Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as Existential Antiheroes and de Beauvoir’s Subman

Imagine waking up disoriented, lost and confused. There is heavy banging at the shutters. Bang, bang, bang. The exacting noise fills the house as you try to gather your bearings to no fruition. You remember nothing; identity, values and bonds, all seem to have been lost in the deep sleep. A messenger outside shouts your name. Groggy, confused, unsure, what would you do? Many would go along with it, open the door and do as the messenger asks in hopes of finding out more about their identity in the process. This is exactly what Ros and Guil do in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a course of action that they will eventually regret.

Written in 1966 by Tom Stoppard based on William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is an existentialist comedy that explores Shakespeare’s world of Elsinore, the main setting of Hamlet, through the perspective of minor characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as they grapple with court politics and fulfill their roles as spies for the king. However, this retelling comes with a twist: Ros and Guil know not of their identity and are therefore at the mercy of external forces which propel them along the play’s plot.

Based on the fact that Ros and Guil are unable to make any significant choices throughout the play, superficially, it can be argued that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead represents the antithesis of existentialism. As Sartre defines it, existentialism is one of the most optimistic philosophies “since it declares that man’s destiny lies within himself” (Sartre 40). Clearly Ros and Guil’s inability to take the initiative and decide the course of their actions clashes with a principle belief of existentialism. However, this is not the case. Ros and Guil’s actions and many themes in the play can be explained with the philosophy of existentialism according to the principles of essence and existence, freedom and absurdity.

To begin his lecture on the merits of atheistic existentialism, titled Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre makes a clear distinction between humans and objects, one made on the basis that “existence precedes essence” (Sartre 20). Humans are able to define the world through self-determination and evaluation because their existence preceded their essence, meaning that man exists before he can define any purpose for existing or any concept of it. Man exists first, and only afterwards can he define himself or “be what he makes of himself” (Sartre 22) through his free will and choices. Meanwhile, objects are the opposite; their essence preceded their existence. Because of this, objects are derived from a formula and are produced “in a certain way and… serve a definite purpose” (Sartre 21). An object’s function came first, therefore it was created only to serve that purpose and no more. Sartre illustrates the difference using a paper knife. The knifes essence, which is to cut paper or open envelopes, came first; a craftsman drew inspiration from this concept and proceeded to create it, thus beginning its existence.

Now this distinction can be applied to Ros and Guil; the reason that the two have no free will to control their actions or destiny is because they themselves are not technically human. Looking back to the premise of the play, it is a fact that Stoppard wrote it based on Hamlet, but with the perspective of two minor characters. Because of this, Stoppard creates a play-within-a-play: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is within Hamlet. Stoppard does this by incorporating characters from the original work as well as the language and scenes. This incorporation of Shakespeare’s lines can be seen when characters from the original play, namely Hamlet, cause Ros and Guil to speak in iambic pentameter and Elizabethan English. However, when the other characters leave, the two revert to a more modern English: Stoppard’s lines. By overlapping his own language with Shakespeare’s verse and the tragedians’ pantomime, Stoppard has created a fragmented sense of reality to show that the events occurring in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead are happening within Hamlet.

Thus, because of the play-within-a-play setting, Ros and Guil can be justified as characters rather than human beings. Fleming corroborates this theory by stating in his book, Stoppard’s Theatre: Finding Order Amid Chaos, that Ros and Guil “exist both inside and outside the text… and at times they also acknowledge the presence of a theatre audience” (53). This is what he and film director John Boorman calls “a present-day identity as actors caught and trapped within the roles” (53). They argue that Ros and Guil are actually actors, playing the role of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Hamlet. Because of this, they are bound by the script and destiny written for their characters and thus are unable to change it. This is further collaborated by the Player’s remark when he first meets Ros and Guil; he claims that he “recognized [them] at once… as fellow artists” (Stoppard 23). By artists, he means actors, further suggesting that Ros and Guil are not humans in the play, but rather actors playing out their roles. The following exchange between the Player and Guil further describes the world as a stage and the characters as actors playing their part:

 (The PLAYER has not moved his position for his last four lines. He does not move now. GUIL waits.)

GUIL: Well… aren’t you going to change into costume?

PLAYER: I never change out, sir.

GUIL: Always in character.

PLAYER: That’s it.


GUIL: Aren’t you going to – come on?

PLAYER: I am on. (Stoppard 33-4)

In context, the above exchange occurs when the Tragedians agree to perform for Ros and Guil. However, Guil questions the Player as he has yet to move onto the stage or change into his costume for the performance. The Player justifies this by saying that he “never change[s] out” (Stoppard 33) of his costume and that he is already on stage. While the pair fails the grasps the Player’s hints, the Player is implying that he is always on stage and is in his costume because he is currently playing a character at the moment; that is why he claims that he is “always in character” (Stoppard 34). He is telling Ros and Guil that all of them are currently actors on stage, playing the roles they were assigned. Sadly, the pair fails to understands his hints and spends the rest of the play confused about their identity.

Thus Ros and Guil’s actions throughout the play can be defined under the existentialist philosophy by justifying that the pair do not represent humans in the play but actually characters. Similar to the paper knife, the two characters were created when Shakespeare needed someone to do Gertrude’s bidding and “draw [Hamlet] on to pleasures and to gather, / So much as from occasion you may glean, / Whether aught, to us unknown, afflicts him thus / That, opened, lies within our remedy” (Shakespeare 2.2.15-8). Thus Shakespeare defined their roles, or essence, as couriers under the service of the King and Queen to spy on Hamlet first before writing them into existence. Because their essence preceded their existence, Ros and Guil’s cannot define themselves through their actions since their role has already been defined for them and now they are just unknowingly playing it out. This is why Guil says “I have no desires. None” (Stoppard 17); it is because his essence is already defined and therefore he is unable to create his own reality through actions or define what he values.

From this, it can be concluded that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead actually represents existentialist themes clearly and portrays Ros and Guil as antiheroes of existentialism. Where as Sartre’s existentialist heroes can take responsibilities for their action and are measured in what they do in life, Ros and Guil cannot. They lack the free will to go against the script despite their best attempts. Sartre states that “man is free, man is freedom” (29), but this cannot be the case for Ros and Guil since they are not considered man because they have a pre-determined role. Their lack of free will is best summarized in the dialogue below:

GUIL: We’ve been caught up. Your smallest action sets off another somewhere else, and is set off by it. Keep an eye open, an ear cocked. Tread warily, follow instructions. We’ll be all right.

ROS: For how long?

GUIL: Till events have played themselves out. There’s a logic at work – it’s all done for you, don’t worry. Enjoy it. Relax. To be taken in hand and led, like being a child again, even without the innocence, a child. (Stoppard 40)

Above, Guil acknowledges their lack of free will, stating that they should follow instructions, just as actors do. The imagery of a child evokes a sense of helplessness; just like a child, Ros and Guil are incapable of changing their fates and must allow themselves to be lead by the hand by the script. Also, like a child, both of them are in a universe “fashioned without” (de Beauvoir 35) them; therefore, they must accept ready made values and go along with it. The quote begins with a sense of human agency but gives way to a “feeling of inexorable fate, which here is somewhat comforting since it removes the anxiety of having to choose” (Fleming 57). This dialogue also shows that Ros and Guil not only exemplify antiheroes of existentialism but also represents Simone de Beauvoir’s subman, the antithesis of an existentialist hero.

As de Beauvoir states, the subman is one who “takes shelter in the ready-made values of the serious world” (de Beauvoir 44). He is scared to engage himself for fear of being “disengaged and … in a state of danger before the future, in the midst of its possibilities” (de Beauvoir 44). The subman is one who cannot define his own destiny as he cannot take responsibility for his actions and define himself and his future amongst the midst of possibilities. Thus he “will take shelter behind a label” (de Beauvoir 44) to avoid making such a decision.

This is exactly what Ros and Guil do; having no background or idea of their identity, Ros and Guil cling onto the values given to them. They do as they are told almost without question. While Guil does attempt to plan a course of action that will produce results, he gives up fairly easily. This is because like the subman, Ros and Guil are “not very clear about what [they have] to lose, since [they have] nothing” (de Beauvoir 45), literally, since they have no background or even memories before the play because they didn’t exist before it. Thus, Ros and Guil have nothing to lose other than their lives, something which they do not even realize they could lose despite the Player’s many hints throughout the play. But, because of the terror of uncertainty and the unforeseen, Guil gives up trying to change their fate, believing that they have nothing to lose in doing so, and instead diverts his attention to understanding their fate (Shute). This can be seen when Guil says “the scientific approach to the examination of the phenomena is a defense against the pure emotion of fear” (Stoppard 17). Here they give up on trying to control their fates, and seek to “cope with the events of their lives in such a way as to minimize pain and fear” (Shute) of the future instead. So throughout the play, the primary motivation of Ros and Guil will be to “understand what is happening to them and around them (Cahn 39). Thus, the play becomes an “intellectual battle” for Ros and Guil to try grasping events in a world where” events defy reason and occur seemingly without cause” (Cahn 39). Even in the end, Ros and Guil passively accept their death sentence as their destiny; their biggest concern is a “desire for an explanation, for an understanding of who they are, what has transpired, and why” (Fleming 63).

However, another reading of this play could be that it is a work of absurdum. According to absurdist, “nature as a whole has no design, no reason for existing” (Burnham); while it could be understood through science, this is better used as a description than either understanding or explanation. The incomprehensibility and absurdity of the world is highlighted by Ros and Guil’s confusion throughout the play. Depicted as unable to remember their past, Guil claims that “starting from scratch” (Stoppard 20), the first thing he remembers is “an awakening, a man standing on his saddle to bang on the shutters, names shouted in a certain dawn, a message, a summons” (Stoppard 20). Without knowledge of their identities and roles, they rely on others to provide them with information. However, their confusion is further augmented by the ambiguous motives of other characters who pops onstage to deliver perplexing speeches before exiting, further emphasizing the random nature of the universe.

To highlight the absurd theme, Stoppard emphasizes the randomness of the world in Act One when Ros and Guil bet on coin flips. By guessing heads repeatedly, Ros wins 92 times in a row, mocking the law of probability (see figure 1). While Guil tries explain the phenomenon by creating a series of syllogisms, stating that “if we postulate, and we just have, that within un-, sub- or supernatural forces the probability is that the law of probability will not operate as a factor” (Stoppard 17). Yet none of his imperfect reasoning yields satisfying answers. This incident illustrates the absurdity of basing decisions on the probability of an event occurring. The scene also shows that both science and faith will present equally doubtful explanation for the events and neither seem to offer Ros and Guil “much insights into their lives” (Shute).  This explains why Ros and Guil tries so desperately to understand the world around them and leads to the absurdist question of suicide.


Fig.1 – Cehovet, Bonnie. Shows the results of the coin toss as heads. Digital Image. N.p., 17 May 2015. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

Absurdist philosophers claim that “since existence itself has no meaning, [man] must learn to bear an irresolvable emptiness.” (Aronson). It is because of this that Camus states that there is only “one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide” (Aronson). For absurdist, the emptiness of the universe as well as the impossibility of achieving an answer makes suicide seem like the only true question because they are unsure whether or not life is work living under such circumstances.

This can be seen when Ros exclaims “I wish I was dead. (Considers the drop.) I could jump over the side” (Stoppard 108). Unable to find meaning in his life as he is constantly pushed to the next scene and annoyed at being at sea for so long, Ros exclaims his desire to commit suicide. Like Camus, Ros sees trying to understand the world and attempting “to gain rational knowledge as futile” (Aronson) because of all the irrational things that has happened to them. So he turns to the absurd sensibility of suicide.

Both the absurd and existentialism of the play however point to the lack of free will and inability for Ros and Guil, it is not possible to create meaning in the world since they cannot define themselves in the world or choose their course of action. Incapable of making meaningful choices and taking action, the two are at the mercy of external forces, lead towards their death as the play progresses. Even though Ros and Guil eventually realize that there is a grand design, the script, they “can never know for certain what is and is not part of that design” (Fleming 57). Because of this, they cannot assert their independence, and are constantly faced with the prospects that what they do is that might be considered “to be an exercise of free will may in fact be nothing more that fated action” (Fleming 57). This can be seen below where Ros is unsure of what plan of action to take in order to exert his free will.

ROS: I wish I was dead. (Considers the drop.) I could jump over the side. That would put a spoke in their wheel.

GUIL: Unless they’re counting on it.

ROS: I shall remain on board. That’ll put a spoke in their wheel. (Stoppard 108)

Here, while it looks like Ros is presented with various courses of actions, that is not really the case as he is destined to remain on board instead of jumping off. So while the characters are presented with alternative courses of actions to take, they are not presented with choices since they are meant to choose a specific option over and over again. Their lack of free will is also accompanied by Stoppard’s decision to transport them between settings and scenes without their consent. One minute, Ros and Guil are lost in the forest with the Tragedians and then “simultaneously – a lighting change sufficient to alter the exterior mood into interior” (Stoppard 34), causing them to appear in Elsinore. This highlights their predestination since the play is literally pushing them forward towards the next scene, towards a fate defined by their essence. Thus, when they were asked to escort Hamlet to England, Ros and Guil agree with Ros reasoning that “we’ve come this far” (Stoppard 95), even though Guil has previously stated that “if [they] go, there is no knowing” (Stoppard 95) if they will come back, a line alluding to their eventual death even though neither characters pick up on this hint.

Just like de Beauvoir’s subman, in the end Ros and Guil are simply walking around the world aimlessly, pushed by external forces on the way to death. As de Beauvoir puts it, “the sub-man makes his way across a world deprived of meaning toward death” (de Beauvoir 45). As Stoppard acknowledges, “the only end is death – if you can’t count on that, what can you count on” (39). So unable to define themselves, Ros and Guil are unable to define values in the world or make any significant decisions or actions. Because of this, they are pushed towards their own death, as stated in the plays title, unware of their ultimate fate and unable to change their essence.

As Ros and Guil are “bewildered before the darkness of the future” (de Beauvoir 45), they miss every opportunity they can to change it, just as they are meant to. In the end, Ros and Guil are forced to accept their destiny and follow it. Rather than trying to change their fates, Guil simply says that “we’ll know better next time” (Stoppard 126), suggesting that they finally realize their roles as actors meant to forever reenact the same events. This explains why when they discover the letter asking for their death, Ros and Guil do nothing to resist. Rather, they complete their mission, evident by the English ambassador’s announcement at the end “that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” (Stoppard 126). From this, it can be assumed that “they resealed the letter, delivered it to the English king, and were executed” (Fleming 64), thus fulfilling the destiny written for them (see figure 2 and 3). Thus is the fate of these two existentialist antiheroes, subman of the play.


Fig.2 – Shows that Ros and Guil resealed the decree and gave it to the King of England. Cehovet, Bonnie. The King of England. Digital image. Bonnie Cehovet. N.p., 17 May 2015. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.


Fig. 3 – Ros and Guil are executed Cehovet, Bonnie. Death. Digital image. Bonnie Cehovet. N.p., 17 May 2015. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.

So, through the understanding that Guil and Ros are characters from Hamlet rather than humans, it can be justified that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead exemplifies existentialist philosophy. By presenting two characters who represent the antithesis of existentialism, Stoppard is able to highlight the main principle of the existentialist philosophy that man is “responsible for everything he does” (Sartre 29). He draws a contrast between the characters’ inability to define themselves with the audiences’ capacity to create their own fate through action rather than blindly following a written fate. By doing so, Stoppard tells the audience that because they are able to choose their destiny, it is their responsibility to define it rather than passively accepting a given fate like Ros and Guil. He rallies the audience to action and motivates them to take control of their lives and break the comforting illusion of fate. While it may be heartening to claim a written future for the source of problems and failures, that is not the case; Stoppard and Sartre agree that it is up to man to change it since “man exists only to the extent the he realizes himself” (Sartre 37).




Works Cited

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de Beauvoir, Simone, and Bernard Frechtman. The Ethics of Ambiguity;. New York: Kensington,   1976. Print.

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Presses, 1979. Print.

Fleming, John. Stoppard’s Theatre: Finding Order Amid Chaos. Austin, TX, USA: University of             Texas Press, 2001. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 25 Nov. 2015.

Sartre, Jean. Existentialism Is a Humanism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. Print.

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Shute, Sarah. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” KnowledgeNotes™ Student Guides.        Protest. Web. 24 Nov. 2015. <;.

Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. New York: Grove, 1967. Print.