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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: LESSON PLANS / NOTES

ACT TWO

SCENE 2: Things Start to Fall Apart at the Castle

Summary

Immediately after Rosencrantz decides he doesn’t want anyone to come in, everyone except Hamlet does. Gertrude and Claudius question Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: How did Hamlet seem to them? Did he answer their questions? Did they do anything together for entertainment? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respond that Hamlet seems fine. They explain (lying) that their conversation went fairly well--Hamlet answered their questions easily, and he seemed happy to hear that the Player and his troupe were coming to the castle. Polonius agrees with this, saying that Hamlet has told him to ask the King and Queen to attend the play. Gertrude and the King agree happily, seeming pleased about Hamlet’s apparent recovery.

They all leave, and Rosencrantz is perturbed that he is so much at the mercy of the court. He decides to leave, though Guildenstern doesn’t seem to believe he’ll actually do it. Sure enough, as he begins to walk off, he catches sight of Hamlet and comes running back. They watch Hamlet together as he tries to decide whether or not to kill himself. Rosencrantz tries to gather up the courage to speak to Hamlet, but he cannot do it. He is, as he says, “overawed” by Hamlet’s personality. Ophelia comes in, and Hamlet leaves with her. Guildenstern ridicules Rosencrantz, telling him to stop trying to influence things and simply sit down and be quiet. Rosencrantz, hysterical, tries to tease someone who seems to be the Queen but turns out to be Alfred, the young actor from the Player’s troupe.

More actors enter the room, till all the exits are blocked, and Rosencrantz finally gives up and sits down. The actors start their dress rehearsal for the play they are to perform for Hamlet. It begins with a pantomime, which explains the action to follow. (The Player explains that the language of the play is very difficult to understand.) The silent action shows the King and Queen embracing. He falls asleep, and she leaves him. The King’s brother enters and pours a bottle of poison into the ear of the sleeping King. The Queen comes in and, finding her husband dead, cries. The Poisoner consoles her, until she accepts his love.

The mime ends and Ophelia runs on, Hamlet right after her. He cries out that he will allow no more marriage, and fiercely demands that Ophelia go to a nunnery. Ophelia falls to the floor weeping, as Hamlet storms out. After a moment, the actor playing the new King begins to speak again. Abruptly, Claudius and Polonius enter, and help Ophelia to her feet. Claudius decides that Hamlet is not acting strangely because he is in love with Ophelia. He is worried that the reason for Hamlet’s angst is going to be revealed in some way dangerous to him, so he decides to send Hamlet to England.

As the three leave the room, the Player, without missing a beat, begins to critique his cast’s performance. He calls to move on to Act Two, and when Guildenstern is surprised that there is more to the story, the Player laughs: how could the play end if almost no one is dead? He tells Guildenstern that art has a design to it that must be played out. The design never changes--the play cannot end until everyone who is meant to die dies. He explains that this is a good thing, since his actors are so good at dying. The story works this way because it is written this way--the Player denies that any decision was made to make it that way--it just is. There is no choice for the actors.


The pantomime resumes: the new King and the Queen are locked in a very sexual embrace. Rosencrantz protests, saying people don’t want to see that, but the Player happily assures him that they do. He then comes on stage as Lucianus, nephew to the poisoner-King. The Player, as Lucianus, acts the part of Hamlet: he staggers around the stage, weeping, raging, and murdering a “Polonius” figure. Throughout the pantomime, he describes what he is doing to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and it is evident that Lucianus is a perfect replica of Hamlet. He is even being sent to England, in the care of two “friends--courtiers----two spies.”

The Player goes on: these spies are given a letter to give the English court, and take a ship to England. The letter requests that the English King murder Lucianus, but once they get there, Lucianus has disappeared and the letter has been switched for another, asking the King to kill the spies. The Player removes the spies’ coats, revealing that they wear coats identical to those of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Clearly, they are meant to represent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s role in the story. Rosencrantz, seeing something familiar about them, approaches one spy.

After some thought, he decides that the spy must be mistaken--he doesn’t know him after all. Guildenstern looks at the other spy, confused. When the Player asks him if he knows the play, Guildenstern says he doesn’t. When the Player reiterates how great he and his troupe are at playing death, Guildenstern begins to get angry. He demands to know what these actors could possibly know about death. The Player explains that the actors represent death perfectly. Guildenstern rejects this, calling it “cheap melodrama,” which doesn’t bring the significance of real death home to any audience. The Player argues that in fact, their kind of death is the only kind the audience can believe in. Once, he says, he was able to show a real death on stage, and it was a disaster--no one believed it was real!

Undisturbed, the Player turns back to the spies on stage, who are about to pantomime death. As they do, the light fades, and Guildenstern protests. He says death is not dramatic: it happens suddenly, but the reality of it sinks in slowly, as those left behind realize that the dead person is never coming back. The stage goes black, and one hears screams of people attending the play, who see that the King is very upset and call for the play to stop. After a moment, the stage lights as a sunrise. Only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are left on stage, in the positions the spies fell when they died. They wake up slowly, and begin earnestly trying to determine which way is east based on where the sun is in the sky. Guildenstern keeps knocking down Rosencrantz’s attempts to get his bearings. Just as they are complaining that any moment someone is going to come in, shouting at them confusedly, Claudius calls to Guildenstern. Claudius and Gertrude enter, clearly upset. Hamlet has murdered Polonius, and the King wants Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find out where he is and bring the body to the chapel.

At first, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are paralyzed. They try to evaluate their situation. Rosencrantz decides that this turn of events is positive, because they are finally being given direct and simple orders: go find the body! Guildenstern misinterprets this, thinking that Rosencrantz is happy that Polonius is dead. They go through a lengthy process of deciding how to search for Hamlet. First, they begin to go in opposite directions. Then they decide Hamlet might be dangerous, so they should go together. Then they realize that if they leave, and Hamlet comes there, they will feel silly. So they return to their original positions on stage. Guildenstern points out that of course he might not come, but Rosencrantz is confident. However, when he sees Hamlet coming, he is shocked. Hamlet is dragging Polonius, and suddenly Guildenstern has an idea. They undo their belts and join them together, holding them out as a rope for Hamlet to walk into. But Hamlet enters and exits from the same side, never even seeing them.

Barely fazed, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern consider that there wasn’t much else they could have done. When Guildenstern suggests that Hamlet might come back again, Rosencrantz begins to take off his belt again, and Guildenstern angrily entreats him not to make the same mistake twice. Rosencrantz decides he will call for Hamlet, and then is shocked when Hamlet responds. Rosencrantz tries to find out where Hamlet has taken the body, but Hamlet teases him. He knows Rosencrantz is a “sponge” who is working for the King, and he bitterly lets Rosencrantz know that he knows. Rosencrantz doesn’t understand his teasing. Hamlet finally agrees to go with them, and walks toward the door.

Suddenly he appears to see Claudius and bows deeply. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern follow his lead, and when their heads are lowered Hamlet walks offstage. Claudius comes in behind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are thoroughly confused. Claudius demands Hamlet, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t sure what to do--till an escort, luckily, brings Hamlet in at the last moment. Everyone else leaves, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are left alone again. They at first try to believe that they are done at the castle, but realize despairingly that they now have to take Hamlet to England. Rosencrantz tries to claim that he doesn’t care what anyone wants him to do, or the reasons for it.

They hear Hamlet offstage again, and Rosencrantz reports that he is talking--to a soldier, and to himself. Rosencrantz suddenly mentions that the weather must change at some time--the spring can’t last forever. Guildenstern agrees, calling the mood “autumnal,” which he says has nothing to do with leaves. It is about color--everything is turning brown. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hear the Tragedians’ band again, very faintly. After the soldier leaves Hamlet, Rosencrantz asks him if he would like to depart as well. Hamlet tells him to go with Guildenstern ahead, and he will catch up. Guildenstern seems immobilized. He is afraid that if he leaves, he won’t know anything anymore--at least where he is now, he knows he doesn’t know where he is. He worries that they might never come back, and Rosencrantz points out that they don’t want to come back. Guildenstern counters with, “but do we want to go?” Rosencrantz tries to tell him that they will no longer be obligated to some higher authority if they leave, but Guildenstern isn’t so sure they’ll actually be free. Rosencrantz argues that they have come a long way already, and anything can still happen. They leave together, and the stage blacks out.

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