(excerpted from “Philosophy and Mr Stoppard”

Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is primarily a display of conceptual interrelationships of the same logical kind as might occur in an academic work of analytic philosophy. Its pyrotechnic show of jokes, puns and cross-purposes consists mainly in sparks thrown off by the underlying conceptual exploration. That philosophical insights are closely connected with jokes is a fact which Carroll exploited in Through the Looking Glass, a work which is brim-full of small-scale philosophy. Stoppard, unlike Carroll, works intensively at a small cluster of intimately connected concepts. The central one is the concept of reality, and grouped around it are identity, memory, activity and death. One source of the play’s power - to move and disturb, as well as to amuse - is that these concepts are so important in our thinking about ourselves; but the power derives also from the sheer pertinacity and complexity and depth of the conceptual exploration. Although this can be felt by someone who does not fully realize what is going on, one’s experience of the play can be heightened, and the play made more illuminating and memorable, if one becomes consciously aware of its underlying structures. My aim here will be to make such an awareness available - both as a service (I hope) to readers who will subsequently encounter the play, and also as a defence of my judgment about what kind of play it is and how good it is of its kind. I shall write as though for readers who are ignorant of Stoppard’s play but not of Shakespeare’s. All quotations are from the Faber editions of the play. There will be no omissions within anything I quote, so any rows of ellipses in my quotations are Stoppard’s own. The chief personages are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and “the Player” - the leader of the band of tragedians who perform for Hamlet the play within the play..
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