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Free Study Guide-Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
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Major Characters


An Elizabethan gentleman traveling with his friend, Guildenstern, to the castle Elsinore to see their friend Hamlet.

Rosencrantz is at times like Guildenstern’s younger brother: he tries to please him, make him laugh, and entertain him, but he usually just ends up annoying him. Neither of them is sure of his own name, but he is the one who cannot remember what happened to him this morning. Rosencrantz is helpless, depending on Guildenstern for comfort even when he is just sitting still. He is pathetically ingratiating, pretending to play betting games with Guildenstern but letting him win so many times that he finally figures out Rosencrantz is just trying to make him feel better. Rosencrantz has no real interest in learning more about his existence, or his duties at the castle.

When Guildenstern muses about why they are there or what their purpose in life is, Rosencrantz ignores him. Guildenstern wants things explained to him; Rosencrantz just wants to be told what to do. He thinks he has a basic understanding of the way the world works (you can’t question a king; nobility are not interested in pornography, etc) and doesn’t care to know anymore. From the very beginning of the story, he just wants to go home. One cannot imagine what his relationship to Guildenstern must be--how did they end up together?

Guildenstern comments on this at one point: he often picks on Rosencrantz. Rosencrantz never stands up for himself; he either ignores the insults or cries until Guildenstern pities him. He is not really interested in changing his life. He dies because Hamlet writes a letter to the English King asking him to kill both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and even though they know about the letter, neither of them is able to decide not to go to England. This apathy may be what kills him in the end: he gets sick of trying to do what everyone wants him to do, so he just disappears.


He might be called the better half of the inseparable duo that is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern--at the very least, he is the smarter one.

He is fairly quick to understand implications, hints, etc., unlike his friend. He is deeply unhappy, because he is just smart enough to know that he will never fully understand his life. He wants to know the reasons for things--from why Hamlet would want to die to why a coin could spin a hundred times, always landing heads up. But his analyses, though thorough, are confused, backward, and sometimes totally irrelevant. He wastes a huge amount of energy for very little result. He desperately wants things to happen a certain way (they deserve an omen on the way to the castle, and continued specific instructions once they get there) and is furious when the world seems to turn its back on him. He wants to be important-- believes he is important--and is pained when he sees how unimportant he is. And, for all his limitations, he seems the most human of everyone in the play.

Rosencrantz is a clown, Hamlet is played here as a clown and a madman, the Player is a soulless opportunist, and the King and Queen have no personalities at all. Guildenstern looks at all of this, shocked, and usually the audience agrees with him. If anyone is the audience’s window to the action, it is he. He also makes valid philosophical points. To him, death is not a chance for a dramatic scene, as it is for the Player. It is something that happens gradually, as the people who knew the deceased begin to realize he or she is really gone forever.

Nevertheless, Guildenstern is never able to fully realize his personality. He is too afraid of what might happen, and more and more he loses faith in the power of logic and reason to set things right. Eventually, he too disappears into his confusion and inaction. Guildenstern dies because Hamlet writes a letter asking the English King to kill him and Rosencrantz, and they seem unable to fight this turn of events, or even decide whether they want to fight it. It is significant that they do not die in the play: they just disappear.

The Player

The Player is a ridiculous yet sinister figure in the lives of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He may be dramatic and clownish, but he is not a fool like Rosencrantz. He merely does whatever he must to get by.

Once, he was an actor. Now he is, as Guildenstern says, "a comic pornographer." He doesn’t seem to differentiate between the two. He is a man for hire: he and his troupe go to the castle and put on a play at Hamlet’s request. They add lines to it without wondering why (or thinking of the similarities between the play and life at the castle) then get kicked out when the play frightens the King.

They end up stowaways on a boat with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, heading to England with no real plan, completely unsurprised that they never got paid. The Player is always onstage, no matter where he is, so he is both larger than life and completely false at the same time. "We’re actors," he says pointedly. "We’re the opposite of people!"

He has a strong feeling that life imitates art--he believes that things happen the way they do because they were planned, as though by an author. The only time he gets upset with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is when they leave him to act out a play alone, without an audience. He feels completely betrayed by this, since his life is only valuable when other people are watching. He, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, is more of a character than a person, but in his case he seems to have done this to himself.

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Free Study Guide-Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard


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