Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

by: Tom Stoppard

Act I: Entrance of Tragedians to First Change of Lights

Summary Act I: Entrance of Tragedians to First Change of Lights

The Player seems much smarter than both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he even appears to be aware of himself as a character within a play. He refers to the two men as “fellow artists,” even though Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are neither actors nor prostitutes. This label implies that the Player somehow realizes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are actually two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which Stoppard has borrowed and transformed into the heroes of his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. This knowledge gives the Player a powerful aura of mystery and omnipotence. Later in the scene, the Player mentions that he never steps out of character: he is always on stage, and he is always acting. These references to plays, acting, and performance let Stoppard comment on his play as a play, a literary technique known as self-reference, or metafiction. Rather than letting readers or viewers lose themselves in a fantastical entertainment, Stoppard forces them to constantly be aware of his play as a literary work being read or performed. His play refers to itself as a play. As a result, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead requires a high level of intellectual engagement on the part of its readers or viewers.

Through the character of the Player, Stoppard wryly comments on plays as a unique form of entertainment. When Guildenstern asks for a play as payment for the lost bet, the Player cannot name a play that his troupe knows how to perform. Instead, the Player claims that the Tragedians belong to the “blood, love and rhetoric school,” implying that the actors know how to perform violence and romance, as well as how to communicate. Although the Player seems to be earnestly and honestly assessing the actors’ range, he is also being somewhat ironic. All plays rely on rhetoric, because by their very nature plays consist of actors reciting lines. By speaking their lines, actors verbally communicate. In other words, all actors employ rhetoric. As the Player explains, however, for a few coins, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may watch a play, but, for just a few more coins, they may participate in sex play with the actors. The Tragedians are thus both actors and prostitutes, which adds yet another level of commentary. Prostitutes perform sexual acts for money, but actors also perform for money. Stoppard implies that the difference between prostitutes and actors might be as small as types of things performed—and the fee received for such performances.