Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

rosencrantz and guildersten are dead


The Scoop: 1990 PG, directed by Tom Stoppard and starring Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and Richard Dreyfuss

Tagline: NA

Summary Capsule: A pair of minor characters in Hamlet try to figure out what’s going on around them while Shakespearian characters ruthlessly try to confuse them.

Rich’s Rating: The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited. Or something like that, anyway.

Rich’s Review: This is a film based around a Shakespeare play.

No, don’t, stop that running off and get back here and pay attention! Now I know that some people consider the very notion of anything to do with Stratford-on-Avon’s finest tourist attraction akin to being slowly roasted over an open fire while and endless loop of Jar-Jar Binks lines from the Star Wars prequels is beamed unstoppably into your mind, but trust me – there’s more to Shakespeare, and this film, than pompous intellectual guffawing. I promise.

Now, as a teen, there was nothing I wouldn’t do (apart from what you’re thinking, you sicko) to avoid reading a Shakespeare play. And when Literature classes forced one on me – I hated it. Of course, that’s because it was a comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in fact, and like most of Shakespeare’s comedies I found it about as amusing as a back to back Pauley Shore / Carrot Top film marathon – excruciating.

But, when education threw another Shakespearian monstrosity in my direction, the fates intervened by making it one of his better ones; the ones with murder and betrayal and all the stuff the kids nowadays just love. It was Macbeth, and after enjoying it so much, over the next few years, I went on devour all of Shakespeare’s classic tragedies; Othello, Romeo and Juliet, and of course – Hamlet; the film on which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (which I’m gonna abbreviate to Ros & Guil from now on, because my keyboard is fragile enough as it is) is based; allowing me to finally get on with this review, some 4 paragraphs in.

So, what’s going on then? Gary Oldman and Tim Roth are the titular Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (or is it the other way around?); minor lords travelling across the roads of Denmark, on their way… somewhere. The trouble is, both men are having a little difficulty remembering things; things like: who they are, where they’re going, and why they’re going there in the first place. Oh, and on top of everything, coins keep landing heads face up all the time, and that just can’t be normal.

Fortunately, a run-in on the road with Richard Dreyfuss and his troupe of actors (with an interesting sideline when times get bad) sets them on the course to Hamlet’s castle of Ellsinore, where they are quickly dragged into the machinations of Hamlet, Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia and the rest; flawlessly delivering their lines from Hamlet… only to have absolutely no idea what’s going on once they are again shuffled ‘off stage’ and left to their own devices.

Sound complicated? Well, it isn’t, really. It’s practically ideal as a set-up, because from the very outset, the audience really knows only as much as the characters do. Don’t understand the Shakespearian dialogue that breaks out every time Ros and Guil appear ‘onstage’ in the play going on around them? Never fear, they really don’t understand it either, and for the most part will spend the next 5 minutes trying to figure out what everyone was just talking about, which makes for a useful translation device to keep the audience running along nicely.

As the events of Hamlet continue to play their course, the pair become increasingly concerned with the complex events they seem to just be bumbling around in; the arrival of Richard Dreyfus as The Player again, along with his band of Tragedian’s and a little irritated with Ros and Guil, just makes things even more upsetting for the two; All they want to do is get along, get out, and maybe get a little of the kings ‘remembrance’ (read: money).

Anyone who knows Hamlet at all knows the outcome; actually, anyone who can read the title of the film might be able to hazard a guess – but the efforts of the pair of confused minor nobles, dropped into a situation they don’t understand and can’t really control, is really funny. No, it is, it’s really funny. Honest.

The dialogue is golden; Ros and Guil antagonize each other to death, but have only each other to rely on. There is an element of visual comedy in the film which is never really touched on by the play on which it’s based (yes, this is a film based on a play based on a play. I’m not surprised you’ve never heard of it), but which works perfectly, in a slightly surreal way. The performances from the principals are also great; Tim Roth and Gary Oldman ARE Guildenstern and Rosencrantz in my mind (unless I ever get to play Guildenstern – I’d love to do this play on stage), and a lot of the jokes work so well because of the chemistry between the two. The supporting actors are all great as well, as would befit the fact that they’re a genuine Shakespearian troupe acting out a play they must have done a million billion times by now.

There are downsides of course; but I’ll try to gloss over those because I like this film so much; yeah, it can be a bit snooty and highbrow at times, yes its possible that you might miss some of the jokes if you don’t know Hamlet, and yes, if you’re either a Shakespeare Purist or a dedicated fan of the original play, there’ll be some changes or revisions in there that you won’t like.

OK, forget that last paragraph – I only really included it for journalistic integrity purposes. This is a brilliant, well acted film with fantastic and clever dialogue, which subverts one of the greatest stories of all time (Hamlet, remember – keep up at the back) and makes it its own.

Go watch it immediately, else you’ll be troubled by my ghostly visitations, and end up stabbing your advisor in the Arras – and nobody wants that.


Bobby’s Rating: Two men struggling with an identity crisis while dealing with a suicidal friend before ultimately being killed – sounds like a fun movie to me!

Bobby’s Review: Ohhh…. I can’t believe that I let Rich get to this review before I did! (Rich 1, Bobby 0…I’ll get you one day my pretty…and your little dog too! * insane laughter *)

Hamlet is one of my favorite Shakespearean works; thanks in part to a Senior English class that required me to memorize the “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy (which is still wandering around, in its entirety, in my long-term memory, and probably explains why I can’t remember any of my friends’ birthdays or phone numbers [Jennifer, who is proofreading this, would like to remind you that hers is on the 22nd of August and she can be reached at 799-1355]).

RGAD (that’s a fun acronym, huh? like Egad ….) follows the story of Hamlet from the perspective of two minor characters who appear in Denmark, have a few conversations with Hamlet and by the end of the play are dead. Or at least that’s how Shakespeare played it. From R and G’s perspective, there’s a whole lot more.

R and G are summoned to Denmark. Why? By who? Do they even remember being summoned? They journey to Hamlet’s habitat and run into a theatre troupe willing to do most anything for an audience (things being what they are). They arrive in Denmark and, amid trying to figure out what they are doing there, are thrust upon a scene of possible murder and a crazy prince. Their story naturally entwines with the original Shakespeare, and everywhere that the original script is applicable it is used. Works amazingly well if you ask me.

This is the perfect movie for a philosophy junkie, which it turns out I am. Conversations about life and death, chance and predestination run amuck between jokes and conversations with no point or direction. There’s also a fair amount of humor and just plain good acting.

Do you remember learning about death? That first moment when you discovered you were mortal? Don’t you think you would remember something that big? I actually do remember when I first realized I would die. No fooling. I was watching Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and “Large Marge” was on screen.

Or how about if there was any moment in your life that you could have changed its direction. Some point when things could have turned out differently and you would be someplace other than where you are? Or are we all at the mercy of the weather and winds as well? This is a great movie to ponder, to discuss with friends and to quote from.

And to laugh with too… the question game cracks me up. Don’t know how to play? Just ask… but you will lose a point just asking how to play. This scene is one of my favorites, set up like a tennis match, with rules appearing where they are needed. The game is quick and witty, and a lot better played out than how it is done on “Whose Line is it Anyway?”

Watch this movie. It doesn’t have special effects or bouncy blondes, but hey, it does have Gary Oldman and an actor who spends way too much time dressed as a woman and some of the best dialogue this side of Shakespeare.

PoolMan’s Rating: I initially thought it was Gary Oldman and Tim ROBBINS who were in this picture, not Tim ROTH. Woe betide anyone who comes up with that particular combination.

PoolMan’s Review: I’ve always said, if there’s anything the world needs more of, it’s fanfic.

If you’re really not internet savvy, and have no idea what fanfic is, let me elaborate. Fan Fiction is when a person sits down, looks at whatever popular movie, TV show, story, or other subject they’re most obsessed with, and starts writing their own tales with those characters and settings. This can range from the innocent (my own creative writing assignment in high school where I wrote an entire Star Trek: The Next Generation script about Q’s natural enemy, complete with Dreaming Data Subplot) to the downright lewd (the erotic adventures of Sailor Moon written by a fat 35 year old man in a Sailor Venus outfit?!? Noooooo!). Basically, it’s stuff written by fans, for fans.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is not only really, really tough to spell, it’s also one of the most extreme forms of fanfic I’ve ever heard of. Shakespeare fanfic. I mean, what’s the world coming to? Once you’ve expounded on the backstory to Hamlet, what’s left? Writing stories about how Moses went on to gain super powers? Godzilla Vs. Abe Lincoln? A hentai version of the Old West?

So this is all to say: whoever came up with taking such a well known piece of work, seeking out its two most inexplicable characters, and turning them into amnesiac wandering philosophers with a penchant for playing tennis with questions ought to be either commended, or locked away permanently.

Still, you have to enjoy this. The movie’s basically a tongue in cheek look at what the story of Hamlet looks like from entirely different perspective than usual; that of the titular Ros and Guil, Hamlet’s childhood friends, summoned by Claudius to determine what’s wrong with the seemingly insane prince. The problem is, much like Hamlet’s traditional audience, R and G have no idea who they really are, why they’re really traveling across Denmark, and what they’re really supposed to be doing. They’re just left to their own devices, with nary a memory to be had.

There’s a lot of fun to be had with this. Neither of them are quite sure which of them is Rosencrantz, and which is Guildenstern, for example. Watching them try to sort out just that little piece of plot is extremely amusing, let alone trying to figure out what’s going on with Hamlet himself. It’s obvious they’re both highly intelligent (check out Ros’ natural inclination towards physics, and Guil’s skills at political logic) and yet they keep getting stuck on the smallest little thing.

There is a downside to this movie, though. It’s undoubtedly at its best when it stays lighthearted, full of humour and whimsy. But hey, this IS Hamlet we’re talking about; it’s not exactly a play known for its sunshiny attitude. When times turn dark in this movie, they’re heavy handed, and often confusing. Necessary (that title’s got to come into play somewhere!), but the swings in the mood get to be a bit much.

Still, it’s obviously a brilliant movie, and it’s got a huge cult following for good reason. I think Rich is in the minority, and that it’s really not going to appeal to ALL non-Bard fans, but you can’t honestly believe it was meant to. Treat this one like any good Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster. Enjoy, but… carefully.

(it’s not my fault if you don’t get that)

"Would you like fries with that?"
“Would you like fries with that?”


  • The opening song at the beginning of the movie is Pink Floyd’s “Seamus” (Meddle, 1971). The version included in the movie is an instrumental version. The album version has vocals. During the theatre company’s performance of pseudo-Hamlet, a sound bit from Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” (also from Meddle, 1971) can be heard. The sound of the rapier sword is the first note heard in “Echoes”.
  • The original play of ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead’ was written by Tom Stoppard, who also co-wrote the Oscar winning ‘Shakespeare in Love’.
  • Richard Dreyfus’ Tragedians are actually a troupe of Bulgarian actors specialising in tragedy, and strangely enough, mime. That would explain why none of them have any lines, I guess.
  • Rosencrantz is quite the Physics natural
  • The world’s first burger in a Shakespeare-related production
  • Lots and lots of foreshadowing on Ros and Guil’s fate in their dialogue

Groovy Quotes

The Player: We’re actors! We’re the opposite of people!

Guildenstern: Know any good plays?
The Player: Er…yes?

Rosencrantz: Want to play questions?
Guildenstern: How do you play that?
Rosencrantz: You have to ask questions!
Guildenstern: Statement – One, Love.

Rosencrantz: Do you think death could be a boat?
Guildenstern: No; Death is not, it isn’t. Death is the ultimate negative; not being. You can’t not be on a boat.
Rosencrantz: I’ve frequently not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No; what you’ve been, is not on boats.

Guildenstern: What about our evasions?
Rosencrantz: Oh, our evasions were lovely ‘Were you sent for?’, ‘Yes, my Lord, we were sent for.’ I didn’t know where to put myself.

The Player: You see, we’re strictly of the Blood, Love and Rhetoric school. We can do you Blood and Rhetoric without the Love, or Blood and Love, without the Rhetoric, or all three concurrent or consecutive; but we can’t do you Love and Rhetoric without the Blood. Blood is compulsory. They’re all blood, see?
Guildenstern: Is that what people want?
The Player: It’s what we do.

Rosencrantz: I don’t believe in it anyway!
Guildenstern: What?
Rosencrantz: England!
Guildenstern: Just a conspiracy of cartographers, you mean?

Rosencrantz: 27 questions he got off of which we answered 19; and what did we get in return? He’s depressed; Denmark’s a prison and he’d rather live in a nutshell; some shadow play about the nature of ambition, and our one leading question which could have got us anywhere instead lead to the fascinating revelation that he can tell a Hawk from a Handbag.
Guildenstern: Handsaw.
Rosencrantz: When the wind is southerly.
Guildenstern: And when it isn’t he can’t.
Rosencrantz: Poor boy; he’s at the mercy of the elements.

Guildenstern: What’s the first thing you remember?
Rosencrantz: [pause] It’s no good. I’ve forgotten. It was a long time ago.
Guildenstern: You don’t take my meaning; what the first thing after all the things you’ve forgotten.
Rosencrantz: Ah…[pause]…I’ve forgotten the question.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Shakespeare in Love
  • In the Bleak Midwinter
  • Hamlet (duh)

One comment

  1. Here’s the thing regarding comedies. In The Days of Yore, a comedy was simply a story with a happy ending, with no real focus on humor per se. Hence why Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to be funnier than his comedies.

    Some time back, I had rented this based on this review. A half-hour or so in, I was bored stiff and noticed my dad had nodded of. I woke him and asked if he minded if I cut off (he had no objection). There are two problems. First, focusing on minor characters in a famous story does not guarantee worthwhile results. Some minor characters are meant to stay that way. Then there’s the fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead appears to have been written by the sort of folks who wish to keep Shakespeare as inaccessible as possible. This in spite of the fact that Shakespeare was writing entertainment for the masses, not pseudo-intellectual drivel for pretentious English majors. When Mystery Science Theater 3000 featured Hamlet, it provided what was probably the most authentic Shakespeare theater experience (you can bet original performances at the Globe were heckled).

    So what can be done? I think Shakespeare should be translated into modern English. After all, you can read the Odyssey and Journey to the West without having to learn Greek or Chinese respectively. And the archaic English is just as much a foreign language. However, the more uptight Shakespeare weenies would likely shut down any such attempts. So the next best thing is to get a foreign adaptation with subtitles in modern English. I recommend Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, which is essentially Macbeth with katanas instead of claymores.

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