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Mariah Koch
Dr. Holt
AP Literature-1
15 April 2016
How Existentialism Plays into its Storylines
Hamlet by William Shakespeare is a tragedy that stands out among Shakespeares other
plays. Due to its unique storyline in which most conflict happens within Hamlets own mind, any
adaptation of the story must demonstrate the same ideas that appear in the tragedy in order to
retain consistency. These common themes are insignificance and existentialism, and they prohibit
Hamlet and its adaptations from demonstrating the driving force within the text: free will.
Because these ideas bind man to his own mind, they thus limit mans own free will outside of
himself. Hamlet is a mental tragedy, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom
Stoppard is a story rewritten within the parameters of Hamlet; this causes the concept of free will
and the lack thereof to be approached in two drastically different ways.
Hamlets central themes are portrayed through the character of Hamlet more than all the
other characters. His feelings of loneliness and pointlessness are the driving emotions for his
actions and the readers takeaway of the story. Hamlet does not demonstrate free will because he
is so wrapped up in his own mind; his thoughts make him indecisive and mindful of fate,
whereas those who surround him have not a care in the world.
Because Hamlet was written before Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the
beginning and end of the adaptation are already set in four hundred year old stone for Hamlets
childhood friends. Stoppard has their entire story in his hands, and he expands on their lack of
free will because his version is already lacking an aspect of free will. And, because the time

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period he wrote it in was one of existentialist ideas and actions, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
portray the idea of insignificance in their own universe the same way Hamlet does.
Was Shakespeare ahead of his time because of his advanced, futuristic thoughts? Hamlet
is one of his most famous tragedies, but it is not necessarily a coincidence. A lot of the plays
conflict happens between Hamlet and his mind, where he is limited by his thoughts of
insignificance and futility. The concept of man versus himself had not been anywhere near
played upon during this time of faux scientific sureness; Shakespeare made his mark by opening
up the idea of free will and what it entails.
Stoppards play, on the other hand, completely follows its time period. He writes within
the confines of the 1960s, when existentialism and insignificance plagued many artists and their
work. Part of the reason Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the perfect characters for Stoppards
story is because they demonstrate no free will to whoever orders them around. They also had no
story of their ownjust a journey and an ending with no explanation of how they died. What a
perfect set up to demonstrate ones lack of free will.
Both Shakespeare and Stoppard expand on ideas that are not prevalent during their times
of publication. It makes their stories much more fascinating as to why they were popular. The
new ideas they both expand on, Shakespeare and the idea of existentialism and Stoppard and his
theory of free will, make their stories much deeper than what is expected.
That being said, Shakespeare has effectively limited all of Hamlets adaptations from
being drastically different than the play itself. Any proper adaptation would be similar to the
original text, but in the case of Shakespeare and Stoppard, the entire tone of their two plays must
coordinate in order to fulfill their purpose. This entails that Stoppard can run free with his ideas

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in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but he must keep Shakespeares predetermined
feelings of existentialism and insignificance in rotation within the story.
Hamlet the character shows the audience that he has conflict with himself and his
thoughts. He feels like he has no purpose and he is tiny in a world of giants. His voice is not
heard nor cared for, and he it affects him greatly. He has no free will because his own self holds
him back; the king and queen are the concrete evidence that Hamlet cannot act upon his own
terms, but his mind is his true setback.
The opposite goes for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: they have no free will but
not because they do no limit themselves; the royal orders constitute their lack of free will. The
two characters do what they are told, and they do not realize that they do not have to agree to it,
nor do they realize they have a choice in the matter. They are thousands of miles away and yet
still follow the Kings orders exactly, thus defining the lack of free will that Hamlet experiences
in his own story.
Free will in itself is a complicated topic to approach: do we have free will but not the
willpower to act upon it? Or are we just to follow the path laid down for us? Both Hamlet and
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead make it apparent that individual thoughts do not alter
the actions one takes. They also show that in a world of royalty free will is not a relative concept:
the king tells you where to go and what to do, and you have to do it. However, shouldnt Hamlet
be able to do what he wants, given that he is the late kings son? This is the ultimate question in
Hamlet, and the answer appears in his actions that demonstrate his thorough lack of free will.