Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Credit: Michael Brosilow

“No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant
to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.” —T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

And there you have it: a concise description of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Although usually associated with Polonius, the self-important royal counselor in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Eliot’s lines also apply nicely to the pair of courtiers who first appear in act two of the play, having been sent for by King Claudius, ostensibly to find out why their old school chum the prince has been behaving so strangely of late. Of course, that’s no great mystery: Hamlet’s acting out because Claudius has stolen his kingdom by murdering his father and marrying his mother. More likely, the king wants to make R & G his early-warning system, should Hamlet attempt to take the kingdom back.

But a king doesn’t share his motives with his pawns, so the poor souls really don’t know what’s going on—which is a huge disadvantage in this Danish jungle. A couple of easy tools, deferential and glad to be of use, R & G dutifully try to learn what they can from Hamlet, only to have him learn more from them. When Hamlet kills Polonius, they—again, dutifully—go on the lam with him to the English court, carrying a letter they haven’t read. Then they disappear. The last word on their fate comes from an English ambassador who shows up for an absurd moment near the end of the bloody final scene of the play. Stepping around a pile of murdered royals, he announces that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, as per the instructions in the letter, and asks, “Where should we have our thanks?”

It’s hard to imagine a bigger pair of patsies than these two, which may be why Tom Stoppard decided not to try. His 1966 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead—now running at Writers’ Theatre in a crisp, smart, deeply felt production directed by Michael Halberstam—gives an account of the doings in Hamlet from their point of view.

Which is mighty narrow. How much, after all, does a pawn know about what’s happening to him, and why? The scope of R & G’s perspective is further limited by the fact that they’re fictional characters—minor and expendable ones at that, despite the significance so intriguingly implied by the bit with the English ambassador at the end of Hamlet. They can’t go anywhere that Shakespeare didn’t take them or know anything that’s not part of their narrative. Since they always appear in tandem, they can’t even be sure which of them is which. And they certainly can’t evade their fate. So whenever they’re not needed to suffer some new abuse at the hands of their betters, they exist in a kind of existential limbo.

They’re stuck, in short, exactly—and not coincidentally—like another pair of fools trying to fulfill an obscure obligation: Vladimir and Estragon from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

As in Waiting for Godot, inertia is the joke, the point, and the challenge. Beckett’s pair mostly fills the empty time with words, and so does Stoppard’s. Still in his 20s when he started writing it, Stoppard established his now-familiar voice—that quality of generous, amused, and fearless erudition—in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (though it’s still fairly brittle here; it would get warmer later).

Halberstam’s R & G are completely up to all the inflections in that voice. Timothy Edward Kane, as the brooding half of the pair, and Sean Fortunato, as the amiable clown, trade lines with the same sharp accuracy they apply to tossing money at each other during their effort to see how many times a coin flip yields heads. They also have a marvelous distraction in the acting troupe from Hamlet (think Lucky and Pozzo from Godot, only lots more festive), who happen to be caught in the same strange vacuum. Allen Gilmore does an unalloyed star turn as the leader, a ham with considerable bite. He helps make the empty time go by.