Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is an example of "Metatheatre", or "Theatre about Theatre", written by an absurd and existentialist playwright, taking Hamlet on to a different level as a result of certain 20th century philosophical contexts. The play is a transformation of Hamlet. (Although Stoppard has been accused of being little more than a ‘theatrical parasite’.) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead generates reflections upon Hamlet one might not otherwise have considered. For instance, the meaning of life and the inevitability of death draw attention to the fact that these themes are also evident in the original play by Shakespeare.

The use of language is one more way in which one can see a transformation. There are some obvious differences from the outset in that Hamlet is mostly written as poetry, in blank verse, with an elevated tone, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead uses some passages from Hamlet, and then is written as prose at a colloquial level (giving the effect of deflation). The sections from Hamlet that are integrated into the second play are recognisable as they are faithfully quoted in their original form. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is laden with rhetorical questions, repetition, witty repartee, biblical references and references to literature. In Act 3 one observes the breakdown of language and communication as a reminder that the end is near; it is short and preoccupied with death. Stoppard makes very effective use of cliché to illustrate how ordinary Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are.

There are also dramatic techniques and theatrical conventions that are a key point of comparison between these two texts. In Hamlet the presence of the audience is not recognised, and yet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead we witness the self-conscious use of stage where actors go down to the footlights and bring in the audience to identify with the main characters’ predicament. Stoppard’s play makes use of lighting and blackout, music, unreal sets, conjuring tricks, silences, pauses and beats, word games, and stage directions, which shows awareness of being trapped in a theatrical situation.

The first scene, which opens with Guildenstern flipping coins and Rosencrantz predicting which side the coin lands on, is really the crux of the way in which this play is different from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is because although the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are more comprehensive and are much more dynamic, they are still simply supporting roles. The play isn’t at all about them and they don’t make the action. They merely go wherever they are led. From the very beginning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are conscious that they are in an odd, controlled world. We can see it as the characters explore the boundaries of the stage; we can see it as chance is misshapen as the spun coin persistently comes up heads. Guildenstern's perseverance in spite of this matches the struggle we, in reality, must ultimately face, of trying to come to terms with our surroundings, and make sense out of our circumstances. Guildenstern is tense about this situation and tries to rationalise it scientifically, while Rosencrantz is indifferent. He is of the “Que sera sera” mentality.

The portrayal of Shakespeare’s characters changes. From the perspective of Stoppard’s play, Hamlet seems prosaic, very self-obsessed and uncaring. Likewise, many critics suggested that Shakespeare’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were calculating and crooked, and indistinguishable, yet Stoppard painted them as disorientated and ingenuous, as well as maintaining their own clear persona, quite separate from each other. Although in the play, other characters can never tell the difference between the two, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern represent illusion vs. reality, they are essentially polar opposites. Guildenstern's bag is nearly empty and Rosencrantz's bag is nearly full. This labels Rosencrantz as the optimist (down-to-earth, imperceptive, simple-minded, and perplexed), and Guildenstern as the pessimist (intellectual, conceptual, idealistic, quizzical).

Where, Hamlet asks the question, "To be or not to be," and contemplates whether he should take "arms against a sea of troubles” in his most famous of soliloquies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ask questions such as “What are our choices?

How can we control our destinies?

Is anybody listening?

Hamlet’s fate appears to be in his own hands; he could act, should he have chosen to act, whereas Rosencrantz and Guildenstern look as if they have no choice.

In the typical production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a miniature stage and theatre is used. (So small and intimate that perhaps it might only house at best two dozen audience members). In a play dealing with small scale characters, it would seem that a small theatre is the ideal setting for its staging. The barren environment with no real props and scenery provides little interest; this is to reinforce the sense of existentialism and meaninglessness.

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