The scene opens in darkness, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to determine where they are. They guess that they might be dead, but Guildenstern quickly clears up that fear by pinching Rosencrantz. After hearing several commands, they figure out that they are on a boat. They next try to discern whether it is night or day, and come to the conclusion that it is day. Guildenstern then begins to ramble about how he likes boats and feels safe on them. He has a moment of clarity: they are "bearing a letter from one king to another, are taking Hamlet to England." At this point, they make sure they can locate Hamlet, who is sleeping. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern then begin to play a game where one guesses what hand the coin is in. The sight of the money sparks an argument about how much each got paid to escort Hamlet. They conclude that they are being paid the same because the King cannot distinguish between the two. Rosencrantz then begins to frantically search for the letter the King gave him when Guildenstern calmly reveals that it was given to him. They read the letter and discover that it orders Hamlet's death. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are speaking, Hamlet blows out the light. As they sleep, Hamlet swaps the letters. Morning arrives, and Rosencrantz tries to discern the direction they are going in based on the position of the sun. They both hear music and try to discern where it is coming from. They discover that it is the Player's troupe, which is hiding in barrels because their play offended the King. Hamlet appears, spits into the audience, and then wipes his eyes. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to discern from his actions whether or not he is mad. In the midst of their conversation, a group of pirates attack. Hamlet, the Player, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern all jump into different barrels to hide. The lights go out, and when they come back on Hamlet's barrel has swapped positions with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's. Hamlet, it seems, is missing. This event sparks a discussion with the Player about whether or not Hamlet is dead. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are satisfied with not knowing what truly happened to Hamlet. They are resigned to the fact that he is dead to them, and cannot gain their release without him. Rosencrantz tries to comfort his friend by saying that they only need to arrive in England and make their report, and they will be released, but Guildenstern does not believe any of it. Guildenstern reads the letter and discover that their names have been substituted for Hamlet's. Guildenstern is angry at their predicament because they have been told so little. The Player asserts that they know enough, and seems content with their imminent deaths because for actors, most things end in death. Guildenstern becomes enraged that this actor is presumptuous enough to instruct him about life, and stabs the Player with his own dagger. The Player dies only to get up again and reveal that he was acting. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, tired and frustrated, resign themselves to the idea of their death.
The end of the play is no surprise: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die. The head on the coin foreshadows this; the Player insinuates this; and the title directly states this. However, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not know it for themselves until the very end of the play. Guildenstern has the following angry exchange with the Player just before he stabs him:
GUIL: But why? Was it all for this? Who are we that so much should converge on our little deaths?(In anguish to the PLAYER) Who are we?
PLAYER: You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That's enough.
GUIL: No-it is not enough. To be told so little-to such an end- and still, finally, to be denied an explanation...
At this moment, the audience sympathizes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's predicament. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been treated as nothing more than objects or plot devices: useful in achieving the goals of the play, but given no distinct identity. Having been denied the dignity of meaning, Guildenstern lifts his voice in protest, but his objections fall on deaf ears. The Player answers his plea with an almost cruel brevity, and ultimately their fates are unchanged.
Death is an important subject that is discussed throughout the play. In the first act, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern debate whether the beard and fingernails continue to grow after death. In the second act, Rosencrantz ponders the idea of death being like "lying in a box." In that same act, the Player brings a new depth to the discussion when he asserts that the only convincing death is one on stage because "[a]udiences know what to expect, and that is all they are prepared to believe in." In the final act, Guildenstern protests the Player's assertion that true death can be conveyed on stage:
No...no...not for us, not like that. Dying is not romantic, and death is not a game which will soon be over...Death is not anything...Death is not...It's the absence of presence, nothing more...the endless time of never coming back...a gap you can't see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound.
Ultimately, it is Guildenstern's interpretation of death as the "absence of presence" that governs their own deaths. Rosencrantz resigns himself to the inevitable, saying, "I don't care. I've had enough," and disappears from view, quickly followed by Guildenstern.
Although death is discussed throughout the play, the audience never is privy to the true weight of death. They think about it, talk about it, and even act it out, but overwhelmingly when characters die, the end is not experienced as one might expect in the theater. Stoppard creates this effect purposefully and strategically. Although Stoppard masterfully uses Elizabethan wit and vaudeville comedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is ultimately an intellectual play that "thinks". The plot of the play is given away in many different ways. The title automatically takes away the suspense of whether or not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern live or die. Knowledge of Hamlet's plot takes away the anticipation of finding out what happens next. And if one is a bit rusty on their Shakespeare, no problem: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern summarize the plot after a mock interview with Hamlet in the first act. Critic Normand Berlin describes Stoppard's approach as "theater of criticism": "Stoppard forces us to be conscious observers of a play frozen before us so that it may be examined critically." As the play progresses, the actual events of the plot become secondary to the activities that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern engage in while they attempt to pass the time. Thoughts and ideas take a prominent place on the stage. Therefore, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's deaths are tragic not as events per se, but rather because of the manner in which they represent the human condition.
The possible meaning of the title Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead has been discussed by critic J. Dennis Huston in his article "Misreading Hamlet." He notes first that the title is a quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet. In Shakespeare, the announcement comes across as an unfortunate mishap that is overshadowed by many other, more tragic, deaths. However, when repeated in Stoppard's play the little line picks up gravity, bringing significance to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's deaths even if only by the fact that it recognizes the absurdity of them. Huston also notes the ambiguity of the title. When the quote becomes a title, the tense becomes ambiguous. Read one way, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could be thought of as characters who have no lives of their own in Shakespeare, but who are given a full existence by Stoppard. Examined from a different perspective, the title could imply that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are doomed from the start, destined to meet their fate whether or not they deserve it.