Formalist View of the Play Term Paper

Pages: 5 (1573 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  File: .docx  ·  Topic: Literature

¶ … Play

Tom Stoppard's 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead'

The point-of-view

It was during the 1960's with the slow, but steady, emergence of the concepts of post-modernism that the idea of the pastiche was beginning to become more and more exciting for writers, scholars, and academicians alike. The environment was charged with possibilities, linearity of both experience and reality were being questioned. Old traditions were quickly being shed or bent into new, contemporary shapes. Amongst all the excitement Marshall McLuhan wisely announced that the paradigm, which had till now defined all things, was now at the verge of a pronounced shift. The old system with its archaic linearity, he claimed, was no longer equipped to express or communicate the three dimensional reality we were now experiencing. As a result, the old model had to go and a newer system, a far more complicated system, which would drag us from the comfortable spectator's seat onto the middle of action, one that would create a 'participation mystique' and forever change our 'our deeply embedded habit of regarding all phenomena from a fixed point-of-view', was now coming to power.

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It was then obvious for Tom Stoppard to compose 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead' amidst this din. For after all 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern...' is all about this altering point-of-view and the involvement of the audience with a play, namely Shakespeare's Hamlet. Hamlet was, is and will continue to be one of the finest examples of English drama. However, given its position in history it too followed the linear traditions of the aforementioned paradigm. With Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Stoppard effectively challenges this linearity of the text and further problematizes the sub-issues within the play.

The Theme

Term Paper on Formalist View of the Play Assignment

While a number of critical writing has explored a wide range of themes covered by Stoppard's 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead' space constraints allow us to discuss only two of these in the next section. Of course the significance of the topics discussed here is debatable and a number of academicians consider a number of other issues touched upon by the play to be far more significant than these. However, much deliberation about the matter has convinced us to confine our discourse to these two topics alone.

Absurd Theatre

Ever since drama critic Martin Esselin came up with the term 'Absurd' for a particular type of theatre much time and labor has been put into dissecting exactly what Absurdity and Absurd theatre is all about. Without digging up that age-old discussion all over again let us just confine ourselves to saying that unlike 'traditional' drama 'absurd' theatre does not present us with 'human actions in an established social context'. Unlike say a Shakespeare who is most likely to build his plot around a situation in which a certain 'normal' condition is suddenly disturbed, due to some problem or the other an 'absurdist' will not give us any inkling to what normalcy is all about in the world he is depicting. Further, an absurdist is least likely to grant us the comfort of being presented with a 'plot' at all. Hence, if Hamlet was all about the dilemma of a prince over his father's murder and mother's incestuous marriage 'Rosencratz and Guilderstern..' is about....well nothing...technically. There is a backdrop of course, one provided by the same Hamlet composed a good 2 hundred years by Shakespeare, the rest Stoppard provides apparently lazily and without any real pressure to give it a semblance of what we readers have been taught to recognize as 'logic'.

And like that was not enough the play is also, like Beckett's Waiting for Godot (to which it is constantly compared and from which it draws significant elements) rather 'shapeless'. This formlessness is a side-effect of the paradigmatic shift we had been discussing in the above section. Literary changes, such as those that came about in English literature in the post-war eras, often tend to breakaway from former conventions with such a purposeful strength that readers who had until now been feeding on those very principles feel completely out of water. It was this very same change in conventions that had left readers feeling a little 'odd' after having read the very first novel.

The looseness of the play's structure is further emphasized by the total lack of what Ian Johnston calls "a discernible and consistent logic in the action of characters'. Most readers are perplexed by the seemingly odd behaviour of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when they first read the play. Obviously, they are egged on to find a motivation behind their thoroughly pointless games of Questions and coin flipping. But of course, to look for such reason in absurd theatre is in itself pointless.

But it isn't the readers alone who are perplexed, absurd theatre characteristically presents protagonists who are thoroughly flummoxed about their world themselves. For one they do not seem to have any memory of who or what they are. 'I don't remember' says Rosencrantz again and again, often helplessly, within the course of the text. To make matters worse they seem to be lacking any reliable agent to help them understand the world around them. Their identities too are thoroughly questionable (more than once does Rosencrantz respond to the name of Guildenstern and vice versa, Hamlet their childhood friend too doesn't seem to able to tell one from the other). As a result like most other absurd dramas 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead' too is essentially about the two existentialist characters attempt to cope up with their world. However given their inability to make things happen on their own they remain crucially dependant on the emergence of an event or person who will set things right on their behalf. In many ways therefore 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead' describes (like 'waiting for Godot') a story of a rather long wait. This wait, this empty space, which needs to be filled up in order to keep the protagonists from panicking is therefore filled up with pointless talk such as:

ROS (cutting his fingernails): Another curious scientific phenomenon is the fact that the fingernails grow after death, as does the beard.

GUIL: What?

ROS (loud): Beard!

GUIL: But you're not dead.

ROS (irritated): I didn't say they started to grow after death! (Pause, calmer.) the fingernails also grow before birth, though not the beard.

GUIL: What?

ROS (shouts): Beard! What's the matter with you? (Reflectively.) the toenails, on the other hand, never grow at all.

GUIL (bemused): The toenails never grow at all?

The renaissance angle, the dovetailing of the two ages and beyond absurdity

Victor L.Cahn however argues that there is more to 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead' than its apparent absurdity. To justify his claim he draws attention to Stoppard's choice of Shakespeare's Hamlet for the premise of the play. Like Stoppard in the 60's Shakespeare too was writing Hamlet at an important almost crucial juncture in history. The Renaissance was as big a shift in paradigm as one could get. Like Stoppard Shakespeare too attempts to address the multiple issues of inaction, constriction of the language and 'Dis-unity' through his Renaissance saga. Unlike him however Shakespeare has a plot. By incorporating Hamlet within his text Stoppard manages to step beyond the plotlessness of absurdists before him (such as Beckett) and provide his own Gogo and Didi with Elsinore as the backdrop. However, Elsinore not only serves the purpose of providing Stoppard with a story to cling on it also allows 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead' to "link the dislocations of his own era with those occurring in the late 16th century." Thus, this ingenious move on Stoppard's part allows 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead' to open up a thoroughly new dimension and connect Hamlet's self-doubt and apprehension's with those of the 20th century. Jean E.Howard considers the 'recognition of discontinuous nature of… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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