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Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia enter. Claudius
confers privately with Rosencrantz first, then with Guildenstern.
The stage direction points readers to a specific scene in Hamlet.
Rosencrantz tells Gertrude that Hamlet greeted them warmly and says
that Hamlet wants everyone to watch the play. As the group leaves,
Hamlet enters, trying to decide whether to kill himself. Rosencrantz
hesitates, trying to decide whether he should approach Hamlet for
chat. Giving up, he returns to Guildenstern. Ophelia walks in, praying, and
Hamlet exits with her.
Alfred enters, dressed as Gertrude. Rosencrantz, frustrated
and confused, grabs Alfred, whom he believes to be Gertrude, from behind
and covers his eyes. The Player enters, explaining that Rosencrantz
holds Alfred, and Rosencrantz approaches. Somehow believing that
the Player’s foot is covering a coin, Rosencrantz reaches down to
the floor, only to have his hand stepped on by the Player. The rest
of the Tragedians enter, and they begin a mute rehearsal of The
Murder of Gonzago, which the Player narrates for the benefit
of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The Player explains that the dumb
show is necessary because language is an ineffective tool for communication.
As he speaks, the rehearsal depicts the king killing his brother
and then wooing the widowed queen.
Just as the queen in the dumb show accepts the king’s
murderous brother as her lover, Hamlet and Ophelia burst into the
room. Hamlet screams at a tearful Ophelia, declaring that there
will be no more marriages and urging Ophelia to become a nun. While
the Tragedians try to continue, Claudius and Polonius enter. Polonius
comforts Ophelia while Claudius proposes sending Hamlet to England.
Claudius, Polonius, and Ophelia depart, and the Tragedians resume
their rehearsal. As they do, the Player tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that
all art must unfold according to a logical trajectory that ensures that
the characters intended to die do in fact meet their ends. Guildenstern
wonders who gets to choose which characters die, and the Player
responds that no one does—characters who are written to die must
The rehearsal begins again, and while Rosencrantz objects
to the sordid nature of the play the Tragedians are performing,
Guildenstern says that he prefers art that accurately reflects life.
The rehearsal, narrated by the Player, resumes with the dead king’s
son, Lucianus, losing his grip on reality in the wake of his father’s
death and his mother’s unseemly remarriage. The stage direction
indicates that the scene being acted out by the Tragedians is a
mirror of Act III, scene iv, of Hamlet, in which
Hamlet kills Polonius. As the Player narrates, Gonzago’s
Lucianus mistakenly kills the king’s adviser, and the king decides
to send his nephew to England in the company of two spies. The spies
and Lucianus arrive in England by ship, only to discover that Lucianus
has vanished and that the letter that the king gave them to give
to the English king has been replaced with a letter ordering their
Rosencrantz stops the rehearsal. The two spies in the
play are dressed in the same clothes as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,
and Rosencrantz thinks he recognizes them but cannot quite place
them, ultimately deciding that the spies have mistaken him for someone else.
The Player tells Guildenstern that the play features eight deaths in
all, and Guildenstern grills the Player about presuming to represent
death on the stage. The Player responds by claiming that people only
believe in stage deaths, not real death, and says that audiences believe
only what they expect to see. As he makes this remark, the spies
slowly die, and Guildenstern says that death is not something that
can be acted. The Player throws covers over the bodies of the dead
spies, and the stage goes black.
Like Guildenstern, Rosencrantz spends most of the play
in a state of total bafflement, which he occasionally tries to overcome
through action. In Act I, while Guildenstern tries to figure out
why the coins kept coming up heads, Rosencrantz contents himself
with his increasing wealth and does not think too much about the
situation. In Act II, however, Rosencrantz becomes more and more
upset with their circumstances, and his anger clouds his judgment.
He cannot understand why people keep entering and exiting, and he
despairs over trying to help Hamlet, who walks by muttering the
“To be or not to be” soliloquy from the play Hamlet.
Rather than trusting his instincts and going to his troubled friend,
Rosencrantz merely equivocates back and forth, hashing out the pros
and cons of helping Hamlet. His anger and confusion prevent him
from doing anything meaningful or significant, and he misses an
easy opportunity to cheer up his friend. A few minutes later, after
Guildenstern tells him to be quiet, Rosencrantz attempts to actually
do something: he grabs a person whom he believes to be Gertrude
and tries to make a joke. He wants to ease the tension and inject
some levity into the situation with Hamlet. But, as it turns out,
he has grabbed Alfred, dressed to look like the queen. Rosencrantz
has waited too long to act, and now the moment has passed. Hamlet
has left the stage.
While Rosencrantz attempts to dispel his confusion through action,
Guildenstern tries to use reason to figure out what has happened.
But, as with Rosencrantz, Guildenstern remains utterly confused.
Guildenstern cannot understand the Player’s cryptic comments relating
to which characters live and which characters die. He resists the
idea that some things are fated to occur, even though neither he
nor Rosencrantz questions how they were magically transported from
the road into the interior of Elsinore in Act I. Whereas Guildenstern
wants to know the hows and whys, the Player affects an “it is what
it is” attitude. Likewise, the Player explains that language is
inherently ambiguous and only has real meaning when coupled with
action. Simply sitting around talking means very little and cannot
change anyone or anything. But Guildenstern protests, claiming that
he understands death intellectually and therefore has no need to
act it out. Guildenstern trusts in language to clarify and clear
up the confusing circumstances in which he and Rosencrantz find
themselves. However, the Player’s comment about the effect of language
and action chastises Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Neither acting
nor talking is enough. Through his commentary on the dumb show,
the Player urges the pair to stop talking, to stop equivocating,
and to start making choices, or acting, in the nontheatrical sense
of the word.
Art directly mirrors life when the spies enter dressed
as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Upon seeing the spies, Rosencrantz
stops the rehearsal, because he thinks he recognizes the actors.
He does not, however, give any sign that he recognizes the actors
precisely because they resemble Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He
merely notes that the coats look similar when he reaches out to
touch the clothing of the spy that looks like him. Rosencrantz confuses
the issue still further when he decides that the spies have misidentified him,
and not the other way around, a confused statement that demonstrates
his inability to differentiate between life and staged plays. Although
Rosencrantz wants art to have a story, complete with a beginning,
middle, and end, Guildenstern prefers art to resemble life as closely
as possible. That the spies bother Rosencrantz and not Guildenstern
demonstrates the great extent to which Guildenstern has gotten his
wish: the dumb show has become their life. The Murder of
Gonzago, the play that the Tragedians are practicing, depicts
the recent events at Elsinore, as Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and
the reader learn from the Player’s commentary. The Player reminds
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that life, like the kind of art that
Rosencrantz wants, has a beginning, middle, and end. He synthesizes
the pair’s two different definitions of art by telling Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern that The Murder of Gonzago ends
in eight deaths. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, as does
life, and, like life, which itself always ends in death, the play
too ends in death.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead!