The Unanswerable Question
The search for meaning in life is a search that has preoccupied many figure throughout the ages. It is also a concept that is prevalent throughout much of literature. It can be seen in both Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, as well as Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. In both of these works we see not only a search for meaning in life, but also the futility of that search as well as a solution.
Keats’ poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” revolves around the speaker of the poem admiring an old urn. The fact that the artifact being admired is an urn is significant. Blackstone describes the urn as “the womb from which all manifestation proceeds. It is also the tomb into which all manifestations descend” (Blackstone 333). It is a symbol of creativity and therefore creation. The ability to make something out of nothing; the birth of an idea. However, being an urn also ties it to death. It is something we associate with burials and cremations. The fact that it is from a previous time also ties it to both life and death. It is a symbol of the life of the people that created it, but also of the fact that those people are long gone, unable to explain to us what the meaning of their creation is. Therefore, by searching for meaning in the urn, Keats is searching for meaning in life and death.
The poem begins with the speaker addressing the urn, calling it an “unravish’d bride of quietness” (Keats 1), and “foster-child of Silence and slow Time” (Keats 2). “Silence” and “quietness” are the key words here. They set the tone for the rest of the poem. It is the essential characteristic of the urn. The rest of the first stanza is made up of a series of questions from the speaker, asking things such as “What men or gods are these” (Keats 8). However, “to ask ‘what men or gods are these?’ is to suppose that there is a simple and satisfiable relation between beholder and art object, that the beholder can eventually know the ‘truth’ of the leaf-fringed legend that haunts the shape of the urn” (Vendler 118). Vendler goes on to say that “All of Keats’ early questions in the ode could be given their ‘true’ answers, he thinks, if only he knew the lost legend that the dead sculptor presumably had in mind” (Vendler 119). However, this is impossible as the creator of the vase has been dead for centuries and one can, therefore, never truly know what the artist was trying to convey when he created it. The speaker seems to realize this in the second stanza, beginning by saying that “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” (Keats 11-2). This ties into one of the main points of the poem. You will never hear any answers from the urn, it will always remain silent and mysterious. However, it is this very mysteriousness that makes it interesting.
While looking upon the urn the speaker has a sudden realization, saying “Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave / Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; / Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss / Though winning near the goal” (Keats 15-8). Although the figures on the urn will never age or die, they will also never be able to finish their actions. The lover will never get his kiss no matter how close he is. They are stuck always in pursuit, never reaching their goal. Although their never-ending youth does not mirror life, this pursuit does. It mirrors the never-ending pursuit of meaning that people often find themselves caught in. No matter how close they might get to finding an answer, they never really do and are never truly satisfied. However, the speaker concludes this stanza by telling the lover “Do not grieve; / She cannot fade, tho thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair” (Keats 20). Even though the lover will be forever in pursuit, never catching his love, he should not despair. Similarly, although one may never find answers to their questions they should not become disheartened by it. They should instead focus on the wonder and beauty of life.
The speaker realizes that “not a soul, to tell / Why thou art desolate, can e’er return” (Keats 40). Although the figures themselves will never age or die, the people that created them or that might have known their meaning are long dead. They will never be able to explain the meaning of the urn and its figures. Although “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours” (Keats 46-8). The figures of the urn will never know our woes. They are eternal and exist in their own little world. They will outlive many generations, trapped in themselves, never able to provide us with their meaning. Interestingly the speaker speaks of them being in the midst of woe, just different woe than ours. Even in an immortal, fantasy world like the images on the urn there is still woe. Keats “judges and places the experience of seeing the urn in the total human experience of the life and death of generations” (Vendler 135). Since one can never know what the artist truly meant you have to give up on questioning it and instead just appreciate it. Even though what we imagine and fantasize may be far from reality, there is still beauty in it. Questioning the meaning will never truly get you anywhere because you very likely will never find the answers.
Keats ends the poem by having the man speak for the urn. The speaker says that the urn tells us that “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’” (Keats 49-50). We will never be able to truly answer most of the questions we have in life. Similarly we cannot know the true meaning of the scenes depicted on the urn. They are mysteries that, no matter how much we may pursue them, the answer still alludes us. However, there are things that we can know. One of those things is beauty. Beauty is truth because we can always know it. It is not a questions that needs answering, it is merely a quality we notice in things. He realizes that one must “give up useless questions of what historical or mythological story it illustrates, rejoice in its extreme beauty, regret the discrepancy that exists between the fantasized and real, and yet recognize the truth of our aspirations” (Vendler 119). We know whether something is beautiful or not because it is our own opinion. As Blackstone says, “A thing or a thought is true if it finds its place and is able to develop itself – to grow – within wider and wider context” (Blackstone 341). This applies to art and beauty. The more that one comes to appreciate beauty around them, not in just a single specific thing, then the more true it becomes. Similarly, the more people that appreciate said beauty than it will become even further true. Therefore, beauty is truth. This applies to both life and the urn. While the meaning of the urn may escape us, the beauty does not. Similarly, in life, although we cannot answer all the questions, we can still appreciate the beauty of it. We should appreciate the beauty in life because it is one of the few truths out there that we can know for certain. In regards to this, Vendler says “The sublimity – and ecstasy – of art is granted as one moment along the span of life, a moment in which, by the intensity of art, all disagreeables are made to evaporate” (Vendler 135). The scene depicted on the urn is frozen in time, like a photograph. It depicts a single moment. In this moment everything seems beautiful and wonderful. However, in the last stanza “The disagreeables – age, death, woe – have reasserted themselves in the mind of the speaker both during the poem (in his reflective moments) and at the end of the poem” (Vendler 135). We see this in the mentions of “trodden weed” (43), and “old age” (46). However, “he gives the last, solacing word to the urn, because it utters that word afresh to each new generation – yet he encapsulates that last word in his own last overarching sentence of praise for art” (Vendler 135). The last line, about beauty and truth, in contrast to these mentions of woes demonstrate how art allows, even if for just one moment, for one to forget the problems and troubles that life throws at them. The appreciation of beauty can bring us happiness and peace and satisfaction, whereas the search for the meaning of such beauty will bring us nothing but questions without answers. Similarly, one should appreciate the beauty and wonder of life rather that incessantly questioning the purpose. The eternal aspect of the urn really emphasizes this. The characters are in never-ending pursuit of each other just as we are in never-ending pursuit of their meaning. This ties into how we are in unending pursuit of meaning in life in general. Constantly in search of a purpose and meaning in our lives.
In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead we get a similar search for meaning. Sullivan describes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as “the most expendable people of all time” (Sullivan 21), and recognizes “the fact that they die without ever really understanding why they lived” (Sullivan 21). The title of the play itself gives off an air of futility. It tells us that, no matter what they do, the characters will end up dead. This ties into life in general as well, for no matter what one does, we will all die at some point. This futility characterizes the entire play. The play essentially asks the question “How is man to reconcile himself to that absurd world in which he finds himself trapped?” (Cahn 36). Although the characters “are uncertain about the purpose of their summoning, they are nevertheless moving toward a specific goal” (Cahn 38). They believe they have a goal, that goal being to figure out what is wrong with Hamlet. However, they do not “understand what is happening to them and around them” (Cahn 39). This uncertainty can be seen throughout the entire play.
The play begins with a coin tossing game. The coin repeatedly comes up head and Guildenstern attempts to reason why this might be happening. Through his reasoning “human willpower, divine intervention and mathematical principles are all considered viable explanations, not only for this particular event, but on a more general level, for why earthly phenomena occur” (Fleming 54). Although he is applying them specifically to the coin it also represents an attempt to make sense of life. Whatever force guides the coin would also have a hand in guiding our lives. While Guildenstern questions the results, Rosencrantz simply accepts them. Rather than questioning why such an event might be occurring Rosencrantz responds by declaring that he has “beaten a new record” (Stoppard 14). This angers Guildenstern, causing him to ask “No questions? Not even a pause” (Stoppard 14). Here we see the two different outlooks the take on life. While Guildenstern relies on logic and must question everything, Rosencrantz is impulsive and content with not knowing. Guildenstern then turns his questioning to themselves, upon realizing that they do not have a very clear memory of the messenger summoning them. He asks “Then what are we doing here” (Stoppard 20), refusing to believe that they have been “picked out…simply to be abandoned…set loose to find our way” (Stoppard 20). He refuses to believe that they do not have a purpose.
In the play, both characters are unable to remember their names. Fleming believes that “Stoppard’s use of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is more metaphoric than realistic, and their inability to know their own names on a consistent basis highlights the degree to which they are uncertain about their ontology” (Fleming 56). Names are important because “when ordinary people feel threatened they tend to cling to their individuality; one’s name is the essence of that self” (Jenkins 41). The characters uncertainty of their names raises many questions, such as “Is there an essential self? Is one defined by his or her interactions with others? Is identity merely a series of roles people play” (Fleming 56). Their attempts to figure out their names are just one of the many aspects of their lives they are in search of answers for. They are unsure of not only what to do, but who they even are. They know nothing but what others have told them. They are not even sure whether they are even really friends of Hamlet, saying “Words, words. They’re all we have to go on” (Stoppard 41). The earliest memory they have is of “a messenger” (Stoppard 19), who wakes them up. They are unsure of everything about their lives; who they are, what they should do, and what the purpose of it all is.
Fleming discusses the significance of the question game in the play, saying that “The question game, where the object is to ‘answer’ every question with another question, epitomizes the play itself – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inhabit a world that is full of questions, but to which they can find no answers” (Fleming 56). Rosencrantz suggests that they “play at questions” (Stoppard 42), to which Guildenstern responds “What good would that do” (Stoppard 42). Despite the fact that Guildenstern is frequently questioning things, he nonetheless questions, ironically, the purpose of all that questioning. After they finish the question game Guildenstern shouts Rosencrantz, causing Rosencrantz to jump. They take this as a good sign, believing that they have figured out their names finally. However, Guildenstern later shouts Guildenstern, causing Rosencrantz to respond again. Upon realizing that Rosencrantz responds to both names he becomes frustrated, saying that “consistency is all I ask” (Stoppard 45). They are unable to even answer the question of what their names are. The futility of their search for even a simple identity is proven further futile. In one scene they are left alone and must decide what to do. Guildenstern says “you go that way, I’ll go this way” (Stoppard 87). Rosencrantz then responds “I think we should stick together” (Stoppard 87), and suggests they leave together. Guildenstern then says “I’ve just thought. If we both go, he could come here. That would be stupid, wouldn’t it” (Stoppard 87). They have no idea what to do and end up just standing back exactly where they were at the beginning of the scene. They can not be apart, and stick together the entire play. In essence, they have no individual identity, but are two halves of one whole.
As Fleming says, “Their quest for meaning, for answers to their questions, is one of the main thematic throughlines of the play” (Fleming 56). They are constantly questioning each other about themselves, meaning and just plain nonsense. Life is a series of questions for them, none of which are ever truly answered. For Guildenstern “the belief in an ordered world leads to both a feeling of security and one of condemnation” (Fleming 57). Guildenstern temporarily longs for a world where everything is decided for him. Where he does not need to decide or wonder or question. He just has to do what is already decided for him, freeing him from the burden of constantly thinking and deciding. When they get on the boat near the end of the play he says “I’m very fond of boats myself. I like the way they’re – contained, You don’t have to worry about which way to go, or whether to go at all – the question doesn’t arise” (Stoppard 100). He longs for “a fatalistic life where freedom is nonexistent” (Cahn 51). However, it also worries him. At one point Guildenstern makes an observation, stating that “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 60). Although he does not enjoy the pressure of having to make choices, he also fears discovering that there is no such thing as choice. He also fears death much more than Rosencrantz does. He gets angered every time it gets brought up. When Rosencrantz discusses death Guildenstern becomes angry and tells him to stop, storming out. In the end of the play we see Guildenstern become violently angry about it, when faced with the probability of his own death and that it was fate. He stabs the Player, thinking that he has killed him, declaring that “if we had a destiny, then so had he” (Stoppard 123). While he feels burdened by deciding and reasoning, the idea that his life is merely designed by fate and that there is no meaning terrifies him. “Instead of trying to alter their fate by destroying the letter, Guildenstern protests the lack of an explanation” (Fleming 63). Guildenstern contemplates what they are doing. He says “And yet it doesn’t seem enough; to have breathed such significance. Can that be all? And why us? – anybody would have done. And we have contributed nothing” (Stoppard 92). he is curious as to why they were chosen to attempt to figure out what is wrong with Hamlet and to bring him to England. He believes that they have done nothing of importance and that anyone could have easily done the exact same task. Upon discovering that the letter has been changed, Guildenstern says that “Where we went wrong was getting on a boat. 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” (Stoppard 122). He no longer looks at fate as a good thing, but bad. It is not the fact that they are going to die that truly bothers Guildenstern. It is fact that it would be without reason. He says that “No – it is not enough. To be told so little – to such an end – and still finally to be denied an explanation” (Stoppard 122). His final scene involves him questions, saying “What was it all about? When did it begin?” (Stoppard 125). he then says that “There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said – no. But somehow we missed it” (Stoppard 125). That he will never truly know why, or get the answer to any of his other questions. It would all be without meaning to him.
Their search for purpose and meaning is futile because “even if there is a grand design, they can never know for certain what is and is not part of that design, and their inability to find a meaningful course of action or to assert their independence leads to a sense of frustration and futility” (Fleming 57). This is demonstrated in the scene on the boat. Rosencrantz declares that he will jump off the boat, saying “I could jump over the side. That would put a spoke in their wheel” (Stoppard 108). Guildenstern responds by saying “Unless they’re counting on it” (Stoppard 108). Rosencrantz then says “I shall remain on board. That’ll put a spoke in their wheel. (The futility of it, fury.) All right! We don’t question, we don’t doubt. We perform” (Stoppard 108), realizing the futility of his statement. No matter what he does, he never knows whether it is being expected or counted on. No matter how much one feels like they have free will they can never be sure just how much of their life is being decided for them.
The characters are driven by a need for purpose. Fleming describes it by saying “Just as the performers require an audience to give themselves a sense of purpose, similarly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, representatives of humanity, require knowledge of an observer to support the meaning of their existence” (Fleming 58). They have a “hunger for company, stability and the wisdom of someone who has been here before” (Fleming 58). They need the other characters to provide them with a purpose. In the scenes where they are in Hamlet they have a purpose and say their lines. As soon as the scene shifts though, they go back to being confused. Rosencrantz states that “I feel like a spectator – an appalling business. The only thing that makes it bearable is the irrational belief that somebody interesting will come on in a minute” (Stoppard 41). Later on when they are left alone, they try to decide what to do. Guildenstern says “Somebody might come in. It’s what we’re counting on, after all” (Stoppard 59). They need someone to come in because it is through them that they gain purpose. The Tragedians then come in, the Player saying “You don’t understand the humiliation of it – to be tricked out of the single assumption which makes our existence viable – that somebody is watching” (Stoppard 63). They need an audience to give them purpose, and without purpose they do not feel right. He says that it was because of a “habit and a stubborn trust that our audience spied upon us from behind the nearest bush forced our bodies to blunder on long after they had emptied of meaning, until like runaway carts they dragged to a halt” (Stoppard 64). Even when uncertain that somewhere is there they still continued, needing to feel like there was purpose. A feeling of purpose is necessary to both the Tragedians as well as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern turn to the Player for answers to their questions, but he does not provide them with the answers they really seek. As Fleming says, “The Player, the quintessential chameleon of identity but also enactor of roles with fixed destinies, does not offer the reassuring comfort they seek. Rather he argues that their existential angst at their inability to comprehend the situation is to be expected, even ordinary” (Fleming 59). He tells them that “Uncertainty is the normal state. You’re nobody special” (Stoppard 66). He does not provide answers, but rather just asserts that their questioning is normal and expected. They are not meant to be certain of things. Life is supposed to be a mystery. He also says “In our experience, most things end in death” (Stoppard 123). This applies not only to his experience as an actor but to life, since we all know that everyone will die eventually. The Player also declares that “truth is only that which is taken to be true. It’s the currency of living. There may be nothing behind it, but it doesn’t make a difference so long as its honoured” (Stoppard 67). In this scene we see how “The Player argues that truth and knowledge have no essence, and thus this passage is the play’s strongest articulation of the perspective that truth is relative, not absolute” (Fleming 59). Truth is only what people accept as truth, but there is nothing to say that what they accept is not, in fact, wrong. Here we can see ties to Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. There are no real answers out there, only questions.
Guildenstern frequently discusses the importance of finding meaning and purpose. He says “What a fine persecution – to be kept intrigued without ever quite being enlightened” (Stoppard 41). He considers wondering without ever finding answers to be a punishment. We see a similar sentiment echoed in the scene where they discuss death. Guildenstern states “Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where’s it going to end” (Stoppard 71). He cannot stand the idea of something that never ends, never reaching a goal. He needs a purpose and destination. When Rosencrantz discusses being stuck in a box, Guildenstern says “They don’t care. We count for nothing. We could remain silent till we’re green in the face, they wouldn’t come” (Stoppard 71). He believes that they ”have no control. None at all” (Stoppard 71). He once again worries about the possibility that they have no control over their lives. Rosencrantz then says “Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on for ever” (Stoppard 71-2). He then says that “for all the compasses in the world, there’s only one direction, and time is its only measure” (Stoppard 72), to which Guildenstern responds “Death followed by eternity…the worst of both worlds. It is a terrible thought” (Stoppard 72). The thought of having to go through eternity without ever figuring anything out is a terrifying thought to him.
The play is not simply a demonstration of the futility for the search for meaning in life. The Player, although rarely comforting, does provide an interesting idea while describing what he and the Tragedians do. He says “We are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style” (Stoppard 77). He later says “There’s a design at work in all art – surely you know that? Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral and logical conclusion” (Stoppard 79). Here he is likening art to life. Life is very obscure, leaving us with many answers, but nonetheless much reach a conclusion, death. We then see a similarity to Keats’ ode when he says “I extract significance from melodrama, a significance which it does not in fact contain; but occasionally, from out of this matter, there escapes a thin beam of light that, seen at the right angle, can crack the shell of mortality” (Stoppard 83). Here we can see the idea that art can provide us with the happiness and satisfaction that unanswerable questions can not. It can provide one with a light that can “crack the shell of mortality”. Through art one is able to throw off, temporarily, the problems and woes of mortality.
Both Stoppard and Keats address the search for meaning in life in their works. They also both provide the reader with a similar answer. The answer being that one can never truly find real meaning in life because life is unclear. We will only be left with more questions. One should focus on enjoying life rather than despairing over a lack of answers. Art is presented as the ultimate enjoyment of life. It provides one with a snapshot moment of pure beauty, immersing them , temporarily, in an immortal world that will far outlast them, such as the urn. One might never find meaning, but they can find beauty.