British playwright Tom Stoppard asked those very questions about two of Shakespeare's most minor characters; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make cameo appearances in Hamlet and don't even get a good on-stage death.
This makes the duo perfect fodder for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, a film adapted from Stoppard's play that asks the simple question: Who are these guys?
At the outset, the duo (played by – in no particular order – Tim Roth and Gary Oldman) have been summoned to the King's castle at His Highess' bequest, on a mission to figure out what troubles Hamlet, the new king's stepson. Along the way, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ask themselves very important questions about life, death and fate, and then confuse themselves trying to come up with the answers.
Stoppard's script absolutely crackles throughout, with rapid-fire dialogue between the leads in a sort of battle of the (half) wits. The exchanges are fast, furious and funny:
Guildenstern: Don't you discriminate at ALL?
Guildenstern: What's the first thing you remember?
Rosencrantz: [thinks] No, it's no good. It was a long time ago.
Guildenstern: No, you don't take my meaning. What's the first thing you remember after all the things you've forgotten?
Rosencrantz: Oh, I see... I've forgotten the question.
There are also some funny set pieces as well, including Rosencrantz attempting (poorly) to juggle and figuring out gravity.
Roth and Oldman both get out of the way of the script; both do little more than say the lines, which is a good choice when the lines are almost all gold. Richard Dreyfuss plays the Player King and gives the ensemble a shot of energy whenever he appears on screen.
But the film, weighing in at two hours, seems labored several times. Most plays struggle to go from stage to screen in some way, and in this case Stoppard might have had too much to do with the making of for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead; not only did he adapt his original play for the screen, but he also directed. It can be tough, when someone is so attached to a work of fiction, to view it objectively, and this is a film that could have used an unbiased observer looking to trim the fat.