Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia enter. Claudius confers privately with Rosencrantz first, then with Guildenstern. The stage direction points readers to a specific scene in Hamlet. Rosencrantz tells Gertrude that Hamlet greeted them warmly and says that Hamlet wants everyone to watch the play. As the group leaves, Hamlet enters, trying to decide whether to kill himself. Rosencrantz hesitates, trying to decide whether he should approach Hamlet for chat. Giving up, he returns to Guildenstern. Ophelia walks in, praying, and Hamlet exits with her.
Alfred enters, dressed as Gertrude. Rosencrantz, frustrated and confused, grabs Alfred, whom he believes to be Gertrude, from behind and covers his eyes. The Player enters, explaining that Rosencrantz holds Alfred, and Rosencrantz approaches. Somehow believing that the Player’s foot is covering a coin, Rosencrantz reaches down to the floor, only to have his hand stepped on by the Player. The rest of the Tragedians enter, and they begin a mute rehearsal of The Murder of Gonzago, which the Player narrates for the benefit of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The Player explains that the dumb show is necessary because language is an ineffective tool for communication. As he speaks, the rehearsal depicts the king killing his brother and then wooing the widowed queen.
Just as the queen in the dumb show accepts the king’s murderous brother as her lover, Hamlet and Ophelia burst into the room. Hamlet screams at a tearful Ophelia, declaring that there will be no more marriages and urging Ophelia to become a nun. While the Tragedians try to continue, Claudius and Polonius enter. Polonius comforts Ophelia while Claudius proposes sending Hamlet to England. Claudius, Polonius, and Ophelia depart, and the Tragedians resume their rehearsal. As they do, the Player tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that all art must unfold according to a logical trajectory that ensures that the characters intended to die do in fact meet their ends. Guildenstern wonders who gets to choose which characters die, and the Player responds that no one does—characters who are written to die must die.
The rehearsal begins again, and while Rosencrantz objects to the sordid nature of the play the Tragedians are performing, Guildenstern says that he prefers art that accurately reflects life. The rehearsal, narrated by the Player, resumes with the dead king’s son, Lucianus, losing his grip on reality in the wake of his father’s death and his mother’s unseemly remarriage. The stage direction indicates that the scene being acted out by the Tragedians is a mirror of Act III, scene iv, of Hamlet, in which Hamlet kills Polonius. As the Player narrates, Gonzago’s Lucianus mistakenly kills the king’s adviser, and the king decides to send his nephew to England in the company of two spies. The spies and Lucianus arrive in England by ship, only to discover that Lucianus has vanished and that the letter that the king gave them to give to the English king has been replaced with a letter ordering their own deaths.
Rosencrantz stops the rehearsal. The two spies in the play are dressed in the same clothes as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Rosencrantz thinks he recognizes them but cannot quite place them, ultimately deciding that the spies have mistaken him for someone else. The Player tells Guildenstern that the play features eight deaths in all, and Guildenstern grills the Player about presuming to represent death on the stage. The Player responds by claiming that people only believe in stage deaths, not real death, and says that audiences believe only what they expect to see. As he makes this remark, the spies slowly die, and Guildenstern says that death is not something that can be acted. The Player throws covers over the bodies of the dead spies, and the stage goes black.
Like Guildenstern, Rosencrantz spends most of the play in a state of total bafflement, which he occasionally tries to overcome through action. In Act I, while Guildenstern tries to figure out why the coins kept coming up heads, Rosencrantz contents himself with his increasing wealth and does not think too much about the situation. In Act II, however, Rosencrantz becomes more and more upset with their circumstances, and his anger clouds his judgment. He cannot understand why people keep entering and exiting, and he despairs over trying to help Hamlet, who walks by muttering the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from the play Hamlet. Rather than trusting his instincts and going to his troubled friend, Rosencrantz merely equivocates back and forth, hashing out the pros and cons of helping Hamlet. His anger and confusion prevent him from doing anything meaningful or significant, and he misses an easy opportunity to cheer up his friend. A few minutes later, after Guildenstern tells him to be quiet, Rosencrantz attempts to actually do something: he grabs a person whom he believes to be Gertrude and tries to make a joke. He wants to ease the tension and inject some levity into the situation with Hamlet. But, as it turns out, he has grabbed Alfred, dressed to look like the queen. Rosencrantz has waited too long to act, and now the moment has passed. Hamlet has left the stage.
While Rosencrantz attempts to dispel his confusion through action, Guildenstern tries to use reason to figure out what has happened. But, as with Rosencrantz, Guildenstern remains utterly confused. Guildenstern cannot understand the Player’s cryptic comments relating to which characters live and which characters die. He resists the idea that some things are fated to occur, even though neither he nor Rosencrantz questions how they were magically transported from the road into the interior of Elsinore in Act I. Whereas Guildenstern wants to know the hows and whys, the Player affects an “it is what it is” attitude. Likewise, the Player explains that language is inherently ambiguous and only has real meaning when coupled with action. Simply sitting around talking means very little and cannot change anyone or anything. But Guildenstern protests, claiming that he understands death intellectually and therefore has no need to act it out. Guildenstern trusts in language to clarify and clear up the confusing circumstances in which he and Rosencrantz find themselves. However, the Player’s comment about the effect of language and action chastises Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Neither acting nor talking is enough. Through his commentary on the dumb show, the Player urges the pair to stop talking, to stop equivocating, and to start making choices, or acting, in the nontheatrical sense of the word.
Art directly mirrors life when the spies enter dressed as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Upon seeing the spies, Rosencrantz stops the rehearsal, because he thinks he recognizes the actors. He does not, however, give any sign that he recognizes the actors precisely because they resemble Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He merely notes that the coats look similar when he reaches out to touch the clothing of the spy that looks like him. Rosencrantz confuses the issue still further when he decides that the spies have misidentified him, and not the other way around, a confused statement that demonstrates his inability to differentiate between life and staged plays. Although Rosencrantz wants art to have a story, complete with a beginning, middle, and end, Guildenstern prefers art to resemble life as closely as possible. That the spies bother Rosencrantz and not Guildenstern demonstrates the great extent to which Guildenstern has gotten his wish: the dumb show has become their life. The Murder of Gonzago, the play that the Tragedians are practicing, depicts the recent events at Elsinore, as Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the reader learn from the Player’s commentary. The Player reminds Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that life, like the kind of art that Rosencrantz wants, has a beginning, middle, and end. He synthesizes the pair’s two different definitions of art by telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that The Murder of Gonzago ends in eight deaths. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, as does life, and, like life, which itself always ends in death, the play too ends in death.