Previously in Hamlet : Shakespeare and Stoppard

Peter O'Toole as Hamlet“Hamlet is a dramatic essay in mystery; that is to say it is so constructed that the more it is examined, the more there is to discover.” — J. Dover Wilson,  What Happens in Hamlet

Tom Stoppard considers William Shakespeare’s Hamlet to be the most famous play in world literature and a “common mythology” for audiences. Though deep knowledge of the plot of Hamlet is unnecessary to enjoy Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, here is a brief overview of the early scenes of Shakespeare’s play that are not shown onstage by Stoppard.
At the rise of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Horatio – a friend of prince Hamlet – watches on the walls of Elsinore castle in Denmark, waiting to see the spectre of Hamlet’s father, the recently deceased monarch, and to his surprise, the King’s ghost appears, silent. Meanwhile, in the castle’s court, prince Hamlet is sullen and withdrawn; his mother Queen Gertrude and her brother-in-law, Claudius, have quickly married and gained control of the kingdom. Claudius announces that Fortinbras, the King of Norway’s nephew, is attempting to wrest back a tract of land that is disputed between Norway and Denmark.    

After Horatio tells Hamlet that he saw the King’s ghost, the prince accompanies Horatio to the castle walls, and the spectre returns to reveal that he was poisoned by Claudius. Though he counsels Hamlet to leave Gertrude “to Heaven,” the King asks Hamlet to avenge his death and kill Claudius. Hamlet makes Horatio and his men swear that they will not reveal what they have seen – and because Hamlet doubts the reality of the ghost’s appearance, believing it may be a devil in his father’s guise, the prince says he will adopt an “antic disposition” (feign madness) to try to find out whether Claudius’ treachery was true; only if he can confirm Claudius as a murderer, will he seek revenge.
Stoppard picks up the plot of Shakespeare’s play at this point, and the rest of the scenes of Hamlet are interwoven with the action of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: Ophelia approaches her father Polonius (one of the King’s advisors), and tells him that Hamlet has approached her in a wild and distraught state. In response to Hamlet’s “madness,” Claudius and Gertrude summon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, friends of Hamlet from school, and asks them to discover what is going on with Hamlet.
Hamlet lays a trap for Claudius, by requesting that a group of travelling actors perform a play which tightly mirrors the situation of the court. At the performance, Claudius demands that the play stop; more convinced of Claudius’ guilt, Hamlet pursues his mother regarding the ghost’s accusations, a heated confrontation that ends in the unintended stabbing of Polonius. On discovery of the murder, Claudius sends Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as escorts, giving them a letter to deliver to the British King.

Fortinbras and his soldiers march across Denmark. Meanwhile, Ophelia, grieving her father and discarded by her former lover Hamlet, drowns herself. The plot culminates when the prince returns to the court; Hamlet is challenged to a duel by Ophelia’s brother Laertes. Laertes blames Hamlet for his father Polonius’ death, and wants his own revenge. At the duel, Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, and Hamlet himself all die. As he expires, Hamlet says he believes Fortinbras should rule, and asks Horatio to tell the story of what has happened.

— Charles Haugland

Alex Hurt as Rosencrantz and Jeremy Webb as Guildenstern

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