Being an existentialist play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, follows the journey of the central two protagonists, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern to their destiny; Death! The play focuses on chance vs. Fate and the decisions made by Rosencrantz & Guildenstern when faced with certain circumstances.
In the opening act, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are described as ‘two Elizabethans’ wearing the same thing – ‘Hats, cloaks, sticks and all’. This shows that they were not anybody special. They are described generally and this might be to enforce the fact that they are ‘two sides’ to the same coin as they look identical yet have complete extreme personalities; ‘Guildenstern’s bag is nearly empty. Rosencrantz’s bag is nearly full.” Guildenstern seems to be a pessimist, ‘Glass is half-empty kind of guy’, while Rosencrantz seems to be the more optimistic one. Stoppard has used duality of meaning by describing their bags as nearly empty and nearly full in order to mirror image their personalities.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are playing a game of coin toss in which Rosencrantz seems to be winning; ‘heads’ ‘Head’ ‘Head’, while Guildenstern even though he doesn’t care about the money is questioning and trying to come up with reasons why the run of heads is recurrent; “A weaker man might be moved to re-examine his faith…in the law of probability.” Guildenstern doesn’t believe in ‘Luck’, “It can be done by luck alone.” “If that’s the word I’m after.” He needs a logical explanation for everything and wants to control everything and this leads to him coming up with weir syllogisms like, ‘…proposition that if six monkeys were…”. Rosencrantz on the other hand is said back and goes with the flow. He doesn’t question ‘why?’ or ‘how?”, “Eighty-five in a row-beaten the record!” These two contracting personalities have a different opinion of everything throughout the play; Guildenstern is more dominant and even though Rosencrantz does have different opinions, he usually does what Guildenstern does.
Guildenstern believes that everything in life is logical and reasonable. “It must be indicative of something”, He tries to come up with explanations for everything by using syllogisms; “One, He had never known anything like it.” Guildenstern always come very close to finding out the truth but at the last minute gets scared and changes the topic; “…Home…what’s the first thing you remember?” Till the very end of the play, Guildenstern tries to control everything around him.
In act 3, he says, “I’m very fond of boats myself…they’re-contained.” He says this because a boat is a measurable enclosed space and so Guildenstern has the power to control everything, but what he can’t control is the big world and everything outside the boat; i.e. the boat is only a small part of the vast universe and no-one except God can control the Universe. So even if all is in order in the boat, you never know what can happen the next minute, as there is a lot of chance and chaos surrounding the boat; “Pirates!” The Pirates arrive and Hamlet is kidnapped by them and that when Guildenstern realizes that he cannot control everything and that is when he truly understands and believes in it; “…our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current…”
Rosencrantz, on the other hand is more than happy to be suspended in time as this means that he doesn’t have to make a decision because when it is time to take action, Rosencrantz is afraid and frightened like a child; “I want to go home”, because usually he is so used to ignoring the truth that when the time comes to take action, he gets confused and afraid as he no longer has the comfort of doing nothing. Rosencrantz is a ‘go with the flow’ kind of person and he does exactly what Guildenstern does, even though he may not like it because he knows that he is incapable of making his decisions himself. At the end of the play, Rosencrantz is completely fed up with the whole concept of life and says that he is “…relieved.”
Guildenstern uses many syllogisms and comes up with many reasons as to why the coins keep landing on heads. He comes up with the craziest examples of ‘monkeys’ and ‘children of Israel’. But he doesn’t want to believe in luck or chance. “Though it can be done by luck alone, if that’s the word I’m after.”
“This is not the first time we have spun coins!”, This line shows that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been together for so long. They’ve been with each other through ups and downs but this could also have a dual meaning of them being together as they are two sides to the same coin. This is to show the reader that even though they may have different personalities, they belong together as they are two extremes that co-ordinate perfectly with one another, which goes on to prove the theory of opposites attracting, as showed by ‘Ying and Yang’, two opposites, perfectly living in harmony with each other.
Overall, the language used is very informative and has a deeper meaning than just the literal one. It reflects the play as at first glance the play is not understandable, but when you look at the deeper meaning, the play has a beautiful moral, “it is not the destiny that matters, it’s the journey and the chances you are willing to take on that journey.”