“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all”: Deleuze’s Societies of Control and the Desire for Autonomy in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Essay by Hana Kovar

Art by J. Sassi

Guil: Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are… condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one – that is the meaning of order. If we start being arbitrary it’ll just be a shambles: at least, let us hope so. Because if we happened, just happened to discover, or even suspect, that our spontaneity was part of their order, we’d know that we were lost. (Stoppard 52)

Functioning as a simulacrum of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (RGAD) examines the potential for breaking out of the predetermined matrix of the new social orders of the postwar West through the lives of two minor characters. Hamlet serves as the driving narrative backdrop, in which Ros and Guil, as they are referred to in RGAD, must play the part of their original Shakespearean roles, ‘Rosencrantz’ and ‘Guildenstern.’ Stoppard not only borrows Shakespeare’s characters but also lines directly from the play—not limited to but including the title, which is declared by the Ambassador in Hamlet’s final bloody scene. Assuming the audience is familiar with Hamlet, Stoppard grants agency to the nonentities of Rosencrantz (Ros) and Guildenstern (Guil), two couriers summoned by King Claudius to distract Hamlet from his apparent madness, who are ultimately killed. Their deaths loom over the three acts, as they question who they are, where they are, and what purpose they serve. The comedy of Ros and Guil’s nonsensical ramblings and occasional pass through philosophical truths is undercut by the knowledge that these characters’ lives will shortly come to an end. Long, monotonous scenes of the pair in conversation are contrasted by the presence of Hamlet or King Claudius, summoning the pair to assume their Shakespearean counterparts and recite their lines automatically. These abrupt shifts in narrative style and language disorient not only the viewer but Ros and Guil as well, who find it difficult to keep track of where they are or how they got there. Such juxtapositions contribute to the pair’s increasing confusion, while encouraging their attempts to gain a higher consciousness of their life’s purpose, all while unknowingly marching towards their predetermined deaths. Through Ros and Guil’s mishaps, Stoppard asserts the revolutionary potential of the simulacrum by portraying, questioning, and urging the awakening of consciousness and the need for human choice and action in RGAD. He does not simply regard Ros and Guil as victims of the world plagued by ethical and institutional corruption. Rather, he tests the boundaries to which they can extend meaningful action in the constraints of what Gilles Deleuze deems the postmodern “societies of control” (4). 

In Postscript on the Societies of Control, Gilles Deleuze articulates the postmodern shift from a society of discipline to a society of control. While the disciplinary society distinguished the individual from the mass, passing him between institutions, each subject to their own rules and functional purposes, control now permeates all corners of postmodern society (Deleuze 3-4). The individual becomes “dividual,” simply a data point within the mass (Deleuze 5). Movements are dictated before they have the opportunity to be controlled by the institution—the individual experiences the capitalist society as a constituted matrix in which everything is pre-enacted. Confronted with this, Deleuze offers that “there is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons,” (4) prompting a consideration of function rather than a search for existential meaning. While Ros and Guil ultimately fail to achieve an awakening of consciousness beyond the realm of their play-within-a-play, Stoppard’s intentions expand beyond simple existential pondering. Rather, Stoppard’s moral and political gesture here is to urge the spectator to awaken from moral numbness and conformity to the present capitalistic society, which is ultimately unconsciously complicit and unquestioning.

RGAD’s metatheatricality speaks to the powerful relationship between life, art, and performance, a current that runs deep in various postmodern art forms. One is reminded of Jasper Johns’ Flag (see fig. 1), a reaction to the myth of individual artistic genius and originality as perpetuated by artists of the more idealistic Modernist period of the pre-war West.

 Figure 1: Jasper Johns, American, born 1930. Flag. 1954-55 (dated on reverse 1954). Artstor, library.artstor.org/asset/AMOMA_10312310631.

Johns’ Flag is not merely a painting of the US flag nor is it meant to showcase the individual talent or originality of the artist. Rather, Johns applies an encaustic mix of paint, glue, plaster and newspaper over a readymade image of the flag. Flag constitutes both the original (the flag) and its copy (a painting of the flag), representing the sacred artistic act as encoded within a pre-determined and encoded matrix. The map overwrites the territory, a simulacral copy that programs and inscribes the individualistic concept before the existence of the grapheme in its entirety. In the disciplinary society, individualism in art was seen as a possibility for rebellion

Like Johns’ Flag, Ros and Guil’s life-role, and the Tragedians’ performance, is so deeply entrenched, encoded, and predetermined, making obsolete the illusion of their artistic individuality/autonomy/originality. Here, within multiple layers of metatheater, is a demonstration of the stage’s function as a mirror to the real world, as a revealer of truths. Not only does RGAD position Hamlet as a play within its own play-world, but Ros and Guil find themselves acquainted with a troupe of actors, the Tragedians, who put on a play which eerily resembles the events in which the two men find themselves, foreshadowing their deaths. Within Hamlet’s plot, too, The Murder of Gonzago is put on to heavily point to Claudius’ guilt in the murder of his brother. 

The leader of the Tragedians, simply named ‘PLAYER’, says to Ros and Guil, “We’re actors… We pledged our identities, secure in the conventions of our trade; that someone would be watching. And then, gradually, no one was. We were caught, high and dry” (Stoppard 55-56). The Player voices a desperate need for meaning through interaction with and perception by an audience, both literally and figuratively, highlighting the falsehood of the paradigms of personality and individuality. Upon their first meeting, the Player refers to Ros and Guil as “fellow artists”. Although it could be said that this label implies that the Player is somehow omnipotent and aware of Ros and Guil’s roles as two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it seems more poignant to examine this statement as the Player’s deeper understanding of the individual’s existence within a predetermined role in society. As he says to Ros and Guil, “For some of us it is performance, for others, patronage. They are two sides of the same coin, or, let us say, being as there are so many of us, the same side of two coins” (Stoppard 17).  There is no acknowledgement from either Ros or Guil of the profundity of the Player’s words; Ros instead asks “What is your line?,” demonstrating a simpler interest and curiosity in the spectacle of the actors’ performances. In general, Ros expresses greater contentment and acceptance with the state of the world around him, while Guil is noticeably more anxious about the absurdity of the circumstances the pair find themselves in, desperately searching for a greater purpose. Their differences reflect the different reactions to the individuals’ inability to make sense of the world around him.

While ultimately unsuccessful, Ros and Guil’s attempts to make sense and break free of their prescribed roles are genuine modulations of the “codes” of their reality. As Deleuze posits, the society of control is made distinct by its “numerical language of control [which] is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it” (5). The RGAD universe is entirely predetermined by Stoppard’s writing and plot, heavily entrenching the pair’s lives within the codes of literary and narrative devices. As such, their attempts to express some semblance autonomy is to play with these codes: Act I opens with a bizarre game of coin-tossing, which yields a result of heads nearly 90 times in a row and prompts a discussion of the laws of chance and probability; later, they ‘play tennis’ with rhetoric, practicing the line of questioning they will use on Hamlet. Yet, rather than make any progress towards their goal of understanding–not only Hamlet’s motivations, but their own–they only confuse themselves further as their game delves into existential questioning

Guil: (with emphasis) What’s your name?!

Ros: Repetition. Two-love. Match point to me.

Guil: (seizing him violently) WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?

Ros: Rhetoric! Game and match! (Pause.)Where’s it going to end?

Guil: That’s the question.

Ros: It’s all questions.

Guil: Do you think it matters?

Ros: Doesn’t it matter to you?

Guil: Why should it matter?

Ros: What does it matter why?

Guil: (teasing gently) Doesn’t it matter why it matters?

Ros: (rounding on him) What’s the matter with you?


Guil: It doesn’t matter.

Ros: (voice in the wilderness) …What’s the game?

Guil: What are the rules? (Stoppard 35-36)

By the end of the game, Ros and Guil seem to have lost track of the entire reason they were playing in the first place, as well as forgetting themselves entirely. Earlier, Guil uncannily foreshadows this phenomenon of questioning in vain, saying to Ros, “What a fine persecution to be kept intrigued without ever quite being enlightened…” (Stoppard 34). 

Ros and Guil notably navigate interaction through the “code” of language in two variations: Stoppard’s original words, and Shakespearean English of Hamlet. When called to do so, such as in the presence of Prince Hamlet or King Claudius, Ros and Guil will speak their Shakespearean lines with an automated immediacy that shocks the audience. They are essentially predetermined to do so, as their fulfillment of the Shakespearean role is their essential purpose within both plays. On one hand, Ros and Guil’s ability to switch from Shakespearean to contemporary “codes” of language elevates them above those who do not break free of their Shakespearean script, providing moments of what appears to be their personal autonomy in this odd in-between reality. However, this autonomy is confined within the sphere of Stoppard’s play; Ros and Guil remain as characters within this world that provides very limited, predetermined movement between languages. Ultimately, Stoppard demonstrates Ros and Guil’s fatal flaw: their inaction. They continue to be words on a page, actors embodying a script, stuck in the matrix of their hyperreality.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on the Societies of Control.” October, vol. 59, 1992, pp. 3–7. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/778828.

Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Faber & Faber Limited, 1967, London, UK.