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From Flipping Coins to Clipping Toenails: Stoppard’s Absurdist Take on Hamlet

To fully understand the behind-the-scenes of Hamlet would be to venture into Shakespeare’s mind. While it may seem impractical, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead achieves the seemingly impossible by satirizing the lives of two nonessential characters in Hamlet: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (known in Stoppard’s book — and for the rest of this review — as Ros and Guil). On its surface, this absurdist comedy journeys intimately into Ros and Guil’s lives, but it also unlocks truths concerning existence, human purpose, and society. In his book, Stoppard brilliantly calls into question the things that we too often gloss over; his quitting school at 17 serves as a testament to his heightened sensitivity to the societal constructs of today’s world. Stoppard breaks through the things to which we blindly assign value, as the book’s existentialist undertones unveil the true futility in our ostensibly meaningful actions. And if the title of the book is not clue enough, Stoppard knows that because we, like Ros and Guil, are all destined to the same fate, our purpose, laws, social structures, and constructs — like the need for education — are all meaningless. 

Together, Ros and Guil live in two separate universes: inside Elsinore and outside of Hamlet. These universes differ. In Elsinore, their actions work within natural forces, whereas outside of the play they are ungoverned by any laws, which explains Ros and Guil’s ability to defy the laws of probability by flipping heads on the same coin 156 times in a row. Ros and Guil’s only sense of purpose remains inside the play Hamlet, where they dedicate their lives to acting on behalf of King Claudius to gain insight into Hamlet’s mental state. The Ros and Guil whom we see as actors in Hamlet truly are actors in their own lives, written and directed by Claudius himself. As the story unfolds, we are introduced to the players, who serve to prove this point to Ros and Guil:

GUIL: Who decides?

PLAYER: Decides? It is written…I’m referring to oral tradition, so to speak. We’re tragedians, you see. We follow directions–there is no choice involved. The bad end unhappily, the good end unluckily. Positions!

Ros and Guil’s lives are decided and planned out by Claudius and Hamlet, but, like the player points out, they will both be destined to the same fate: death. In this sense, Stoppard shows us once again that while our lives may be governed by oral tradition, direction, and purportedly valuable constructs, our endings are all written out for us. 

The meaning behind the book is difficult to understand immediately, for it only becomes visible in retrospect. The monotony and lack of plot throughout seem to overshadow the absurdist comedy in the book. Intrinsically, Ros and Guil’s scenes outside of Elsinore are meaningless; personally, after reading page upon page of Ros and Guil flipping a coin with intrigue (only to receive heads each time), I began to question my purpose in reading the book. Just as Ros and Guil are instructed how to act in Hamlet, we as readers are also instructed how to feel. Though we are not given explicit instruction like Ros and Guil, the book’s tangential, incomprehensible, and meaningless dialogue truly does achieve its function — to make us wonder … not only how Guil, within a few lines, managed to transform a deep discussion on the science behind supernatural phenomena into a conversation about toenails growing after death, but also how it is possible to comprehend almost 120 pages of utter nonsense without a clear connection between each of the scenes. It is hard to find immediate value in any of the language. Only looking at its surface directs readers to end with the same feelings: unluckiness and unhappiness at reading a predictable book filled with incomprehensible nonsense. It takes patience to trudge through and understand the scenes of the book, but the experience is absolutely necessary to transport yourself into it — specifically, into Ros and Guil’s minds. 

Some readers may be drawn away from the book after discovering its lack of plot or the obscure comedy behind Ros and Guil’s futility. It certainly is simple to gloss over the language in the book or its incoherent dialogue, so it takes a lot of contemplation and focus to truly understand Stoppard’s intentions in crafting the language the way he did. The book itself is untraditional, and it is Stoppard’s interpretation of the two characters who we thought we knew in Hamlet that turns them inside-out and reveals philosophy not only relevant to Hamlet, but also to real life. Ros and Guil’s behavior mirrors life — albeit, exaggeratedly — as Stoppard hints at the irony that humans aimlessly follow traditions unquestioned in today’s world, when, in reality, our lives are constantly aimed at death. Stoppard’s meaning and comedy behind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead certainly rescue the book from Ros and Guil’s seemingly meaningless — and at times irritating — lives. 

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