Rosencrantz, Guildenstern &
Six Other Characters aren't Real
a foothold in the art form of playwriting in 1921 when Luigi Pirandello
presented his play, Six Characters in Search of an Author,
to the world. The metatheatric form became more firmly established
decades later, after the second World War. In 1966, Tom Stoppards
sophomore play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,
mined the same source of ideas that Pirandellos play did.
One of the things that metatheatre does is question the nature
of what is real, and what is fictive. The suspension of disbelief
crucial to the enjoyment of plays is challenged, allowing- even
forcing- reality and fiction to be questioned. Both plays made
extensive use of the play-within-a-play. This element probed the
distinction between the real and the fictional. A careful analysis
of both plays spotlight clues as to the life of fictive characters,
their identities, and ultimately their deaths.
the real and the fictive in his play by having two different groups
for the audience to see, the Characters and the Actors. The Actors
are ostensibly real actors who happen to be rehearsing a play
in front of the audience until they are interrupted by six Characters.
When the Characters explain their nature to the Actors and the
Producer, the real people reject the claim that a
figment of imagination could take on physical form, like a person
would in real life. The Actors actually laugh at the Characters
when the Father makes his claim. Since the Actors reacted in a
realistic fashion, the audience now accepts the Actors as real,
and the Characters as fictive. The distinction between the two
groups, the Actors as being real and the Characters as being fictive,
is somewhat unusual in itself because the Actors are fictive
after all; only characters in Pirandellos play. This actually
goes to the heart of the suspension of disbelief required of all
audiences in order for them to enjoy theater or other forms of
entertainment. The audience accepts that the actors playing the
Actors are real people, and just the same as the Actors,
they cannot accept that words from literature can come to life
as Characters. Stoppards play goes one step further by blurring
the distinction between the real and the fictive. Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern were not created by Stoppard, but by Shakespeare
centuries earlier. The typical theatergoer knows that Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern are characters from Hamlet, and when they
introduce themselves to the Player, the audience now knows who
the two actors on stage are portraying. However, the play they
are watching is not Hamlet, but on occasion enters the
plays realm. This causes the audience a problem. [They]
cannot with comfort divide the metafictional characters into the
fictive and the real, for [they] cannot consider the coinflippers
real without being haunted by their preexistence
as characters in Hamlet (Schlueter, 99). Interestingly
enough, a non sequitur spoken by Guildenstern echoes the masked
fictional Characters. Give us today our daily mask,
he says, rhyming off Rosencrantzs panicked outburst, Consistency
is all I ask! after they encounter characters from the other
play (39). Still, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are ambiguous in
terms of their reality, because they dont know they arent
real, whereas the Characters are able to make this distinction
The line between
real and fictional characters differs in the two plays. Pirandellos
Characters and Actors allow the audience the ability to choose
the distinction between real and unreal. Stoppards main
characters do not allow their audience that opportunity. This
is an indicator of the times between each playwrights audience.
In 1921, metatheater was nascent. Pirandello could not afford
to thrust his audience too deeply into the concepts of metatheater.
Allowing them the easy choice of fixing the Actors as real and
the Characters as fictive was essentially Pirandellos act
of tossing a life preserver. Decades later, Stoppard knew his
audience, already weaned on Becketts Waiting for Godot
and Albees Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,
could handle the depths of metafictional characters existing in
their own play and someone elses play. Today, the audience
can ponder on the dilemma that the Actors are portrayed by actors
themselves and go deeper into the Russian doll-like idea that
Pirandellos play has Characters, portrayed by actors, who
want to be portrayed by Actors, who are portrayed by actors. The
identity of who is whom becomes more complex.
names, come into play in the realm of fictive characters. Critics
have assumed and commented on the namelessness of the Characters....
however the Six Characters are not nameless; they are listed as
the Father, the Mother... (Licastro, 217). In the beginning,
the Characters are only concepts, listed with descriptive names
such as Father, Mother, Son and so on. As they perform
their stories, revealing their identities, their names come to
light. The Stepdaughter calls out to the Little Girl No,
Rosetta, no! (1763), showing that the Little Girl does have
a name. The Mothers name is revealed to be Amalia
when the Producer starts assigning the Actors their roles. The
Russian doll dilemma causes the Father to falter in his confidence
when the Producer objects to having the Mother character named
the same as the real Mother, saying we cant use her
real name! But why not? the Father replies,
[t]hat is her name... But perhaps if this lady is to play
the part.... [Indicating the ACTRESS vaguely with a wave of his
hand.] I dont know what to say... Im already starting
to... how can I explain it... to sound false, my words sound like
someone elses (1745). When the Characters are secure
in their own identities, they know their names. When their realities,
or rather, identities, are transferred to others, they weaken.
This can be seen as Pirandellos suggestion that actors dilute
their characters. Other critics have seen this idea, such as Anne
Paolucci, who briefly mentions the dissolution of character
in her critique of Pirandello (48). This idea will be addressed
later. Also, the Producers objection not only signifies
his continued disbelief that the Characters are fictive, but also
is an indicative of the need to draw a distinction between real
and unreal. Descriptive names, such as the ones the Producer (and
Pirandello) bestows on the Characters are acceptable on fictional
characters; but when more reality is infused into the characters,
the situation becomes uncomfortable for the Producer, and the
audience as well. Naming a fictive character after a supposedly
real person blurs the line between the real and fictional, and
the metatheatrical question of reality looms larger, confronting
games with identity as well, taking his cue from the original
insignificance of Shakespeares Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
As Cahn points out in Hamlet, the two are virtually
indistinguishable, from the rhythm of their names, to their actions,
even to the number of syllables in their speeches (40).
Their first meeting with Claudius has the king addressing each
man by the others name. Stoppard carries this confusion
further so that not even Rosencrantz or Guildenstern are sure
of their own names. The first time the main characters introduce
themselves, as they meet the Player, it is not clear to the audience
who is whom. Rosencrantz says, My name is Guildenstern,
and this is Rosencrantz, then amends his statement with
Im sorry- his names Guildenstern, and
Im Rosencrantz (22). The stage direction indicates
that Rosencrantz is not embarrassed by this confusion. Later,
it becomes a game for them. When Guildenstern suddenly calls for
Rosencrantz by the correct name, they are pleased. Rosencrantz
says it felt instinctive to respond (45). Rosencrantz
wants to call Guildensterns name so he can experience the
feeling of having an identity as Rosencrantz did. The exchange
exhibits a rare and brief moment of security for the characters
which is soon lost. In fact, as they die, they are not confident
in who is whom. Rosen-? Guil-? Guildenstern calls
out, as Rosencrantz disappears when he dies (125).
Pirandellos Characters have real names that
arise out of their stories, but Stoppards characters already
have real names but they arent real; they are
a product of Shakespeares imagination. So they have no real
identity beyond Hamlet. The blurred line between fictive
and real characters continues in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
are Dead with the Tragedians and the Player. The Player tells
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Were actors... we pledged
our identities away, hoping that an audience would be watching
(64). So even the actors in Stoppards play have no identities,
no names beyond a descriptive name, such as The Player.
In fact, they know they are characters in a metatheatrical statement
that Guildenstern unwittingly makes.
GUIL: Well...arent you going to change into
I never change out of it, sir.
Always in character.
Thats it (33-34).
The Tragedians are always in character because they are
characters in Stoppards play. The Player and his troupe
have no identities outside of the play. In the same vein, Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern are always in character, because they are both
the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Stoppards play and the
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Shakespeares play. The Actors
of Pirandellos play do not have this metatheatrical awareness
that the Player and his troupe have; but the Characters have this
awareness. They can be nothing else but who they are.
The Father in
Six Characters... tells the Producer that the Characters
situation doesnt change, it cant change, it
can never be different, never, because it is already determined,
like this, for ever... We are an eternal reality (1759).
A sense of permanence is fixed to the characters in both plays.
Stoppard sets up an eternal reality for Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern with the improbable coin-flipping opening scene.
Guildenstern has been flipping coins and each time, the coin comes
up heads. He suggests one possibility, time has stopped
dead, and the single experience of one coin being spun once has
been repeated (16). A moment earlier, he had a violent reaction,
grabbing Rosencrantz and saying This is not the first time
we have spun coins! Rosencrantz replies, Oh no- weve
been spinning coins for as long as I remember (14-15). The
beginning of the play evokes a timelessness. The very creation
of a script sets things in stone for characters, making them eternal.
The Producer tells the Prompter to try to get the lines
down as the Characters tell their stories, and says the
characters are there in the script (1744). When Guildenstern
asks the Player who decides what happens, the Player is surprised
and says Decides? It is written (80).
As the Father says, A man will die, a writer... but what
he has created will never die! (1731). The written word
is fixed and since all characters arise from the written word,
their lives will never change; they are always kept in a state
of preservation. Ros and Guil have no future, only a series
of to-days, Andretta says (34). He points out Guildensterns
line, One is, after all, having [the future] all the time...
now... and now... and now... (70). The Mother indicates
this also in her line, [the agony] repeats itself endlessly
and vividly (1756). Both plays, through metatheater, speak
towards the nature of character as a eternal, fixed object. Characters
appear onstage, develop, then go offstage within the span of the
play. By saying this, Pirandello and Stoppard may be cautioning
other playwrights to be careful of what they write, for it may
endure forever and thus influence society in later times. This
may also be a sly dig at actors who feel it is within their prerogative
to change the lines of their characters. The script is treated
reverentially by the Player, and the Characters need their words
to be spoken by the actors exactly, otherwise they must wander
phantom-like. The writer gains a God-like status in both plays,
as the creator who decides what is to happen.
These characters can do nothing else but obey Gods will.
Only at the very end do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern realize that
they are characters, fixed in a script that must be played out.
Just before Guildenstern dies he says, Well,
well know better next time (126), because he knows
they will repeat the whole process again.
final words, to borrow Stoppards device, shows the flip
side of the coin which is death. Since characters are eternal,
then how can they really die? The answer is, they cant.
Real death is not the end for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, nor
for the Characters. The Father tells the Producer and the Actors,
whoever has the luck to be born a character can laugh even
at death. Because a character will never die! (1731). Guildensterns
only self-aware line, about next time, indicates the
eternal life of a character. Pirandello and Stoppard grasp this
concept, and see the inherent metatheatrical problem. How can
death and mortality be portrayed on the stage when the audience
knows death does not exist for these characters? In Six Characters...,
Pirandello alludes to this problem when he has the Mother faint.
The Actors all exclaim, Is it real? Has she really fainted?
etc. (1733). A fictive character cannot do something real
without it consciously being viewed as something false. Pirandello
uses the Actors as a mirror of the audience, voicing the thoughts
the audience cant; for if the audience doubts the Mothers
fainting spell, then they must doubt everything they hear and
see on the stage. And if they do this, then there is no reason
to watch the play at all. Now, if a fainting spell by a Character
is doubtful, then what of a more grave situation, death? Pirandello
and Stoppard address this issue, although Stoppard is more explicit.
Pirandello teases the audience with the question by having the
Father start telling the Mothers story, confusing the Producer.
How is she a widow, if youre still alive? (1733).
It turns out that the Father is not the man who is dead. However,
there are two Characters who are dead, the Little Boy and Little
Girl. Yet they exist on stage during the play. They have life,
and they have names, as mentioned earlier. As the end of the play
occurs, death occurs. The Little Girl drowns in a stage prop,
and the Little Boy shoots himself with a nonexistent gun. The
reaction of the Actors are divided in two camps. One camp believes
the boy has really wounded himself. The other believes its
merely a trick. Its reality! the Father shouts
(1766). The childrens deaths do not come as a surprise to
the Characters because it is part of their innate scripts. The
Mother is terrified when the children step onto the garden set
because she knows what will occur. It is, after all, part of the
agony that repeats itself endlessly (1756). The children
have no lines. They exist solely to die at the end of the play,
as part of the Mothers drama. When their part is done, they
disappear from the family tableau at the final scene. Were their
deaths real or illusionary? The case can be easily be argued for
both. Their deaths are real to the Characters, while the deaths
are illusionary to the Actors and the audience. As noted earlier,
the distinction between the real and unreal is easily drawn in
Pirandellos play as opposed to Stoppards work.
Death and mortality
is a recurrent theme in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern...,
more specifically, death on stage versus real death. Shakespeare
made use of the play-within-a-play to explore this concept. In
Hamlet, the device is used psychologically to catch
the conscience of the king, as Hamlet says. The fictional
death of a kingly character on stage strikes Claudius as deeply
as a real death, because a real death had occurred in Claudiuss
experience. However, Stoppard probes the play-within-a-play further,
bringing out the metatheatrical elements. Guildenstern takes the
extreme position of an audience, complete disbelief. Actors!
The mechanics of cheap melodrama! That isnt death
he tells the Player, You die so many times; how can you
expect [the audience] to believe in your death? (83). This
raises the very question regarding eternal characters versus their
deaths. The Player presents the other point of view, that the
audience can believe in stage death. Theyre conditioned
to it, the Player replies, Audiences know what to
expect, and that is all they are prepared to believe in
(84). He proves his point by faking his own death near the end
of the play, fooling Guildenstern. You see it is
the kind they do believe in-- its what is expected
(123), he says. However, Guildensterns take on what he terms
real death is actually what happens to Rosencrantz
and himself, leading one to think Stoppard is positing what death
is for characters. Death is put on view by the Tragedians, different
characters dying by various means. Guildenstern contradicts the
Tragedians version of death. No... no... not for us,
Death is not anything... death is not...
Its the absence of presence, nothing
more... the endless time of never coming
The Little Girls and Little Boys deaths follow
Guildensterns line of reasoning. Their parts are completed,
they do not appear anymore on stage. Guildensterns definition
of death actually turns out to be what death is for characters.
Characters have a unique life of their own, so it shouldnt
be surprising that they have their own death. When characters
are not on stage, they are dead. Pirandello touches upon this
as he has the Father say, We want to live, sir.... only
for a few moments-- in you, he asks the Producer and Actors
(1731-32). The Characters are dead unless they are on the stage.
What happens to characters when they follow stage directions such
as Exit Stage Right? They die as well. Death is also
an exit, unobtrusive and unannounced, Guildenstern
says (84). This may seem to contradict what the Player says, regarding
an exit being an entrance somewhere else (28), but
that is not the case. When there is nothing to enter, there is
death. Stoppards play is an entrance for Rosencrantz and
Guildensterns exits from Hamlet. When they both exit
Stoppards play for the last time, there is no entrance for
them to go back into Hamlet, because they have already
left Shakespeares play for the last time. Now you
see me, now you-- Guildenstern says as he dies (126), referencing
an earlier line he spoke regarding death. Its a man
failing to reappear, thats all-- now you see him, now you
dont (84). Their bodies disappear from the stage.
Guildenstern has a belated epiphany. Guildenstern and Rosencrantz
are dead characters.
Why was it so
difficult for Shakespeares duo to recognize this fact about
themselves? This is another element of metatheater that one can
look to Pirandello to address. Through the metatheatrical juxtaposition
of Characters next to Actors, Pirandello points out some of the
problems of acting. The Father and Stepdaughter reenact their
meeting in a bordello for the Actors, and two Actors repeat the
scene. The Stepdaughter disrupts the Actors when she laughs at
them, and the Father attempts to explain, saying the Actors struck
the Characters as funny. However much they want to be the
same as us, theyre not... Its something to do with...
being themselves, I suppose, not being us, he says (1753).
Pirandello writes the Father as having a difficult time explaining
the idea to the Actors, perhaps as a means to dwell on the topic
longer, giving the audience more time to grasp what Pirandello
himself is trying to say. After a few stumbling starts, the Father
finally explains the idea of Actors playing Characters, saying
it will be more an interpretation of what I am, what he
[the Leading Actor] believes me to be, and not how I know myself
to be (1746). His confusion here, along with the confusion
he develops over the debate as to his wifes real name being
used for a role seems to support the idea that actors dilute characters.
Characters become less real when they are performed. Part of this
is due to the necessity of stage conventions, the mechanics
of cheap melodrama. When the Stepdaughter begins speaking
her piece, the Actors shout for her to speak up, unable to hear
her. What were talking about you cant talk about
loudly, she says, but the Producer replies, Here in
the theater you have to make yourself heard! (1748). The
Characters also balk at the impromptu set formed for the brothels
room. When the Stepdaughter outlines what happened in the brothel,
the Producer stops her, saying, This is the theater you
know! Truths all very well up to a point but... (1754).
Already, Pirandello shows a number of things that prevent the
Characters and their stories from being fully realized in a stage
GUIL: ...We can do what we like and say what
we like to whomever we
Within limits, of course.
Certainly within limits (116).
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in a comic verbal exchange, hit
upon the very idea of their own limitations. The dilution of their
characters is so much that they cannot recognize their true natures
when its dangled in front of their faces. In Elsinore, the Tragedians
put on a dumb-show which goes on to illustrate every event in
Hamlet, including two Spies which play Rosencrantzs
and Guildensterns roles. The stage directions show Rosencrantz
nearly gripping the idea.
brings ROS forward is the fact that under their cloaks
the two SPIES are wearing coats identical to those worn
by ROS and GUIL, whose coats are now covered by
their cloaks. ROS approaches his SPY
doubtfully. He does not quite understand why the coats are
familiar. ROS stands close, touches the coat, thoughtfully...
However, Rosencrantz fails to connect his counterpart to himself.
The Player asks Guildenstern if he knows the play. Guildenstern
doesnt, although it unnerves him. Neither he nor Rosencrantz
can recognize themselves as played by actors, paralleling the
Characters problem with the Actors in Six Characters...
Guildensterns problem with the Player and his troupes
dramatization of death can be seen as another aspect of dilution.
A characters death cannot be portrayed by someone else,
otherwise it loses its impact. You cant act death,
Guildenstern says (84). That death is reserved only for the character.
Another convention of acting is the need to find the motivation
of that character. Since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arent
actors, they do not need to be told their motivation. Who
are we? Guildenstern asks the Player, who then tells
them, You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Thats
enough (122). As mentioned earlier, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
are always in character.
They, like six
other Characters, arent real. As fictive characters, Rosencrantz
and the Father, et al., are all bound by a different set of rules.
They have a different form of existence, one born of words in
a script; a life dependent on the stage. Ironically, being dependent
on the stage means characters are dependent on actors, which is
the very thing that weakens them most. The plays-within-the-plays
in Pirandellos and Stoppards plays illustrate the
rules which aid in making the distinction between the real and
the fictive in plays, which metatheater demands of the audience.
Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and six other characters arent
real. As a matter of fact, the ultimate distinction an audience
can make is that any characters in any play are not real.
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