As the lights come up, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are now inside, watching as Ophelia rushes past, followed by Hamlet. Silently, Hamlet grabs Ophelia but quickly releases her and runs offstage. Ophelia runs off as well. Then Claudius and Gertrude enter. Speaking Shakespearean English, Claudius confuses Rosencrantz with Guildenstern, then explains that he wants their help in determining what is wrong with Hamlet, their childhood friend. Speaking lines taken directly from the play Hamlet, Claudius says that Hamlet has recently changed, perhaps as a result of his father’s death. Gertrude echoes Claudius’s comments. Also in Shakespearean English, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern promise to do whatever they can to figure out what is bothering Hamlet. Polonius enters to say that he wishes he knew why Hamlet has changed so drastically. Everybody but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leaves.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to figure out what has just happened. Guildenstern comforts Rosencrantz by telling him that they will soon understand why they are there and what they need to do to return home. Guildenstern reminds him of the logic at work in the universe and says that the two just have to stick it out until the events have ended. They start discussing possible causes of Hamlet’s madness, essentially repeating the speeches made earlier by Claudius and Gertrude. Together, they decide to probe Hamlet using questions and answers. They practice, borrowing the scoring used in tennis, but succeed only in further confusing each other. Whether they are seriously interested in the answers to each other’s questions, or whether they want to beat the other one at the game, is not clear.
Hamlet enters without speaking, then leaves. Immediately, Guildenstern decides that Hamlet has changed greatly. Guildenstern suggests that Rosencrantz pretend to be Guildenstern, while Guildenstern pretends to be Hamlet so that they can practice the question-and-answer game. After a while, Rosencrantz begins asking Guildenstern questions about what has recently transpired at Elsinore, the court of Denmark. They conclude confused, because Hamlet seems to have lots of reasons to be upset: his father has recently died under murky circumstances, and his uncle has usurped the throne to become king and married his mother, Gertrude.
Hamlet comes back in, confusing his companion Polonius with riddles. He excitedly greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but mistakes one for the other as the stage goes dark.
Whereas Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a tragedy with occasional moments of comedy, Stoppard’s play is a comedy with occasional moments of tragedy. But both plays attempt to portray the complexities of life. According to the plots of both plays, Claudius has summoned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to help with Hamlet. But, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lucidly realize, Hamlet has many reasons to be upset: he has just lost his father, the crown (Claudius has become king of Denmark, even though Hamlet is of age and capable of governing), and his mother (she remarried very quickly after the death of Hamlet’s father). The interweaving of happy and sad things occurs in the riddles Hamlet speaks to Polonius: these might be a tragic result of his madness, they might simply be his childish attempt to make his friends laugh by making fun of an old man, or they might be a little of both. Similarly, the verbal sparring between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern resembles a comedy routine, with non sequitur following non sequitur, even as they try to figure out whether their friend, tragically, has gone insane. They even highlight the nonsensical nature of their dialogue by keeping score as if the questions and answers were a game of tennis. Nobody, including the men themselves, seems able to tell Rosencrantz from Guildenstern, which is funny but also sad, as it comments on the difficulties of establishing a firm identity in a chaotic world. Like life, the two plays have moments of joy and sadness, and neither is wholly funny nor entirely tragic.
Stoppard takes lines directly from Hamlet as a way of emphasizing the relationship between his play and Shakespeare’s play. On the one hand, without Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead would not exist. Stoppard borrows heavily from Shakespeare’s text, including the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he incorporates lines verbatim from Shakespeare into his own work. Whenever Rosencrantz and Guildenstern speak to a character from Hamlet, they switch from modern English to Shakespearean English. Although they do not notice the difference, we as readers are meant to pick up on the change in language. On the other hand, Stoppard’s versions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are very different from the two men found in Hamlet. Whereas Shakespeare’s portrays the two men as goons with little personality, Stoppard gives the men individual characteristics and far more lines than in the original play. They think, feel, joke, gamble, and reason. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern clearly want to help Hamlet, and they attempt to ascertain whether Hamlet has, in fact, gone insane through the game of question-and-answer. In this sense, Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not simply act as agents of Claudius, as Shakespeare’s versions do. Instead, Stoppard lets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to function independently from both Claudius, their king, and Shakespeare, their original creator. Stoppard wants to emphasize Hamlet as not solely the greatest work of drama in the English language but as a play capable of speaking to us on a human, visceral level.