Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—Nonexistent “Nontagonists”

Just as most people are mere carved pieces in the great chess game of existence, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, were basically insignificant in the greater scheme of things. They were really only so until their deaths, though, much like a chess piece which gains so much importance only after it has been captured. As William F. Thomsen put it, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were “nontagonists,” bodies on the stage, but never really the heroes or villains of the play. The course of the game most certainly did not revolve around these two confused pawns, but it didn’t neglect to move them across the board either.

Throughout the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spent their time on inquiries, most of which referred to the idea of death, of nonexistence, of “the ultimate negative. Not-being.” And because they spent so much time and energy on nonexistence, they became it, in a sense. They transformed themselves from beings of importance during life to ones of significance only in death, in nonexistence, and therefore earned themselves the roles of “nontagonists.” They felt so insignificant in life, that to have so much revolve around their ceasing to exist was difficult to grasp, and caused Guildenstern to ask, “Who are we that so much should converge on our little deaths?” The two were not the protagonists, or generally speaking, the “good guys,” or the antagonists, the “bad guys,” but the nontagonists, the guys-who-are-only-important-because- they-have-so-little-importance-while-breathing. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s lack of significance during life wasn’t the only thing that made them nontagonists, however.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s philosophizing also delved into the concept of mankind’s perception of its control over the universe, or lack thereof, and how small and unimportant all of the chess pieces are without a chess player. Guildenstern observed that people “can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but [their] movement is contained within a larger one that carries [them] idly toward eternity without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation.” They realized how utterly out of control they were and, by recognizing that, became nontagonists, because once one relinquishes control of his or her actions, he or she cannot be considered one of the main players, and therefore is classified as a nontagonist. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, like any pair of enlightened but still inanimate pawns, considered the idea that “there must have been a moment at the beginning when [they] could have said no. But somehow [they] missed it.” Indeed there may have been such a moment for every chess piece as it was being carved, but because it missed that moment, it became another nontagonist, another pawn in the game of existence, and didn’t get to be the chess player or the player’s opponent.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s significance only in death, and lack of control in life carved them into the minor pieces that they were, the pawns otherwise known as nontagonists. As the player put it so well, “You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That’s enough.”

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