Sounds of the ocean and activity onboard a boat can be heard. In darkness, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wonder where they are, eventually realizing that they are on a ship at sea. Hamlet lights a lantern in the background of the stage, revealing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sitting in the foreground. The light grows, and three large barrels can be seen onstage, as well as an enormous overturned umbrella, shading from view whatever is behind it. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discuss what to do, deciding on nothing, and Guildenstern says that he enjoys being on boats because of the sensation that one is simultaneously free and restricted.
Rosencrantz walks upstage and peers behind the umbrella. He quietly returns to Guildenstern and tells him that Hamlet is asleep. At a loss for what to do, Guildenstern grows frustrated, and Rosencrantz attempts to console him. He asks Guildenstern to guess which of his hands contains a coin. Guildenstern guesses correctly several times in a row before realizing that Rosencrantz has been putting coins in both hands in an effort to please him. They ask each other how much money they received from Claudius, and Guildenstern gets irritated as Rosencrantz simply repeats what he says. When Rosencrantz winces under Guildenstern’s anger and begins to despair over their fate, Guildenstern comforts him and tells him that everything will turn out fine. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to decide what to do when they meet with the English king, and they recall that Claudius has given them a letter. Unable to remember who has the letter, Guildenstern suddenly reveals that he has been carrying it. Rosencrantz says that he does not believe in England and cannot fathom what they are going to do there.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern act out what will happen when they arrive and meet the English king. In the course of their play-acting, Rosencrantz opens the letter and discovers that it asks the English king to execute Hamlet. Somewhat dumbstruck, Rosencrantz tries to suggest that they cannot carry through with their mission as they are friends with Hamlet and he has done nothing to deserve being put to death. Guildenstern, however, rationalizes away any guilty hesitation on Rosencrantz’s part by suggesting that there is more at work than they realize and that there might be good reasons for Hamlet to die of which they are unaware. Guildenstern also refers to the Greek philosopher Socrates, who pointed out that since we do not know what happens at death, fearing death is irrational. Guildenstern quickly sums up all of the action of the play and declares that they have got a handle on things. As he finishes, Hamlet rises and blows out the lantern, plunging the stage into darkness.
Beneath the light of the moon, Hamlet approaches the sleeping Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He takes the letter and retires behind the umbrella. He returns and places a letter back in the original spot.
Hamlet acts as a foil, or opposite, to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Unlike his friends, Hamlet does not seem confused by the incomprehensibility of the world, nor does he have trouble making choices or deciding how to act. In fact, Hamlet has a lot of power within the play, as symbolized by his lantern. He lights the scene, then plunges the scene into darkness. His ability to control what viewers see signifies his immense power. He changes and affects people’s lives in ways that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot. For example, he kills Polonius, then disposes of the body. When Hamlet speaks, he frequently confuses other characters with riddles, another sign of his ability to have an effect on people. In this section of Act III, Hamlet reads the letter ordering his execution in England. But he reads it offstage and silently, masking whatever emotion he might be feeling about his friends’ betrayal. Unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet acts decisively. Regardless of whether he is actually insane, Hamlet’s cool, rational behavior stands in contrast to the dopey, bewildered demeanor exhibited by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
When thoroughly confused by their circumstances, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern usually resort to gambling, which soothes and comforts them. Rather than figure out what they are doing on the boat or where they are headed, their first instinct is to gamble, a familiar pattern from Acts I and II. Rosencrantz tries to make Guildenstern feel better about their situation by letting him win the coin each time, an echo of the opening of Act I, when Rosencrantz won coin after coin from Guildenstern. In times of stress, both characters embrace gambling, which represents chance and limitless possibility. But, even as they enjoy betting on games like coin flipping, they rail against the randomness of reality. They hate the way people appear and ask them to do things, but neither Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern tries to do anything to exert control over his own life or fate. Instead, they constantly surrender to passivity, preferring to simply let things happen. They would rather gamble than make a choice or commit to an action, gravitating toward the very thing—chance—that most confuses them.
As everyman figures, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand in for humanity as a whole. Their plight represents the individual’s struggle to derive meaning and significance from a life that will end in the complete nothingness of death, a philosophical idea known as existentialism. But, unlike real people, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lack imaginative power and memory. For instance, Rosencrantz cannot imagine England. He tells Guildenstern that he cannot picture himself leaving the ship or speaking to the king. In short, Rosencrantz cannot imagine the future. But neither he nor Guildenstern remembers who has the letter for the English king. As in Act I, they decide to assume roles and act in order to discover or remember something. They cannot imagine a future, but neither can they recall the past. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern exist solely in a never-ending present, a state of mind that partly explains their constant confusion. They cannot learn from their mistakes, nor can they conceive of acting in any way other than what they have done before. When confused, they gamble or role-play. Each moment exists separately from the one that came before or the one that is to come, so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are constantly being surprised by their situations.