Anyone who knows me, knows that it is difficult for me to make decisions. Even though I'm getting better at it, it's still something that I want to continue to work on. I believe that the ability to make decisions easily, comes from knowing oneself, and understanding the world we live in. My problem is that sometimes I have a hard time figuring out what I want.
Lately, I've been thinking about the play "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead," and how much it made me realize the importance of making decisions. Though this play is fast paced and an easy read, it's full of a complexity and brilliance that to some may be unexpected.
Ros and Guil highlight the fundamental mysteries of the world. They spend the entirety of the play in total confusion, lacking such basic information as their own identities. From the play's opening, which depicts them as unable to remember where they are headed and how they began their journey, to their very last moments, in which they are bewildered by their imminent deaths. Ros and Guil cannot understand the world around them, however, even with this confusion, there is a strong element of friendship between the two protagonists.
The constant confusion in which they find themselves leaves Ros and Guil feeling unable to make any significant choices in their lives. They are pushed along toward their deaths by what appear to be random forces, and they fail to respond to their circumstances with anything but total passivity.
Their lack of agency is underscored by Stoppard's decision to transport them from scene to scene without any choice on their part. One minute they're in the woods with the Tragedians, and the next they are in Elsinore being asked to probe Hamlet's destressed mind - a request they accept without even understanding what they have been asked to do.
In the end of Act II, when they ask each other if they should go to England, Ros and Guil do not make a choice, but instead merely continue on the path that has been laid out for them. Since they have already come this far, Ros says, they may as well keep going. Their passive approach to their lives reflects how difficult it is to make decisions in a world that they do not fully understand, in which any choice is in danger of seeming meaningless and therefore not worth making.
Stoppard demonstrated the danger of passivity by giving Ros and Guil the opportunity to make a very meaningful choice, which they fail to do. This moment occurs when they discover that they have a letter ordering Hamlet's death upon their arrival to England: if they destroy it, Hamlet lives, if they do nothing, he dies. They decide that they should not take any action, since they might not understand what all is at stake. Although this decision may seem like an unfeeling rationalization for moral laziness, it is in fact simply an extension of the passivity that has marked Ros and Guil throughout the play. By failing to make a significant choice when they had the opportunity to do so, Ros and Guil incur terrible consequences. These consequences occur when Hamlet discovers the letter and switches it with one ordering their deaths, rather than his own.
In the end, Ros and Guil resign themselves to their fate, although Guil says "There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said--no. But somehow we missed it." (Ros and Guil 125) While reading we see that yes, it could have been so. But the play ends with two ambassadors from England informing Horatio that, at long last, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are dead.
Even though deciding which actions we should take in life is at times so difficult that we may be tempted to succumb to total passivity, failing to act is itself a decision, one that the play presents as not merely immoral but also self-destructive.