TBT: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)


Juicing up Shakespeare is nothing new. The producers of TNT’s Will  and ABC’s Still Star Crossed think they’re so clever, but Tom Stoppard has trod this territory before and a million times better. I needed an antidote to watching the Will premiere, so I turned to the old reliable Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990) for a sassy, smart, sideways look at the Bard’s Hamlet.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

Tim Roth as Guildenstern and Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz

For anyone out there who didn’t know, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters in Hamlet — childhood friends of the protagonist, who are supposed to gather info about him for the king and are killed by the end of the original play. Stoppard wrote a play, and then this movie, positing these guys as the main characters, with the action of Hamlet as secondary. It’s very meta and also very funny. The theater troupe that performs the play-within-the-play also becomes more prominent characters, and the subject of actors and acting as a reflection of life is a strong theme (typical of Stoppard; see also, Shakespeare in Love).

Fun fact: Watching Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead together was a crucial element to me and Sarah hanging out when we first met. Because we’re both renfaire nerds at heart, and the wordplay in this is like a grown-up version of Monty Python (we’re both Python nerds too, but you knew that).

1990 Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

“We’re actors! We’re the opposite of people!”

This movie is all about the fast-paced dialog, and thus the costumes are perfunctory affairs. Everyone is wearing solid 16th-century English-y renaissance-y garb for that classic Shakespearean look. Costume designer Andreane Neofitou has almost exclusively designed for theater, which shows a bit in the fabric choices, but nothing looks all that wrong, just a few cliche touches. Most of the men wear their leather doublets open with shirts exposed, and they’re wearing boots, not shoes, and hardly a hat is available to doff to one’s betters. Likewise, the two women, Gertrude and Ophelia, what little that’s seen of them, are dressed in fairly generic renaissance gowns with a profusion of theatrically royal bling and shiny dead-dino fabrics. These things are not too distracting because of the verbal firepower that keeps you fully engaged.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

Leather, a bunch of belts, and a codflap.

1990 Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Claudius gets a very fancy Tudor-esque outfit as the new king.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

Gertrude only wears this trained robe in promo stills.

1990 Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Methinks that crown doth oversell the point.

1990 Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Hamlet in obligatory black velvet.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

Ophelia with unnecessary head necklace.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

“The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily … that is what Tragedy means.”


Shall we play a game of questions? Have you seen Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Facebook Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

19 Responses

  1. opusanglicanum

    that is one weird ass crown. I think the crest over the top is based on the crown of the holy roman empire, but doubled up and daintified down. Not a good look (I make medieval jewels, I’m up to five replica crowns at this point, I nerd about jewellery)

    and omg, baby oldman is cuuute!

  2. MoHub

    I like the play on stage a lot more than the film, but I still enjoyed the movie.

  3. Susan Pola Staples

    I can’t remember the costumes too much as I was LOL a lot, but I do remember it being very Renfaire in a good way. Ophelia and her Head necklace remind me of Sanchia or Aragon from the Borgias.

  4. Sarah F

    I’ve loved this play ever since we read it in my high school AP English class. Our teacher had us play ‘Questions’ one day, and the game swept through the school like wildfire. No one got a straight answer from anyone else for two solid weeks.

  5. David Murphy

    I also think it is more of a theatrical set piece for two great actors sparking off each other. Was not the premiere at the Old Vic or Young Vic? Maybe wrong.

  6. Sharon

    The second picture……….is that Richard Dreyfuss?……….if it is… HOT DAMN!!
    (woman of a certain age here)

  7. Lyn Robb

    One of fave films (never saw the stage play, nor was it on my school reading list). The word play on the tennis court is a highlight for sure. And Tim Roth and Gary Oldman were fab (oh and I think this is the only film I really liked Dreyfuss in!)

  8. Janette

    I loved the play when I studied it at High School but have not seen either film or any stage productions. Must add this to my “watch out for” list.

  9. Kathy

    One of the few roles I like Dreyfus in. Iain Glen is Hamlet!!!!! Must watch again. Conspiracy of cartographers is my favorite bit.

    • saffireblu

      Iain Glen?!!! No! The earliest thing I ever saw him in was ‘Wives & Daughters’… & I had such a crush on him (& the future Milner from ‘Foyle’… though I don’t know why people got so hot & bothered by Osbourne…)- I thought Cynthia was a bitch! (I semi-grew out of that attitude, over time)
      I hated how she treated my girl Molly – & to me, Hyacinth was the most immeasurable cow; covering herself with a veil of self-righteous ‘concern for the proprieties’, & she was so self-centred. I loved Harriet & Lady Cumnor!

  10. Lauren Rachel

    Don’t know if you knew this, but Daniel Radcliffe was just in the anniversary play. It might still be playing if you check National Theatre Live.

  11. Sara L.

    Been out of town and missed this post on one of my favorite movies! This is the movie that made me fall in love with both Gary Oldman and Tim Roth. I obsessed about it in college. I actually have two copies of the play, as well.

    • ERS

      Thank you for the link to Gilbert’s retelling of Hamlet. I’ve been curious about it but have finally just sat down today in order to conduct research for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, then happened upon your comment. For some reason, perhaps because I’m warped, when I read the summary of Gilbert’s version, I imagined the Muppets putting on a very lavish production…