We’re almost at the end of our ‘Shakespeare 400’ week, which will please those of you who feel as if you are standing in the yard of the present-day Globe and have needed to pee since Hamlet told Ophelia to ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ at Act 3 and your smart-arse mate has just reminded you that Hamlet is the longest Shakespeare play and implied that you are probably going to wet yourself before this whole Denmark palaver reaches its conclusion. In the words of our dearly beloved, and so sadly departed, Prince – His Royal Purpleness – ‘Let’s Go Crazy!’
First staged in 1966, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is an absurdist interpretation of Hamlet as viewed by the two minor characters, RnG (as I shall now call them), Hamlet’s college pals who are recruited by his ‘uncle-stepfather’ King Claudius to spy on him and then escort him to England to be dispensed with. (I hope my college chums wouldn’t do that, even if I did once present a half-eaten box of Ferrero Rocher to a dinner party as a ‘gift’ and be sick on at least three of their carpets due to Vino Blanco.) It imagines RnG wandering around the court of Elsinore in between their Hamlet scenes, and intersperses these ‘off-scene’ episodes with the ‘real’ Hamlet action. There is a Beckett/Waiting for Godot feel, in RnG’s boredom and lack of comprehension about what is going on around them, and it is, in many ways, quite bonkers.
This play isn’t about giving two minor Shakespeare characters discernible identities or backstories- even if we can at times class G as the philosopher and R as the simpleton, they remain as interchangeable as they are in Hamlet. But I would recommend it for the other ways in which it adds to the Hamlet ‘canon’.
RnG’s reaction to the events unfolding around them, as they view key scenes from Hamlet, adds a new dimension to that play. For example, in the ‘real’ play, it is not clear if RnG realize the true extent of their undertaking when they take Hamlet to England. In Stoppard’s interpretation, RnG realize that they are taking Hamlet to his death – and we see R lament that ‘We’re his friends…He’s done nothing to us…It’s awful’, whereas G philosophises it away: ‘Death comes to us all, etcetera…he’s just one man among many…As Socrates so philosophically put it, since we don’t know what death is, it is illogical to fear it…it would be presumptuous of us to interfere with the designs of fate or even of kings…’
Most vitally though, for me the interplay between RnG’s scenes and Hamlet makes the action of the latter feel somehow more real. Fixing the ‘big’ action of Hamlet within the context of the ‘little’ action that happens ‘off-scene’ with RnG reminded me of W.H. Auden’s observations in his glorious poem, Musee des Beaux Arts, which is based on the action depicted in Pieter Bruegel’s The Fall of Icarus, where we see Icarus falling from the sky in the bottom right corner of the picture but the main focus of the picture is the everyday activity of a ploughman. The poem describes how in real life the big stories – mythical boys falling from the sky/young princes procrastinating about avenging their father’s death – are surrounded by lots of mundane ones – ploughmen and cattle/two courtiers playing a game of questions to pass the time. For me this is the genius of Stoppard’s interpretation. I just wish he’s included ‘poor Yorick’ in all of this.
Musee des Beaux Arts (W. H. Auden)
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.