a brother                                  

2.    one’s self

3.    any human being

4.    one’s mother

5.    insects

6.    one’s wife

7.    one’s sister

8.    everything

9.    germs

10. one’s children

11. any infant

12. one’s father

13. any near relative

14. any woman

15.  a king

16. An entire race

 

Evaluation

 

 

 

 

Hamlet                                                   Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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