I read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead because I thought it would be an interesting companion piece to Gertrude and Claudius. Both are attempts to look at Hamlet from different vantage points, but Stoppard's play is decidedly more tangential. His protagonists, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, are decidedly minor characters: Hamlet's college friends turned spies for Claudius, who appear on stage to be mostly spoken at, and then are dispatched with little fanfare.
Rosencrantz and Guildernstern works better than Gertrude and Claudius because it nimbly sidesteps the trap into which Updike falls. Attempts at recontextualizing Hamlet are bound to fail because Hamlet is so expansive; derivative works will always feel narrow and slight. Stoppard embraces that feeling and uses it as the dynamic force in his play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern know next to nothing about the events that propel Hamlet, and so Rosencrantz and Guildernstern becomes about the frustration of understanding. They have been asked to keep an eye on Hamlet and report to his uncle, but they don't know why; they are so little informed that this assignment becomes impossible. Stoppard elevates this lack of understanding to a universal, neurotic affliction:
ROS: I remember--
ROS: I remember when there were no questions.
GUIL: There were always questions. To exchange one set for another is no great matter.
ROS: Answers, yes. There were answers to everything.
GUIL: You've forgotten.
ROS (flaring): I haven't forgotten--how I used to remember my own name--and yours, oh yes! There were answers everywhere you looked. There was no question about it--people knew who I was and if they didn't they asked me and I told them.
GUIL: You did, the trouble is, each of them is... plausible, without being instinctive. All your life you live so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque. A man standing in his saddle in the half-lit half-alive dawn banged on the shutters and called two names. He was just a hat and a cloak levitating in the grey plume of his own breath, but when he called we came. That much is certain--we came.
In this way Rosencrantz and Guildenstern provide a contrast for Hamlet, who seems to know everything. In the postmodern world there are no more Hamlets, however, and a great number of Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns. Like this pair we too suffer from an incompleteness of knowledge, and spend our lives trying to reconcile ourselves to it.
There is a final question, of course: The man in the hat and cloak, "levitating in the grey plume of his own breath" becomes a likeness of Death, who has called them--as he calls all of us--without telling us why, or when, or how. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exhibit some sense that they have been cast into a plot that ends with their doom, and ironically everyone in the play, including the audience, understands more of it than they do. Even at the last, Guildenstern is left wondering:
ROS: All right then, I don't care. I've had enough. To tell you the truth, I'm relieved.
And he disappears from view. GUIL does not notice.
GUIL: Our names shouted in a certain dawn... a message... a summons... There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where w e could have s aid--no. But somehow we missed it. (He looks round and sees he is alone.)
He gathers himself.
Well, we'll know better next time. Now you see me, now you-- (and disappears).