stern)Anagnorisis and Existence
The Point of Realization in Stoppards
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
In Shakespeares Hamlet, the young prince realizes what living is.
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, 105
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter (Hamlet, I, v. 104-110)
Upon realizing his fate that he must save the state of Denmark Hamlet must literally discard his prior knowledge and start anew. Aristotle argues that the exact moment when Hamlet realizes his fate by moving from innocence and ignorance to knowledge is the cause of tragedy in drama. Aristotles calls this realization that all humans must have anagnorisis. For all the moaning and a whining about his situation, Hamlet will fight whatever is rotten in the State of Denmark. (Hamlet, I, iv, 67) Though this self discovery is integral in Shakespeares tragedy, Stoppards two characters do not even address their fate. And, the result of this lack of action and lack of any anagnorisis in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead when framed against the proactive Hamlet, Fortinbras and Laertes is an interesting commentary on human beings reactions to mortality.
Death is not romantic, and death is not a game which will soon be over Death is not anything death is not Its the absence of presence, nothing more the endless time of never coming back a gap you cant see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound. (R&D, 124)
To Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, death is lying in a box bored. Their inability to comprehend deaths complexity stems from the fact that even when alive, they are hardly present, barely hanging onto their existence.
If we stopped breathing wed vanish. (R&D, 112)
Part of Rosencrantz and Guildensterns lack of existence is Stoppards emphasis on the seeming interchangeability of their identities. However, whereas in Hamlet the King, Gertrude and Hamlet mistake the two for each other, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern actually mistake themselves. Their lack of identity leaves the two characters as not human they literally do nothing and do not develop. It is for that reason that, though they discover their fate, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern literally cannot die: they dont actually exist. So, when the time comes for their fate to catch up to them, they literally disappear. Hamlet, on the other hand, decides to pick up a sword.
To be or not to be, –that is the question:–
Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing, end them? (Hamlet, III i, 63-67)
While Hamlet was also contemplating suicide, the famous soliloquy is even more pertinent for it embodies the difference between the three major young men in Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras all take actions into their own hands, albeit sometimes not right away. It is this aspect of the Shakespearian heroes that Stoppard examines in his look at the other two. Herein lies the eternal question that Stoppard poses: do you stand in line and take what He hands out or fight and take arms against a sea of troubles? Both are human responses to the understanding of fate and mortality. The first is the response of a sap, a sheep, someone who is part of other peoples plots: a messenger. The second is the response of a hero, like the Celtic warriors who, when facing defeat from an opposing army, would make a futile but heroic march into the breaking waves because it was better for them to take death into their own hands than die at the hands of another. Clearly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are messengers, but they dont exactly fit in the stand in line and take what He hands out because they are not fully aware of their fates. This is where Aristotle was correct: all humans must have an anagnorisis all humans must move from ignorance to knowledge, even if it is at the point of death.
However, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not move from innocence or ignorance to knowledge.