Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead | Act 2 | Summary



The action of Act 2 begins where Act 1 ended. Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern are talking. Their conversation is indecipherable until Hamlet says, "S'blood, there is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out." The scene direction places Hamlet's speech in the context of Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet.

Hamlet finishes welcoming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and then tells them cryptically, "My uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived" and, "I am but mad north north-west; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw."

Polonius enters to inform Hamlet the actors have arrived. Hamlet avoids Polonius by turning to Rosencrantz, whom he mistakes for Guildenstern. A moment later, Hamlet mocks Polonius before leaving with him.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern immediately review their interaction with Hamlet. Seeing their interaction as another game of "question and answer," they conclude, "he murdered us," and are no closer to knowing what is really going on. As a consolation, Guildenstern finds solace in the fact that they at least were able to observe Hamlet's symptoms, which he diagnoses as, "Thwarted ambition—a sense of grievance."

Rosencrantz recalls Hamlet's comment about his madness being related to direction, which leads to a digression about direction. After a circuitous attempt to link the position of the sun to the direction of the wind, they come to the conclusion that they "have no conception of where [they] stand," in both the literal and figurative senses.

Unsure what to do, they decide to wait. Guildenstern despairs that they are part of some greater plan over which they have no control. He says, "Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are ... condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one—that is the meaning of order."

Rosencrantz challenges Guildenstern's somewhat deterministic theory by yelling "Fire!" as proof that free will, and free speech, still exist. Rosencrantz then seems to regard the audience and off-handedly comments, "Not a move. They should burn to death in their shoes."

In order to pass the time, Rosencrantz asks Guildenstern to figure out which hand he is holding a coin in. Guildenstern tries and fails twice, only to realize that Rosencrantz is not holding a coin in either hand. Rosencrantz then pats his pockets as if he doesn't know where the coin went either. They are interrupted by Polonius, Hamlet, and the Tragedians.

At Hamlet's request, the Player agrees to perform The Murder of Gonzago, and to add a short speech of Hamlet's creation. Hamlet sees Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, invites them to enjoy themselves until he sees them that evening, and leaves.

The Player bitterly approaches Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and condemns them for leaving the performance the Tragedians were giving earlier. For the Player, it is an offense that cuts to the core of his being as an actor. He says, "You don't understand the humiliation of it—to be tricked out of the single assumption which makes our existence viable—that somebody is watching."

Rather than feel guilty, Guildenstern takes credit for getting them a performance at the court, even though the Player insists they have played there before. The Player then gives an overview of the play they are to perform, which he describes as the "blood, love, and rhetoric" of a king and queen.

When the Player attempts to leave, Guildenstern asks him where he will go. In reference to their lack of knowledge about where they are, both physically and mentally, Guildenstern says they are "still finding [their] feet." Foreshadowing the end of the play, the Player suggests they "should concentrate on not losing your heads."

When the Player insists on leaving, Guildenstern expresses his frustration that they don't know what to do or how to act, saying, "But we don't know what's going on, or what to do with ourselves." The Player tells him to stop looking for answers, or "the truth," and consoles him with the idea that no one really knows anything and that everyone "acts on assumptions."

The Player's question, "What do you assume?" provides entry into an exchange about the nature of Hamlet's madness. When the Player finally leaves, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are left alone again. Rosencrantz calls off stage, "Next!" imploring someone to enter, but no one comes. Again, they are left to pass the time. Rosencrantz reveals he can't find the coin he was playing with earlier, which segues into a conversation about death.

A few religious jokes punctuate Rosencrantz's ruminations until he comes to the conclusion that death is the only real place any of them are going. He says, "For all the compasses in the world, there's only one direction, and time is its only measure."

Rosencrantz again calls off stage, but this time he forbids anyone from entering. Immediately, a grand procession enters with Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia. The stage directions tell the audience the context is Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1.

Gertrude asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern if they were able to figure out what is wrong with Hamlet. Rosencrantz overstates their success, but mentions that Hamlet is looking forward to the play that evening. Polonius affirms Rosencrantz's observation and, at Hamlet's request, invites Claudius and Gertrude to the play. On the way out, Claudius reveals to Gertrude that they have summoned Hamlet so that he may "accidentally" find Ophelia here.

After they're gone, Rosencrantz expresses annoyance over being the ones who are always being "found" by everyone else when he says, "Never a moment's peace! In and out, on and off, they're coming at us from all sides ... Why can't we go by them?" But as he turns to leave, he sees Hamlet walking towards them.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discuss how best to approach Hamlet, but before they can, Ophelia arrives. Together, Hamlet and Ophelia disappear into the wings.

Annoyed and frustrated, Rosencrantz asserts, "I'm not going to stand for it!" and attempts to leave, but finds that each exit he makes is blocked by the entrance of another actor. The Tragedians are preparing for their dress rehearsal, in which a sleeping king is poisoned by his brother. The brother then consoles the queen, and then marries her.

The dress rehearsal is interrupted by the "real" action of Hamlet. A crying Ophelia enters, followed by Hamlet who shouts at her, "I say we will have no more marriage!" He then leaves Ophelia to her despair. Claudius, having seen the exchange, concludes that Hamlet is neither mad, nor in love. Worried about what he is up to, he decides to send Hamlet to England. He then goes with Polonius to console Ophelia and help her off stage.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's comments about what just transpired between Hamlet and Ophelia are interpreted by the Player as a critique of Tragedians' dress rehearsal. Prompted by Guildenstern's questions about "the end" of the play, the Player clarifies that, "It never varies—we aim at the point where everyone who is marked for death dies."

The Tragedians perform a love scene next, which Rosencrantz objects to, suggesting that people want entertainment, not "sordid and gratuitous filth." The Player objects, saying that "Murder, seduction and incest" are exactly what people want. Rosencrantz retorts, saying all he wants is a good story, whereas Guildenstern says, "I'd prefer art to mirror life, if it's all the same to you." The Player, reminding the audience that for him there is no difference between his art and his life, affirms, "It's all the same to me, sir."

The dress rehearsal continues with the Player playing the part of Lucianus, who, outraged by his mother's incestuous marriage, contemplates suicide and kills a figure made up to look like Polonius. The king employs two spies to take Lucianus to England, with a letter sentencing him to death. But before they arrive, Lucianus alters the letter to order the death of the spies and not him.

The rehearsal ends as the Player poses a question, "Traitors hoist by their own petard?—or victims of the gods?—we shall never know!"

Having watched passively until now, Rosencrantz is brought forward by the fact that the spies are wearing coats exactly like theirs. Despite their initial intrigue, neither Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern are able to decipher the precise reason why things seem so familiar. Instead, they concern themselves with the difference between death on stage and death in real life.

Guildenstern asserts that such performances of death are unconvincing. The Player replies, "Audiences know what to expect, and that is all that they are prepared to believe in" and signals for the spies to die. Guildenstern objects again, suggesting that what makes death is not "gasps and blood and falling about" but rather one's permanent, "unobtrusive and unannounced" exit from this life and it is this finality that cannot be faked. With this, the lights go out and the scene ends.

When the lights return, two figures lie in the middle of the stage exactly where the spies from the previous scene were lying. As the light grows, the figures are revealed to be Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. After a quick consideration of where they are, Claudius enters and informs them that Hamlet has killed Polonius and must be found. Gertrude joins them and leaves immediately with Claudius.

Left alone, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can't agree if they should look for Hamlet together or separately. Before they can come to a decision, they see Hamlet dragging Polonius. They make a plan to trap him, which Hamlet easily avoids. Moments later, Rosencrantz calls out to Hamlet, who has now hidden the body. Hamlet then condemns his old friends for spying on him and siding with the king. When Rosencrantz asks where the body is, Hamlet cryptically replies, "The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body."

Just then, Hamlet pretends to see Claudius and bows deeply. Following his cue, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do the same, but when the look back up, Hamlet is gone. When Claudius appears for real, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern realize they were bowing to nothing. When the king commands them to produce Hamlet, they can do nothing but stand awkwardly. But moments later, a messenger escorts Hamlet in, saving them from the king's anger. As Hamlet is escorted off stage, the lights change to indicate a change of location, from interior to exterior.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ponder their involvement in what just happened. Guildenstern doesn't understand why they were needed at all. Rosencrantz asserts, "they've done with us now," while freely admitting he isn't exactly sure what they did.

Rosencrantz is glad it is all over, only to learn that they are to take Hamlet to England. Neither is sure going to England is a good idea, but both decide to accept whatever is next. As the act ends, Rosencrantz seems resigned to his fate as he says, "We've come this far."


The opening of Act 2 places the story at the end of Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have made an initial attempt to get to the bottom of Hamlet's affliction but have been met with little more than evasions and wordplay. Rosencrantz says of Hamlet, "He murdered us." While he is ostensibly talking about their defeat in finding out what Hamlet's problem is, readers of Hamlet will know that his comment foreshadows the fate awaiting them.

For all of their questioning, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are no closer to understanding the truth of what is going on. As happened when they played their game of questions earlier, the questions they ask only raise more questions.

Rosencrantz reflects on Hamlet's evasions when he says, "Half of what he said meant something else, and the other half didn't mean anything at all." Keen observers will also sense in this a comment about the play's use of wordplay, innuendo, and double meanings. Indeed, half of what everyone says—including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—seems to mean something else. Stoppard's use of verbal irony is often comic in its effect, but it betrays a more serious commentary about the instability of language, a concern that would be taken up by many postmodern theorists, most notably Jacques Derrida and his philosophy of Deconstruction.

Rosencrantz's reflection on Hamlet's comment, "I am but mad north north-west; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw," leads him to digression on direction. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's perpetual disorientation is significant. The more they try to get their bearings, both figuratively and literally, the more they know they are lost. When Guildenstern exclaims, "You seem to have no conception of where we stand!" he is talking about both their physical location and their relation to the conspiracy they have been drawn into.

Guildenstern finds some comfort in the idea that they are part of some larger, predetermined plan. Even if it is not the plan of a creator or god-like force, it still provides him the comfort of "order." As he says, "Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are ... condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one—that is the meaning of order." His use of the word "condemned" ominously foreshadows the fate that awaits them, but it also points to a humanist interpretation of the role people play in the making of meaning and the creation of order.

The coin, as a symbol of order and uncertainty, returns as Rosencrantz attempts to again pass the time. As with Vladimir and Estragon in Becket's Waiting for Godot, there seems to be nothing for them to do but wait. While they don't know what they are waiting for, Guildenstern seems to be aware that the waiting is part of their "fate" when he comments, "Somebody might come in. It's what we're counting on, after all." Later in the act, Rosencrantz turns directly to the wings and shouts "Next!" but no one enters.

This comic moment is reminiscent of Vaudeville performances. Classic Vaudeville acts—like Abbot and Costello and Laurel and Hardy—often featured two performers engaged in verbal and visual slapstick. Rosencrantz's "Next!" may be referring to the Vaudeville convention in which one act of no more than six minutes was followed by another. If an act lasted too long, the manager would pull the actors off the stage by force, using a hook.

Like Vladimir and Estragon of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, they seem to be waiting for someone to find them and tell them what is going on. Similarly, their waiting carries with it a sense of futility. The sad part is, despite the fact that the universe seems to be without order, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unable to grasp or escape what seems to be their immutable fate.

When Guildenstern tries to guess which hand the coin is in, he finds out that it is in neither. Again, the game—as a metaphor for life—seems rigged against him. What he assumes to be a game of chance is not really a game at all, but a trick.

The entrance of Hamlet, Polonius, and the Tragedians returns the audience to the context of Hamlet itself and the play that will be performed that evening. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's initial exchange with the Player is full of wordplay. Such lines as "now mind your tongue," "took the very words out of my mouth," "you'd be lost for words," "you'd be tongue-tied," and "your diction will go to pieces," are all idiomatic phrases about words. Specifically, they all to point to situations where words fail to express the full meaning the speaker intends. Language, as a bastion of certainty, is revealed to be an illusion, much like acting.

Guildenstern's frustration with this perpetual uncertainty surfaces when he says, "We only know what we're told, and that's little enough. And for all we know it isn't even true." The Player tries to console him by saying that, "For all anyone knows, nothing is." The Player asserts that there is no such thing as "truth," but only "that which is taken to be true." This line calls back to Hamlet's line from Act 2, Scene 2 of Shakespeare's play when he says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Both statements resonate with the Existentialist idea that the individual is the only real arbiter of truth and meaning.

When the Player finally leaves, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern digress into a discussion about death. Rosencrantz's religious jokes betray an anxiety about the different ways religious institutions attempt to address the problem of death and make sense of it. Like his jokes, their solutions don't make much sense at all and might be simply seen as attempts to lighten the mood.

At the end of this exploration of death, the motif of direction returns as Rosencrantz concludes, "For all the compasses in the world, there's only one direction, and time is its only measure." Rosencrantz seems to conclude that, ultimately, they all point to the same thing: death.

Rosencrantz then calls out to the wings in the same manner he has done a few times already. Again, he calls attention to the idea that they are waiting for someone or something. But this time he forbids anyone from coming. Almost immediately, a royal procession enters, which symbolically and comically keeps the "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Vaudeville show" going.

The stage directions put the scene in the context of Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1. Like the forthcoming performance of The Murder of Gonzago, Stoppard's play is ultimately a play within a bigger play.

In the ensuing exchange, the uncertainty of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's situation is contrasted with the Player's sustained belief in the organizing power of narrative. As he says, "There's a design at work in all art—surely you know that. Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral and logical conclusion." When asked by Guildenstern who decides this conclusion, the Player replies, "It is written." As usual, the Player's commentary works on two levels: first, as a statement about the fact actors perform a play, which is a written document; second, as a commentary on the idea of Biblical prophecy and the idea that history is preordained.

Again, the Player seems to be posing one of this play's central questions. To frame it in terms of Shakespeare's As You Like It, the question is: Is all the world really just a stage, and are men and women merely players? When Guildenstern says he prefers "art to mirror life," the Player says, "It's all the same to me, sir." For him, there is no difference between his performance and his life. Said another way, there is no place where the stage stops and reality begins.

Further blurring the lines between reality and the stage is the dress rehearsal of The Murder of Gonzago that follows, which recreates the action of Hamlet itself. In effect, it is a play within a play within in a play. The Player plays Lucianus, whose uncle poisons his father and marries his mother. This "fiction" is interrupted by the "real" action of Hamlet, wherein Ophelia enters crying as Hamlet calls off their wedding.

The fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are center stage for all of the ensuing action drives home the idea that they are unwitting "actors" in both the action of Hamlet and the action of the dress rehearsal.

As the dress rehearsal continues, the king employs two spies to bear a letter to England that will order Lucianus's death. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's "reality" collides with the "fiction" they are watching, they remain oblivious to the fact that they are the spies, even as the spies wear the same coats as they do.

While commenting on the play, the Player seemingly articulates the play's central dramatic question of whether Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, "Traitors hoist by their own petard?—or victims of the gods?" Oddly enough, they seem to be both.

As the act ends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seemingly resign to not knowing as Rosencrantz says, "We've come this far."

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