The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead focuses on two minor characters from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c.1600-1601) and presents their dilemma at finding themselves trapped in a series of dramatic events over which they have no control. Act 1 opens with the two “passing the time in a place without any visible character.” They are tossing coins, Rosencrantz calling heads and Guildenstern tails, and Rosencrantz’s purse is already stuffed with the coins he has won when the story begins. As toss after toss comes up heads, Guildenstern concludes that the law of probability is no longer in effect and speculates with some anxiety on what the cause of this strange phenomenon may be. Rosencrantz is less worried by the situation; he is, after all, winning. As the two engage in exchanges marked by witty and elaborate wordplay, it becomes apparent that neither can remember an existence prior to their awakening earlier that day, when a messenger from King Claudius summoned them to Elsinore.

As they stand paralyzed by indecision over what their course of action should be, they are overtaken on the road by a group of strolling players, who offer their services to the pair for a fee. The two soon realize, however, that the “services” to which their spokesman, The Player, refers are sexual rather than theatrical. As The Player explains, “It costs little to watch, and little more if you happen to get caught up in the action, if that’s your taste and times being what they are.” Guildenstern is struck with a sense of foreboding by the idea of getting caught up in the action and implies that the actors are heralds of his own death. He persuades the actors to bet double or nothing with him on a series of coin tosses and by betting “heads” wins from them the price of a performance. The Player offers him the troupe’s young boy, Alfred, for his pleasure, but Guildenstern demands an actual play; the actors are preparing to comply when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves suddenly transported to Elsinore.

They are welcomed by King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, who ask them to speak with their longtime friend, Hamlet, the Queen’s son, and undertake to discover what has caused the marked change in his behavior. Left to themselves, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern confess that they are baffled and frightened by the scene in which they find themselves, having as they do no recollection of anything prior to that day. In an attempt to prepare for their encounter with Hamlet they act out the probable scene to come, with Guildenstern pretending to be the Prince. The pair quickly realize Hamlet’s situation—his...

(The entire section is 1093 words.)