One of my favorite movies is Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (I think it is better than the play). This is probably because of my love-hate relationship with Hamlet and how it shows that Tom Stoppard understood That Bard’s play far better than That Bard. The thing about Hamlet is that it isn’t a good play, but it is a very interesting play. Frankly, I think the reason scholars love it so much is because it makes no sense and they think That Bard couldn’t possibly have written something bad, despite the overwhelming evidence.

Hamlet runs about four and a half hours long, and yet in one brief speech in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (the movie and the play), Rosencrantz sums up the ridiculousness of the plot in one short speech:

To sum up: your father, who you love, dies, you are his heir, you come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother popped onto his throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice. Now why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary way?

To which Guildenstern (pretending to be Hamlet) replies, “I can’t imagine!”

Maybe it is more correct to say that this is what Hamlet ought to be. The truth is, at the start of the play, Hamlet is upset that his father is dead and that his mother married his uncle, but not that he was screwed out of being king. Regardless, he is just sad and disappointed. It is only when his father’s ghost tells him[1] that his murder must be avenged[2] that Hamlet starts behaving badly.

So the play should really be about a guy who gets screwed out of being king and as a result, does something about it. Instead, we get all this nonsense about Claudius killing Hamlet’s father. In truth, the play would be much better if it were told from Claudius’ standpoint. He has a real problem on his hands with Hamlet, who he would just kill except that his wife (and the only reason he is king) loves her only son dearly. None of this really matters except that Hamlet shows all the signs of being a first draft That Bard never got around to fixing.

What I find interesting is that I learned a new word that almost seems as though it were created for Hamlet. In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, while the title characters are watching the tragedians rehearse, they see Gonzago being murdered by his brother. Guildenstern remarks, “Not exactly fraternal.” To which Player responds, “Not exactly avuncular, as time goes on.” I had heard the word “avuncular” before, but I didn’t know what it meant, so I looked it up. It is basically the same as “fraternal” except that it is for uncles instead of brothers. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines it thus:

  1. of or relating to an uncle
  2. suggestive of an uncle especially in kindliness or geniality <avuncular indulgence>

So now I know a new word, and have more proof that Tom Stoppard understood Hamlet better than That Bard.

[1] Typical of this long-winded play, it takes 15 minutes from Hamlet being told of his father’s ghost to him actually seeing it.

[2] Hamlet’s father says it in, again, typically long-winded fashion, but here is the critical bit:

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin’d to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg’d away.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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