“Dying is not romantic, and death is not a game which will soon be over…Death is not anything…death is not…It’s the absence of presence, nothing more…the endless time of never coming back…a gap you can’t see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound…” (Stoppard 124)
Darkness slithers in, flooding every corner, crack, and alleyway as the dimming sun cowers behind the long string of houses to the west. The brooding face of a bloody red moon hovers silently above the grey clouds, watching like a phantom as hundreds of ghosts, witches, and vampires fill the streets of the lonely world below, a world spinning faster and faster towards impending death, an end from which nothing escapes…
Of course, for most of us, our childhood memories of Halloween don’t involve an overpowering sense of death and misery; if anything, Halloween conjures up moments of excitement, fun, and laughter with family and friends, often because of a failed costume design, a prank gone wrong, or the sight of children dressed more like Arctic explorers than bloodthirsty zombies. As the time of All Hallows’ Eve approaches us, however, I can’t help but think about death, about whether or not there is a life after this one, and, perhaps most importantly, about whether or not there is a meaning or purpose to our existence.
As the time of Halloween slowly creeps upon us and death begins to pervade our minds once more, who can’t help but appreciate the timing of the Shakespeare Company’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead? With this time of year in mind, I wanted to take the opportunity to share my thoughts on Stoppard’s play, as well as my own thoughts on ghosts, purgatory, and the afterlife.
First of all, I thought that the Shakespeare Company’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was, to put it simply, beautiful. Aside from the dimly-lit ambiance of the theatre modelled on Shakespeare’s very own Globe Theatre, I found myself enchanted with the costumes, the set, the music, and the heartfelt passion with which the actors performed their roles. However, it was something we discussed in class after the play that caught my attention – it was the chilling idea that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were dead from the very beginning, stuck in a kind of purgatory and doomed to an endless cycle of searching for an ever-elusive purpose. When I first thought about it, I began to see the truth within their words, remembering the story of the two friends sitting cloaked by the shadow of a dead tree, neither remembering the past nor filled with the hope of a bright future. It was a confusing existence, the grey middle-ground between life and death, light and shadow, truth and superstition. It’s almost as if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern found themselves trapped in their very own corner of the Twilight Zone, chained to an existence in which they die again and again, only to be reborn to start, once more, the path to death to which they have been condemned for the past four centuries. Whether it be Shakespeare or Stoppard hardly matters – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern always die, and thus, are always damned to a purgatory of their own.
The idea of purgatory, or limbo, is not new. Its ancient roots stem from deep within Jewish tradition, when, for eleven months following the death of a loved one, orthodox Jews pray the Kaddish for the final purification of their souls. For the first 1500 years of Christianity, devout believers also believed in the reality of purification after death, the idea being that in order to get to Heaven and thus, be worthy enough to see God face to face, one needed to be completely purified, free from sin and all human weakness. It is a purification accomplished only through suffering. It was a belief present from Christianity’s earliest days, only to be questioned and denied during the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. While Catholics and Orthodox Christians continue to affirm the existence of purgatory today, many Protestants eventually rejected it, a controversial issue in the middle of which Shakespeare found himself. While historians continue to debate whether Shakespeare died a practicing Anglican or a secret Catholic, one thing remains clear: the only certainty in Shakespeare’s life is its uncertainty, and it is what pervades the very idea of purgatory as well. However, hints of a persistent belief in limbo can be found in many of Shakespeare’s plays, even explicitly, such as the scene of the ghost in Hamlet:
“I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.” (1.1.9-13)
With this in mind, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead seems to have an even stronger basis in purgatory than is seen at first glance. The questions of existence and the blurred line between life and death prevalent in the play are reinforced in light of its source material, and with this, the symbols of the caravan, the box, and the boat become even more significant.
This is where I would like to bring in the idea of ghosts and spirits. In regards to Catholic beliefs on purgatory, the Church remains explicitly vague in explaining supernatural phenomenon – however, there is no contradiction between ghosts and Catholic theology. In many medieval Catholic sources, ghosts are souls with unfinished business, often with a sin yet unatoned for, or an offense for which penance still needs to be done. As symbols of entrapment, the caravan, box, and boat then serve as good forms of analogy for the concept of purgatory, including the idea of ghosts as lost souls seeking purification through the completion of any unfinished business.
“We’re travelling people. We take our chances where we find them.” (Stoppard 25)
When I first saw the caravan of the travelling actors, the Tragedians, appearing in the background, I was almost overwhelmed by the beauty of how they were presented – I’ve always loved the idea of a vagabond life, and just seeing the manifestation of such an unstructured life on stage made me feel a sort of excitement that I still find myself unable to explain. There’s really something about the idea of leaving everything to chance that incites a wanderlust within me. However, this same idea of an uncertain existence evokes a sense of wandering, aimless, yet with purpose. Thus, the very notion of purgatory is reinforced through the Tragedians, who are forced to wander from town to town, kingdom to kingdom, looking for an audience that will satisfy their desires as actors. In the play, we see that the Tragedians continue their fruitless search for purpose, constantly being rejected or being unable to finish a performance. This they do, enacting scenes full of gore, corpses, death, and tragedy. This parallels the torment of souls in purgatory, who have to undergo a “cleansing fire” or painful temporal punishment (compared to the eternal punishment of hell) in order to become purified enough for God’s presence in heaven. While enduring this cleansing, souls in purgatory are said to be able to ask the living for their prayers, and, in some circumstances, even appear to them. So, forced to “undergo” pain again and again, while tirelessly searching for a purpose, the Tragedians almost signify a group of souls in purgatory, begging those outside – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – to help them find their purpose, and thus, complete their unfinished business. What they do not know is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, too, may be trapped in their own purgatory; just as there is a play within the play, so is there the purgatory of the Tragedians within the purgatory of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
“Do you ever think of yourself as actually dead, laying in a box with a lid on it?” (Stoppard 70)
This passing remark by Rosencrantz gets even closer to the idea of purgatory. Some Christians believe that the time spent in purgatory is different for each person, depending on the gravity of their sins (which are not immoral enough to send them to hell, but the existence of which still bars them from heaven). For some, it may take just a second. For others, it may take until the time Jesus comes back. Thus, some souls may be waiting for what is known as the Second Coming – at that time, it is believed that Jesus will come back to resurrect the bodies of the dead and that all the souls still left in purgatory will finally be able to get to heaven. This is what makes Rosencrantz’s words so haunting. It’s almost as if he is aware of being dead, of waiting until the day he is finally qualified to enter the afterlife. His awareness pervades much of his thinking:
“We might as well be dead. Do you think death could possibly be a boat?” (Stoppard 108)
Finally, I would like to address the symbol of the boat. In many cultures, boats play a crucial role in their idea of the afterlife. For the ancient Egyptians, the soul had to travel the underworld on a bark led by Ra, the sun god, in order to get to the land of the gods where they can attain mortality. The ancient Greeks, too, believed in crossing a body of water to get to the underworld – souls of the deceased needed to cross the River Styx with the help of the ferryman Charon. Knowing this, then, allows the audience of the play to see the boat of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as their own means of transport to the afterlife. Travelling from one shore to another, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern carry with them a purpose – a business – that, in their eyes, will allow them to become more than just background characters. They are filled with the hope of a purpose, only to find that hope shattered when Hamlet disappears, never to be seen by them again. Thus, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves trapped in the middle-ground, never achieving what they are meant to do. Every time they get closer to their goal, Hamlet escapes and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die time and time again, enslaved to a kind of purgatory where they are forced to relive the misfortune of their lives.
Thus, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never truly die, do they? They live again and again every time the play is performed – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never just stop existing. They never fail to reappear. Again and again, they are forced to find the meaning of their lives – their unfinished business – in the raging world around them. However, at the end of every play, they go, once more, into the famed good night, a night that, however gently the stage is left, never ends without the shining hope of a good morning. Who knows if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will one day achieve the purpose that has evaded them for at least four hundred years?
While I pray that none of us go into that same good night this Halloween – or anytime soon for that matter – if we can trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at all, then what have we to fear from death?
“As Socrates so philosophically put it, since we don’t know what death is, it is illogical to fear it. It might be…very nice. Certainly it is a release from the burden of life, and, for the godly, a haven and a reward” (Stoppard 110).
Of all the money that e’er I spent
I’ve spent it in good company
And all the harm that ever I did
Alas it was to none but me
And all I’ve done for want of wit
To memory now I can’t recall
So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be with you all.