Places: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1967

First produced: 1966, at Cranston Street Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Existential

Time of work: 1600

Places DiscussedElsinore Castle

Elsinore Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are DeadCastle. Apparent location of the play’s first act. Tom Stoppard’s stage directions for act 1 describe the scene as “Two Elizabethans passing the time in a place without any visible character.” The location seems to be a featureless place, neither indoors nor out, where the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discourse and toss coins. At length it becomes clear that this is an outdoor location close to the castle of Elsinore, because the traveling players approach them en route to the castle. However, Hamlet himself appears at the end of the act, so the setting may be within the castle itself. This anomaly is intentional, for the setting of the whole play is more one of “inner space” (inside the mind) than any physical place.

The second act makes use of some of Shakespeare’s original lines in Hamlet, with which it soon becomes obvious Stoppard’s play is dovetailing. However, Stoppard never makes the location clear (just as Shakespeare, with minimal stage directions, never makes his locations clear for Hamlet).


Ship. Apparent setting for act 3. Even more curious than the first two acts, this act is apparently set on a ship at sea–an inference the audience draws from the sound effects suggested by Stoppard, such as “soft sea sounds” and “ship timbers, wind in the rigging.” There are three large barrels on the deck (sufficient to hold one or two actors), and a few steps lead to an upper deck. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are taking Hamlet to England after the death of Polonius, perhaps. But at one point all the traveling players emerge from one of the barrels, and at the end of the play it is clear that the setting is, magically, not a ship but the Danish court.

Perhaps one is meant to assume (from the title) that the play is posthumous, with all the characters dead throughout, not just killed at the end of act 3.

BibliographyBrassell, Tim. Tom Stoppard: An Assessment. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. An excellent discussion of Stoppard’s themes that includes a chapter on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.Corballis, Richard. Stoppard: The Mystery and the Clockwork. Oxford: Amber Lane Press, 1984. Corballis suggests that, with the death of tragedy in the twentieth century, Hamlet had to be redefined and that Guildenstern is the existential hero.Hunter, Jim. Tom Stoppard’s Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1982. Hunter discusses Stoppard’s work from the perspective of staging, playing, talking, and thinking. Also provides a study guide with page references to listed discussions.Jenkins, Anthony. The Theatre of Tom Stoppard. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Thematic interpretations of Stoppard’s work, with an interesting discussion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead that explores their plight as a game where the rules are not understood by all the players.Schlueter, Jane. Metafictional Characters in Modern Drama. Columbia: Columbia University Press, 1979. Includes the chapter “Stoppard’s Moon and Birdboot, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” an excellent discussion of the way in which Stoppard handles characters who move between different fictive realities.
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