Skip over navigation

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Tom Stoppard

Act III: Morning until the End of the Play

Act III: Beginning of the Act until the Letter Switch

Act III: Morning until the End of the Play, page 2

page 1 of 2


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.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us