Posted: June 21st, 2021
The plays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard and Hamlet by William Shakespeare were composed in vastly different contexts and the nature of the plays greatly reflect the context in which they were composed. Hamlet is clearly a product of the times of the early 17th century as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a product of the Swinging Sixties as it has very modern views on many issues that have been raised throughout time. A common feature in both plays which represented the context in which the plays were composed was the obvious pre-occupation with morality.
In Elizabethan times death was accepted more as a normal event as people did not live to be very old and there was an obvious pre-occupation with the idea of mortality and the afterlife. Hamlet is no exception to this as the play is concerned with death from the start, as we learn that Hamlet’s father had been killed. It is not strange at all that the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears and speaks to him. This reflects the context in which it was composed. People used to be entertained by such encounters with the dead in plays and believed strongly in death and an afterlife.
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The number of deaths that occur in Hamlet is also not surprising as audiences in Elizabethan times were very much pre-occupied with dying and felt comfortable watching it on stage. They also remained true to their beliefs that tragedy could only happen to famous figures. This is partly due to the distinct social classes in England at the time and it was not considered a tragedy so much if a peasant died. Therefore Hamlet is a product of an Elizabethan context in that it is pre-occupied with mortality throughout the play and audiences were comfortable with it because of their strong religious beliefs.
Tom Stoppard, however, took two sideline characters from Hamlet and showed that Hamlet could be applied to modern audiences over four hundred years later. Rosencrantz nd Guildenstern, the main characters of the play are also pre-occupied with death. The context in which Stoppard composed the play, however, presents a changed view of death. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both spend a lot of time thinking about death and what it means to them. They are not sure about it, and have a pretty bleak perception of the whole idea.
They continue throughout the play not knowing for sure what will happen to them when they die, but they accept that they must die at some stage in their life. This reflect the context of sixties England entirely, as the trend in attitude was confusion about death. Nobody knew why they were on the earth and nobody knew where they were going when it was all over. Religion was being questioned in the sixties, like all traditional authority figures and this comes through very strongly in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. People didn’t have the assurance as they did in Elizabethan times with their beliefs in the afterlife.
The fact that this idea was questioned so much in the play shows the contrast between the two plays and how Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead reflect the values of the sixties. A contrasting theme in the plays is identity. In Elizabethan times everyone was very sure of their place in the grand scheme of things and there was a distinct hierarchy of social classes. The characters of Hamlet are reflections of this context to an extent, because there is a sense of order in the play with the structure of the Danish monarchy. It is a very modern play, however, and there is a sense of disorder in the immediate world of the upper class society.
This unrest is expressed from early in the play with lines such as “There’s something rotten in the state of Denmark”. Every character is clearly defined in Shakespeare’s play and nobody is confused about who they are or where they came from. The opposite of this, however, is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the sixties interpretation of the text. They seem to be very confused about their own personal identity and this can be seen frequently throughout the play when they and other characters mix their names up almost every time. The effect of this is humorous, but also comments on the confusion of identity that was being felt in the Sixties.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as characters very much reflect the ideas of the Sixties in this way, as they seem to be drifting throughout the play as observers, and are minor players. They are not sure about themselves, question their own identity and cannot find much purpose in their lives, which makes death difficult for them to comprehend. Because they are such minor players and tend not to take themselves as seriously as the traditional characters such as Hamlet himself, they can easily bring Hamlet down to a human level. They did this in the play when they quickly flattened Hamlet’s wit.
In all these respects it is plain to see how the sixties version of the play reflected the context in which it was composed. What makes the contrast between the two plays so apparent is the audience that it was intended for. In Elizabethan times, audiences loved to see revenge tragedies and lots of blood and guts and murder, particularly amongst famous people. Hamlet is a clear product of this context as there are eight deaths in the play, which would have greatly entertained an Elizabethan audience. All people could appreciate Shakespeare’s blank verse and took pleasure in the language used.
After all Shakespeare was looking to be the most popular writer of his day and appeal to as large an audience as possible. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead being composed in the Sixties is made for the theatre of the absurd. People in the Sixties could relate best to this, as there was a general sense of rebelling against the system and confusion about identity. Normal prose is used much more in this, as the beauty of language isn’t so much important but the feeling that they express about the situation through the language.
The two plays Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead contrast in many ways because of the context in which they were created. The context of Elizabethan times is reflected strongly in Hamlet which holds the values of the early seventeenth century, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead reflects the values of the Swinging Sixties which are abounded by confusion. These contexts are vital in the study of both plays as they do not differ greatly, apart from the values they carry from the time in which they were composed.
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