Perhaps Tom Stoppard's most famous play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead retells Hamlet from the perspectives of two minor characters from Shakespeare's play. Students will better understand and appreciate this re-interpretation if they read Hamlet first. They can then discuss the relationship between Stoppard's play and Hamlet. The title Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a line from Shakespeare's play. Your class can discuss the meaning of the title and how Stoppard intends for the audience to interpret it.

Stoppard's play is an Absurdist drama, and an introductory lesson about the conventions of Theatre of the Absurd and how it relates to the tragicomedy genre and existential philosophy will help students better understand the work. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is an example of metatheatre, so students should learn what that term means. They can evaluate how the play within a play setting and the characters, particularly the Player, draw attention to the drama's unreality. The class can then discuss how metatheatre relates to the play's existential themes.


Key Facts

  • Length: 126 pages
  • Publication Date: 1967
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12

The play opens with the titular characters tossing a coin that lands on heads each time, an improbability that baffles Guildenstern. The two then realize they cannot remember a past before coin tossing and only vaguely recall being summoned to the king. They meet a group of actors, called the Tragedians, led by the Player. As the actors put on a play, the scene shifts to the royal castle of Denmark.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern witness the disheveled Hamlet embrace Ophelia. Claudius and Gertrude greet the men, but mix up their names, and explain that since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Hamlet's childhood friends, the King and Queen want them to uncover the cause of his recent transformation. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern then try to determine Hamlet's sanity. The Tragedians return and put on a show that mirrors the plot of Hamlet. Claudius interrupts rehearsal to announce that Hamlet has murdered Polonius and to charge Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with arresting Hamlet. They eventually find the prince and travel by boat to escort him to England and deliver a letter to the king.

Content Warning: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead contains some sexual references.

Your students will love:

  • The expanded look at minor Shakespearean characters.
  • The humorous dialogue and wordplay.

Students may have problems with:

  • Understanding the philosophical aspects.
  • The seeming lack of direction of the plot.

Objectives for Teaching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

  • Explain why Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is an existential play.
  • Compare and contrast the two protagonists, taking into consideration their differing personalities, behaviors, ethical philosophies, and coping methods.
  • Write a character sketch of the Player, explaining his role throughout the play.
  • Identify dramatic irony and analyze how it heightens suspense.
  • Explain how comedy is created in the play.
  • Analyze how Stoppard presents the distinction between art and reality.
  • Assess the Player's claim that uncertainty is humanity's normal state, explaining his meaning and pointing out how his assertion relates to existentialist philosophy and Theatre of the Absurd.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Alliteration
  • Foreshadowing
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Oxymoron
  • Paradox
  • Pun
  • Simile

Themes and Motifs

Identity — The play questions the individual identities of characters. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern often lose track of themselves or mix up their own names.

Related Works:

Isolation — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are left alone in the opening and closing scenes of the play and constantly seem like outsiders. They have difficulty communicating with and understanding one another, which illustrates how individuals are isolated.

Related Works:

Fate and Free Will — Since the play is set within the framework of Hamlet, certain events seem predetermined. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have freedom when they get out of the action of the Hamlet storyline, but they feel anxious that fate does not determine cause and effect.

Related Works:


  • Tony Award for Best Play (1968)
  • New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play (1968))
  • Outer Critics Circle Outstanding Production (1969)


The play has been adapted into a 1990 film Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead that was written and directed by Tom Stoppard. The movie stars Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz, Tim Roth as Guildenstern, and Richard Dreyfuss as the Player. It has received generally positive reviews and won the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival.

External Resources

Available from Prestwick House:

Title Available Formats
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead Paperback
Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable Package
AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable Package
Multiple Critical Perspectives Reproducible Downloadable Package
Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable

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