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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Tom Stoppard

Act II: Change of Lights to End of Act

Act II: Entrance of Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia to Change of Lights

Act III: Beginning of the Act until the Letter Switch

Summary

In the darkness, shouts are heard, indicating that Claudius has responded angrily to the Tragedians’ production. The lines shouted are from Hamlet. The lights slowly come back on. It is dawn, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are lying on the floor in the same position and costumes as the dead spies were moments ago. The pair tries to figure out which way is east, and Guildenstern predicts that people are about to begin streaming into the room and confusing them. Immediately thereafter, Claudius calls from offstage and then enters, telling the men that Hamlet has killed Polonius. Claudius asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find Hamlet and Polonius’s body. They struggle to decide what to do, afraid to leave each other and unsure of where to go.

Rosencrantz spots Hamlet in the wings. Guildenstern decides they should trap Hamlet, and the two men tie their belts together and hold them across one side of the stage. Rosencrantz’s pants fall as he removes his belt.

Hamlet enters on the other side of the stage, dragging Polonius’s body, and quickly exits when he sees Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They call Hamlet back in, and he returns alone, refusing to tell them what he has done with Polonius’s body. Hamlet accuses them of being Claudius’s pawns. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern walk with Hamlet to one side of the stage, where they see Claudius about to enter. Following Hamlet’s lead, they bow their respects, only to have Hamlet sneak away from them as they do. Hamlet has tricked them into bowing in the opposite direction of Claudius, who enters behind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Claudius urges them to bring in Hamlet, but, before they have to act, Hamlet arrives escorted by guards.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discuss their situation and the fact that they now have to escort Hamlet to England. Rosencrantz overhears Hamlet in conversation with a soldier and wonders when they will be able to stop waiting around. Hamlet and the soldier enter. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discuss the changing of the seasons, noting that warmth and light seem to be draining away. In the distance, they hear the music of the Tragedians. Hamlet asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to go ahead of him, and Guildenstern wonders if they should go. Rosencrantz tells him that they may as well continue since they have already come so far, saying that anything may still happen. The stage goes black.

Analysis

The action in this section of the play emphasizes the Player’s earlier comment about death within plays: characters who are written to die must die. Readers familiar with the play Hamlet know that Hamlet kills Polonius, because Shakespeare, the author of the play, wrote the plot that way. As a character, Hamlet may or may not have killed Polonius as a result of his madness. But, ultimately, his motivations do not matter in Stoppard’s work. Hamlet must kill Polonius, because that is what Shakespeare’s stage direction says he must do. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the characters do not speculate about what may have prompted Hamlet to kill Polonius. Instead, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern merely accept that he has done so and proceed from there. Stoppard kills off the character of Polonius because Shakespeare wrote it as such, and Stoppard’s work largely mirrors the plot of Shakespeare’s work.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get excited about the murder of Polonius because it gives them a chance to actually attempt to do something. Guildenstern does not contemplate the reasons for the murder or try to use logic, perhaps because he has taken the Player’s earlier call to action to heart. First, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern literally march around the stage. Then, they decide to set a trap for Hamlet using their belts. But their plan leads only to slapstick: Hamlet enters with the body, then exits quickly. Rosencrantz loses his pants. Then, tricked by Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bow to emptiness when Claudius enters from another side of the stage. By the end of the act, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot do anything, for Hamlet has been captured by guards. As usual, their misunderstanding of the situation causes them to miss their opportunity to make a choice that might cause an impact or affect some kind of change.

Sometimes Guildenstern comes close to realizing that he is not a real person but is actually only a character in two plays, yet another instance of Stoppard’s use of self-referentiality. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have minor roles in Hamlet and major roles in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Earlier in Act II, Guildenstern expressed his desire for art to imitate life. When the lights come up, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are positioned exactly as the spies were positioned during the rehearsal for The Murder of Gonzago, the play within a play. But, as when Rosencrantz vaguely recognized the spies, here Guildenstern laments the fact that now that the men are awake, people will soon begin entering, asking them to do things and making the men feel very confused, all of which has been happening throughout the entire play. Guildenstern even notes that the characters tend to confuse Rosencrantz with Guildenstern and vice versa. He has unknowingly described the plot of Stoppard’s work, a fact that Stoppard emphasizes by having Claudius enter as soon as Guildenstern has made that self-referential comment. Guildenstern’s comments are meant to be funny but should also remind readers of Stoppard’s literary project: he wanted to see what would happen if he removed two characters from Hamlet and gave them their own play.

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