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In the darkness, shouts are heard, indicating that Claudius
has responded angrily to the Tragedians’ production. The lines shouted are
from Hamlet. The lights slowly come back on. It
is dawn, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are lying on the floor
in the same position and costumes as the dead spies were moments
ago. The pair tries to figure out which way is east, and Guildenstern
predicts that people are about to begin streaming into the room
and confusing them. Immediately thereafter, Claudius calls from
offstage and then enters, telling the men that Hamlet has killed
Polonius. Claudius asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find Hamlet
and Polonius’s body. They struggle to decide what to do, afraid
to leave each other and unsure of where to go.
Rosencrantz spots Hamlet in the wings. Guildenstern decides they
should trap Hamlet, and the two men tie their belts together and
hold them across one side of the stage. Rosencrantz’s pants fall as
he removes his belt.
Hamlet enters on the other side of the stage, dragging
Polonius’s body, and quickly exits when he sees Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern. They call Hamlet back in, and he returns alone, refusing
to tell them what he has done with Polonius’s body. Hamlet accuses
them of being Claudius’s pawns. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern walk
with Hamlet to one side of the stage, where they see Claudius about
to enter. Following Hamlet’s lead, they bow their respects, only
to have Hamlet sneak away from them as they do. Hamlet has tricked
them into bowing in the opposite direction of Claudius, who enters behind
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Claudius urges them to bring in Hamlet,
but, before they have to act, Hamlet arrives escorted by guards.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discuss their situation and
the fact that they now have to escort Hamlet to England. Rosencrantz
overhears Hamlet in conversation with a soldier and wonders when
they will be able to stop waiting around. Hamlet and the soldier
enter. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discuss the changing of the
seasons, noting that warmth and light seem to be draining away.
In the distance, they hear the music of the Tragedians. Hamlet asks
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to go ahead of him, and Guildenstern wonders
if they should go. Rosencrantz tells him that they may as well continue
since they have already come so far, saying that anything may still
happen. The stage goes black.
The action in this section of the play emphasizes the
Player’s earlier comment about death within plays: characters who
are written to die must die. Readers familiar with the play Hamlet know
that Hamlet kills Polonius, because Shakespeare, the author of the
play, wrote the plot that way. As a character, Hamlet may or may
not have killed Polonius as a result of his madness. But, ultimately,
his motivations do not matter in Stoppard’s work. Hamlet must kill Polonius,
because that is what Shakespeare’s stage direction says he must
do. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the
characters do not speculate about what may have prompted Hamlet
to kill Polonius. Instead, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern merely accept
that he has done so and proceed from there. Stoppard kills off the
character of Polonius because Shakespeare wrote it as such, and
Stoppard’s work largely mirrors the plot of Shakespeare’s work.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get excited about the murder
of Polonius because it gives them a chance to actually attempt to
do something. Guildenstern does not contemplate the reasons for
the murder or try to use logic, perhaps because he has taken the
Player’s earlier call to action to heart. First, Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern literally march around the stage. Then, they decide
to set a trap for Hamlet using their belts. But their plan leads
only to slapstick: Hamlet enters with the body, then exits quickly.
Rosencrantz loses his pants. Then, tricked by Hamlet, Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern bow to emptiness when Claudius enters from another
side of the stage. By the end of the act, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
cannot do anything, for Hamlet has been captured by guards. As usual,
their misunderstanding of the situation causes them to miss their opportunity
to make a choice that might cause an impact or affect some kind
Sometimes Guildenstern comes close to realizing that he
is not a real person but is actually only a character in two plays,
yet another instance of Stoppard’s use of self-referentiality. Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern have minor roles in Hamlet and
major roles in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
Earlier in Act II, Guildenstern expressed his desire for art to
imitate life. When the lights come up, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
are positioned exactly as the spies were positioned during the rehearsal
for The Murder of Gonzago, the play within a play.
But, as when Rosencrantz vaguely recognized the spies, here Guildenstern
laments the fact that now that the men are awake, people will soon
begin entering, asking them to do things and making the men feel
very confused, all of which has been happening throughout the entire
play. Guildenstern even notes that the characters tend to confuse
Rosencrantz with Guildenstern and vice versa. He has unknowingly
described the plot of Stoppard’s work, a fact that Stoppard emphasizes
by having Claudius enter as soon as Guildenstern has made that self-referential
comment. Guildenstern’s comments are meant to be funny but should
also remind readers of Stoppard’s literary project: he wanted to
see what would happen if he removed two characters from Hamlet and
gave them their own play.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead!