Stoppard deliberately refrains from giving much description of either of his main characters. Both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are meant to be “everyman” figures, more or less average men who represent humanity in general. Nevertheless, both men have specific character traits. Rosencrantz is decidedly the more easygoing of the two, happy to continue flipping coins with little concern about the possible implications of their pattern of landing heads up. Rosencrantz spends a great deal of the play confused by both what is happening around him and Guildenstern’s reactions to their situation, but he rarely engages in the overt despair that is characteristic of Guildenstern. Rosencrantz is pragmatic and seeks simple and efficient solutions to the pair’s problems rather than philosophical explanations of them, a trait that leads Guildenstern to believe that his friend is complacent and unwilling or unable to think seriously and deeply.
Rosencrantz reveals himself to be more complicated than Guildenstern believes, however, and his apparently straightforward attitude of pragmatism and breezy bewilderment peels back to reveal deeper feelings, both positive and negative. Despite their continued frustrations and problems, Rosencrantz does not lose sight of Guildenstern’s feelings, and he awkwardly tries to cheer his friend up by offering him the opportunity to win several easy bets. Rosencrantz also tries to help Guildenstern in a more serious and sophisticated way by encouraging him to find personal happiness and to soldier on in the face of apparent chaos. Rosencrantz’s positive attitude is not the limit of his feelings, and twice he feels terror at the realization of his own mortality. First, he gets afraid during his discussion of what it would be like to be in a coffin. Later, at the end of the play, he feels fear as he realizes that he is about to die. Rosencrantz may not be an actively philosophical man like his friend Guildenstern, but he is nevertheless capable of sensitive thought.
On the surface, Guildenstern seems to be the polar opposite of his friend Rosencrantz. Guildenstern is markedly more anxious than Rosencrantz about the strange circumstances in which they find themselves, beginning with his deep concern about the coin-flipping episode. Unlike Rosencrantz, Guildenstern wants desperately to understand their situation, and he tries to reason his way through the incidents that plague them. Guildenstern’s belief that there is a rational explanation for their predicament leads him to sudden bursts of strong emotion as he grows increasingly frustrated by his inability to make sense of the world around him. Guildenstern’s frustration is heightened by what he sees as Rosencrantz’s jovial indifference, and he lashes out at his friend on several occasions. Guildenstern’s angry despair reaches its peak near the end of the play. His realization that he and Rosencrantz are about to die without having understood anything leads him to attack the Player in a fit of fury and hopelessness.
Guildenstern is not simply a blend of rationality and passion. Subtle gestures within the play show him to be capable of compassion and sympathetic understanding. Although Guildenstern is certainly angry at Rosencrantz at numerous points, he quickly consoles and comforts his friend when the need arises. After arriving at Elsinore and becoming even more confused by Claudius’s reception of the pair, Guildenstern soothes a tongue-tied Rosencrantz and promises him that they will be able to return home soon. Similarly, after belittling Rosencrantz for failing to say anything original when they are onboard the ship to England, Guildenstern recognizes his friend’s suffering and promises him that everything will turn out okay. Though he often acts as if he would rather be alone than be with Rosencrantz, Guildenstern’s final speech in the play has him alone onstage, turning to look for his friend, unable to tell which one of them is which.
The Player is the most mysterious of the play’s characters. He seems to possess a far greater understanding of the events transpiring than does either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. The Player’s witty speeches often hint at the possibility that he could reveal the truth if only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern knew how to ask the right questions. Upon first meeting the pair, the Player claims to recognize them as artists like himself, a description that implies an awareness that they are all merely actors in a drama that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not understand and can barely acknowledge. Similarly, the Player makes several remarks that reflect on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s plight, although in a way that the pair fails to grasp, such as when he tells them that life is a terrible gamble or when he says that the normal experience of existence is one of confusion and doubt. The Player’s unexplained mastery of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s experiences extends to their final moments, when he seems to have anticipated their deaths and the complicated mix of feelings they go through as their mortality descends upon them.
The Player’s air of mysterious control and omniscience contrasts sharply with his shameful occupation as a pimp for the men in his acting troupe, whose bodies he will happily sell if the opportunity arises. Guildenstern holds this fact against the Player and tricks him into an unwinnable bet, partly out of disgust and a desire to punish the Player for his amoral attitude. Although the Player occasionally seems embarrassed by his profession, he generally retains a haughty attitude, secure in his knowledge of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s fate and fully aware that his troupe fills an unacknowledged social need and will therefore always be in demand. The Player’s confidence is also apparent in his serious belief in the integrity of theater in general and the Tragedians’ performances in particular. This belief infuriates the skeptical and philosophical Guildenstern, but the Player remains entirely unflappable in the face of Guildenstern’s rage. The Player’s combination of a lowly, shameful appearance with dazzling wit, mysterious power, and defiant confidence make him an unlikely but fascinating ringmaster for the play’s circus of confusion.