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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Summary

by Tom Stoppard

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Summary

The play opens as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are spinning coins in an indistinct landscape. As the coin is called "heads" or "tails," the winner places the coin in his sack. The coin has landed on heads over seventy-six times in a row, and Rosencrantz has won every time. Guildenstern, the more philosophical and probing of the two, is not angry at his loss, but is rather trying to hide his discomfort at the improbability of the situation. Rosencrantz is not unsettled by the events, and simply believes he has set a new record. Guildenstern proceeds to muse upon possible explanations for why the laws of probability seem to have been suspended in this coin toss game. He lists several explanations ranging from divine intervention to the possibility that a single moment has been replayed over and over again. Unable to settle upon any substantive justification for the event, Guildenstern tries to recall his first memory, but neither Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern have memories of their past. They can barely remember what happened earlier that morning. After asking each other questions, together they remember a messenger who sent for them early in the morning to attend to an urgent matter.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hear a band playing in the distance. It is a troupe of six tragedians led by a spokesperson called the Player. The Player, who initially interacts primarily with Rosencrantz, is trying to sell them a performance. In the Player's description of the works available for purchase, he insinuates that a romance filled with "faithless wives" and "ravished virgins" will cost more money. Rosencrantz does not grasp the fact that that the Player is selling pornography. Despite this, Rosencrantz and the Player begin bartering over the price until Rosencrantz goes so low that the Player becomes disgusted and packs up as if to leave. Guildenstern steps in, and quickly picks up on what the Player is actually offering. He is deeply offended at the obscenity of the play, but is clever enough to entice the Player and his troupe to gamble. As before, the coin continuously lands on heads, and the troupe loses several times in a row. Since they have no money left, the troupe agrees to perform a show in order to pay their debt.

The scene changes. Now Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in the royal court, where they witness the disheveled Hamlet embracing Ophelia. Claudius and Gertrude warmly greet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but confuse their names. The King and Queen, it seems, sent for the two because they are childhood friends of Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern learn that since his father's death Hamlet has been "transformed." The King and Queen hope that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will not only bring Hamlet some solace, but will also be able to find out what is truly bothering him. After discussing how the unexpected meeting between the King and Queen was embarrassing and made them feel like fools, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern begin to plan how they will glean information from Hamlet. They discuss their interview technique and practice with a game of Questions. The object is to carry on a conversation composed entirely of questions and never make a statement. Having grown weary of the game, they turn to another technique. Guildenstern decides that he will pretend to be Hamlet, and Rosencrantz will question him. After much confusion on the Rosencrantz's part, they are finally able to discern the entire plot of Hamlet through the mock interview. Act One ends when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern finally meet with Hamlet, who, like everyone else in the play, greets them warmly but mixes up their names.

The next act picks up at the tail end of Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's interrogation. Hamlet is speaking in indecipherable metaphors. Polonius enters and tells Hamlet that the actors have arrived. They both exit, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are left to critique the success of their interview. Guildenstern initially says he thought the interview was productive, but Rosencrantz quickly rebuffs him, stating the daunting "scores" of the Question game. Hamlet, it appears, is very effective at evading questions. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, however - despite their preparation - seem to give direct answers to all of Hamlet's inquiries. Yet the one small consolation they do have is that they were able to observe his symptoms. The Player enters, and immediately expresses his anger at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for not having stayed to watch them perform. He and the troupe are embarrassed to have performed without an audience. After an extended diatribe about performing when no one is watching, the Player informs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that his troupe will be performing The Murder of Gonzago for the royal court. Guildenstern then seeks the Player's advice on how to operate in this strange place. The Player advises Guildenstern to act naturally, and then helps them glean more information about Hamlet. This information causes them to question whether Hamlet is really mad, and whether he is really in love with Ophelia. The Player leaves to practice his lines, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern contemplate the nature of death before the royal court enters.

Gertrude inquires about how their meeting with Hamlet went. Feeling a bit self-conscious, Rosencrantz embellishes the meeting's success. After the royal party leaves, Rosencrantz becomes frustrated at the constant interruptions, entrances, and exits. Instead of waiting for Hamlet to speak to them, Rosencrantz tries to initiate a conversation with Hamlet, but falters at the last moment. Having gained more courage, he attempts to surprise the Queen from behind, but it turns out to be one of the actors, Alfred, dressed in women's clothing. The troupe enters and begins to practice the dumb-show that will be performed before I{The Murder of Gonzago. The practice is interrupted when Hamlet makes Ophelia cry. Finally, however, Ophelia calms herself, and the rehearsal continues.

The plot of the dumb-show mirrors the plot of Hamlet: In the dumb-show, a king has been poisoned by his brother. The brother then marries the queen and becomes king. The murdered king's son, Lucianus, is in anguish over the incestuous union. In a rage, Lucianus murders Polonius, and his uncle, the King, sends him to England to be executed. When Lucianus arrives, he switches places with his two spies, and they are executed in his place. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not comprehend the similarities in the plots. Furthermore, they do not recognize the two spies as themselves. Claudius interrupts the rehearsal to announce that Hamlet has slain Polonius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are instructed to find Hamlet and retrieve Polonius' slain body. Their indecision over whether to search for Hamlet or to wait for him allows Hamlet to easily elude them, although he himself into Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's hands moments before they must present him to Claudius. They, along with a soldier, escort him to England.

The third act opens on a boat. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in the dark, and spend a few moments trying to orient themselves. They recall the reason they are there: to bring Hamlet to the King of England and deliver a letter. After entertaining themselves with games, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern read the letter they are to deliver, and discover that it orders Hamlet's death. While sleeping, Hamlet swaps the letters and inserts Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's names for his own. The boat is attacked by pirates; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hide in barrels and discover that the Player and his troupe are also on board the ship. They all wonder whether or not Hamlet has survived the attack. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are content in not knowing what has happened to him. Guildenstern is worried about what they will tell the King of England. He rereads the letter and discovers that the names have been switched. The Player attempts to instruct Guildenstern about death, but he becomes so angry at the Player's presumption that he is ignorant that he stabs him. The Player dies, only to get up again and reveal that he is acting. After going through a range of emotions - fatigue, frustration, and apathy - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern resign themselves to death and simply disappear. An ambassador from England announces Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's deaths, and comments on the tragic end of the play.

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