Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead | Act 1 | Summary

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Summary

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, described simply as "two Elizabethans," are passing the time betting on the toss of a coin. The setting is ambiguous and described as "a place without any visible character."

Their action follows a pattern: Guildenstern takes a coin out of his bag, spins it, and lets it fall. Rosencrantz studies it, and if it is heads, he puts it into his own bag. The first indication that something is amiss comes as the scene description tells the audience that Rosencrantz's bag of coins is overflowing, while Guildenstern's looks nearly empty.

The audience quickly learns that they have done this 76 times, and the coin has landed on heads every time. Rosencrantz seems unmoved by the absurdity of this string of heads and is more interested in setting the record for how many times he can flip heads in a row. Guildenstern, on the other hand, could not care less about the coins he is losing, but is worried about its "implications."

The action of flipping coins and collecting them forms the background for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's dialogue, which is a mix of random thoughts and non sequiturs coupled with musings about the laws of probability and what this string of heads "means." As Guildenstern says, "A weaker man might be moved to re-examine his faith, if in nothing else at least in the law of probability."

Guildenstern examines the confines of the stage and his "environment or lack of it," then goes back to flipping coins. Despite his sense that the "spell" is about to be broken, it continues.

Guildenstern expresses fear that this string of heads is a sign of some greater collapse of universal laws. In order to circumvent the possibility that his flipping is at fault, Guildenstern undertakes an elaborate flipping routine: he catches a coin in his right hand, turns it over onto his left wrist, lobs it into the air, catches it with his left hand, throws it under his leg and then catches it on top of his head. Rosencrantz looks at it and without saying anything, puts it in his bag.

As the scene continues, Guildenstern ponders the possible reasons for this oddity and concludes there are four possible explanations: he is willing it; time has stopped dead and their experience is simply the repetition of a single coin toss over and over again; divine intervention in which God is either saving or punishing him; or the laws of probability are absolute and each time he spins a coin it is "as likely to come down heads as tails and therefore should cause no surprise each individual time it does."

Where exactly they are, and why they are here, remains unclear until Rosencrantz recalls being woken up by a royal messenger who knew their names and summoned them with the words, "official business and no questions asked." Rosencrantz and Guildenstern complied, mounted their horses, and left "in breakneck pursuit of [their] duty" only to "outstrip" and lose their guides along the way. Where they are or why they were summoned remains a mystery. While the setting itself is not given extra description, their discussion suggests that they are on land, in the middle of nowhere, and lost. The audience might conclude that they are waiting for someone to help them find their way.

When drums are heard in the distance, neither knows if they are real or not. This prompts Guildenstern into a digression about unicorns and a discussion about reality and illusion. Moments later, a real band arrives.

The Tragedians are "six in number." They are described as pushing a cart of props, and members include a drummer, a horn-player, a flautist, a small boy named Alfred, and the spokesman, or leader, simply named the Player. Rosencrantz introduces himself as Guildenstern. When Guildenstern corrects him, he reintroduces himself as Rosencrantz "without embarrassment."

After a brief exchange about whether it is fate or chance that has brought them together, the Player reveals that they have no particular destination. Guildenstern offers to use his influence at court to get them a performance date.

The Tragedians, who are actors by trade, are happy to have discovered an audience and proceed to offer up their services. The Player explains that they specialize in all forms of tragedy, and he concludes by saying "we can do you rapiers or rape or both, by all means, faithless wives and ravished virgins—flagrante delicto at a price." He then insinuates that audience members may even "participate" in certain kinds of encounters for a price.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not especially interested, which causes the Player to continue to drop his price and—using innuendo—hint at increasingly lewd options. One option includes an offer of "a private and uncut performance of The Rape of the Sabine Women" in which Alfred plays the women, or a woman, rather. Rosencrantz is morally repulsed by the offers but also finds his curiosity piqued. His interest comes not from a desire to see or participate in such a performance but out of curiosity about the kinds of things people actually ask them to do.

Rosencrantz tosses a single coin to the ground and asks what that will get them. The Player spits on the coin and pretends to be insulted, while the other Tragedians try to pick it up. Guildenstern then steps on the coin and asks if the Tragedians would like to gamble for the price of a performance. The Player sees a chance to make more money, and he initially wins a couple extra coins. But since Guildenstern knows that the coins are only landing on heads, he is able to win the money back and force the Player into debt.

Guildenstern continues to con the Player by saying, "Bet me the year of my birth doubled is an odd number." Guildenstern continues to win until the Tragedians realize that all numbers doubled are even. By then, it is too late and they owe Guildenstern money. Since they have no money to pay their debt, the Player offers up the boy Alfred as payment. After offering to save Alfred from the theater, Guildenstern insists the Player pay with a play.

The Player agrees and begins directing the rest of the troupe to take their places offstage. As they do, the Player remains stationary. When Guildenstern asks the player if he is going to change into his costume, the Player responds, "I never change out of it." When Guildenstern asks if the player is going to come on he replies, "I am on." Realizing that he is standing still for a reason, Rosencrantz asks him to move his foot. When he does, he reveals the coin underneath that he was hiding. The Player leaves as Rosencrantz takes the coin, casually observes that it was tails, and tosses it to Guildenstern.

As he tosses the coin to Guildenstern, the stage lights change to indicate a change of setting. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern freeze.

The action begins immediately as Ophelia rushes on stage, followed by Hamlet. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark and the main character in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. Ophelia is his love interest and potential wife.

Hamlet, unkempt and disheveled, catches Ophelia's arm. He studies her face in silence, then raises "a sigh so piteous and profound that it does seem to shatter all his bulk and end his being." He lets Ophelia go and watches her as she leaves.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern unfreeze and attempt to leave in a rush, but they are intercepted by King Claudius, Hamlet's uncle and new stepfather, and Gertrude, Hamlet's mother. As Claudius greets them, they straighten their clothing in an attempt to impress him. Claudius mistakes one for the other before imparting the urgency of the reason why they were summoned.

Claudius and Gertrude explain that Hamlet has been acting strangely and they want to know why. Being childhood friends of Hamlet's, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are tasked with spying on him to find out the cause of his strange behavior. In an effort to ingratiate themselves to the king, they agree. Gertrude thanks them, again mistaking one for the other.

As they leave to find Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia's father, enters with urgent news. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stop and listen as Polonius tells Claudius the ambassadors from Norway have returned, and that he believes he has found the cause of Hamlet's lunacy. The conversation fades as they exit. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, their curiosity piqued, remain.

As soon as they are alone, Rosencrantz claims he is unsure about their task, saying, "I'm out of my step" and "over my depth." His sense of uncertainty about the current situation is expressed by his desire to return to a time "when there were no questions." Guildenstern reassures him, saying there was no such time and that "there were always questions. To exchange one set for another is no great matter." Rosencrantz tells Guildenstern, "I want to go home," but realizes he has lost his sense of direction.

Guildenstern says it is too late for them to leave and the best thing for them to do is to listen carefully and follow instructions. Guildenstern insists that there is a "logic" at work and that their only duty is to relax and let it lead them. Rosencrantz finds solace in the fact that they expect to be paid handsomely for their efforts. They commit to finding out what is wrong with Hamlet. Guildenstern resolves that it's "a matter of asking the right questions and giving away as little as we can. It's a game."

Rosencrantz suggests they do something constructive and go find Hamlet, but Guildenstern thinks that will lead to them just chasing each other in circles. Guildenstern decides they should wait and suggests they pass the time with a game of questions. The goal of the game is to carry on a conversation by only asking questions. No statements, repetitions, or non sequiturs are allowed. What begins as a child's game ends up as a philosophical discussion about the nature of existence.

Out of nowhere, Hamlet passes by reading a book. They see him too late and are unable to talk to him. Guildenstern suggests they practice asking Hamlet their questions and pretends to be Hamlet while Rosencrantz asks him questions. Rosencrantz doesn't exactly understand what he is supposed to do at first, but slowly figures it out. What follows is basically a summarization of the plot of Hamlet and what has happened to him.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern conclude that it is somewhat obvious why Hamlet is behaving strangely. What perplexes Guildenstern is what they were summoned to figure out, since the reasons for Hamlet's behavior seem somewhat obvious. At this moment, Guildenstern hears a band.

At the same moment, Hamlet crosses the stage with Polonius. Hamlet walks backwards and seems to be verbally toying with an exasperated Polonius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are reluctant to interrupt, but on Polonius's prompting, they get Hamlet's attention. Polonius leaves.

After Hamlet mistakes Rosencrantz for Guildenstern, they exchange enthusiastic greetings and walk upstage together. The act ends on Hamlet's question, "Good lads how do you both?"

Analysis

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead begins in media res, or in the middle of the action. Far from being epic in nature, the action that starts this play is the simple—and somewhat comic—tossing of a coin. Betting games, primarily between two players, were a way Elizabethans whiled away the time when the London theaters and other public entertainments were closed due to plague or social unrest. Shakespeare and other dramatists of the time played games with their rich, aristocratic patrons as well as entertained them with discussions on religion and philosophy. Yet, like many absurdist plays, this play begins by denying the audience certain classical expectations and dramatic "comforts." By describing the setting as "a place without any visible character," Stoppard denies the audience a sense of place and makes an immediate nod to the absurdist nature of the story he is about to tell.

Like the characters in Samuel Becket's masterpiece, Waiting for Godot, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inhabit—at least at first—an undefined place without any direct connection to the "real" world. The barrenness of the stage itself becomes the setting of the story, and without a grounding in "reality," it makes the story feel like it exists outside of time and place. The effect is one of disorientation and uncertainty, both of which are themes that will repeat themselves throughout Stoppard's play.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are described as simply "passing the time." Much like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, they are waiting for something, though they (and the audience) seem to be unsure of what, exactly.

As characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are described as little more than well-dressed "Elizabethans." Again, in absurdist fashion, Stoppard wastes no time orienting the audience as to who they are. But unlike other absurdist plays, these characters bring with them a robust, literary backstory.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two characters from William Shakespeare's play, Hamlet. In Hamlet, as in Stoppard's play, the two men are Hamlet's childhood friends and are asked by King Claudius to get to the bottom of Hamlet's strange behavior. In this scene in the original Hamlet (Act 2, Scene 2), Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, addresses Guildenstern as Rosencrantz. The two men are, to the king and queen, interchangeable and indistinct—mere "gentlemen" to be used as they see fit.

In Shakespeare's play, they are little more than comic fools, caught up in something they don't understand. Stoppard's play casts them as the main characters and tells "their side of the story," so to speak. For Stoppard, the idea that they are caught up in machinations beyond their understanding and control becomes the entry point for a deeper discussion about such postmodern themes as uncertainty, the "death" of God, meaning, and chaos.

As the play begins, the only real thing with which the audience has to orient itself is the action. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are flipping coins. Heads, Rosencrantz wins; tails, Guildenstern wins. What makes the situation absurd is that it has been heads 76 times in a row. The oddity of this occurrence becomes the impetus for the play's opening ruminations on the nature of existence.

Guildenstern introduces the themes of faith and certainty when he says, "A weaker man might be moved to re-examine his faith, if in nothing else at least in the law of probability." For Guildenstern, the absurdity of flipping heads 76 times in a row is cause for reflection on the laws that govern the universe. Because flipping heads 76 times in a row defies those laws, Guildenstern's concern is that the laws governing existence have for some reason given way to something else.

If one places this question in the context of Stoppard's cultural milieu, it is easy to see this concern as a reaction to the increasing secularization of culture. Insofar as God had represented order and control to previous generations, how does one find order, and meaning, in a world that increasingly does not believe in God?

These opening moments also introduce the audience to another postmodern practice: breaking down the "fourth wall" that separates a story from its readers, or a play from its audience. In many postmodern literary works, the story becomes a meta-narrative about the nature of narrative and language.

Similarly, Stoppard's play is "self-conscious" of itself as a play. For instance, when Guildenstern says, "There is an art to the building up of suspense," he is both talking about the flipping of the coin and the nature of narrative itself. In this way, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is not only a play within a play, but also a play about plays. Not only does this self-consciousness break the fourth wall of traditional theater, it raises questions about the relationship of narrative to meaning, and the nature of performance. Where fiction stops and real-life begins is a recurring theme that the Player touches on repeatedly in his dialogue.

Moments later, when Guildenstern examines "the confines of the stage," he again calls attention to the nature of the medium—the physical apparatus of the stage. By seemingly acknowledging the stage itself, Guildenstern breaks the assumed fourth wall of the theater and undermines the verisimilitude that traditional plays held in such high regard.

Guildenstern does his best to explain the situation by utilizing the "scientific method" and the philosophical symbol of logic: the syllogism. Ultimately, he concludes that none of these are satisfactory and admits that his desperation to understand is really an expression of a fear of the unknown. He says, "The scientific approach to the examination of phenomena is a defense against the pure emotion of fear." For all of his attempts to use logic, he comes to the realization that logic cannot explain the illogical.

To Guildenstern, the fact that the laws of probability are failing is an indication that the natural harmony between chance and certainty has been broken. He explores the nature of this balance when he says, "The equanimity of your average tosser of coins depends upon a law, or rather a tendency, or let us say a probability, or at any rate a mathematically calculable chance, which ensures that he will not upset himself by losing too much nor upset his opponent by winning too often."

While Guildenstern is talking about the coin-flipping game, he is also exploring existential themes. Guildenstern's examination starts with the law of probability, which instead of being a certainty, is now merely a mathematical "chance." According to his logic, this law of probability created a harmony between the ideas of luck (or "the fortuitous") and fate (or "the ordained").

In philosophy, these opposing ideas form the basis for two opposing worldviews. One view, called Determinism, holds that human existence is preordained or "determined" by the will of God. People of this opinion use words like "fate" to ascribe meaning to events in their world and the world around them. In contrast, an Indeterminate universe is one in which free will reigns, rather than the will of a controlling force like God. In this way, the nature of the universe is seen as accidental or "fortuitous," with humans using their free will to choose their own destinies.

After a brief reflection, Guildenstern concludes that everything started going wrong after they were summoned. At this point, Stoppard finally offers the audience some context for the situation that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves in.

After being awoken by a royal messenger, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern mounted their horses and left "in breakneck pursuit of [their] duty," only to "outstrip" and lose their guides along the way. While the audience is given a sense that they are on their way to court, why they were summoned and where they are remains a mystery. According to Rosencrantz, they are "traveling," which puts them in between places rather than in any one particular place. Further adding to this sense of uncertainty about place and setting, it becomes clear they are passing the time because they are lost. They, like the audience, have no idea where they are.

Guildenstern's digression about unicorns sets up a discussion about reality and illusion. This theme is elaborated on by the appearance of a troupe of actors, or Tragedians, as they are called. Their initial exchange is punctuated by a discussion of whether it is fate or chance that has brought them together. When Guildenstern offers to help the Tragedians get a job at court, the audience recognizes them fully as the troupe that performs the "play within the play" in Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2. The lead actor is called the Player, and the only other actor who gets a name is a young boy, Alfred.

As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain disinterested in a performance, the Player offers more and more erotic options they may watch or—for a fee—participate in. The Player's offers culminate with the promise of a rendition of The Rape of the Sabine Women in which poor Alfred will play one of the raped women. While shocking, such an offer refers to the historical practice of offering young male performers who could be bought for "entertainment" by Elizabethan aristocracy. For the Player, where the performance stops and reality begins is a matter of how much the audience is willing to pay.

Stoppard seems to be commenting not only on the inherently voyeuristic nature of performance, but also on the inherently performative nature of reality. Indeed, for the Player, there is no stage per se, but rather a continuous reality with "every exit being an entrance somewhere else."

This line resonates with another of Shakespeare's more famous lines from his play As You Like It: "All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players;/They have their exits and their entrances,/And one man in his time plays many parts." The idea that all men and women are merely actors resonates with the Player's insistence that there is no difference between reality and the stage. According to the Player, there is no precise difference between illusion and reality. This question about performance and reality also points to the play Hamlet itself and the play's question about whether Hamlet is really crazy or just pretending to be so.

Given the consistency with which the coin toss has yielded heads to this point in the play, this moment when Rosencrantz declares tails represents both a return to normalcy and a deviation from it. Normal, as in the story about the unicorn, is a matter of perspective and consensus.

At this point, the stage lights indicate a change in time and place. The abrupt shift undermines the continuity of action the audience is expecting and further calls attention to the fluidity of place and time within the play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come unfrozen as the action begins.

Despite this radical shift in place and time, the immediate action between Ophelia and Hamlet (for those familiar with Hamlet) has the immediate effect of grounding the situation in Shakespeare's actual story. After catching up with Ophelia, Hamlet pantomimes a certain kind of despair and forlornness over Ophelia. The somewhat exaggerated way he does this poses the question again of whether he is acting or just pretending.

The traveling players in Hamlet mime scenes (that is, without speaking lines) in a series of visual tableaux in a way that was common to Elizabethan court performances. By having the action of Act 3, Scene 1 between Hamlet and Ophelia mimed in the same way, Stoppard suggests that the reality of the play Hamlet is, from the perspective of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, just as removed from their lives as the mimed stories were from court audiences. Stoppard's play will end with just such a tableaux.

After Hamlet leaves, King Claudius and Gertrude greet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, mistaking one for the other. This habit of mistaking one for the other is comic in effect and repeats itself throughout, even to the point where Rosencrantz mistakes himself for Guildenstern.

At this point, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are given their mission: to figure out what is wrong with Hamlet. After they leave, Rosencrantz expresses his misgivings about what they have been asked to do. He has a sense that he doesn't fully understand what is going on and expresses a wish to go back to a "simpler time" when he says, "I remember when there were no questions." Guildenstern is quick to remind him that, "There were always questions. To exchange one set for another is no great matter." The theme of uncertainty is further developed by the game of "questions" that they play to pass the time.

While they are obliquely talking about their current situation and playing a game, the scene's larger thematic exploration seems to be about the uncertainty of existence and the difficulty of finding meaning in a world in which meaning-making structures like God are no longer viable. Rosencrantz pines for a past before "questions" when all the answers were there. Guildenstern's argument is that Rosencrantz's position is an idealization of a past that never existed. The world is, and always has been, full of questions. What has changed is how people answer them.

The act ends as Rosencrantz summarizes the plot of Hamlet. Together, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern conclude that given the horrible things that have transpired, Hamlet's behavior seems perfectly normal. Thus it is the why they were summoned that remains a mystery to them. Despite a desire to understand the nature of their reality and situation, they are aware that they are caught up in machinations beyond their understanding.

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