“Tom Stoppard’s Big Picture

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“Tom Stoppard’s Big Picture: The Chaos that is Our World”, a literary criticism by William W. Demastes, argues that, Stoppard intended for his play Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Deadto convey that the world is a mixture of order and disorder, by referring tochaos theory. Demastes starts by defining order as that which is rational and comprehensible, and defines disorder as being the opposite. He then introduces the idea of life asa sailing vessel, which”can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current” (Demastes, 122). To Demastes, this lineprovides imagery,supportinghis argument of a world of limited control within overarching powerlessness.Demastes further supports this argument primarily by referencing the 1990’s filmof the same title, which he argues is a far more valuable source of analysis because of the visuals it provides. These visuals primarily referenceideas within physicsand through them, Demastesargues that Stoppard ultimately demonstrates that scientificadvances ultimately haveno value when consideringissues such as fate, one’s mortality, and free will.
Spencer 2Laws Of A Lost CauseThe law of conservation of energy explains why we don’t have to pedal our bikes when we go down a hill. The law of conservation of mass explains why a cup of tea weighs exactly as much as the water and the tea before they were mixed. The law of inertia explains why having bald tires is dangerous. The law of universal gravitation explains something as simple and basic as the presence of the moon, sun, and stars in our sky.1These laws, and many more, are fundamental to our understanding of the world we live in.But what if these laws aren’t actually true? What if, despite what we might hope or want to believe, they’re just feeble attempts to understand that which cannot be understood? How does this understanding, or a lack of it, affect or influence our lives?2These are some of the questions that author Tom Stoppard considers in his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In his literary criticism “Tom Stoppard’s Big Picture: The Chaos that is Our World”, scholar William W. Demastes argues that the play’s use of scientific concepts shows thatStoppard’s ultimate conclusion is that the world exists in a harmony of order and disorder. I however, disagree. To me, Stoppard’s use of scientific concepts reveals his belief in a world that we are completely powerless to influence and truly comprehendand the absurdity in trying to do so.Stoppard introduces this beliefthrough the first scene of the book, in which Ros repeatedly flips a coin. When, seemingly unexpectedly, the coin continually lands on heads, Guilattempts to justify the outcome by citing the law of probability. However, when he tries, he is 1Used Anaphora (the law…). I chose to use this because I think that repeating a powerful phrase like “the law” adds a sense of authority and respectability to a person’s writing, which would make readers more likely to be interested in what you have to say.2Used Hypophora (gave readers a question to consider while reading). I chose to use this because I feel that it makes one’s writing more engaging and thought-provoking.
Spencer 3unable to recall it correctly, instead stating that it means “that if six monkeys were thrown up in the air for long enough they would land on their tails about as often as they land on their heads” (Stoppard, 13). The absurdity only continues when Guil continues to search for other explanations, only to end up forming more ridiculous theories involving both time travel and alternate realities. Furthermore, despite telling Ros “not to be absurd” (Stoppard, 14), Guil, ironically, due to his obsession with science and reason, overlooks the easiest way to check if what’s occurring is natural: in Ros’ words, “havinga good look at the coin” (Stoppard, 14). In this way, Stoppard uses this interaction to demonstrate that our obsession with explaining things through laws and theories can sometimes prevent us from seeing the obvious truth right in front of our eyes.Furthermore, beyond simply obstructing the truth, later parts of the play make it clear that applying science and reason can often be completely unproductive, because there are so many factors beyond our scope of observation and control. Stoppard conveys this idea at multiple points throughout the novel, but the best and clearest example is from the 1990 film adaptation. Using this film to supplement an analysis of the original play is valid, because, as Demastes argues, it builds on the scientific influences of the original play and “clearlybenefited from Stoppard’s 1980s exposure to science in general” (Demastes, 209). In the film, Ros “discovers” multiple scientific concepts through experiments he does out of curiosity. However, when he tries to replicate them in the presence of Guil, he always fails to do so. This is particularly evident when he drops a shuttlecock and a club, and sees them fall the same time, “but when he shows Guildenstern, Rosencrantz uses a croquet ball and a feather. The feather acts like feathers do, and Rosencrantz’s discovery falls on scepticaleyes” (Demastes, 210). While Ros does not understand why the ball falls faster than the feather, to the reader it is clear that it is because of
Spencer 4air resistance. To Ros however, it’s simply an unknown factor. In this way, Stoppard uses this example to demonstrate that despite the way we claim to understand and influence the world around us, in truth we are perpetually limited by the factors we can account for. While in a scientific sense these factors are always based in fact, in a more general sense these factors can be almost anything. This includes divine, irresistible forces, such as fate and death.However, by the end of the play Stoppard appears to take an even stronger stance than simply viewing science and reason as unproductive. He first alludes to this through the lines of the player, who tells Guil to “act natural” and that “he can’t go through life questioning his situation at every turn” (Stoppard, 66). However, Guil refuses to heed this advice and as the play progresses he becomes more and more questioning of the world around him. As a result, Guil disrupts the natural process of the world around him, as shown when he “kills” the player and realizes that death, the one thing he thought to be true and natural, is nothing but a spectacle “for all ages and occasions” (Stoppard, 124). The argument that science and reasoning has the potential to disrupt life’s natural state is a strong one, and is what clearly defines Stoppard’s view of the world as being overwhelmingly filled with disorder.Ultimately, the positions of Demastes and I are very similar. We both feel that Stoppard is arguing that science and reason, while appearing to cause humanity’s advance, “really get us nowhere when it comes to matters of true import, like fate, destiny, and free will” (Demastes, 210). However, while Demastes argues that Stoppard regards life as a mixture of aspects you can and cannot control, and “order and disorder as operating ina strange and often confusing dance” (Demastes, 209), I feel that Stoppard asserts that life is overwhelmingly out of our control, to the point where any amount of control we do have is negligible. In essence, our disagreement comes down to the interpretation of a single line by Guildenstern, who, comparing
Spencer 5life to a sailing vessel, says that “we can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current” (Demastes, 122). To Demastes, the vestige of movement we do have is significant. To me, when faced with such an overpowering force, such a limited freedom is nothing but a cruel reminder of one’s overwhelming lack of control.


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