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

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SCENE 1: A Conversation with Hamlet


Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue their conversation, which appears to have been long. Hamlet is talking, almost to himself, about the situation at court. He seems to play at being insane, making bizarre statements, half teasing and half serious. Polonius comes in, telling Hamlet that the actors have arrived. Hamlet and Polonius leave, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern evaluate the conversation with Hamlet.

Guildenstern begins to suggest that they did all right--got some information, didnít reveal too much, and got a sense of Hamletís state of mind in general--but Rosencrantz scoffs at him. He proclaims that they fumbled every question to Hamlet, and that Hamlet teased them, smoothly getting them to reveal everything about their purpose at the castle. Rosencrantz derisively points out how useless their practice with the game of Questions had been. They discuss Hamletís famous statement, ďI am but mad north-northwest. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.Ē

They begin to reason that the weather must be important, and wonder which way south might be. Guildenstern gets obsessive about it, which irritates Rosencrantz, who tells him to just go outside and see where the sun is in the sky. They do not, however, even seem able to establish what rough time of day it is. They hope someone might come in. Rosencrantz suggests that they do something to make someone enter, but Guildenstern disagrees: if they start acting randomly, they will upset the order of the plot they have become part of. Not listening, Rosencrantz jumps up, yelling, ďFire!Ē He says he is demonstrating the misuse of free speech.

Guildenstern muses on each personís short-lived experience; their inability to learn from the past. Rosencrantz responds by engaging Guildenstern in a game with a coin. Polonius, the players, and Hamlet come in. Hamlet asks the Player to perform a play tomorrow night, with some added lines Hamlet himself has written. Everyone leaves but the Player, who regards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern coldly. They tease and berate him, and he angrily accuses them of leaving him and his troupe in the forest. He explains how awful it is to be in the middle of a play and then realize that there is no one in the audience. He tells them that he and his actors cannot even look at each other anymore, they are so ashamed. He makes a long speech about it, to which Guildenstern reacts ironically.

The Player haughtily tells them that he knows his way around the castle, and warns them to be careful. Guildenstern tries to get information, or at least sympathy, from the Player, but he tells them simply that life is confusing and uncertain, so they should just act natural and relax. They try to explain why they are there to the Player, but cannot even begin to grasp Hamletís state of mind: they suggest he is depressed, crazy, or neither. They really have no idea.

The Player points out that Polonius thinks that Hamlet is in love with Ophelia. Guildenstern decides to bring some order to the situation, forbidding anyone to leave, but then immediately lets the Player go learn his lines. Alone again, and depressed by it, they begin to talk about the future. Rosencrantz thinks of what it would be like to be dead, in a box. He canít decide whether or not it would be better to be alive in a box. He goes on and on about this, until finally Guildenstern screams at him to stop. Undaunted, Rosencrantz keeps right on talking, saying that eternity is an awful idea, because it never ends. He desperately wants someone, anyone, to come onstage. He wonders when we first learn about death. He reasons that the knowledge must have been devastating, and yet he canít remember it. All of this talk seems to be making him uncomfortable, because he continues his introspection (usually seen more in Guildenstern) until he finally decides he doesnít want anyone to come on, after all.


One must have a keen understanding of Hamlet in order to appreciate Stoppardís play. Hamletís father was secretly murdered by his brother Claudius. Claudius then married Gertrude, Hamletís widowed mother. Hamlet has a sense that something terrible has happened, and his father appears to him as a ghost, confirming his suspicions about his uncle (and now stepfather).

For a long time, Hamlet deliberates about whether or not to murder his uncle. He stages a play that mirrors the murder of his father, in order to let his uncle know that he is aware of the murder, and to observe his uncleís reaction. Claudius, meanwhile, has called in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, friends of Hamlet from his youth, to find out how much Hamlet knows. However, once Claudius sees the play Hamlet has staged, he realizes that Hamlet knows everything. Plus, Hamlet murders Polonius, Claudiusí advisor, in a fit of mad rage. Claudius promptly decides that Hamlet must be eliminated, and sends him to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be killed by the English King.

Hamlet, however, figures out the plan and switches the letter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have with a forged letter, which says that the English King should kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet returns home and kills Claudius in a milieu that includes many other deaths as well, including that of his mother Gertrude. The silliness of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern trying to figure out which direction south is made even more ridiculous by the fact that their efforts are pointless. Clearly, Hamletís claim of sanity depending on a south wind was just nonsense. Even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to know that, and yet they cannot resist getting caught up in such a ridiculous detail.

They get furious with each other, talking in circles, and reveal their complete ineptitude when they cannot even figure out whether it is morning or night. At the same time, however, the fact that their numerous questions are rarely answered leaves the audience feeling somewhat uncomfortable. All we know is what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell us, which is limited, to say the least. Their confusion keeps us confused.

We are never told, for example, by an omniscient narrator, whether it is morning or night. Thus, Rosencrantz and Guildensternís confusion becomes ominous, because it makes the audience insecure. It is one thing to laugh at a fool. But when we are no better off than the fool himself, our experience of the story changes, even if it is essentially a comedy. When they hope someone will come in, they seem to be looking at the audience for answers, or at least entertainment. This is extremely bizarre for an audience who is used to going to a play for entertainment, to lose themselves in a story.

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