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Sounds of the ocean and activity onboard a boat can be
heard. In darkness, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wonder where they
are, eventually realizing that they are on a ship at sea. Hamlet
lights a lantern in the background of the stage, revealing Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern sitting in the foreground. The light grows, and
three large barrels can be seen onstage, as well as an enormous
overturned umbrella, shading from view whatever is behind it. Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern discuss what to do, deciding on nothing, and Guildenstern
says that he enjoys being on boats because of the sensation that one
is simultaneously free and restricted.
Rosencrantz walks upstage and peers behind the umbrella.
He quietly returns to Guildenstern and tells him that Hamlet is
asleep. At a loss for what to do, Guildenstern grows frustrated,
and Rosencrantz attempts to console him. He asks Guildenstern to
guess which of his hands contains a coin. Guildenstern guesses correctly several
times in a row before realizing that Rosencrantz has been putting
coins in both hands in an effort to please him. They ask each other
how much money they received from Claudius, and Guildenstern gets
irritated as Rosencrantz simply repeats what he says. When Rosencrantz
winces under Guildenstern’s anger and begins to despair over their
fate, Guildenstern comforts him and tells him that everything will
turn out fine. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to decide what to
do when they meet with the English king, and they recall that Claudius
has given them a letter. Unable to remember who has the letter,
Guildenstern suddenly reveals that he has been carrying it. Rosencrantz
says that he does not believe in England and cannot fathom what
they are going to do there.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern act out what will happen
when they arrive and meet the English king. In the course of their
play-acting, Rosencrantz opens the letter and discovers that it
asks the English king to execute Hamlet. Somewhat dumbstruck, Rosencrantz
tries to suggest that they cannot carry through with their mission
as they are friends with Hamlet and he has done nothing to deserve
being put to death. Guildenstern, however, rationalizes away any
guilty hesitation on Rosencrantz’s part by suggesting that there
is more at work than they realize and that there might be good reasons
for Hamlet to die of which they are unaware. Guildenstern also refers
to the Greek philosopher Socrates, who pointed out that since we
do not know what happens at death, fearing death is irrational.
Guildenstern quickly sums up all of the action of the play and declares
that they have got a handle on things. As he finishes, Hamlet rises
and blows out the lantern, plunging the stage into darkness.
Beneath the light of the moon, Hamlet approaches the sleeping Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern. He takes the letter and retires behind the umbrella.
He returns and places a letter back in the original spot.
Hamlet acts as a foil, or opposite, to Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern. Unlike his friends, Hamlet does not seem confused
by the incomprehensibility of the world, nor does he have trouble
making choices or deciding how to act. In fact, Hamlet has a lot
of power within the play, as symbolized by his lantern. He lights
the scene, then plunges the scene into darkness. His ability to
control what viewers see signifies his immense power. He changes
and affects people’s lives in ways that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
cannot. For example, he kills Polonius, then disposes of the body.
When Hamlet speaks, he frequently confuses other characters with
riddles, another sign of his ability to have an effect on people.
In this section of Act III, Hamlet reads the letter ordering his
execution in England. But he reads it offstage and silently, masking
whatever emotion he might be feeling about his friends’ betrayal.
Unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet acts decisively. Regardless
of whether he is actually insane, Hamlet’s cool, rational behavior
stands in contrast to the dopey, bewildered demeanor exhibited by
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
When thoroughly confused by their circumstances, Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern usually resort to gambling, which soothes and comforts
them. Rather than figure out what they are doing on the boat or
where they are headed, their first instinct is to gamble, a familiar
pattern from Acts I and II. Rosencrantz tries to make Guildenstern
feel better about their situation by letting him win the coin each
time, an echo of the opening of Act I, when Rosencrantz won coin
after coin from Guildenstern. In times of stress, both characters embrace
gambling, which represents chance and limitless possibility. But,
even as they enjoy betting on games like coin flipping, they rail
against the randomness of reality. They hate the way people appear
and ask them to do things, but neither Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern
tries to do anything to exert control over his own life or fate.
Instead, they constantly surrender to passivity, preferring to simply
let things happen. They would rather gamble than make a choice or
commit to an action, gravitating toward the very thing—chance—that
most confuses them.
As everyman figures, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand
in for humanity as a whole. Their plight represents the individual’s
struggle to derive meaning and significance from a life that will
end in the complete nothingness of death, a philosophical idea known
as existentialism. But, unlike real people, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern lack
imaginative power and memory. For instance, Rosencrantz cannot imagine
England. He tells Guildenstern that he cannot picture himself leaving
the ship or speaking to the king. In short, Rosencrantz cannot imagine
the future. But neither he nor Guildenstern remembers who has the
letter for the English king. As in Act I, they decide to assume
roles and act in order to discover or remember something. They cannot
imagine a future, but neither can they recall the past. Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern exist solely in a never-ending present, a state
of mind that partly explains their constant confusion. They cannot
learn from their mistakes, nor can they conceive of acting in any
way other than what they have done before. When confused, they gamble
or role-play. Each moment exists separately from the one that came
before or the one that is to come, so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
are constantly being surprised by their situations.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead!