Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Act 1

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead begins in medias res, or in the middle of the action, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern engaged in a coin-flipping game. The playwright, Tom Stoppard, includes very little information as to the who, what, where, when, and why of the situation. All the scene description tells the audience is that they are "two Elizabethans," which sets the action roughly in the late 1500s during the time of Queen Elizabeth and, perhaps more importantly, during the life of English playwright William Shakespeare.

Readers of Shakespeare's Hamlet will recognize Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the two minor characters summoned by the usurping King Claudius to spy on Hamlet. The action of Stoppard's play effectively tells their side of the story and begins shortly after they have been summoned.

As the play begins, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are lost. The audience learns they left in haste only to "outstrip" and lose their messenger and guide. The coin-flipping game is a way to pass the time until someone finds them. The rules are simple: heads—Rosencrantz gets to keep the coin; tails—Guildenstern gets to keep it. The coin has landed heads up 76 times in a row, which gives Guildenstern cause to believe that some cosmic order has been disturbed. The situation is comic, as is the circular and digressive nature of their dialogue.

Shortly after, the Tragedians arrive. They are actors by trade and include a drummer, a horn-player, a flautist, a young boy named Alfred, and the Player, who functions as their spokesperson.

The Player tries to sell them a performance, while Guildenstern offers to put in a good word for them at court. Guildenstern then tricks the Player into betting on the coin. Guildenstern knows it has only been landing on heads and manages to put the Player and the rest of the Tragedians in debt. The Tragedians pay their debt with a performance.

A lighting change indicates a change in the action and setting. The action begins immediately as Ophelia rushes on stage pursued by a disheveled Hamlet. At the same time, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are given their mission: to find out what is wrong with Hamlet. Unable to say no, while also hoping to gain favor with the king, they agree.

Considering that his father is recently deceased and his mother has married her dead husband's brother, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern conclude it is somewhat obvious why Hamlet is behaving strangely. With this in mind, their thoughts turn to questions about why they would be needed to figure this out.

Act 1 ends as Hamlet greets his old friends.

Act 2

Act 2 begins with Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern finishing the conversation they started at the end of Act 1. Stoppard orients the audience to the conversation with scene directions that place it in the context of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's conversation ends as Polonius interrupts them and informs Hamlet that the Tragedian actors have arrived. Having failed at their first attempt to glean from Hamlet what is wrong, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ponder what to do next and resolve to wait. Much of the play's action revolves around their waiting and the comic and quasi-philosophical conversations that arise.

First Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are interrupted by Polonius, Hamlet, and the Tragedians. As in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet asks for a performance of the play The Murder of Gonzago. After being left alone to pass the time again, they are interrupted by a royal procession that includes Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia. Again the stage directions orient the audience and place the scene in Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1. Rosencrantz admits to Gertrude that they were unable to learn anything from Hamlet during their first interaction. Claudius then reveals to Gertrude that they have summoned Hamlet so that he may "accidentally" find Ophelia here.

The Tragedians then engage in a dress rehearsal of the play they are to perform. Their rehearsal is interrupted when a crying Ophelia enters. As in the play Hamlet itself, a manic Hamlet chases her down and calls off their wedding.

The dress rehearsal continues, with what seems to be a reenactment of the major plot points of Shakespeare's Hamlet. When two spies are executed, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take notice—the two spies are dressed exactly as they are.

The scene ends as the lights fade. When the lights come up, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are informed that Hamlet has killed Polonius and must be found. Hamlet evades Rosencrantz and Guildenstern only to be caught by a messenger.

Act 2 ends as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are charged with taking Hamlet to England.

Act 3

As Act 3 begins, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are on a boat, taking Hamlet to England. King Claudius has told them to take Hamlet to the king of England and deliver a letter he has given them. When they read the letter, they realize it is Hamlet's death sentence.

They debate what they should do and finally decide that delivering Hamlet and the letter—while not good for Hamlet—is the best thing for them. As the stage lights dim, Hamlet is seen moving toward the sleeping Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, where he replaces the letter with his own.

The next morning, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hear music. They then discover the Tragedians have stowed away on the boat. Like clowns exiting a clown car, they step out of three large barrels. Having offended the king with their play, they were forced to flee.

Moments later, pirates attack. At the end of the action, Hamlet is missing. This causes some alarm because without Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can't complete their mission. They rehearse the possible outcomes in order to make sense of what their fate might be. At the point of the "rehearsal" when the letter would be presented, they open and read it and discover the letter now orders their deaths.

Unable to understand why or how this happened, they resign themselves to their fates. As they exit, the lights dim. Moments later the stage lights come on, illuminating a tableau of death that is the final scene of Hamlet. As happens at the end of Shakespeare's play, the ambassador proclaims that "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead."

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are summoned.

Rising Action

2 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are told to spy on Hamlet.

3 Hamlet kills Polonius.

4 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take Hamlet to England.

5 A letter sentencing Hamlet to death is revealed.

6 Hamlet switches the letter with another one.


7 Execution letter for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is shown.

Falling Action

8 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern accept their fates.


9 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are pronounced dead.

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