We are spectators: Agency explored through ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead’

It struck me the other day that when communities are ignored in decisions that affect their future they are mere characters in someone else’s play. Much like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the unlucky childhood friends of Hamlet who—as explored by Tom Stoppard in his play Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead—lack agency beyond the lines that are written for them by Shakespeare. When not performing the script they aimlessly drift, existentially bereft, unable to know what to do, where to do it, or who to do it with.

As well as being a cautionary tale for top-down change, is this also metaphor for the poor enactment of community engagement and participatory design?

At the first meeting of the pair and the Players, Guildenstern questions the styles of theatre that the players perform.

GUILDENSTERN: Is that what people want?
PLAYER: It’s what we do.

This reminds me of the designer who, no matter what the context or the audience, blusters their way through using the same methods. No tailoring, no consultation. It’s what we do.

Or, perhaps it is about researcher positioning.

When contemplating how to deal with Hamlet’s affliction, they ponder:

ROSENCRANTZ: We cheer him up. Find out what’s the matter
GUILDENSTERN: Exactly, it’s the matter of asking the right questions and giving away as little as you can.

Extractive research. Always taking and giving as little of yourself as possible. Not considering that a more generous offering of yourself will positively affect what people will share with you.

Or perhaps it is their methods. Should they expand their repertoire?

ROSENCRANTZ: What is all this about?


ROSENCRANTZ: Words, is that all we have to go on?

I suspect they are just not looking carefully enough for answers. Particularly Guildenstern who has become so accustomed to things he has forgotten how to notice what is right there in front of him.

GUILDENSTERN: All the while you are surrounded by truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque.

Yet Rosencrantz is a more-than-competent observer, despite what others think. His experiments into sound, flight, physics, and water mechanics delight him endlessly with curiosity.

ROSENCRANTZ: There are answers wherever you look.

Maybe people should pay more attention to him.

When it comes down to it, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been granted no agency, no script of their own has been written, no map given to help direct the course of their lives. It is, as Guildenstern finishes:

GUILDENSTERN: No, it is not enough. To be told so little—to such an end—and still, finally, to be denied an explanation.

We are spectators.

Strategic designer and researcher on a quest for sustainable futures through a PhD in participatory methods.