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

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ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD: LITERARY CRITICISM

ACT ONE

SCENE 3: Directions from the King

Summary

There is a subtle lighting change, and Ophelia runs into the room, followed by Hamlet. He is dirty and crazed, and he grabs her arm tightly, holding her for a moment. Then, with a shudder, he lets her go, backing away from her, out of sight. She runs off in the other direction. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch the wordless scene, frozen, then Guildenstern begins to take action--but, immediately, Claudius and Gertrude, the King and Queen of Denmark, enter the room.

Claudius tells them that he is glad to see them; he sent for them abruptly because he needs them urgently. He mistakes Rosencrantz for Guildenstern, and it becomes clear that, while Guildenstern might know which one he is, Rosencrantz is pretty unsure. They adjust their clothes, self-conscious in front of the King, as he continues: Hamlet has changed recently, both inward and outward, and no one really knows why. He hopes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who were friends with Hamlet as children, might be able to find out what is going on, because Hamlet has been acting very strangely. The King can’t imagine what it could be, except for Hamlet’s father’s recent death. Gertrude agrees: if they can help figure out what is wrong with Hamlet, she assures them she will reward them well. They protest that they are so eager to help that the King and Queen need not even ask them if they will. The King and Queen confusedly say good bye to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (mistaking their identities again) and two attendants take Rosencrantz and Guildenstern out of the room.

As they leave, Polonius enters, and they pause to look at him. He is the King’s advisor, an elderly, formal man. He tells Claudius that the ambassadors from Norway have returned, and begins to tell the King how highly he values his duty. He suggests that he knows the cause of Hamlet’s strange behavior. He and the King leave the room, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are left there. Rosencrantz is disturbed by everything he has seen. He wants to go home, because he doesn’t know what he’s doing at court--he feels he is out of his depth. Guildenstern assures him that, once they have done their work for the King, they will be rewarded and allowed to leave. Rosencrantz is upset about how confusing the world is now. It didn’t used to be this way--in fact, he used to know his own name with perfect certainty, and now, he simply cannot remember which is which. Both names sound like they might be right, but he doesn’t feel an instinctive attachment to either of them. Guildenstern understands: truth is such a constant in life that after a while you take it for granted--until you realize you don’t know what’s true anymore, and then you’re lost.

Rosencrantz tries to get Guildenstern to simply pick which name he wants, claiming he himself doesn’t care anymore what he is called. But Guildenstern says that they can’t do that; it would be too arbitrary. Rosencrantz gets very upset, desperate for a name, either name, to cling to, and cries that he wants to go home. He can’t even remember which way home is--he’s lost his sense of direction.

Guildenstern tells him that death and birth are the only true beginnings and ends, and the men seem to connect again. Rosencrantz tries to claim that they don’t have to do this, but Guildenstern argues that now that they are caught in the action, everything they do has an effect on everything else. Therefore, they must complete their job, and then they will be free to go.


He suggests that it might feel good--like being a child, who is only expected to follow directions, not to think for himself. Rosencrantz wonders how they can figure out Hamlet. Guildenstern reminds him of what the King told them: Hamlet has changed, and since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have always been close to him, they may be able to cheer him up and find out what is wrong. Rosencrantz begins to wonder what their reward will be like. They try to do something constructive, but decide that they have been placed, and the best thing to do would be to wait until something happens.

Rosencrantz looks at the audience and mentions that he hates feeling like a spectator, whose only hope is that someone interesting will come on in a minute. Guildenstern agrees: they are being kept interested without ever being allowed explanations, and it is driving him crazy. Rosencrantz suggests that they play Questions, a game which consists of two players having a conversation without ever making a statement--only questions are allowed. Through the game, they have a light, uninformative conversation, asking questions like “What does it all add up to?” to which the response is, “Can’t you guess?” Finally, Guildenstern asks Rosencrantz, seriously, what his name is, but Rosencrantz doesn’t see he is serious. Even when Guildenstern asks him “Who do you think you are?” Rosencrantz thinks it is rhetoric.

They cry out to no one, wondering what the game at court is, what the rules are. Hamlet enters behind them, reading, and Guildenstern notices him just as he leaves. To alert his friend, Guildenstern calls out, “Rosencrantz!” and, miraculously, Rosencrantz responds. The men are both thrilled, as it appears that Rosencrantz really does instinctively know his own name. He suggests that they try the same thing with Guildenstern, but Guildenstern, irritated, points out that he would have to be surprised in order for it to work. Rosencrantz doesn’t quite get this, and tries to surprise Guildenstern immediately. Guildenstern then calls to his friend again, this time using his own name--but Rosencrantz responds to it. Disgusted, Guildenstern asks for consistency from his friend.

They begin to talk about Hamlet. Rosencrantz has nothing much to say, but Guildenstern sees that Hamlet has changed. Rosencrantz begins to ask him about it, and Guildenstern realizes that they might play Questions with each other to analyze what is happening to Hamlet. He thinks Rosencrantz gets this too, and begins to play with him, pretending to be Hamlet. But Rosencrantz doesn’t get it, and thinks Guildenstern has gone crazy. Very annoyed, Guildenstern explains what he is trying to do. Rosencrantz seems to understand, but it is soon clear that he doesn’t, and Guildenstern gets very irritated. He throws up his hands, wondering what he and Rosencrantz possibly could share except their situation.

They sit in silence for a while, then Rosencrantz finally realizes what Guildenstern was trying to do. They begin the game again, but when Guildenstern calls Rosencrantz by his name, Rosencrantz gets confused--he is thinking he is Guildenstern again. Finally, they get it all sorted out, and Guildenstern impersonates Hamlet while Rosencrantz asks him questions. At first, he doesn’t see that what they want to do is get as much information as possible from Hamlet.

Finally, however, he establishes a conversation with Guildenstern-as-Hamlet. Rosencrantz points out that Hamlet’s father was King, and Hamlet is an adult, but after his father’s recent death, his Uncle Claudius was made King instead of him. This has something to do with the fact that his uncle married his mother, Queen Gertrude, very soon after his father’s death. Rosencrantz, following the thread, muses aloud that Hamlet’s much-loved father is dead, and Hamlet, who should be King, is now merely Claudius’s “son.” All of this is common knowledge, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot figure out why they were sent for by Claudius. Rosencrantz hears music again, and when Guildenstern calls him, using both names, Rosencrantz answers to both, infuriating Guildenstern.

He tells Rosencrantz to go peek in on Hamlet. Rosencrantz reports that Hamlet is talking to himself--though he is not alone. Hamlet enters backward, followed by Polonius. Hamlet teases Polonius with nonsense, while Polonius tries to maintain his dignity. Finally, Polonius says he is leaving, and Hamlet wryly announces his eagerness for this. Guildenstern calls to Hamlet. Hamlet is very excited to see them--though even he confuses one man with the other.

Notes

It is significant that the scene changes with hardly any changes to the scenery. One of Stoppard’s major purposes in this play is to make the reader (or, more likely, viewer) unable to forget that he or she is reading or watching a play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern refer to the audience, look at the audience, and are undeniably on a stage throughout the production.

Stoppard supports this manner of performance by substituting long, random conversations for action. If we are caught up in the story, it is because we enjoy wordplay, not because we are worried about the characters or the plot. The action of Rosencrantz is set against the backdrop of Hamlet, a play in which almost nothing happens until the very end. The vast majority of the play concerns Hamlet’s debates about whether or not to kill his uncle (who murdered his father.) Few of his arguments advance him in any particular direction--he considers suicide, he rejects his own love interest, he decides that no one should get married anymore. These serious and yet ineffective attempts to resolve his problems are reminiscent of Guildenstern, who is very serious but never gets anywhere with his thoughts.

The game of Questions mirrors their experience at Elsinore: much rhetoric with very little information. Once the audience sees that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don’t even know their own names, it is clear that these two will never succeed in communicating with Hamlet. Their case is hopeless, yet they blunder on, mainly because they are unsure of how to give up.


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