Between "just desserts" and "tragic irony" we are given quite a lot of scope for our particular talent.Generally speaking, things have gone about as far as they can possibly go when things have got about as bad as they reasonably get. -- The Player

The first professional production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead was given on April 11, 1967 at the Old Vic Theatre, London, by the National Theatre Company. It was directed by Derek Goldby and designed by Desmond Heeley.


ROSENCRANTZ -- John Stride
GUILDENSTERN -- Edward Petherbridge
THE PLAYER -- Graham Crowden
ALFRED -- Alan Adams
TRAGEDIANS -- Oliver Cotton, Neil Fitzpatrick, Luke Hardy, Roger Kemp
HAMLET -- John McEnery
OPHELIA -- Caroline John
CLAUDIUS -- Kenneth Mackintosh
GERTRUDE -- Mary Griffiths
POLONIUS -- Peter Cellier
HORATIO -- David Hargreaves
FORTINBRAS -- David Bailie
AMBASSADOR -- David Ryall
1ST SOLDIER -- Christopher Timothy
2ND SOLDIER -- Denis de Marne
COURT AND ATTENDANTS -- Petronella Barker, Margo Cunningham, Kay Gallie, David Belcher, Reginald Green, William Hobbs, Lennard Pearce, Ron Pember, Frederick Pyne


Stoppard's first and perhaps most famous full-length play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead presents a worm's-eyeview of a classical tragedy, Shakespeare's Hamlet, as filtered through the existential sensibilities of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

The play opens with the title characters alone on stage, placing bets on the toss of a coin while traveling toward Elsinore, the castle of Danish King Claudius and their childhood friend, Prince Hamlet. Guildenstern is perturbed that the coin has come down heads eighty-five times in a row. This seems ominously significant to him. Rosencrantz sees nothing particularly amiss.

R&G inhabit a world completely beyond their comprehension. Unsure of where they are going (and even of who they are and where they come from), they depend upon others to give their lives meaning. While awaiting instructions, they fall back upon games -- word play and simple wagers -- that rarely achieve their intended goals.

Instructed by the King and Queen to "glean what afflicts" poor Hamlet, the boys attempt to cross-examine the prince but end up only more confused. Neither do they have the wit to see their own deaths foretold when the Player and his Tragedians rehearse the melodramatic tragedy, The Murder of Gonzago , which includes the execution of "two smiling accomplices -- friends -- courtiers -- two spies" who accompany a prince to England, only to be betrayed by a purloined letter.

After Hamlet kills Polonius, R&G are dispatched to retrieve the body, but they of course bungle the job. They are then dispatched to England with the prince. During the ocean voyage, R&G discover that the letter they carry from Claudius calls for the immediate cutting off of Hamlet's head. Before they can decided what to do with the letter, it is stolen from them by Hamlet and replaced with another. After the ship is attacked by pirates and Hamlet escapes overboard in a barrel, R&G open the letter again, only to learn that it is now they who must be killed when they arrive in England.

The Player and his band are also on the ship, but he is not especially surprised to learn of this treacherous turn of events, saying, "In our experience, most things end in death." Infuriated, Guildenstern plunges a knife into the Player's throat and watches him die spectacularly. After a moment, the Player jumps up, brushes himself off and reveals the knife to be a spring-loaded fake. Guildenstern is too distraught to be impressed, saying, "Dying is not romantic, and death is not a game which will soon be over...Death is not anything...death is not...It's the absence of presence, nothing more...the endless time of never coming back...a gap you can't see, and when the wind blows throught it, it makes no sound..."

In the end, R&G resign themselves to their fate, although Guildenstern says, "There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said -- no. But somehow we missed it." Perhaps. But the play ends with two ambassadors from England informing Horatio that, at long last, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.


"This is a most remarkable and thrilling play. In one bound Mr. Stoppard is asking to be considered as among the finest English-speaking writers of our stage, for this is a work of fascinating distinction..." Clive Barnes, The New York Times



"Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" by W.S. Gilbert-- Yes, that's Sullivan's famous collaborator. Who knew?
Edinburgh Festival Fringe-- An early version of R&G... was performed here in 1966.
Hamlet Complete eNotes -- For a quick explication of the play and its themes, you could do worse.
Thumbs Down from Ebert -- Roger Ebert really disliked the movie version.
The Samuel Beckett Endpage -- Website dedicated to the life and works of Irish poet, author, playwright and all-around fun guy Samuel Beckett
Tony Awards -- R&G took top honors as Best Play in1968. Use this database to get the details of the Broadway production.
Malaspina Great Books Lecture -- From an undergraduate survey course. Rather interesting.
Internet Movie Database -- Reviews and commentary regarding Stoppard's film version of R&G...


Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
Six Characters in Search of An Author by Luigi Pirandello

Cheap Ironies | Stoppard Main | The Real Inspector Hound

Last modified 5/24/04 by Michael Berry
217087 visitors have accessed this page since August 12, 1996.