Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead | Act 3 | Summary



The final act opens in pitch darkness. The scene description is vague as usual and offers only "soft sea sounds" to orient the audience. Guildenstern, unsure if he is alone, ventures, "Are you there?" to which Rosencrantz responds, "Where?" Rosencrantz is both relieved and surprised that they are not dead yet. To confirm their status among the living, Rosencrantz touches his own leg. Frightened that he is in fact dead because he feels nothing, he pinches the leg only to have Guildenstern yelp. It was his Guildenstern's leg Rosencrantz was feeling.

Sounds build in the background until they become decipherable as the sounds of the sea—"ship timbers," "wind in the rigging," and shouts of sailors calling "nautical instructions from all directions."

Rosencrantz observes that it is dark, which leads to a discussion of where they are and whether they are on or off course. Hamlet lights a lantern upstage that illuminates what is described as "vague shapes of rigging, etc., behind." More light reveals "three large man-sized casks on deck," and a "gaudy striped umbrella, on a pole stuck into the deck" obscuring everything behind it.

Rosencrantz suggests they stretch their legs. When Guildenstern says he doesn't feel like it, Rosencrantz offers to stretch them for him. Guildenstern declines and ruminates about the fact that he likes boats because they are contained. He says, "You don't have to worry about which way to go, or whether to go at all." He then suggests that boats are safe when he says, "Boats are safe areas in the game of tag ... the players will hold their positions until the music starts."

Guildenstern appreciates this containment and "safety," and says, "One is free on a boat. For a time. Relatively." As Rosencrantz moves upstage to what is described as "a sort of upper deck joined to the downstage lower deck," Guildenstern ponders their relative freedom—that while they are "free to move, speak, extemporize" their freedom is "defined by one fixed star." That fixed star is the fact that they are "bearing a letter from one king to another" and "taking Hamlet to England."

Rosencrantz sneaks back to Guildenstern with news that he has seen Hamlet. Unsure what to do, Rosencrantz offers a diversion—another game of coins. Guildenstern chooses the correct hand several times and starts to get nervous again that the laws of probability have failed. Before he becomes too desperate, Rosencrantz reveals that he had coins in both hands the whole time. He just wanted to make Guildenstern happy.

The coins prompt Guildenstern to ask how much the king paid Rosencrantz. After a brief suspicion that one of them was paid more or less than the other, they conclude that the king would not have been able to "discriminate" between them even if he had wanted to pay them differently.

Guildenstern becomes frustrated by the endlessly circular logic of Rosencrantz's statements, which almost drives Rosencrantz almost to tears. Guildenstern comforts him with the facts of their mission: "We're on our way to England—we're taking Hamlet there." But far from providing solace, Rosencrantz becomes more nervous. He wants to know "what then?" Guildenstern reminds him of the letter, again comforting Rosencrantz with the hope that, "Everything is explained in the letter. We count on that."

Confusion about who has the actual letter is resolved when Guildenstern finds it in his pocket. Rosencrantz, unsure about what is to come, remains frustrated by their perpetual uncertainty. As if speaking to the human condition, he says, "We drift down time, clutching at straws." As his emotions rise to anger, he tries to find meaning and certainty in the work before them and says, "All right! We don't question, we don't doubt. We perform."

His perceived duty leads Rosencrantz to ponder what exactly they will do when they arrive. This leads them to the point of turning over the letter. While unspoken, this train of through returns Rosencrantz to his previously question about "what then?" and prompts him to snatch the letter and open in.

Rosencrantz reads the letter and reveals that it orders the death of Hamlet. Neither one can believe it. Rosencrantz reflects that they are friends, while Guildenstern reasons that death might not be so bad, going so far as to paraphrase Socrates, "Since we don't know what death is, it is illogical to fear it. It might be ... very nice." When Rosencrantz questions "the point," Guildenstern tells him not to apply logic or justice. Rosencrantz feels bad, while Guildenstern reasons that things could be worse, not for Hamlet, but for them. Guildenstern's relief comes out in a nervous laugh.

As the stage lights dim, Hamlet is seen moving towards a sleeping Rosencrantz and Guildenstern where he replaces the letter.

The next morning, Hamlet reclines behind the umbrella and seems to be relaxing. The rising sun prompts Rosencrantz to again contemplate the direction the boat is going and what little control they have to change the course of upcoming events. Just then, music is heard. Guildenstern reflects on it as a sign of foreboding, which gives "rise at once to the speculation or the assumption or the hope that something is about to happen."

Rosencrantz wanders about until he locates the source of the music as being in the casks that are on stage. From inside, the Tragedians are playing a tune that has been heard three times before. After a quick observation of the implausibility of it all, the lid of the middle barrel flies open and the Player's head pops out.

The Tragedians climb out of the barrels with their instruments and a few bags. The Player explains that because their play offended the king, they were forced to flee and stow away on the boat. The Player reflects that, "Life is a gamble, at terrible odds." But instead of despair, he simply asserts that, "We troupers just go on and on."

The Player then observes that while they seemed to have reached the end of their journey, everyone is still "on his feet." Hamlet comes into view and seemingly spits into the wind, which blows his spit back in his face. Rosencrantz comically comments on Hamlet's penchant for philosophical discussion, and he and Guildenstern again try to determine if he is mad or not.

After a digression about the events that have led them here, pirates attack out of nowhere. After drawing arms and attacking, Hamlet and the Player retreat into the left and right barrel, respectively, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both jump into the middle barrel.

When the attack has ended, the middle barrel is missing. The lid of the right barrel is raised, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are revealed to be within it. When the left barrel lid raises, the Player is revealed to be within it. The three of them ponder where Hamlet has gone and whether he is dead.

The fact that Hamlet is missing causes some alarm for Guildenstern, who recalls that their mission was to deliver Hamlet and the letter to the king of England. The Player calmly advises, "Pirates could happen to anyone. Just deliver the letter." But Guildenstern is near tears, reasoning, "Nothing will be resolved without him," and, "We need Hamlet for our release!"

The Player's response is to lie down and sleep. After a brief discussion about the sun, its location, and their direction, Rosencrantz offers to bet Guildenstern that his birth year doubled is an odd number. Guildenstern, at his wit's end, complains, "We've travelled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation."

Rosencrantz counters with, "Be happy—if you're not even happy what's so good about surviving?" Again, they play at their arrival, imagining what will happen. At the point when they would present the letter, Guildenstern snatches and opens it, only to find that it now orders their death.

Desperate for an explanation, Guildenstern blames the boat when he says, "Where we went wrong was getting on the boat. We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current." The Player flippantly comments that, "In our experience, most things end in death."

This comment enrages Guildenstern, who grabs a dagger and holds the point to the Player's throat. Guildenstern punctuates a digression about the finality of death by driving the knife into the Player. The Player clutches at the wound, falls to the ground, and dies.

Guildenstern becomes hysterical, shocked at what he has done, until the Tragedians start applauding and the Player stands back up and takes the trick knife back. Rosencrantz laughs nervously and applauds, having been taken in by the reality of the whole exchange.

The Player spreads his arms and begins selling "death" like a carnival barker selling tickets: "Deaths for all ages and occasions!" As he sells, the Tragedians affect all manner of dying before them. Alfred, the Player, and finally the "spies," dressed like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, all die on stage.

As the lights upstage go down, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are left alone in the fading light. They ponder the pointlessness of their journey, its unfairness, and the fact that they still don't understand what happened. Resigned to their fates, and even a bit relieved, they disappear offstage.

As they exit, the stage lights come on. The play ends as the ambassador and Horatio give their final speeches over "the tableau of court and corpses which is the last Scene of Hamlet."


Act 3 opens in darkness with nothing other than "soft sea sounds" to orient the audience to either the story or the setting. Guildenstern asks "Are you there?" to which Rosencrantz replies "Where?" This exchange reminds the audience of the perpetual state of uncertainty that has dogged Rosencrantz and Guildenstern through the entire play.

When Rosencrantz asks Guildenstern who he is and how he knows, the case of "mistaken identity" crops up once again as just another form of uncertainty. It is as if the uncertainty everyone else has had about which one of them is which has finally rubbed off on them. This theme of uncertainty climaxes as Rosencrantz questions whether they are alive or dead.

Once they establish they are on a boat, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's discussion turns to direction again, neither one convinced they are on course or aware of what their course actually is. Hamlet lights a lantern, as if to "shed some light on the situation," if only in a literal sense. As the stage light slightly improves, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fall into further uncertainty over what time of day or night it is.

Guildenstern then reflects on the boat itself. The boat is a significant symbol and one that they will return to later. Guildenstern initially finds comfort in the "contained" environment of the boat, going so far as to call boats "safe areas in the game of tag."

For all of their promise of freedom, Guildenstern reflects that boats—and this boat in particular—are still not entirely free. They are all going somewhere. And again, the "where" stands ominously just beyond their grasp. In terms of the play's larger themes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—like all humans—have but one real direction, which is towards death. Their journey is defined by the "fixed star" of their present mission—to bear a letter and Hamlet to the king of England.

When they see Hamlet, they are again unsure what to do. Guildenstern, frustrated by their perpetual uncertainty, says "We act on scraps of information ... sifting half-remembered directions that we can hardly separate from instinct." His comment refers to their current confusion, but also to Stoppard's larger argument about the nature of meaning and existence. The human condition is, at best, an uncertain one.

Again, Rosencrantz turns to a coin game. Coin games are important. At first, they seem like childish diversions, but the more they recur throughout the play, the more the audience sees that they offer both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a sense of security and solace. At least, they are supposed to.

In games, rules are defined, behaviors of players are somewhat scripted, and the outcomes are typically predictable—one person wins this time, and the other the next time. But, as the audience has seen throughout the play, these games never seem to "behave" the way they are supposed to. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never get from them the sense of certainty and distraction they so desire. Whether this is chance or part of some greater purpose is one of the questions the play poses. Ultimately, the certainty they seek does not exist in their games, nor does it seem to exist in their world—a fitting commentary on existence in the post-World War II world Stoppard is writing in.

This prompts a discussion of money and whether Guildenstern or Rosencrantz was "discriminated" against during payment. Guildenstern is initially concerned that he may have been paid less than Rosencrantz, but eventually concludes that this would have been impossible because the king would not have been able to "discriminate" between them in order to "discriminate" against one of them. Wordplay, in the form of the double meaning of the word "discriminate," takes center stage during this exchange and reintroduces the idea that language is unstable and that meaning is indeterminate and uncertain.

Life is little more than a groping in the dark, or as Rosencrantz says, "We drift down time, clutching at straws." Rosencrantz resolves to stop asking questions and, like a good actor, to simply play his part. As he says, "We don't question, we don't doubt. We perform." If life is simply a performance, then it would seem that the Player has been prophetic in his attitude and advice. Rosencrantz has reached the conclusion the Player has been espousing since they met. In the words of Jacques in Shakespeare's As You Like It, "All the word's a stage/And all the men and women merely players." The solution, according to the Player, is to "just go on and on."

The only thing that seems to be certain is death. As in much of the play, discussions of death figure prominently into the final act, especially as the inevitable ends draws near. Despite all of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's questions, they have not been able to escape the inevitability of their demise, nor get any closer to understanding the "logic" behind it.

While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern finally come to understand their fate, they never understand why. When Guildenstern exclaims, "We need Hamlet for our release!" he is not talking about being released from their death sentence, but rather from the uncertainty that has plagued them throughout the play. Without Hamlet, there is no one there to explain to them why things have happened as they have. Thus, he despairs, "We've travelled too far, and our momentum has taken over; we move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation."

Again, the boat becomes an appropriate metaphor for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's predicament, as the latter says, "Where we went wrong was getting on a boat. We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current." In this way, the universe that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inhabit is neither a determinate one nor an indeterminate one, but both. They are both able to exert their free will, and are compelled, as it were, towards a specific fate.

The final moment of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead reminds the audience that this is a story within a larger story, and returns the audience to the tableau of death that concludes Hamlet. Death—that inescapable "fixed star" to which all boats tend—has had its final say.

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