Audiences know what to expect, and that is all they are prepared to believe in.
The Player makes this claim at the conclusion of the mimed rehearsal in Act II. Guildenstern angrily says that the Tragedians’ silent performance of the death scenes is unbelievable and out of keeping with the true nature of death, but the Player’s response suggests a different view about our relationship to both the theater and to our own lives. On the theatrical level, the Player’s remark suggests that when we applaud some aspect of a play as realistic, what we are actually saying is that it conforms to our expectations of the way the play should go. In this scene in particular, the Player’s point is that audiences expect certain characters to die and expect death to look a certain way onstage, and audiences will only believe that deaths have been realistically represented if they happen the way audiences anticipate. Our desire to see the plots of literary works unfold in specific ways determines whether we will believe those pieces of literature to be realistic.
The Player’s statement is also a powerful claim about the way we view the world in general, which is itself a larger and more dangerous version of the theater. Stoppard expects his audience to be familiar with an idea from another work by Shakespeare: As You Like It, in which a character notes, “All the world’s a stage.” Seen in this light, the Player’s remark points to our role as spectators of the dramas of life, not just the dramas of the theater. We have beliefs and expectations about the world around us, the Player says, and when we are confronted with something that does not conform to those beliefs, we question or even reject it. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern go through this experience most strikingly in Act III, when they both refuse to believe that they are actually on their way to see the king of England, since they are unable to form any expectations about what that would be like. Similarly, they cannot believe in their own mortality even at the moment of their impending deaths since dying is so far out of range of their expectations. The things we believe are true in life, in other words, are simply the things we expect to be true.