Hamlet claims to be mad only when the wind blows from a certain direction, a statement that thoroughly puzzles Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Polonius comes in to say that the Tragedians have arrived, and Hamlet and Polonius leave. Shyly, Guildenstern tells Rosencrantz that he thinks they made some headway into figuring out why Hamlet has been acting so strangely lately. But Rosencrantz angrily states that they have learned nothing from talking to Hamlet, because Hamlet beat them at their question-and-answer game. While Hamlet answered just three questions, he asked twenty-seven. The answers he gave were alternatively sarcastic and enigmatic, so Rosencrantz and Guildenstern learned nothing and thus cannot conclude whether Hamlet is actually mad. They then spend several minutes trying to figure out the direction of the wind, with Rosencrantz playfully offering to lick Guildenstern’s finger. Guildenstern angrily passes on Rosencrantz’s offer, then muses that the pair are simply cogs in fate’s machine. Rosencrantz flips a coin but does not tell Guildenstern whether the coin was heads or tails.
Polonius enters with Hamlet and the Tragedians. Hamlet announces that tomorrow the Tragedians will be performing a play, The Murder of Gonzago. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cryptically greet the Player with a series of one-liners about words, but the Player irritably responds by accusing the pair of abandoning his group on the side of the road. That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern left the actors without an audience deeply wounded the Player and his men. As actors, the Player explains, their very identity depends on whether someone is observing.
Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the Player discuss the play to be performed tomorrow, as well as possible causes for Hamlet’s behavior and purported madness. The Player advises the two men to “act natural,” because not knowing one’s place in the world is an ordinary, natural feeling. The three men reach no conclusions about Hamlet, and the Player leaves to memorize his lines. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern begin discussing death, specifically what happens when someone dies. Rosencrantz considers life as one long march toward death, but then he begins to despair over his lack of influence, having failed to summon someone into the room to be interrogated by the pair. A group enters.
Stoppard uses the characters of and interaction between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to make judgments about the figures of “male buddies” so present in popular culture. While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not necessarily homosexual, their playful interaction points to an ongoing flirtation between the two friends. Rosencrantz, in particular, seems to enjoy baiting and teasing Guildenstern, playfully luring his friend into verbal traps. For his part, Guildenstern willingly starts conversations, although he knows that the answers Rosencrantz gives to his questions will probably frustrate him. Their interaction follows a familiar pattern of male duos in popular culture: one partner has a somewhat wild and crazy personality, while the other tends to have a more staid, stable demeanor, as in the Lethal Weapon and Rush Hour movies, for example, or in the routines performed by Laurel and Hardy. The non-jokey partner is often referred to as the “straight man.” Whereas Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both express an interest in the Player’s sexual propositions, here Rosencrantz makes a direct sexual overture to Guildenstern when he offers to lick his friend’s finger to determine the direction of the wind. Guildenstern usually plays the “straight man” to the dreamier, sillier Rosencrantz. Through this interaction, Stoppard forces his readers to closely examine the push-pull undertones that might be at work between “male buddies.”
As characters, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the Player illustrate the slippery nature of identity. The Player appears to be the only person capable of differentiating Rosencrantz from Guildenstern, even though he never addresses either man by name. Nevertheless, more than any other character, the Player understands that identity can be manipulated and altered. As he explained in Act I, the Player always stays in character, never taking off his costume. Still, as an actor, he needs an audience to fully assume his identity, a reminder that people distinctly influence the identity of other people. Without an audience, an actor cannot be an actor. Without someone to interrogate, Rosencrantz cannot remain assertive and angry, as he has been since Hamlet left the scene. Hamlet might truly be insane, or he might enjoy confusing his two friends, since they are so easily confused. The Player tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to “act natural,” an attempt to reassure the confused men that nobody really knows who he or she is, precisely because identity is so flexible and so dependent on other forces. Depending on the circumstances and company, people act differently and thereby assume different identities.