Exploration of Tom Stoppard


In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard extensively uses the idea of Metatheatre. The play is considered a piece of metatheatre in its entirety as the audience is asked to think of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as real characters taken from Shakespeare's Hamlet. The title itself was changed from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet King Lear, to the current title, which is taken from the final scene of Hamlet. There are two levels of metatheatre in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the first being the extraction of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet, showing them as being "real", the second level is depicted in some parts of the play when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become part of the audience, watching the other actors, such as the Tragedians, play their part. The Tragedians' play displays the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, further emphasised by the Player's faked death. There are two points concluded from this, the first stating that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as part of the audience, cannot bring themselves to believe in their certain deaths, but can only believe in a death performed as it is in a theatre. The second point shows the difficulty of differentiating between acting, or the theatre, and real life. Confusion occurs as a result of this parallel role-playing by the Tragedians, and Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and, partly, the audience experience this confusion. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's confusion further shows the difficulty to comprehend the difference between the life on the stage, and real life. The audience's confusion comes from the distinction between the actors and the 'audience' Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as they act as part of the audience, but they are not sure where they stand.

So, why does Stoppard use metatheatre in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead? What does metatheatre achieve in the play?

In this essay, I aim to answer the above question by... and by doing so, I clarify the effect of the use of metatheatre on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the audience.


How do the two scripts merge?

Without Hamlet by Shakespeare there would not be Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two unimportant characters in the tragedy Hamlet, however, Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead presents them as the two leading dramatis personae.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find their existence in this play (that doesn't move smoothly from one scene to another) very frustrating, "Dear God, is it too much to expect a little sustained action?"[1]

Also, in Hamlet the Player acts for the king as a request from Hamlet showing the importance of Hamlet's character in that play, moreover, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead the Player acts, with his company, for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, showing their importance. In its pure form, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is the same plot, running in parallel with the play Hamlet, only taken from a different angle, or perspective.

Stoppard uses metatheatre to manipulate the perception of the audience, and the perception of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as characters and as part of the audience. The use of metatheatre is evident in the conversations held between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, "Words...they are all we have to go on"[2]. Here, Guildenstern implies the idea that they are merely characters, following the "words", or the script written by Stoppard, predetermining their fate. He also insinuates that words are what help give our world any meaning, and that they have to follow these words because "they are all [they] have to go on".


The use of metatheatre achieves confusion as previously stated. This confusion leads to an inability to comprehend the differences between the stage and real life, which means that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unsure of their roles, though they fulfil them, they are unsure of basic information of their own character.

Part of metatheatre is the inclusion of some or all of the characters in the audience (part of the conclusion)


  1. Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, pg. 32.

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