One thing that living at home entails is helping my brother with his homework and since he’s not the most academically minded means I have to do a lot of the work. So while he has been reading Hamlet and writing papers on it I have been rereading it. During this I remembered how much I loved this play and also how much I loved Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Now for those who don’t know Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two characters that are in Hamlet and subsequently die (go figure). This book then chronicles there “death” and the bizarre things that they run into during this journey.
This then has influenced my next blog post which is actually an essay I wrote back when I was a senior in high school in AP Literature. Now one might this study of a piece of literature isn’t exactly an anthropological topic but I think it is important to talk about since we can look at anything from the anthropological perspective. More than anything this book does a great job at addressing the issue of death and defining exactly what it, which is a very touchy subject among many people. Different cultures have their ideas of what death actually is and this book brings up explanations both plausible and symbolic.
In the book Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead one of life’s biggest questions is raised: What is death? This question is evident through the whole book as Ros and Guil hover in their plane of existence, contemplating death. These two characters search for some concrete answer to this ambiguous question.
The concrete answer is never reached; there is disparity between Ros and Guil as to what death truly is. In Act III when the two of them are on a boat traveling to England, Guil comments on the boat symbolizing freedom: “One is free on a boat. For a time” (101). This statement is somewhat paradoxical since when they are on the boat they are confined in a small space. Contrasting Guil’s thought of the boat symbolizing freedom; Ros interprets the boat to symbolize death: “Do you think that death could possibly be a boat?” (108). This interpretation stems from Ros having to attribute everything to something concrete in order to be able to grasp it, to understand it.
This could be a possible answer to the question. If the boat symbolizes both death and freedom, then could death possibly be freedom? Is death freedom from the trials and tribulations of life and therefore nothing to fear? Guil seems to think so as he states in his long tirade, “Certainly it is a release from the burden of life, and, for the godly, a haven, and a reward” (110). The reader might think this is Guil’s character finally having an epiphany of sorts, on the subject of death. This play is however, Theatre of the Absurd and Guil merely dismisses it, forgetting about it forever.
One thing that the two can agree on is that death cannot be staged: “I’m talking about death… you cannot act it. You die a thousand casual deaths – with none of that intensity which squeezes out life… because even as you die you know that you will get up after death – there is no applause – there is only silence and some second-hand clothes, and that’s – death –“ (123). Death in a play isn’t real; death is such a hard concept to grasp that to portray it on a stage is impossible. Guil basically is saying that death on stage can’t be believed because the actor gets up after the curtain closes. The concept of death is eternal; one doesn’t wake up from it. From this deduction Guil inadvertently comes up with an answer; death is indescribable. The answer he comes up with is that death is well, death.
What Guil fails to realize is that earlier in the book, he came to this same realization, “Death’s death isn’t it?” (89). Once again since this is Theatre of the Absurd he does not remember this statement. This simple answer comes up again at the end of the play, while the two of them are dying. Ros tries, as he does throughout the play, to tie death to something tangible: “So there’s an end to that – it’s commonplace: light goes with life, and in the winter of your years the dark comes early” (124). So in Ros’ mind dark symbolizes death, though Guil quickly retorts, before they both fade, “Not for us… no not like that… death is not anything… death is not… It’s the absence of presence… it makes no sound…” (124).
At the end of the play we only get one answer to the question and it is far from concrete. Instead they come up with an extremely redundant answer: death is death. It is nothing more, nothing less. This answer seems to go along with the book well despite itself. The answer ties into the theme of inconsistency in the book. Ros and Guil try so hard to find the concrete answer. Ros searches for a symbol to embody death while Guil looks for the answer on a more philosophical level which parallels how many cultures and religions feel on the subject. All the answers that they come up with along the way are forgotten. Nothing in this play can be remembered; epiphanies go unnoticed and Ros and Guil die without a true grasp of what is going to happen to them now that they are dying reminiscent of many people’s journey into death.
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