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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Tom Stoppard

Plot Overview

Context

Character List

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wander through a featureless wilderness, flipping coins, which keep coming up heads. Each time a coin lands on heads, Rosencrantz wins it. While Guildenstern worries about the improbability of a coin landing on heads so many times in a row, Rosencrantz happily continues flipping. Guildenstern wonders if they have entered a world where the laws of chance and time are absent. The pair struggles to recall why they are traveling and remember only that a messenger called them.

They encounter a troupe of actors, known as the Tragedians. The leader of the group, called the Player, indicates that the Tragedians specialize in sexual performances and gives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the chance to participate for a fee. Guildenstern turns the improbable coin-flipping episode to their advantage by offering the Player a bet. The Player loses but claims he cannot pay. Guildenstern asks for a play instead. Guildenstern starts to leave as the Tragedians prepare, and Rosencrantz reveals that the most recently flipped coin landed tails-up.

The scene changes suddenly. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are now inside Elsinore, the royal castle of Denmark, watching as Hamlet and Ophelia burst onstage and leave in opposite directions. Mistaking Rosencrantz for Guildenstern, Claudius explains that he sent for the pair so that they could ascertain what is bothering Hamlet, their childhood friend.

Bewildered, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discuss how they might probe Hamlet for the cause of his supposed madness. They play a game of question-and-answer, further confusing themselves about their purpose and even their identities. Guildenstern suggests that he pretend to be Hamlet while Rosencrantz questions him. They realize that Hamlet’s disturbed state is due to the fact that his father, the former king of Denmark, has recently died, and the throne has been usurped by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, who also has married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern overhear Hamlet speaking riddles to Polonius.

Hamlet confuses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with an enigmatic speech. Polonius comes in to tell Hamlet that the Tragedians have arrived. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern despair about how little they learned of Hamlet’s feelings. They cannot decide whether he is insane.

Polonius, Hamlet, and the Tragedians enter, and Hamlet announces that there will be a play the next day. Hamlet leaves, and Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the Player discuss the possible causes of Hamlet’s strange behavior. The Player departs while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discuss what happens after death.

As Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia enter, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern explain that Hamlet wants them all to attend the play. The group leaves, but Hamlet enters. Not noticing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet wonders whether he should commit suicide. Ophelia enters, praying. After a short conversation, she and Hamlet exit.

Alfred, one of the Tragedians, arrives dressed as Gertrude. The other Tragedians enter to rehearse their play, which parallels Claudius’s rise to power and marriage to Gertrude. Ophelia enters, crying, followed by an angry Hamlet, who tells her to become a nun, then quickly departs. Claudius and Polonius enter and leave with Ophelia. The Player explains the tragic aspects of the Tragedians’ play, which metaphorically retells the recent events at Elsinore and foreshadows the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They discuss whether death can be adequately represented on stage. The scene goes black.

In darkness, voices indicate that the play has disturbed Claudius. The next day, Claudius and Gertrude ask Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find Hamlet, who has killed Polonius. Alone again, the pair concocts a plan to trap Hamlet with their belts, but they fail as Hamlet enters from an unexpected direction and immediately leaves, carrying the dead Polonius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern call Hamlet back, but he refuses to say what he has done with Polonius’s body. Hamlet accuses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of being Claudius’s tools. Hamlet escapes as Claudius enters, only to be brought back onstage under guard. The scene shifts outdoors, where Guildenstern tells Rosencrantz that they have to escort Hamlet to England. Hamlet arrives in conversation with a soldier. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reluctantly depart.

On the boat to England, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wonder where they are and whether they might be dead. They notice Hamlet sleeping nearby, remember their mission, and consider what to do when they arrive. Guildenstern has a letter from Claudius, which reveals that Hamlet is to be executed in England. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot decide what to do.

As the pair sleeps, Hamlet switches the letter they were carrying with one he has written. The next morning, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern awake and hear music coming from barrels onboard the ship. To their surprise, the Tragedians emerge from the barrels just before pirates charge the ship. Hamlet, the Player, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern jump into the barrels, and the lights go down.

When the lights come back up, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the Player come out of the barrels. Hamlet is gone. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell the Player about the letter and rehearse what they will say to the English king. Guildenstern discovers that the letter now states that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are to be executed. The Tragedians encircle the pair. Despairing about his fate, Guildenstern takes a knife from the Player and stabs him. The Player cries out and falls, apparently dead. The Tragedians clap as the Player jumps up. He says that his death was a mediocre performance while showing Guildenstern that the knife was actually a stage prop.

The Player describes the different deaths that his troupe can perform while the Tragedians act out those deaths onstage. Rosencrantz applauds, and the light shifts, leaving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern alone. Rosencrantz breaks down and leaves as he realizes his death is near. Guildenstern wonders how they were caught in this situation, lamenting that they failed to seize an opportunity to avert their fate. Guildenstern exits.

The light changes, revealing the dead bodies of Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, and Laertes. Horatio arrives and delivers the final speech of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as the music rises and lights fall.

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