The setting and basic plot follows that in "Hamlet" closely. The two main characters, minor characters of the original play, are summoned to the Danish court to find out why Hamlet is acting strangely. At times they interact with characters we recognise from Hamlet, but they mostly interact with each other and other minor characters while the events we know from Hamlet are played out in the background. Occasionally meeting with Hamlet they gather that most of the members of the Danish court are mad, are sent to England with Hamlet and meet their anticipated ends.
The play is a commentary interpolating the plotline focusing on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into that of the original Hamlet play. Occasional snippets of the original tragedy serve as cues for the two characters to comment on the haughtyness and oppressive deterministic qualities of both the court and the original play. Rosencrantz' line "They'll have us hanging about till we're dead" (p.85) is quite exemplary; they find themselves to be mere tools to both the court and the playwright, devalued in their allotted passivity and obscurity. In addition, their dialogue directly targets the audience's notions of determinism, as indeed does the title of the play. A frequent use of idiomatic foreshadow (like "he murdered us" (p.48), "over your dead body" (p.71) and "we're finished" (p.96)) and numerous discussions concerning death works a constant reminders of the audience's premade assumptions. Such a response to assumptions in a play that is to some extent in opposition to the source text causes bewilderment, so much so that in the end the audience will be suprised to find the main characters being hanged.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves are comic characters in a mode reminiscent of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot". Both Estragon and Vladimir and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern form pairs with complementary personal characteristics, so much so that each character on his own would seem incomplete (see p.95). One might see the play as a product of two appropriations: the characters from "Waiting for Godot" in the plot, setting and context of "Hamlet". Also, the qualities of each character in one absurd play mirror those of one in another. The characters and their language is, as was the case with "Gertrude and Claudius", approximated to fit a modern audience. They neither speak nor behave in the archaic sense one may expect in a play based on Renaissance drama. The effect of this is that the approximated characters become more appealing and their actions and postulations more acceptable to a modern audience. Thus, a constant renewal of drama and literature is possible. (I similar process was the basis for the Katerina character of Dimitri Shostakovich' "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District". For more on effects similar to those pf approximation, see end paragraph of the above mentioned post).
The characters' humourous dialogue conveys a peculiar commentary on the genre and the seriousness of characters in the original play. Several of their discussions are parodical, such as one of their discussions on death on pp. 62-63. Mirroring the "to be or not to be" speech they discuss life after death and find they "have no control" and should not think about it. "You'd only get depressed". There is a child-like quality to the two friends, their innocence, wonder and ineptitude are qualities fundamental to the dialogue and plot progress of the play. However, the seemingly innocent humour can convey both criticism and an uncanny feeling in relation to the grim subjects under discussion.
"Hamlet" being such a canonical text, appropriation becomes an easier task than it would otherwise have been. As the audience can be expected to know the plot and several of the lines, the appropriating playwright may use any number of tools to comment the source text. In "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead", Stoppard transfers focus from Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius to the two marginalised friends. This is done by allocating all the incidents in the original play that did not include them offstage or in the extremity of the play (e.g. pp.28-29, p.43) or by having them comment on the intrusiveness of the original play directly (e.g. pp.65-67). It could also be done through introducing new stage directions into the original text, i.e. by making the characters act in a way not warranted by the source text (e.g. pp.26,28,84) or by reworking the text altogether. As in Updike, numerous references to the source text are given in rewritten lines from the play such as in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's verdict on Hamlet on p.108. In addition to this, by omitting sequences of the play and source text which the audience would surely be expecting (most notably the "to be" speech, the visitations of the ghost and the final showdown), the source plot is either represented as irrelevant for Stoppard's purposes or open to ridicule or critique.
Through devices such as those above the playwright brings marginalised characters to the front, questioning the priorities within the source text, pointing out missed potential, expands the scope of the source text and by extension gives the original play a modern touch. It is, however, important to note that in order to work as an effective qritique, an appropriation will to some extent have to depend on the object of its critique. The more effective the appropriative commentary would like to be, the more dependent it would be on the source text, thus somewhat undermining its own critique. To exemplify with "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead", one might consider at least the plot, setting, themes amd genre of "Hamlet" fundamental to the appropriation's effect as a commentary. Could the critical relationship between between what Gérard Genette called the hypertext and the hypotext be dependent on the hypertext's proximity to adaptation (or indeed even the adaptation's proximity to the hypotext)?"the characters from"Waiting for Godot" inthe plot, setting andcontext of "Hamlet"
I might have to address this issue in a separate blogpost...
All technicalities aside, however, I personally found the play to be very appealing. After a long row of tedious plays ripe with platitudes and infantile theatrical humour I needed a breath of fresh wit. The combitation of the appeal of the characters and the nature of their discussions aided me in my effort to remedy my sense of the fatality of drama, the fatality which ironically is omnipresent in the play.
Gary Oldman's excellent interpretation of Rosencrantz in the film might also have made a contribution...
Sources: Stoppard, Tom: "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead", London, 2000
Løfaldli, Eli: ""Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" Lecture", Trondheim, Spring 2010
Pictures: http://www.culturefeast.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/stoppard.jpg, http://bbashful66.files.wordpress.com/2007/07/03.jpg,
http://www.faber.co.uk/site-media/onix-images/thumbs/5037_jpg_280x450_q85.jpg, last visited 9.3.2010