Shakespeare on Film: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead


Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)
d. Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard originally sold the screen rights to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, the stage comedy which made his name, soon after its 1967 premieres in the West End and on Broadway. He wrote a screenplay for MGM, then saw the project languish for twenty years until the rights were bought back and he rewrote the script and filmed it in what was then still Yugoslavia.

Film and play view the events of Hamlet entirely from the point of view of the Prince’s doomed friends as they travel to Elsinore, kick their heels ‘off stage,’ and sail to England. Tim Roth’s irritable, sarcastic Guildenstern, who’s not as clever as he thinks he is, and Gary Oldman’s garrulous, goofy Rosencrantz, who’s not as dumb as he appears, muse on why they have been summoned and how to plumb the madness of lain Glen’s mild-mannered, romantic Hamlet. Rosencrantz considers mortality in a rambling, banal equivalent of “To be, or not to be,” and keeps asking who he is, because Stoppard’s most persistent running joke—spun from the moment in Hamlet when Gertrude reverses Claudius’s “Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern”—is that neither they, nor anybody else at court knows which is which.

Stoppard likened this shabby, oddly likeable pair to “a Shakespearean Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello,” although their clipped, question-and-answer routines are more like the idle chatter of Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: Beautifully timed, inconsequential and better suited to stage than screen.

Conscious that theatrical dialogues might not captivate a cinema audience, Stoppard introduces and over-indulges a new gag in which Rosencrantz casually makes “scientific” discoveries, including steam power, gravity and the hamburger. Yet no matter how often he sends the pair clattering up and down flights of wooden stairs in a suspiciously deserted castle, his methods, as The Independent on Sunday noted, “still reek of the stage.”

100 Shakespeare Films

Extracted from 100 Shakespeare Films by Daniel Rosenthal, BFI Publishing, 2007. Reprinted by kind permission of BFI Publishing/Palgrave Macmillan. To order a copy of100 Shakespeare Films and other books from the BFI Screen Guides series, visit their website at www.palgrave-usa.com.

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