The scene opens with the tail end of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Hamlet's conversation. The audience picks up on the conclusion of the conversation that is found in Act II scene ii of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Hamlet is speaking in an indecipherable language, saying, "I am but mad north north-west; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw," when Polonius enters. Polonius is trying to inform Hamlet that the Player's troupe has arrived, but Hamlet initially evades Polonius by engaging in senseless talk with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
After Hamlet and Polonius have left, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are able to reflect on the success of their lengthy conversation with Hamlet. Unfortunately, even after rehearsing with the game of questions, Hamlet gets the best of them by evading most of their inquiries. The score was 27-3: Hamlet asked 27 questions, and only answered three of theirs. For example, when Hamlet asks them, "Were you sent for?", they fail to evade the question, and instead answer it directly. Guildenstern tries to compensate for their defeat by noting that they were able to observe his symptoms. Guildenstern makes an impromptu verdict of "thwarted ambition - a sense of grievance, that's my diagnosis." Rosencrantz, however, swiftly deflates Guildenstern's half-hearted optimism. In return for the information they have given, they have only gleaned that Hamlet is depressed and does not like living in Denmark. Guildenstern begins to ponder Hamlet's final words before Polonius enters ("I am but mad north-west; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw"). Since the true meaning of the lines is completely incomprehensible to them, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern begin to argue about how to determine the direction of the wind by first determining the direction of the sun. Getting lost in the maze of detail, they arrive no closer to Hamlet's meaning at the end of their argument. Having concluded that it is pointless to try to initiate the next steps, Rosencrantz resorts to passing the time with the disappearing coin magic trick. In the middle of their game, the action resumes when Polonius, Hamlet, and the troupe enter the scene. Hamlet has secretly asked the actors to perform a version of The Murder of Gonzago that he himself has amended. The Player, having noticed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern standing to the side, confronts them about leaving the performance they gave while on the road. He is upset because performing without an audience is humiliating to him. The Player then gives a lengthy speech about the nature of actors, declaring that the one thing actors' identities are tied to is being watched. After inquiring some more, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discover that the Players will perform The Murder of Gonzago for Hamlet and are given a preview of the play's plot: the blood, love, and rhetoric of a King and Queen. The Player attempts to leave with words that foreshadow Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's deaths, saying, "I should concentrate on not losing your heads." However, Guildenstern entreats him to stay, confessing his unease about being in the court and the fact that he doesn't really know what's going on. The Player advises Guildenstern to not always question his predicament, but rather to relax and respond as the action takes place. Guildenstern then complains that he has no way of knowing if what he has been told about Hamlet is true or not. The Player reassures him that all anyone has to go on is assumptions, and then helps him figure out some more details about Hamlet. They conclude that Hamlet is actually sane, but is pretending to be mad. The Player makes a motion to exit, but Guildenstern refuses to allow him to leave unless he gives him a solid reason for his departure. The Player responds that he has lines to learn.
With no other entrances, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seek to entertain themselves, but discover that the coin they played with earlier is missing. With this discovery, the conversation turns to the subject of death. Rosencrantz does not grasp why people get depressed about the idea; he believes it is like lying asleep in a box. And if given a choice, he would rather lie in a box dead than alive. Guildenstern contributes little to the conversation as Rosencrantz continues talking about the banality of eternity and when one actually gains an "intuition of mortality."
The royal procession enters, including the King, the Queen, Polonius, and Ophelia. Gertrude engages Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a conversation, inquiring about how their conversation with Hamlet went. Rosencrantz embellishes the truth when retelling how open Hamlet was when talking to them. However, they do tell Gertrude the truth about the fact that Hamlet is looking forward to the play that is about to be performed. Polonius confirms their statement, and the King again urges them to encourage Hamlet to come to the performance. After the royal procession leaves, Rosencrantz declares his annoyance about having been inconvenienced by these entrances and exits. Rosencrantz then sees Hamlet upstage, and Guildenstern becomes preoccupied with how they will initiate conversation with Hamlet - or rather "insert" themselves into the scene. Rosencrantz moves toward Hamlet, but he falters at the last moment, saying, "We're overawed, that's our trouble. When it comes to the point we succumb to their personality." Ophelia enters in a religious procession. Hamlet greets her, and they exit. Rosencrantz regains his courage and decides to surprise the Queen by sneaking up behind her and placing his hands over her eyes, but the figure turns out to be Alfred, dressed in a robe and blonde wig.
The Player enters the scene and does not budge when he finds himself face to face with Rosencrantz. Rosencrantz excuses himself, and the Player lifts his foot. Rosencrantz puts his hand on the floor, and the Player steps on it. Rosencrantz is unsettled by the situation and tries to make an exit, but each of his attempts are blocked by an actor making an entrance. Rosencrantz finally gives up and retires. The troupe, led by the Player, begins their dress rehearsal. They first perform a dumb-show, in which a king is poisoned in his sleep by his brother. The queen finds her husband dead, and is consoled by the brother, and the brother and the queen marry. Ophelia interrupts the dumb-show with her crying. Hamlet calls off their marriage, and demands that she go to a nunnery. Claudius and Polonius comfort Hamlet. After seeing Hamlet, Claudius decides that Hamlet is not in love with Ophelia - or, for that matter, mad at all. Claudius decides to send Hamlet to England lest Hamlet's true feelings have grave consequences.
The Player confers with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern concerning the critique of the dumb-show. During that conversation, the Player once again alludes to the deaths of "marked characters." Guildenstern asks questions in order to glean the Player's meaning, but does not grasp it fully. The Player continues with the dumb-show. The next scene is a gratuitous love scene involving the queen and the new king. Rosencrantz objects to the scene because the content is inappropriate for a royal audience. The Player assures him it is what his audience wants to see: murder, seduction, and incest. The Player, while simultaneously acting and narrating, plays the part of Lucianus. Lucianus is the new king's nephew who, outraged by his mother's incestuous marriage, is driven to thoughts of suicide and the actual murder of Polonius. Lucianus finally confronts his mother in anguish. The king, ridden with guilt, decides to send Lucianus to England by way of two spies carrying a letter with them. Lucianus escapes the two spies and alters the letter. The letter now orders the deaths of the two spies instead of Lucianus.
Rosencrantz interrupts the dumb-show and approaches the two actors playing the spies, who are dressed identically to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are both perplexed, but do not grasp that they are the two spies. The Player again foreshadows their deaths saying, "A slaughter house - eight corpses all told." Instead of inquiring about the identities of the eight characters who die, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern choose to go on a tirade about how true death compares to dramatic death. Guildenstern does not believe that an actor can die so many times and be convincing, but the Player insists that the audience is conditioned to believe in death on stage. He gives an example of how one time he decided to hang an actor for real during a death scene, and discovered that the audience did not believe that this true death was real, instead believing that it was bad acting. Guildenstern objects to the Player's assertion that you can act out death, claiming that acting is man's failure to reappear. As Guildenstern says this, two cloaks are thrown over the two spies in the play, and the scene ends.
The lights fade, and when they are turned back on the two spies are still sprawled on the stage. Upon closer examination, however, the two figures are revealed to be those of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, resting. Claudius enters and informs them that they must find Hamlet and Polonius' body. Hamlet, in a rage, has slain Polonius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot agree as to whether they should search for him together, or split up. They spot Hamlet dragging Polonius' body and try to trap him, but Hamlet effortlessly evades them. Rosencrantz calls out to Hamlet, asking him where he has put the body, but Hamlet refuses to tell them and derides them for spying on him and assigning their loyalty to the King. Hamlet spots the King, and in order to avoid him bows, thus smoothly evading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the same time. Claudius inquires about the location of the body, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unable to give him an answer. Claudius then demands that they produce Hamlet, and the two stand awkwardly, unsure of what to do. Luckily, a messenger brings in Hamlet, saving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from the King's wrath. Rosencrantz is relieved, mistakenly believing that they are relieved of their duty and do not have to see Hamlet again. However, they discover that they must escort Hamlet to England. While Hamlet is conversing with a soldier, they discuss whether or not they truly want to go to England, and wonder whether this task will in reality free them from the whole ordeal.
Like the fools they have been created to be, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fumble about without direction, highlighting the absurd nature of their existence. When instructed to capture Hamlet, they lie in wait and devise a plan for his ambush, but Hamlet effortlessly evades them. Rosencrantz heroically muscles up the determination to "insert" himself into a scene with the Queen, but ends up hugging a young boy dressed in a blonde wig. One of the key elements of absurdity is illustrated in Albert Camus' interpretation of Sisyphus. Sisyphus labors to push a rock up a hill only for it to roll back down again; the cycle continues for eternity. In an absurd world, it seems, labor does not result in progress. Similarly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put a great deal of effort into practicing for their conversation with Hamlet, using the game of Questions and the mock interview. However, after all their effort, the interview is a failure. After the meeting with Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to decipher Hamlet's words: "I am but mad north north-west; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw." Shakespearian commentary will generally attempt to make a concrete interpretation of Hamlet's words, but the meaning often fails to match up. In general, when the wind is blowing to the south, the eye is away from the sun and sees the bird more clearly. However, this explanation does not make sense of the phrase "north north-west". Hamlet's language is indecipherable, and in an attempt to understand his terminology, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern end up bumbling around foolishly "trying to discern the direction of the wind." Guildenstern suggests to Rosencrantz, "Lick your toe and wave it around a bit." Rosencrantz "considers the distance of his foot" and responds, "No, I think you'd have to lick it for me." Their confusion provides humor for the audience. It is during these moments of laughter that Stoppard demonstrates the absurd nature of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's existence.
Having learned that acting is a means to survival in Elsinore, Guildenstern decides to act like Hamlet while Rosencrantz interviews him. The mock interview proves to be more successful than the real interview with Hamlet. The audience only catches the tail end of the real interview, but can predict Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's failure by Hamlet's convoluted metaphors. By the end, Guildenstern can definitively say that the only real benefit that came from their time with Hamlet was that they were able to observe his behavior. However, the mock interview does enable them to discover the motivational premise behind Hamlet's "transformation": his uncle has murdered his father, is sleeping with his mother, and has stolen his throne. While the game of Questions passes time, the game's language obscures rather than clarifies, and evades rather than directs. However, in the mock interview the language of acting seems to be one of the few activities that yields fruit.
Acting is a compelling mode of communication. The troupe performs a dumb-show before The Murder of Gonzago. When asked why, the Player explains, "Well, it's a device, really - it makes the action that follows more or less comprehensible; you understand, we are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style." As demonstrated by Hamlet's "north north-west" metaphor, language can often be complex and incomprehensible. Through his words, the Player suggests that the motion of acting offers a visual clarity unachievable by language alone. The action of acting offers a bridge from the abstract imagination to the here and now. The dumb-show precisely mirrors the plot of Hamlet. The two spies in the dumb-show represent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, placing the two men in the ironic position of watching their fate acted out before them. However, they are unable to recognize themselves. The Player attempts to draw the connection between the dumb-show and their life in the following dialogue:
PLAYER: Do you call that an ending? - with practically everyone on his feet? My goodness no - over your dead body.
GUIL: How am I supposed to take that?
PLAYER: Lying down. (He laughs briefly and in a second has never laughed in his life.
The Player goes beyond alluding to their deaths, and directly addresses Guildenstern. Guildenstern feels the jolt of "over your dead body"; he understands that something is amiss, but is never able to achieve full comprehension of the Player's meaning. Near the end of the dumb-show, Rosencrantz stands before his double and looks him in the eye, but is unable to recognize him. He recognizes the coats (the exact same ones he and Guildenstern are wearing), yet he says to the spy, "I know you don't I? I never forget a face - (he looks into the SPY's face)...not that I know yours, that is. For a moment I thought - no, I don't know you do I?."
Both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unable to see their fate mirrored in the play; they never understand that they are looking at themselves. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been deprived of an essential source of survival: knowledge of self. Because they are unable to recognize themselves, they are unable to alter their fate.