April 11: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

RosencrantzAndGuildensternAreDead_8410First Ambassador: The sight is dismal;
And our affairs from England come too late:
The ears are senseless that should give us hearing,
To tell him his commandment is fulfill’d,
That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead:
Where should we have our thanks? (Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2)

In the late 1960s, English playwrite Tom Stoppard took two minor characters from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and made them stars of the modern theater in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The show began its life as a hit at the 1966 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, but its first full scale production was on this day in 1967 in a production by the National Theater at London’s Old Vic.

Who are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? In Hamlet, they were childhood friends of the melancholy prince who were tasked by King Claudius to gain insight into Hamlet’s plans. Later in the play, Claudius sends Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England with the two friends carrying a letter instructing the English king to kill Hamlet. However, Hamlet discovers the letter and before R&G could realize what he’s done, he rewrote the letter so that it now called for R&G to be executed. So, towards the end of the play, an English ambassador arrives to deliver the news that the king has gone through with Claudius’ wishes and that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.

Now, there’s an old joke about an actor who’s playing a gravedigger in Hamlet‘s fifth act who describes the play to his wife as being about “a gravedigger who meets a prince”. For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard took this idea and refocused the entire play of Hamlet on these two minor characters. The play is a classic work of metatheater that comments on itself, the theater and its source play, Hamlet. Stoppard’s play uses all of the scenes from Hamlet that R&G appear in and then adds scenes in which the two try to understand their purpose in the events happening around them, occasional hitting at questions of human existence…only for them to completely miss the point. Throughout the play, Stoppard questions if there actually is free will or if we’re all doomed to some pre-determined fate, like characters in a play.

Did I mention Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is also uproariously funny at times? Take for instance the scene in which the duo play a game of questions. In addition to being a clever scene, it also addresses the free will/pre-destination debate by having R&G frequently change the rules on each other. On the one hand, they’re constrained by the frequently changing rules, but on the other they’re the ones who are making the changes…

Since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a reworking of Hamlet, let’s drink a Hamlet Variant. This bittersweet cocktail fitting uses two Danish ingredients: Cherry Herring and Aquavit.

Hamlet Variant

  • 1 ounce Cherry Herring
  • 1 1/2 ounces Aquavit

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail ice.

Tomorrow: Humanity goes to space.

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