Rosencrantz watches the morning dawn and says that things could have turned out worse than they have. The two men hear the sounds of the Tragedians’ music, which is nearby but muffled. Rosencrantz walks around the stage, trying to find the source of the music. He soon realizes that it is coming from the Tragedians, inside the barrels. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sit and listen until the song comes to an end, at which point the Player and his group emerge.
The Player reveals that their play angered Claudius to such an extent that they had to escape in costumes and stow away onboard the ship. Guildenstern tells the Player that they are free now that things are out of their control, although he and the Player agree that their freedom is of a very limited nature. As they speak, Hamlet walks down to the audience and spits in their direction. He immediately wipes his eye as though he himself has just been spat upon. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discuss Hamlet’s condition and strange behavior and try to sum up their situation. This summation frustrates Rosencrantz, who laments that they experience only disconnected scenes without any overarching narrative. As he finishes, pirates charge the ship. The scene erupts into chaos, and Hamlet, the Player, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern run around the stage before leaping into the three barrels. The lights and sounds slowly die out.
When the lights come back on, only two barrels remain. Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the Player emerge from the barrels and notice that Hamlet is missing. Guildenstern despairs over this new development, and his irritation causes him to snap at Rosencrantz, who tries to appease him by offering him a must-win bet. Guildenstern knocks Rosencrantz down, lashing out in anguish over the pointlessness of their situation and life in general. Rosencrantz responds by saying that they need to carry on. The pair begins to act out their meeting with the English king anew, and this time Guildenstern opens the letter and discovers that it has been substituted for a new letter, which orders the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
The Player summons the rest of the Tragedians from the barrel. The Tragedians form an intimidating circle around Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who still cannot quite believe what has happened. The Player tells them that death is common, and Guildenstern responds furiously, denouncing the Player’s belief that death onstage is equivalent to real death. Guildenstern grabs a knife from the Player and stabs him. The Player slowly dies while the Tragedians watch. Guildenstern claims that the Player’s death represents nothing more than the fulfillment of his inexplicable fate. The Tragedians applaud. The Player gets up and says that his performance was only adequate, before telling Guildenstern that the only deaths people believe in are stage deaths. The Player shows Guildenstern that the knife is fake.
Delighted, Rosencrantz calls for another performance. The Player shouts orders for a wide array of deaths, which the Tragedians act out behind him. The actors dressed as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die as part of the theatrical carnage. Rosencrantz continues clapping throughout. The Player involves himself in the action and mimes being killed. As he dies, the lights dim and the Player says that death is common and that light vanishes with life. Guildenstern replies that real death is not theatrical but is simply the absence of anything. Rosencrantz slowly stops clapping. The stage is silent.
Rosencrantz realizes the end is near and wonders how they were caught up in this terrible situation. He asks if they might remain on the ship and just avoid their fates, then he gives way to anguish, saying that they have done nothing wrong. But he also asks Guildenstern if they did in fact go wrong somewhere. Tellingly, neither man can remember. Rosencrantz announces that he is glad to be done with it all, and he vanishes from the stage. Guildenstern does not notice, and instead he tries to recall their actions from the beginning, believing that they must have had an opportunity to prevent all that has befallen them. Guildenstern realizes he is alone and begins crying out for his friend, but he is unable to remember if he is Guildenstern or Rosencrantz. He says that they will be better off the next time around, and he vanishes, leaving the stage in momentary darkness.
The stage lights come up to reveal the corpses of Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes on the ground. An English ambassador announces that they have carried out Claudius’s orders and executed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Horatio laments that Claudius ordered no such thing and begins his account of how the tragedy of Shakespeare’s play unfolded. As he speaks, the lights descend and music rises, drowning him out.
As characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become more sympathetic as the play goes on. In Act I, their sheer inability to focus on a topic or come to a conclusion distances the men from the reader. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear as fodder for jokes, not as sympathetic individuals. In Act II, they really want to help their old friend Hamlet, but they also mindlessly obey Claudius, who asks them to capture Hamlet after he kills Polonius. Rosencrantz also fails to comfort Hamlet when he spies Hamlet walking around, muttering to himself about whether to commit suicide. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not judge Hamlet for the murder, but neither do they honor Polonius by trying to figure out why he was killed. In Act III, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have the opportunity to save Hamlet from death: they could destroy the letter ordering his execution. That they fail to destroy the letter is largely due to their inability to understand the world, not with any malicious intent on their part. The other events of the final act make Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem pathetic, which might elicit readers’ sympathies. After all, at the end, Rosencrantz practically begs to be spared. When he receives no answer from offstage, he gives up and walks off. Guildenstern too mourns the fact that he does not understand why they, two ordinary men who did not hurt anyone, have been fated to die. As the men become more sympathetic, they more fully inhabit their “everyman” roles. In other words, as readers begin to recognize elements of themselves in the men’s plight, and as they see the connections between the play and real life, sympathy for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern begins to grow.
Stoppard forces readers to interpret or visualize the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He does not portray the men being killed, so readers must first decide for themselves whether the men are really dead and then imagine what those deaths looked like. As the Player explains, people only believe in deaths they witness on the stage. Having not witnessed the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, according to the Player’s logic, people will not believe in the men’s deaths. At the same time, however, the very title of Stoppard’s play says that the men have died, which echoes the English ambassador’s assertion at the end of Act III. The men themselves seem to waiver between believing in their deaths as decreed by Hamlet’s letter and believing that they will not actually die. As each man leaves the stage, he implies that he will do better next time, as if he at least believes he will be given another chance to live. But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have spent the entire play misunderstanding their circumstances, so they might simply be misunderstanding their impending deaths as well. Nevertheless, the new letter states that the two men will be executed upon reaching England, a powerful argument that the men do, in fact, die at the end of the play. As the Player points out in Act II, when a character is written to die, that character must die without exception. Ultimately, though, readers must decide for themselves what happens offstage to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Unlike that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s fate is portrayed on stage. Those familiar with the play Hamlet know that he disappears from the ship and goes back to Elsinore. Although readers do not witness his travels or death, they do see his corpse in the final scene of Stoppard’s play. He dies, as do Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes. Shakespeare describes their deaths in Hamlet, and Stoppard expects the readers of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to recall the multiple-death bloodbath that ends Hamlet. The play’s final words belong to Horatio, a character from Hamlet, who sums up the story of the prince of Denmark and the events at Elsinore. Stoppard ends with Shakespeare’s words rather than with his own as a way of acknowledging the importance of the earlier work. But, in Hamlet, Horatio and another character have a dialogue that Stoppard does not include here. While Stoppard wants to acknowledge his debt to Shakespeare, he also wants to assert his creative power. In his play, he controls the characters, including when and how they speak and die. Stoppard lets Hamlet die on stage, but he keeps the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern away from his audience.
The entire play functions as a metaphor for the absurdity of life. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern constantly make ridiculous comments, and the men are wholly unable to understand their specific circumstances or the larger forces at work in the world. For example, they applaud as the Tragedians gather around them, mistaking the Tragedians’ evil intentions for a performance. As he leaves the stage, Guildenstern cannot remember if he is in fact Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. Earlier in the act, several men hide in one small barrel, a hiding spot that nobody questions or wonders about. Although these instances are meant to be funny, they also demonstrate the dark forces at work. In the play, as in life, things often happen for no real reason. People struggle to develop identities, to imbue their lives with meaning, and to do something significant, but, in the end, everybody dies. We want a world in which the good are rewarded and the bad punished, but that world simply does not exist. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead points to horrific truths: the world is chaotic, life is random, and the possibility of achieving success is slight.