Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Stoppard’s Guildenstern: Leap Between Un-Existentialist Anguish and Un-Absurdist Happiness

  • Paul MegnaEmail author
Part of the Palgrave Shakespeare Studies book series (PASHST)


Despite Tom Stoppard’s insistence that he did not know the term ‘existential’ when penning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, critics have long branded his famous play a work of existentialist theatre. Unlike the bulk of existentialist literature and philosophy, however, Stoppard’s play does not deal with the anxiety that arises when one recognizes her absolute freedom to act in a meaningless and random world. Instead, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead explores the horror that arises from an opposite epiphany: that perhaps we are completely devoid of freedom, leading entirely pre-scripted lives in a drama of someone else’s composition. This chapter argues that both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Hamlet can productively enrich the existentialist tradition by diagnosing a species of anxiety patently different from those theorized by existentialist philosophers.


  1. Beauvoir, Simone de. The Ethics of Ambiguity. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. New York: Philosophical Library, 2015.Google Scholar
  2. Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Richard H. Green. Mineola: Dover, 2012.Google Scholar
  3. Camus, Albert. ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’. In The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien, 1–138. New York: Vintage International, 1991.Google Scholar
  4. Camus, Albert. Notebooks, 1951–1959. Translated by Ryan Bloom. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2008.Google Scholar
  5. Cannon, Charles K. ‘“As in a Theatre”: Hamlet in the Light of Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination’. Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900 11, no. 2 (Spring 1971): 203–222.Google Scholar
  6. Cotkin, George. Existential America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.Google Scholar
  7. Downing, Oliver George. ‘To Be, Or Not to Be in Bad Faith: The Tragedy of Hamlet’s Superficial Reading of Sartre’s Waiter’. Philosophy and Literature 38 (2014): 254–265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Duncan, Joseph E. ‘Godot Comes: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’. Ariel 12, no. 4 (1981): 57–70.Google Scholar
  9. Gurnow, Michael. ‘“No Symbol Where None Intended”: A Study of Symbolism and Allusion in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot’. Apmonia (2001).
  10. Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: HarperCollins, 1962.Google Scholar
  11. Jaspers, Karl. Tragedy Is Not Enough. Translated by Harald A. T. Reiche, Harry T. Moore, and Karl W. Deutsch. Boston: Archon Books, 1969.Google Scholar
  12. Kaufmann, Walter. ‘Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre’. In Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, edited by Walter Kaufmann, 1–51. New York: Plume, 1956.Google Scholar
  13. Kaufmann, Walter. The Owl and the Nightingale: From Shakespeare to Existentialism. London: Faber and Faber, 1959.Google Scholar
  14. Kearney, Richard. ‘Kierkegaard on Hamlet: Between Art and Religion’. In The New Kierkegaard, edited by Elsebet Jegstrup, 224–243. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Keys, Charlotte. ‘Shakespeare’s Existentialism’. PhD dissertation, Royal Holloway, University of London, 2012.Google Scholar
  16. Kierkegaard, Søren. Journals and Papers. Vol. 2. Edited and Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.Google Scholar
  17. Kierkegaard, Søren. The Concept of Anxiety: A Simple Psychologically Orienting Deliberation on the Dogmatic Issue of Hereditary Sin. Edited and Translated by Reidar Thomte and Albert B. Anderson. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.Google Scholar
  18. Kierkegaard, Søren. ‘Fear and Trembling’. In Fear and Trembling/Repetition, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, 1–123. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  19. Kierkegaard, Søren. Stages on Life’s Way. Edited and Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Loeb, Paul S. ‘Eternal Recurrence’. In The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche, edited by Ken Gemes and John Richardson, 645–671. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.Google Scholar
  21. Mahdipour, Alireza. ‘The Existential Idea of Self in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: A Justification for the Renaissance Convention of Play-Within-the-Play’. Journal of Faculty of Letters and Humanities 49, no. 200 (Spring 2008): 133–147.Google Scholar
  22. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism and Humanism. Translated by Philip Mairet. London: Methuen, 1948.Google Scholar
  23. Sartre, Jean-Paul. ‘The Dirty Hands’. In No Exit and Three Other Plays, translated by Lionel Abel. New York: Vintage Books, 1955.Google Scholar
  24. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1956.Google Scholar
  25. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Witness to My Life: The Letters of Jean-Paul Sartre to Simone de Beauvoir, 1926–1939. Edited by Simone de Beauvoir. Translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1992.Google Scholar
  26. Sartre, Jean-Paul. Saint Genet: Actor and Martyr. Translated by Bernard Frechtman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.Google Scholar
  27. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet: The Texts of 1603 and 1623. The Arden Shakespeare. Edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. London: Bloomsbury, 2006.Google Scholar
  28. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Arden Shakespeare. Edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor. Revised ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.Google Scholar
  29. Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. London: Faber and Faber, 1968.Google Scholar
  30. Tom Stoppard in Conversation. Edited by Paul Delaney. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994.Google Scholar
  31. Visser, Sandra, and Thomas Williams. Anselm. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.Google Scholar
  32. Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself, and Other Poems. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010.Google Scholar
  33. Yao, Zhihua. ‘“I Have Lost Me”: Zhuangzi’s Butterfly Dream’. Journal of Chinese Philosophy 40, no. 3/4 (2013): 511–526.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of EmotionsThe University of Western AustraliaCrawleyAustralia

Personalised recommendations