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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Tom Stoppard

Act I: Entrance of Tragedians to First Change of Lights

Act I: Beginning of Play to Entrance of Tragedians

Act I: Change of Lights to End of Act

Summary

Six actors and a three-man band, collectively known as the Tragedians, arrive. Their leader, known as the Player, explains that the group will perform for a small fee. Rosencrantz introduces himself as Guildenstern but quickly realizes his mistake. Calling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “fellow artists,” the Player goes on to list the group’s dramatic specialties, which include sexual performances that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may participate in for an extra fee. Intrigued, Rosencrantz asks how much it would cost to watch but gets confused by the Player’s attempts to bargain. The Player offers to do practically anything for a few coins, but Rosencrantz misunderstands. The Tragedians prepare to leave.

The Player says that they are heading to the court. Grabbing the Player, Guildenstern gets angry, only to relax by asking for more details about the performance. The Player responds by urging a young boy named Alfred to put on a skirt and prepare to perform. Disgusted, Guildenstern begins backing away, but the Player holds onto him. Guildenstern punches the Player, tells Alfred to undress, and criticizes the Tragedians for being prostitutes rather than actors. The Tragedians again begin to go.

Rosencrantz stops the actors from leaving by asking what they would do for one coin, which he throws in the air. While the actors clamor to get at the coin, the Player stops them and hits Alfred. Embarrassed, Rosencrantz says that he intends to report on the Tragedians’ practices. Guildenstern stops the actors from leaving by offering them a bet. The Player calls heads and wins the coin. The Player spins the coin, Guildenstern calls heads, and Guildenstern wins. Guildenstern spins again, the Player calls heads, and the Player wins. Guildenstern wins the next round, but then the Player calls tails. Rather than look at the coin, Guildenstern covers it with his foot and says simply, “Heads.” The actors get angry at Guildenstern’s automatic assertion, so Guildenstern looks at the coin and claims to have won it. As the Player protests, Guildenstern spins several more coins, calls them heads, and claims to win each time. Guildenstern proposes a new bet: if the year of the Player’s birth doubled is even, he wins; if odd, the Player wins.

Upon realizing that doubling any digit always produces an even number, the Player explains that they have no money to pay Guildenstern. He offers Alfred as payment instead. Alfred says that he dislikes being an actor. Guildenstern demands to know the actors’ repertoire of plays, because he wants to see a play as payment. Hesitating, the Player says that they belong to the “blood, love and rhetoric school.” The Player then begins giving his actors directions, all while explaining to Guildenstern that he never removes his actor’s outfit or gets out of character. The Player refuses to move around or off stage, until Rosencrantz approaches. As the Player moves away, everyone realizes that he has had his foot on the flipped coin. Rosencrantz announces that the coin had actually landed tails, not heads, as was assumed. As he throws the coin to Guildenstern, the lights change.

Analysis

The interaction among the Tragedians, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern introduces elements of homoeroticism into the play. The Player explains the very special brand of drama performed by the actors, one that lets the audience watch or, for more money, participate in sexual scenes. The Tragedians’ unique brand of performance confuses the two men, even though the group clearly fulfills an unacknowledged social need.

Both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern feel alternately attracted to and repulsed by the Player’s offers. Guildenstern gets particularly angry about the exploitation of the young Alfred. He tells Alfred to take off his clothes, but whether Guildenstern means just the skirt Alfred has put on to perform in or everything he has on is not clear. The inability of readers to understand what Guildenstern actually means is important, as it points to the fact that he himself might be confused about his feelings: would he like to have a homosexual experience, or not? Is he sensitively protecting Alfred, or is he about to exploit the boy even further by forcing him to stand naked? Both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem unable to decide whether to pursue the sexual favors being offered to them, another instance in which they refuse to make an active choice or decision.

The Player seems much smarter than both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he even appears to be aware of himself as a character within a play. He refers to the two men as “fellow artists,” even though Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are neither actors nor prostitutes. This label implies that the Player somehow realizes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are actually two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which Stoppard has borrowed and transformed into the heroes of his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. This knowledge gives the Player a powerful aura of mystery and omnipotence. Later in the scene, the Player mentions that he never steps out of character: he is always on stage, and he is always acting. These references to plays, acting, and performance let Stoppard comment on his play as a play, a literary technique known as self-reference, or metafiction. Rather than letting readers or viewers lose themselves in a fantastical entertainment, Stoppard forces them to constantly be aware of his play as a literary work being read or performed. His play refers to itself as a play. As a result, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead requires a high level of intellectual engagement on the part of its readers or viewers.

Through the character of the Player, Stoppard wryly comments on plays as a unique form of entertainment. When Guildenstern asks for a play as payment for the lost bet, the Player cannot name a play that his troupe knows how to perform. Instead, the Player claims that the Tragedians belong to the “blood, love and rhetoric school,” implying that the actors know how to perform violence and romance, as well as how to communicate. Although the Player seems to be earnestly and honestly assessing the actors’ range, he is also being somewhat ironic. All plays rely on rhetoric, because by their very nature plays consist of actors reciting lines. By speaking their lines, actors verbally communicate. In other words, all actors employ rhetoric. As the Player explains, however, for a few coins, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may watch a play, but, for just a few more coins, they may participate in sex play with the actors. The Tragedians are thus both actors and prostitutes, which adds yet another level of commentary. Prostitutes perform sexual acts for money, but actors also perform for money. Stoppard implies that the difference between prostitutes and actors might be as small as types of things performed—and the fee received for such performances.

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