First of all, if you have yet to read or watch any version of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, what are you doing with your life? Reading my blog? Stop, now, go to the library and pick up a copy. Better yourself, we could all use a little improvement, and come back after you’ve read it.
For those of you who are familiar with what some scholar’s consider the bard’s finest work, let me now encourage you to pick up a copy of the Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. There is a film version, released in 1990, with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman as the titular characters, playing alongside the incomparable Richard Dreyfus, which is well worth watching – but I’d encourage you to actually sit down and read Stoppard’s work, as the film does edit down the text in some places.
I first read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in one of my high school drama classes and admit to being completely and utterly confused by the piece after the first reading. What was the point of following around these two entirely minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet while the bumble around behind the scenes of the real action of the play and make word jokes at each other? Why don’t I just read Hamlet, the story that’s actually important? I left the play for a few months while the class moved on to other topics, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The nature of the work bothered me; it’s focus, its casual reveal of the ending of two characters few people can remember by name, its seeming lack of direction. But when a few of my classmates opted to put on several scenes from the work as part of their final projects, my feeling on the work changed entirely.
Watching the two characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (even though they aren’t really sure which one of them is which), come alive on stage, I realized that they weren’t minor characters. They may have existed for a brief slice of time in the play Hamlet, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have inner lives before, during, and after the story which unfolds in that well-known play. They, like all of us, are left wondering what the point is in all of this – what is the grand design, what is the larger play in which we are but merely players? Are we villains or friends? What is our purpose? Who are we? And how in the name of all that’s holy are we meant to figure those things out?
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead serves as a potent reminder that there are no such things as minor characters. Within the arc of a story, there may be characters brought more to the forefront than others, but all of the personages involved have histories, personalities, wants, desires, and worries – they are all members of the human race, with common experiences and fears. Too often side or supporting characters are ignored, their feelings or impressions not taken into account. It’s important, as writers, artists, or anyone who seeks to create stories through art, for us to know these characters’ stories and personalities, even if they are never communicated to the audience at large.
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