The Spectre of Shakespeare in Tom Stoppard’s 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead'

Benjamin Vonwiller


The modern literary landscape has been, and continues to be, dominated by the figure of Shakespeare. Such is his literary status that Shakespeare has been metamorphosed into a mythical being whose persona represents the pinnacle of cultural achievement. One consequence is that Shakespeare can tend to subsume the cultural space within which later writers may work. Finding a locus within ‘Shakespeare’ the cultural site can be a means of overcoming this cultural inertia surrounding the figure, and of facilitating participation in the cultural domain. By appropriating Shakespearean scenes, and reproducing them within a contemporary dramatic work, modern writers are tapping into Shakespeare’s cultural momentum, and appropriating significance from it. This article will suggest that Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead employs just such a tactic, and further, that the play may be interpreted as a dramatisation of the relationship of the late twentieth century individual to Shakespeare.

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