Further Notes on
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
by Tom Stoppard
“Rosencrantz: We might as well be dead. Do you think death could possibly be a boat?
Guildenstern: No, no, no... Death is...not. Death isn't. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can't not-be on a boat.
Rosencrantz: I've frequently not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, no, no--what you've been is not on boats.”
― Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
As the Third and Final Act of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead opens the two courtiers are in "pitch darkness" with the sound of the sea in the background. Once again they have a moment of Beckett-like dialogue. Questioning their senses they parry back and forth about their own existence and knowledge of such, Guil says, "You can feel, can't you?", and Ros replies "Ah! There's life in me yet!" (p 97)
With the further confirmation by Ros giving Guil a pinch they have settled in and soon realize they are on a ship. On the ship (headed for England) they have a letter. But once again there is some doubt and suddenly they are not sure that they have the letter. Just when the confusion is at its height Guil says, “This is all getting rather undisciplined. . . . The boat, the night, the sense of isolation and uncertainty . . . all these induce a loosening of the concentration. We must not lose control. Tighten up. Now. Either you have lost the letter or you didn't have it to lose in the first place, in which case the King never gave it to you, in which case he gave it to me, in which case I would have put it into my inside top pocket, in which case (calmly producing the letter) . . . it will be . . . here. (They smile at each other.) We mustn't drop off like that again.” (p 107)
Unfortunately by that point they had “lost the tension”. They had lost the tension that All humans have to keep on living, you see they, Ros and Guil, have “travelled too far,” and their “momentum has taken over", and will carry them on to England and their death. I mention this episode because it concludes the action that began early in the first act. Action which has for the whole play been on the edge of reality beyond time. For “Time has stopped dead,” as Guil pointed out in the first act. (p16)
The pair of courtiers are also on the edge of reality in the same sense that the Tragedians are acting out roles. They comment that you should “Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.” The continuing interjection of the traveling actors led by their “Player” reminds the reader of the similarity between the “actions” of Ros and Guil and the pretense of the actors. This also culminates in the final act of the play when the Tragedians emerge just after Ros and Guil receive their official notice of death. The Player who leads the actors responds to Guil's plea of “Who are we?”
“Player: You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That's enough.
Guil: No---it is not enough. To be told so little—to such and end—and still, finally, to be denied an explanation----
Player: In our experience, most things end in death.” (pp 122-23)
Guil proceeds to stab the Player with a knife, but the Player, after falling down feinting death, proceeds to get up and lecture them on the many different kinds of death offered by his troupe.
You see, this is merely a stage play, but is it any different than reality? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern realize too late that “There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said -- no. But somehow we missed it." Thus the play ends not only with their deaths but also with the deaths of Hamlet and the others from Shakespeare's original play, leaving the reader with the question whether it is merely fiction . . . drama for our entertainment . . . or is it real life?