Cliff Notes™, Cliffs Notes™, Cliffnotes™, Cliffsnotes™ are trademarked properties of the John Wiley Publishing Company. does not provide or claim to provide free Cliff Notes™ or free Sparknotes™. Free Cliffnotes™ and Free Spark Notes™ are trademarked properties of the John Wiley Publishing Company and Barnes & Noble, Inc., respectively. has no relation. Free Summary / Study Guide / Book Summaries / Literature Notes / Analysis / Synopsis
+Larger Font+
-Smaller Font-

Free Study Guide: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard - Free BookNotes

Previous Page | Table of Contents | Next Page
Downloadable / Printable Version




The Actors come in for a dress rehearsal. They mime The Murder of Gonzago, which is really just the story of Hamlet. It explains that the King’s brother poisoned him, and married his unknowing wife. During the rehearsal, the real Hamlet and Ophelia run onstage, fight violently, and are totally ignored by the actors. Claudius, noting this outburst, decides that Hamlet is dangerous and must be sent to England

Meanwhile, the Player explains his understanding of plays: they end when everyone who is supposed to die dies. This is not a decision made by anyone, “it is written,” says the Player. He goes on with the play, which is now moving into the future for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In The Murder of Gonzago, says the Player, two of the Prince’s friends arrive, try to help him, then take him to England by the King’s orders.

Once they get there, however, the Prince has disappeared and somehow the letter they are bringing to the English King changes and commands him to execute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Guildenstern maintains that these sorts of stories are not the way to understand death: death is a non-existence that only becomes real after a long time, when it has had time to sink in for the survivors. The Player argues that people only believe what they expect--which is not day-to-day reality, but drama.

The next day, Claudius informs Guildenstern and Rosencrantz that Hamlet has killed Polonius. He wants them to find Hamlet, and the body. At first happy to have been given real instructions, the two men quickly realize that they don’t know how to look for Hamlet, and end up back just where they started. Hamlet then comes in, and while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try desperately to apprehend him, he escapes them easily. They question him about the body and he just teases them, and when he finally agrees to go with them it is his own decision--it has nothing to do with their powers of persuasion.

Once Hamlet has been delivered to Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern think for a moment that their work is done, but then realize that they must go with Hamlet to England. They wake up some time later on a boat, not sure how they got there and not sure where they’re going, though they assume it is England. Hamlet is off to the side, but they do not notice him. They feel unreal, and wonder whether death might be a boat. Guildenstern decides it could not be--death is nothing, therefore, it is not a boat.

They discover Hamlet and start thinking about the future, getting nervous. What will they tell the English King? Guildenstern assures Rosencrantz that everything will be fine: they have a letter, which will explain everything. Rosencrantz isn’t very convinced, so the two begin to role-play, with Guildenstern pretending to be the King. Rosencrantz questions him viciously, and in his excitement tears open their letter. It is directly from Claudius to the English King, and it asks him to behead Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are disturbed, but Guildenstern tries to rationalize their situation by saying Hamlet is going to die someday anyway, and besides, who knows what death is like? It might be a good thing. Rosencrantz doesn’t seem to buy this, and Hamlet may have overheard them, because once they go to sleep he sneaks over to them and switches their letter for a different one.

The next morning, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discover the Player and his troupe on the ship. Their play offended the King (the Player wryly points out how similar their play was to the King’s real life) so they had to make a run for it, as stowaways. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t exactly thrilled--they are beginning to feel like their life is a never-ending series of repetitions. Suddenly, pirates attack the ship, and by the time everything has settled down, Hamlet has disappeared. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are very upset - what will they do without Hamlet? - but the Player urges them to calm down: the English King will understand. This time Guildenstern doesn’t buy it, and he and Rosencrantz play-act their encounter with the King again, this time with Guildenstern playing the King. He excitedly rips open the letter and reads it aloud. It now asks the English King to execute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hysterical, they appeal to the Player, who offers no sympathy: they should accept their fates, he says. This infuriates Guildenstern, who still believes the Player has no idea what death is. He grabs the Player’s knife and stabs him with it, telling him, “that’s--death.” The Player falls, but gets up a moment later. The knife was fake.

The Player has proved that people believe what they expect, and nothing more. Triumphant, the Tragedians stage many deaths at once. They are still in costume from The Murder of Gonzago, so they die as they would in that play--that is, as the main characters of Hamlet do. The light fades until only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are visible. They aren’t sure what to think. Slowly, they decide that they cannot fight their destinies. Rosencrantz, in fact, proclaims that he is relieved: he doesn’t want to have to struggle anymore. He disappears. Guildenstern doesn’t notice. He wonders how they might have prevented this, and doesn’t have a clue. He too, gives up, says, “Well, we’ll know better next time,” and disappears as well. Out of the blackness there emerges the final scene of Hamlet. All the principle characters are dead on the stage, and an Ambassador from England is wondering what has happened. He has just arrived to tell the Denmark court that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, just as they requested.

Previous Page | Table of Contents | Next Page
Downloadable / Printable Version

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard: Free Book Notes Summary

Privacy Policy
All Content Copyright©TheBestNotes. All Rights Reserved.
No further distribution without written consent.
89 Users Online | This page has been viewed 12340 times
This page was last updated on 5/9/2017 8:50:54 AM

Cite this page:

Benway, Nova. "TheBestNotes on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead". . 09 May 2017