Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is an existential play dealing with the absurdity of life, the inevitability of death, and free will and is an intelligent choice for the AP English Literature Free Response Question. This play was first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1966 and led to a debut on Broadway in 1967. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is Tom Stoppard’s most famous play, but his other works include Arcadia, Jumpers, Rock ‘n’ Rolla, and The Coast of Utopia.
Tom Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 after his father’s death his mother remarried, and the family eventually relocated to England, Stoppard is his step father’s name. Tom Stoppard became known as an English playwright, but he’s also written for film and television, including Shakespeare in Love. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is one of his most well-known plays, and from it the term Stoppardian was coined. Stoppardian refers to any work that uses humor and wit while addressing a greater philosophical issue. This play uses humor and often absurd situations to delve into the deeper themes of death and free will.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a play that takes place “in the wings” of one of the most acclaimed plays by the most famous playwright in the English language, Hamlet. Much of the action in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is action discussed in Hamlet, but that the audience never sees. Stoppard decides to take these two minor, overlooked characters and uses them to tell a story that explores the meaning of life and death and our role in the universe.
By taking the familiar world of Hamlet and injecting the absurd Stoppard creates the world that is both comical and relatable to the audience. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a Stoppardian exploration of deep philosophical themes wrapped in the absurd and provides ample material for analysis on your AP English Literature Free Response Question.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead AP English Lit Essay Themes
An incredibly prevalent theme in this play, and even appears in its title. As in life, death is a 100% certainty for every human and our two protagonists; everyone who has ever read Hamlet or the title of the play knows the fate of these two characters. The question Stoppard deals with is not fate, but how these characters struggle against the certainty of their deaths. Guildenstern frequently criticizes the gory and overly dramatic deaths of the Players but believes one of the players has died after a well dramatized ‘death’ at Guildenstern’s hands. Stoppard plays with the reality of mortality while alluding to the similarities to stage and real life. Indeed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s bloodless death, a mere disappearance, leaves the audience much less satisfied than the dramatic stage deaths they’ve witnessed thus far.
The World’s Absurdity
A theme illustrated through language, and the setting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend almost every moment of this play in total confusion. From not being able to remember where they started their journey to being shocked by their impending deaths. This is enhanced by the absurdity of the world around them. Characters enter the stage, deliver perplexing monologs and exit, the audience knows the rest of Hamlet’s story, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don’t. The coin toss is an example of the random nature of the universe. Stoppard suggests that our inability to determine people’s true intentions mixed with the role chance plays in our live can leads to debilitating confusion.
Free will is questioned in Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern is Dead. What are free will, progress, and choice? Can you trust the riches and accomplishments life has to offer if you know that it will soon be gone? Every character seems to be unmotivated; Hamlet is famous for his inaction. When characters do act, it seems meaningless because they are overthrown by force stronger than themselves, the inevitable march toward death. The spontaneous pirate attack that ends in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s deaths is nothing more than the plot of Hamlet, something which has been predetermined. There is one place individuals have the ability to exercise their free will, interpersonal relationships. Guildenstern’s comfort of Rosencrantz show that through kindness an individual can still give their life meaning.
How to use Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for the 2010 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
In this Free Response Question, you are asked to explore the theme of exile and its influence on a character. In your, English Literature Essay analyze what leaving home does to a character, the continuing impact home has on them and how this gives deeper meaning to the play.
Palestinian American literary theorist and cultural critic Edward Said has written that “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” Yet Said has also said that exile can become “a potent, even enriching” experience.
Select a novel, play, or epic in which a character experiences such a rift and becomes cut off from “home,” whether that home is the character’s birthplace, family, homeland, or other special place. Then write an essay in which you analyze how the character’s experience with exile is both alienating and enriching, and how this experience illuminates the meaning of the work as a whole
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern begin the play on a journey, the trouble is they don’t remember how they got there. They’ve been called by a royal summons to Elsinore Castle, the home of Hamlet and someone else’s story. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not remember their home or anything from their past. After arriving in Elsinore, they embark on a second journey this one of exile with Prince Hamlet. It is Hamlet who is sent away in exile, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sent to make sure that Hamlet arrives in England. Even in their story Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s exile is coincidental and is directed at Hamlet.
Stoppard uses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exile to explore the greater themes of his play. The question of free will comes into play when considering these characters situation. The only reason Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are going to England is that this is a major plot point in Hamlet, it was predetermined for the start of the play, yet; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feel they’ve made the choice of going to England all on their own.
Stoppard also explores the theme of death in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s exile and its inevitability. These characters fight against the inevitability of their deaths the entire play, but the audience knows exactly where their journey will end. Even at the moment of their death, they are surprised. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s exile, brought on seemingly by their choice, leads directly to their death, but the audience knows differently. Exile in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is not merely leaving one’s home in Denmark it’s the final journey “When we have shuffled off this mortal coil.”
How to use Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for the 2005 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
In this Free Response Question, you are asked to explore the theme of outward conformity and inward questioning. In your English Literature Essay explore the duality of conformity and questioning and describe how this gives deeper meaning to the play.
In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), protagonist Edna Pontellier is said to possess “that outward existence which conforms, the inward life which questions.” In a novel or play that you have studied, identify a character who conforms outwardly while questioning inwardly. Then write an essay in which you analyze how this tension between outward conformity and inward questioning contributes to the meaning of the work. Avoid mere plot summary.
In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Stoppard’s character Guildenstern displays the most signs of outward conformity. Guildenstern is a serious foil to the happy and carefree Rosencrantz. Guildenstern is determined to keep up appearances and conform to society’s idea of a courtier; he obeys the king, tries to be impressive with his expansive vocabulary, and displays of his moral values. In the same turn Guildenstern questions every random action, from a boats to which way is south.
The coin toss is the best example, Rosencrantz enjoys the fun of the coin repeatedly landing on heads, but Guildenstern delves into a profound existential crisis about what this repetition means. He goes so far as to consider the theory that they are in an alternate universe and discusses the coins loyalty.
Each time Guildenstern questions a situation he passes through a similar cycle: unusual event, extensive questioning, eventual surrender, and finally confusion. Guildenstern ruminates over so many issues, but he never comes to a conclusion, and this frustrates and confuses him. Guildenstern remarks that he and Rosencrantz are simply cogs in the greater machine, powerless to influence events. The audience knows this to be true; we are aware of their fate from the title of the play to the outcome of Hamlet. Stoppard uses Guildenstern’s tension between his outward conformity and his inward questioning to make the audience question the true nature of free will.
How to use Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for the 2004 AP English Literature Free Response Questions
In this Free Response Question, you are asked to explore a central question in a work of your choosing. In your English Literature Essay analyze that question, what answers it offers and describe how this gives deeper meaning to the play.
Critic Roland Barthes has said, “Literature is the question minus the answer.” Choose a novel or play and, considering Barthes’ observation, write an essay in which you analyze a central question the work raises and the extent to which it offers any answers. Explain how the author’s treatment of this question affects your understanding of the work as a whole. Avoid mere plot summary.
In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard explores the parallels between theatrical and stage life, a central question to the play. Through this exploration of stage versus reality, the characters confront another major theme in this play, death. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not believe that theatrics are a fair depiction of real life, no matter how many times they are confronted with evidence to the contrary.
The Players put on a performance that perfectly mimics the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, copying everything about them including their clothes. The performance ends with the killing of the two main characters in the Player’s performance, foreshadowing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern death. Rosencrantz even confuses himself with the actor playing him but tells the actor that he is not who the actor believed he was. This shows that theater mirrors life so well that even Rosencrantz cannot tell the difference between himself and the actor playing him.
Guildenstern continuously criticizes the Players for believing that theater can portray real emotions, especially ones felt in death. The Players tell Guildenstern that audience doesn’t believe in “real” depictions of death, just the bloody one’s portrayed on stage. He claims to have once had a man hang himself on stage, and the audience booed it. The Player proves his point when Guildenstern tries to kill him with a knife, which turns out to be a prop. His dies in the typical dramatic stage fashion, but Guildenstern believing it proves that people do believe the things that theater portrays for them.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unable to confront their deaths, even though it is clearly upon them. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deaths, so non theatrical or gory, seem unreal to the audience. In this action Stoppard allows his characters to continue living as literary characters. In exploring the parallels between stage and reality, Stoppard is following in the steps of Shakespeare and helping us “hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.”
With this guide and an in-depth knowledge of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, you can have great success on the AP English Literature Exam. There are many resources out there to help you practice for the AP English Literature Exam, such as How to Study for the AP English Literature Exam. For an in-depth breakdown into Free Response questions, you should check out The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs. You can take practice online exams at Albert’s AP English Literature Free Response Questions page.
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AP Literature, Period 6Chebria CrandolMs. WhitneyDecember 20, 2015R+G EssayRosencrantz and Guildenstern, the eponymous characters in Rosencrantz andGuildenstern are Dead, are defined by constantly questioning their surroundings, their purposeand even themselves. They make the trek to Demark to aid their friend, but what is the point ofsaid journey? They desire to help Hamlet, but in moving to Denmark, their physical journey isn’tjust the tangible movement anymore. It becomes much more. It becomes a spiritual awakening,under the realization of the pointlessness of time and how eventually everyone is born to die.Rosencrantz and Guildenstern constantly try to find the meaning of life throughquestioning. They contrast each other well throughout the questioning. Guildenstern, being morethoughtful of the two, asks many thought provoking questions to whom Rosencrantz bounces theanswer back into either another question or a statement that loops the conversation around. Thisis present in nearly every conversation that they undergo. The muddled conversation reveals an