You ever what might be going on with the minor characters in a play? Well that is pretty much what happens with today’s movie. Back in 1967, Tom Stoppard wrote a play about two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the focus is on them while the events of Hamlet play out in the background and only briefly come to the forefront. I remember watching this with some friends back when I lived in Texas and thought it was pretty funny. Years later, the DVD just happened to catch my eye while I was wandering through Best Buy and, recalling the fun I had watching it, I decided to buy it. So let’s get a little bit of culture into our day as I watch today’s movie, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.
The plot: Two men, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are riding along a desolate hillside when Rosencrantz stops and picks up a coin he sees on the ground. After dusting it off, he begins flipping it and it always seems to land on heads. Guildenstern moves closer and when Rosencrantz flips the coin again, he grabs it and examines the coin to make sure it isn’t a trick coin, then tosses it back to Rosencrantz, who says it lands on heads. When Guildenstern pulls out a coin of his own to flip, Rosencrantz makes a wager that it is heads and ends up winning several of Guildenstern’s coins this way. As they continue on their journey, Guildenstern wanders as to what it means that the coin keeps landing on heads (78 times at that point). After spouting various theories, he asks Rosencrantz what the first thing he remembers is but Rosencrantz can’t say. Guildenstern remembers being summoned and later Rosencrantz also recalls it, saying it was a royal summons. Suddenly, they hear a noise in the woods and come across a The Player and his travelling band of Tragedians. As The Player begins describing the various performances they can do, Guildenstern questions him about the obscene nature of his plays, wondering if that is really what people want. When Rosencrantz tosses a coin into the air, Guildenstern steps on it and makes a wager with The Player but the Player calls heads and Guildenstern leaves the stage in disgust. When Rosencrantz tosses a second coin to make another bet, they find The Player and the Tragedians have disappeared and Rosencrantz picks up the coin and comments on it being tails. Suddenly, they hear a moaning and find themselves transported to the castle in Elsinore, where they are covered by draperies as Hamlet chases Ophelia through the castle. After extricating themselves from the draperies, they find themselves approached by King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, who explain that they summoned the two men due to their friendship with Hamlet to see if they can figure out why Hamlet’s behavior has changed so much since the death of his father. After Claudius and Gertrude leave with their entourage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wonder exactly what they should do as they wander about the castle until the eventually come to a tennis court. After Rosencrantz starts playing around with some of the gaming equipment, he challenges Guildenstern to a game of “Questions”, where they can only respond by asking each other questions. After the game, Guildenstern notices the Tragedians arriving at the castle and as he goes to explore further, he overhears Claudius and Gertrude talking to Polonius, their Chief Counselor, about Hamlet. Later, they overhear Hamlet and Polonius talking and Guildenstern decides to prepare themselves to question Hamlet by pretending to be Hamlet and having Rosencrantz ask him questions. After some confusion, Rosencrantz begins asking questions and essentially recaps what has led up the events in Hamlet. The pair finally decide to see Hamlet, who greets his friends warmly but after talking briefly, asks if they were sent for and Guildenstern says that they were summoned to visit the castle. The pair have dinner with Hamlet and he later leaves with Polonius after hearing of the arrival of the Tragedians. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discuss their conversation with Hamlet, which Guildenstern feels went well but Rosencrantz believes they were slaughtered, then they follow the sound of voices to find The Player giving an oration for Hamlet and Hamlet invites the Tragedians to stay the night and perform a play he wrote the next day. The next day, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern encounter the Player and the rest of the Tragedians in the bath house and speak with the Player a bit about Hamlet before the Tragedians leave. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern follow after them and eventually come upon them rehearsing their play (which is essentially Hamlet) by performing it for the servants. As they finish, the Player asks if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are familiar with the play and when Rosencrantz asks what it is, the Player says it is a slaughterhouse, with 8 deaths all told. Guildenstern corrects him by saying 6 but the Player says 8, as two of the Tragedians, who bear a resemblance to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, hang themselves in the play’s finale. After another confusing conversation with the Player, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern encounter Claudius and Gertrude, who asks what they have learned about Hamlet. They observe Hamlet mourning at his father’s grave and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern mention the Tragedians and the play that they will be performing at Hamlet’s request. Afterwards, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are talking about death when Guildenstern overhears Hamlet and Ophelia talking. Later, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come across the Tragedians doing a final run through of the play when they are interrupted by Hamlet and Ophelia, who burst through the door at the back of the stage. After Hamlet yells at Ophelia and storms off, Claudius and Polonius enter and while Polonius tends to Ophelia, Claudius mentions his plans to send Hamlet to England. The Tragedians finish their run through, as the Player explains the story to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and when it is performed for the Royal Court, Claudius rises to his feet during the scene where the king’s brother poisons the king so that he can assume the throne, causing Hamlet to cry out in glee as his plan appears to have worked. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern observe Hamlet summoned to see Gertrude by Polonius and as they are walking away, they are approached by Claudius, who tells them that they will escort Hamlet to England, then gives them a letter to give to the King of England. After Claudius leaves, they hear talking and find Polonius listening in on Hamlet and Gertrude’s conversation. When they startle Polonius, Hamlet ends up stabbing him through the curtain, killing him but he does not see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hiding at the edges of the curtain. The next thing they know, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are on the boat heading for England and as they discuss what they should do, they end up reading the letter that Claudius wrote and learn that he asks the King of England to have Hamlet killed. The two are unaware that Hamlet had overheard their reading of the letter and when they go to sleep, he secretly writes a different letter calling for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be put to death and switches it with the letter from Claudius. Later, the ship is attacked by pirates and Hamlet escapes onto the pirates’ ship while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are surprised to find the Tragedians are on the ship as well. When the attack is over, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are trying to figure out what they should do now when they are approached by the Player, disguised as the King of England, and after talking with him, they hand him the letter. When the Player reads that they are to be put to death, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are confused and Guildenstern actually stabs the Player but it was with a stage knife. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are strung up and prepared to be hung and as the final events in Hamlet play out, foretold by the Tragedian’s play, the envoy announces that the king’s order was carried out and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. The scene cuts to the two ropes going taught as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are hung, then the Tragedians pack up their cart and continue traveling through the woods.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead met with mostly praise from the critics, holding a 64% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While there isn’t a critical consensus on the site, almost every critic liked the original book but seemed torn in their opinion on if the movie was a good adaptation. Originally, Gary Oldman (Rosencrantz) and Tim Roth (Guildenstern) were cast in the opposite roles (Oldman playing Guildenstern and Roth playing Rosencrantz) but that was later changed to the final casting, while a running gag throughout the film is that people would constantly confuse the two men as to which person had which name, including the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves. While the original play won a Tony award for Best Play, the movie did not fare as well and would only end up making $739,104 at the North American box office.
This is one of those movies I will put in whenever I need a laugh because it is such a fantastic, clever comedy. Gary Oldman was hilarious in this movie, showing some great timing in both his dialogue and his physical comedy while Tim Roth did a good job playing the straight-man for him, though he also had a couple of funny moments and lines as well. I also enjoyed Richard Dreyfuss, who was great as the Player and mixed some dark humor as well as a sense of omniscience into the character. The story was really good and liked how the movie focused on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but when it would feature one of the main scenes of Hamlet, they would be relegated to the inconsequential side characters that they originally were. I also liked the various instances of Rosencrantz coming up with some of Newton’s scientific theories, such as gravity or conservation of motion, but not able to accurate demonstrate them. The camera work involved with the various scene changes was a little confusing at times but overall, there was very little to complain about with this movie. A great movie that is definitely worth watching and might even help give you a better appreciation for Shakespeare.
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5