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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wander through a featureless
wilderness, flipping coins, which keep coming up heads. Each time
a coin lands on heads, Rosencrantz wins it. While Guildenstern worries about
the improbability of a coin landing on heads so many times in a
row, Rosencrantz happily continues flipping. Guildenstern wonders
if they have entered a world where the laws of chance and time are
absent. The pair struggles to recall why they are traveling and remember
only that a messenger called them.
They encounter a troupe of actors, known as the Tragedians.
The leader of the group, called the Player, indicates that the Tragedians specialize
in sexual performances and gives Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the
chance to participate for a fee. Guildenstern turns the improbable
coin-flipping episode to their advantage by offering the Player
a bet. The Player loses but claims he cannot pay. Guildenstern asks
for a play instead. Guildenstern starts to leave as the Tragedians
prepare, and Rosencrantz reveals that the most recently flipped coin
The scene changes suddenly. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
are now inside Elsinore, the royal castle of Denmark, watching as
Hamlet and Ophelia burst onstage and leave in opposite directions.
Mistaking Rosencrantz for Guildenstern, Claudius explains that he
sent for the pair so that they could ascertain what is bothering
Hamlet, their childhood friend.
Bewildered, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discuss how they might
probe Hamlet for the cause of his supposed madness. They play a
game of question-and-answer, further confusing themselves about
their purpose and even their identities. Guildenstern suggests that
he pretend to be Hamlet while Rosencrantz questions him. They realize
that Hamlet’s disturbed state is due to the fact that his father,
the former king of Denmark, has recently died, and the throne has
been usurped by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, who also has married Hamlet’s
mother, Gertrude. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern overhear Hamlet speaking
riddles to Polonius.
Hamlet confuses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with an enigmatic
speech. Polonius comes in to tell Hamlet that the Tragedians have
arrived. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern despair about how little they
learned of Hamlet’s feelings. They cannot decide whether he is insane.
Polonius, Hamlet, and the Tragedians enter, and Hamlet announces
that there will be a play the next day. Hamlet leaves, and Rosencrantz,
Guildenstern, and the Player discuss the possible causes of Hamlet’s
strange behavior. The Player departs while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
discuss what happens after death.
As Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia enter, Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern explain that Hamlet wants them all to attend the
play. The group leaves, but Hamlet enters. Not noticing Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern, Hamlet wonders whether he should commit suicide.
Ophelia enters, praying. After a short conversation, she and Hamlet
Alfred, one of the Tragedians, arrives dressed as Gertrude.
The other Tragedians enter to rehearse their play, which parallels
Claudius’s rise to power and marriage to Gertrude. Ophelia enters,
crying, followed by an angry Hamlet, who tells her to become a nun, then
quickly departs. Claudius and Polonius enter and leave with Ophelia.
The Player explains the tragic aspects of the Tragedians’ play,
which metaphorically retells the recent events at Elsinore and foreshadows
the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They discuss whether
death can be adequately represented on stage. The scene goes black.
In darkness, voices indicate that the play has disturbed
Claudius. The next day, Claudius and Gertrude ask Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern to find Hamlet, who has killed Polonius. Alone again,
the pair concocts a plan to trap Hamlet with their belts, but they
fail as Hamlet enters from an unexpected direction and immediately
leaves, carrying the dead Polonius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
call Hamlet back, but he refuses to say what he has done with Polonius’s
body. Hamlet accuses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of being Claudius’s tools.
Hamlet escapes as Claudius enters, only to be brought back onstage
under guard. The scene shifts outdoors, where Guildenstern tells
Rosencrantz that they have to escort Hamlet to England. Hamlet arrives
in conversation with a soldier. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reluctantly
On the boat to England, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wonder where
they are and whether they might be dead. They notice Hamlet sleeping
nearby, remember their mission, and consider what to do when they
arrive. Guildenstern has a letter from Claudius, which reveals that
Hamlet is to be executed in England. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
cannot decide what to do.
As the pair sleeps, Hamlet switches the letter they were
carrying with one he has written. The next morning, Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern awake and hear music coming from barrels onboard
the ship. To their surprise, the Tragedians emerge from the barrels
just before pirates charge the ship. Hamlet, the Player, Rosencrantz,
and Guildenstern jump into the barrels, and the lights go down.
When the lights come back up, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern,
and the Player come out of the barrels. Hamlet is gone. Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern tell the Player about the letter and rehearse what
they will say to the English king. Guildenstern discovers that the
letter now states that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are to be executed. The
Tragedians encircle the pair. Despairing about his fate, Guildenstern
takes a knife from the Player and stabs him. The Player cries out
and falls, apparently dead. The Tragedians clap as the Player jumps
up. He says that his death was a mediocre performance while showing
Guildenstern that the knife was actually a stage prop.
The Player describes the different deaths that his troupe
can perform while the Tragedians act out those deaths onstage. Rosencrantz
applauds, and the light shifts, leaving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
alone. Rosencrantz breaks down and leaves as he realizes his death
is near. Guildenstern wonders how they were caught in this situation,
lamenting that they failed to seize an opportunity to avert their
fate. Guildenstern exits.
The light changes, revealing the dead bodies of Claudius,
Gertrude, Hamlet, and Laertes. Horatio arrives and delivers the
final speech of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as the music
rises and lights fall.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead!