42 pages 1 hour read

Tom Stoppard

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1966

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Summary and Study Guide


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a three-act play by the English playwright Tom Stoppard. It is an existentialist, absurdist satire featuring characters and events from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. First performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1966, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead enjoyed critical success, winning The New York Drama Critics’ Circle’s Award for Best Play and four Tony Awards in 1968. Since then, the play has been adapted into several radio plays and a 1990 film starring Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and Richard Dreyfuss. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead emerged from the Theater of the Absurd movement popular in Europe in the decades following World War II. Theater of the Absurd plays deal with existentialist themes such as the meaninglessness or absurdity of existence, a theme which runs throughout Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Critics tend to draw parallels between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, another Theater of the Absurd classic.

This summary refers to the 2017 50th Anniversary Grove Press edition.

Plot Summary

In Act I, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Prince Hamlet’s childhood friends, journey to Elsinore to meet with King Claudius of Denmark. On the way, they pass time by flipping coins. Rosencrantz bets heads every time, winning 92 coin flips in a row. Guildenstern wants to understand why the law of probability is defunct, but Rosencrantz does not give the matter any thought.

The Tragedians, a theater troupe led by the enigmatic Player, arrive. The Player says that the Tragedians can perform for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and that the two friends can participate in the sexual scenes if they pay extra. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are disgusted yet intrigued by the offer. Guildenstern and the Player play a few betting games, and the Player readies the troupe to perform for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Before the Tragedians’ show can start, the scene shifts to Elsinore, where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet with Claudius and his wife Gertrude. Claudius and Gertrude command Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet and determine the reasons for his bizarre behavior.

In Act II, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fumble as they try to complete their mission and figure out what they are meant to do. The Tragedians arrive, and Hamlet asks them to perform a modified version of The Murder of Gonzago. The Player agrees and readies his troupe for the performance. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend their time bickering over which way is south and musing on the subject of death. They grow more and more distressed by the uncertainty and lack of freedom they experience as the events of Hamlet unfold around them.

Later, the pair watches the Tragedians perform a pantomimed dress rehearsal of their play that is narrated by the Player. The play reflects the events that occur before and during Hamlet, including Claudius killing Hamlet’s father, usurping the throne, and marrying Gertrude. The play also depicts the deaths of two spy characters who look like and are meant to represent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Although Rosencrantz sees some familiarity in these characters, he does not recognize them as his and his companion’s counterparts.

The Tragedians perform their play in front of the court, but it displeases a guilty Claudius. Hamlet then murders Polonius, Claudius’s advisor. Claudius sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to capture Hamlet and bring him to Claudius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern set out to perform this task but procrastinate while Hamlet lets himself be captured. Claudius orders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to go with Hamlet to England and present a letter to the King of England.

Act III finds Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on a ship bound for England. While Hamlet sleeps, they discuss boats, death, and the existence of England. Rosencrantz is distraught at not knowing what to do once they reach England, but Guildenstern assures him that the information they need is in the letter Claudius gave them. They become confused about who has the letter, panicking until Guildenstern pulls it out of his pocket. They read it and discover that Claudius wants the King of England to execute Hamlet.

While the two friends are sleeping, Hamlet switches Claudius’s letter with a letter ordering the King of England to execute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead of Hamlet. In the morning, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discover that the Tragedians, on the run from Claudius, are aboard the ship with them. Pirates board the ship and attack the crew; Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Hamlet, and the Player escape the pirates by hiding in three barrels.

Once the pirates leave, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern emerge from their barrel to discover that Hamlet is missing. They despair over what to do without him. Thinking that it might contain useful information that will help them in this unexpected scenario, they read the new letter and discover that they are to be executed once they reach England. The Player reminds them that everyone dies, and Guildenstern angrily stabs him. However, the knife was merely a prop with a retractable blade, and the Player survives. The lighting changes, and only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are visible. They utter their final words and disappear from the stage. Two ambassadors enter Elsinore to deliver the news regarding Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s deaths, and the play ends as Horatio recites the final monologue from Hamlet.

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