Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Act 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Hamlet's conversation continues from the previous scene, though what they're saying is at first indecipherable. The first discernable line is Hamlet's: "S'blood, there is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out." There sounds a flourish from the Tragedians' band and Guildenstern notes that they're "the players." Hamlet once again welcomes Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, says they must all continue being fashionable and ceremonious, and notes his "uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived" since he is only mad when the wind blows "north north-west" and when it blows south, he knows "a hawk from a handsaw."
In calling the situation "more than natural," Hamlet describes the absurdity of his world – it seems to act outside the bounds of natural law and logic. His advice to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz calls on them to act out artificial identities by behaving fashionable and ceremonious (rather than just being natural). His hybrid descriptions of Claudius and Gertrude show how muddled their identities have grown: each drifts between two roles, occupying neither one stably.
Themes
Individual Identity Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
Polonius enters and calls out to them. Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that Polonius is a baby, and then walks upstage with Rosencrantz. Polonius says he has news for Hamlet and Hamlet mimics him saying, "I have news to tell you…When Roscius was an actor in Rome." Hamlet and Polonius exit.
Hamlet's jibes are aimed at Polonius' identity – they call him a baby (when he is of course a grown man) and mimic his voice. Polonius' line alludes to Classical theater – Roscius was an actor in ancient Rome.
Themes
Individual Identity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are reluctant to speak, hemming and hawing between them. Guildenstern suggests that they "made some headway" but Rosencrantz says that Hamlet "made us look ridiculous." They assess their interaction with the prince in terms of the questions game, which, Rosencrantz points out, Hamlet beat them at by a long shot. "He murdered us," Rosencrantz notes. Guildenstern tries to look on the bright side, saying that they at least got Hamlet's "symptoms" but Rosencrantz insists that those didn't make any sense.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are upset because they've been unable to exercise their own wills in Hamlet's company. He holds complete control over them. Yet their understanding of how Hamlet exercises that control is absurd: they again return to the game of questions which leeches language of meaningful content and treats conversation like a tennis game. Metaphoric use of 'murder' foreshadows their literal murders at Hamlet's hand.
Themes
Death Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
Remembering Hamlet's comments about the wind's direction, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to figure out which way is South, wondering if it's in the direction of the audience. They can't figure it out and their attempts to orient themselves by the sun, by the direction of their own travels, and by licking their fingers (to test the wind) all prove frustratingly futile. "You seem to have no conception of where we stand!" Guildenstern shouts at Rosencrantz, "You won't find the answer written down for you in the bowl of a compass."
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's futile attempts to determine their geographic coordinates further emphasize just how absurd their situation is. The reality they're occupying floats outside the scope of conventional measuring tools: they can't use a compass or the sun to locate themselves in this absurd world.
Themes
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern give up on the question of direction and wonder instead whether someone will come on stage. Rosencrantz suggests that Guildenstern shout in order to intrigue someone into coming on, bit Guildenstern refuses, explaining that they are "condemned" to "their own pace" and that if they act spontaneously they will ruin the "order" – "at least, let us hope so." Then he notes that, if he and Rosencrantz "happened to discover, or even suspect", that their own "spontaneity was part of [the others'] order" Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would "know that [they] were lost."
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's exchange describes the theater – the "order" of the plot, the sequence of entrances on stage – as a set of constraints on their own reality. Yet they will only truly be "lost" if they give up on the belief that they can act spontaneously within those constraints. To discover that even their spontaneity was scripted would to be to lose their free will to the theater, and thus be "lost."
Themes
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
Rosencrantz shouts "Fire!" and, when Guildenstern leaps up, Rosencrantz says he's just "demonstrating the misuse of free speech. To prove that it exists." He looks for movement in the direction of the audience, doesn't see any, and says the audience should burn to death. He takes out a coin to toss but claims not to have looked to see which face it fell on. Guildenstern asks Rosencrantz what the last thing he remembers is and, when Rosencrantz says he doesn't want to think of it, Guildenstern reflects that "we cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us" so that they have no sign of their own progress except "a memory of the smell of smoke." Rosencrantz hides the coin between his fists and has Guildenstern guess which fist. When both his hands are empty and the coin isn't in his pocket or on the floor, Rosencrantz first laughs, then grows puzzled.
Rosencrantz' exclamation makes a joke on the themes of free will and theater – he shouts in order to "prove" free speech (the free will to speak as one pleases) and then insults the audience for treating his free speech like a scripted line in a play (which, of course, it is) rather than a real-life warning. Guildenstern's view on human beings' relationship to the past describes individuals existing in a hellish and absurd present with no memory of past experience beyond a vague grim inkling of loss. Rosencrantz unwittingly demonstrates the sort of human helplessness Guildenstern just described when the coin trick he thinks he's in charge of ends up mysteriously eluding him.
Themes
Free Will Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
Polonius enters and exits with Hamlet and the Tragedians. Hamlet makes arrangements with the Player for a performance of The Murder of Gonzago the next night with a short speech written by Hamlet and inserted into it. Hamlet greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and exits. "So you've caught up," Guildenstern says to the Player, who responds coldly, "Not yet, sir." Guildenstern and Rosencrantz banter back and forth, tossing off different expressions for being speechless ("lost for words," "tongue-tied," "a mute in a monologue," etc.)
Here the play-within-a-play dimension that was first introduced with the Tragedians in Act One grows even more complex: the Tragedians have crossed into the world of Hamlet and are hired to perform the very play (The Murder of Gonzago) that constitutes the play-within-the-play in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Here, it will be the play-within-a-play-within-a-play…
Themes
The Theater Theme Icon
The Player reveals the cause of his cold manner: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern left in the middle of the Tragedians' play, leading the Tragedians to act on for a while without any audience which caused them immense humiliation. In despair, the Player laments at great length about the players' loss of dignity: "to be tricked out of the single assumption which makes our existence viable – that somebody is watching…" After the Player's account, Guildenstern claps and good-naturedly comments on the Player's speech as if it were a professional performance.
The Player's complaints construct a definition for identity in theater: he reveals that an actor's identity ("our existence") is entirely dependent on the audience (those somebodies "watching"). Guildenstern's applause then treats the Player's rant as a performance (rather than the expression of personal feelings). The Player has, after all, said in Act One that he is always in character.
Themes
Individual Identity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
Guildenstern and Rosencrantz tell the Player they've made it up to him by booking him a performance at court and coach him in how to perform for royalty: "a good clean show" with none of the "usual filth." But the Player informs them that the Tragedians' have "always" had a booking with the court and that he's been to court before. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are surprised and intrigued.
Guildenstern's advice to the Player refers back to the grand, high-minded ideals of theater that Guildenstern first elucidated in Act One. The Player's information instantly disempowers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by revealing that their will has had no influence on the booking.
Themes
Free Will Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
The Player starts to leave but Guildenstern tries first calmly, then desperately, to get him to stay and advise them on what to do. The Player tells them to relax, respond, stop asking so many questions, and to "act natural." When Guildenstern says he doesn't know whether the information he and Rosencrantz have been given is true, the Player tells them "Everything has to be taken on trust; truth is only that which is taken to be true…One acts on assumptions." He asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern what their assumptions are and the three confusedly bounce possibilities for Hamlet's state off one another: "melancholy," "madness," "moods," moroseness." The exchange gradually devolves into nonsense: "stark raving sane," Rosencrantz concludes.
Coming from the mouth of someone who claims to always be acting, the phrase 'act natural' (which typically means not to act) suggests an artifice to even 'natural' behavior. The Player's definition of truth denies the existence of essential truths and reduces truth to the status of individual human illusion. Each person occupies an absurd, precarious world of personal "assumptions" that may or may not be shared by those around them. As a phrase, "Stark raving sane" well-captures Hamlet's state: at once both sane and insane.
Themes
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the Player next try to pinpoint the cause of Hamlet's state, a conversation that proves equally futile: "The old man thinks he's in love with his daughter," the Player says, but Rosencrantz is confused by the pronouns. Guildenstern barks out that nobody can leave because "all this strolling about is getting too arbitrary" but the Player insists he has lines to learn and Guildenstern relents. The Player exits. Rosencrantz shouts "Next!" and no one comes on stage. Guildenstern asks what he expected and Rosencrantz replies, "Something…someone…nothing."
Rosencrantz's confusion about pronouns echoes the blurred identities that Hamlet centers around (the uncle become the father, the mother become the aunt). Guildenstern's sternly issued then immediately relented order illustrates just how desperate and absurd is his attempt to gain some control of the situation. He has next to no free will within the theatrical framework. Indeed, he defers without protest to the Player's plan to go learn lines.
Themes
Individual Identity Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reflect on Rosencrantz's coin trick, which Guildenstern was impressed by. They decide to "think of the future," "to have one" since "one is…having it all the time…now…and now…" They then begin to discuss death and Rosencrantz reflects on how difficult it is to "think of yourself as actually dead" in a box since one can only think of oneself alive. He reflects it'd be better to be buried alive in a box as "you could lie there thinking—well, at least I'm not dead!" and could tell oneself that someone was going to come by and get one out. Guildenstern shouts at Rosencrantz to stop his musings: "You don't have to flog it to death!"
Again, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's unusual way with words reveals hidden significance in common phrases: to 'have' a future typically means to possess one, but they show it can also mean to pass one's future, to experience and engage it. The present is thus just the future being 'had.' In having trouble actually imagining death, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's conversation reflects death's utter unknowability.
Themes
Death Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
Rosencrantz continues: "Eternity is a terrible thought." He babbles on half-telling religious jokes, then stands up shouting offstage: "All right, we know you're in there! Come out talking!" Then he wonders what "became of the moment when one first knew about death" as he can't remember it. He suspects one must know about death at birth, before one even has words for it. He again shouts offstage: "Keep out, then! I forbid anyone to enter!" and, when again no one comes, remarks "That's better…"
By interspersing Rosencrantz's talk of death with his futile attempts to exercise his will over the other play's characters, this passage relates three themes: death, free will, and theater. Death and theater are shown to be similar in both being non-negotiable. As Rosencrantz can neither understand nor control death, he can't understand or control the play.
Themes
Death Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
At once, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia enter, behind Rosencrantz upstage. Claudius takes Rosencrantz by the elbow and they plunge deep into conversation. Stage directions note the context: "Shakespeare Act III, scene i." Still facing front, Guildenstern reflects, "Death followed by eternity…the worst of both worlds," then turns upstage to take Rosencrantz's place with Claudius while Gertrude asks Rosencrantz about their progress with Hamlet. Guildenstern joins in too. Rosencrantz, obviously lying, tells Gertrude that Hamlet asked few questions and answered all of theirs. In actual lines from Shakespeare's play, Rosencrantz reports that he and Guildenstern have enticed Hamlet with the Players and Gertrude thanks them. Telling Gertrude that he has sent for Hamlet to trick him into confronting Ophelia, Claudius leads everyone to exit but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
The characters' sudden entrance undercuts Rosencrantz's just-uttered prohibition (forbidding anyone to enter) and further emphasizes the ineffectuality of Rosencrantz's will. Indeed, he and Guildenstern are immediately swept up into the other characters' action, telling Gertrude just what she wants to hear (rather than telling her the truth) and dutifully speaking lines from Shakespeare's script from Hamlet. Their motions back and forth to take each other's physical places on stage further demonstrates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's interchangeability.
Themes
Individual Identity Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
Rosencrantz, announcing he's fed up with the others always going to and fro, makes to leave stage himself. He loses confidence. Looking offstage, he notices Hamlet's coming and runs back downstage to tell Guildenstern. Guildenstern laments ever getting Hamlet "into conversation." Hamlet enters and pauses, deciding whether or not to speak. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch and Rosencrantz observes half-heartedly that it's their chance to "accost him" but can't get himself to do it. He tells Guildenstern that their problem is that they're "overawed," and keep succumbing to the others' "personality."
While Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's exasperation and insurmountable passivity illustrates their own lack of free will, it also echoes the struggles with passivity and free will explored in Shakespeare's original play. In Hamlet, Hamlet repeatedly tries to confront Claudius and exact revenge upon him and repeatedly cannot bring himself to actually do so. He, too, grows frustrated and questioning of the world and of himself.
Themes
Free Will Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
Ophelia enters with a prayerbook. Hamlet greets her and they exit talking. Guildenstern sarcastically congratulates Rosencrantz on intercepting them, then orders Rosencrantz to "shut up and sit down. Stop being perverse." A female figure appearing to be the Queen enters and Rosencrantz ambushes her from behind, covers her eyes, and "with a desperate frivolity" asks "Guess who?!" The Player enters downstage and shouts for Alfred, who, it turns out, is the figure Rosencrantz mistook for the Queen. Rosencrantz approaches the Player and attempts to reach under the Player's foot, but the Player slams his foot down on Rosencrantz's hand. "I put my foot down," the Player says when Guildenstern asks what happened. Rosencrantz, confused, grabs Guildenstern and begs him not leave him.
When Rosencrantz finally manages to surmount his passivity and actively intercepts the queen, his action proves fruitless. The female figure is not Gertrude but only Alfred. Rosencrantz, who thought he was at last taking initiative to affect the world of Hamlet, ends up affecting nothing. At the same time, this mix-up connects the themes of identity and theater, exemplifying the way in which a costume can shift someone's identity. The Player's action makes literal a normally rhetorical phrase, an absurd and sinister operation.
Themes
Individual Identity Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
More of the Tragedians enter, one dressed as a King. The Player explains they are doing a dress rehearsal and that, because they always use the same costumes, the players often "forget what they are supposed to be in." After some bumbling, the dress rehearsal begins with a dumbshow, which, the Player explains, makes the subsequent action easier to understand. In the dumbshow, the Player-Brother of the King poisons the Player-King to death and woos the widowed Player-Queen.
Like the Player's earlier claim to be always in character, the Tragedians' confusion blurs the boundaries of theater, turning a collection of discrete plays into one vague, ongoing production, each performance indistinguishable from the last. The dumbshow is the same dumbshow the Players perform in Hamlet: its action mimics Claudius' murder of Hamlet's father and wooing of Gertrude.
Themes
The Theater Theme Icon
Ophelia enters wailing and followed by a hysterically shouting Hamlet. Then addressing her and the Tragedians as well (and looking pointedly at the Player-Queen and Player-Brother, Hamlet explains there will be no more marriage and that of those already married "all but one shall live… The rest shall keep as they are." He tells Ophelia to go to a nunnery and exits. Ophelia collapses. The Player-King starts his lines for the play.
Hamlet and Ophelia's interruption further blurs the boundaries of theater: characters drawn from one play (Shakespeare's) walk in on characters rehearsing another play, all within the context of a larger play (Stoppard's). By addressing the Tragedians', Hamlet further muddles this boundary.
Themes
The Theater Theme Icon
Claudius and Polonius enter and lift Ophelia to her feet. The Tragedians leap back and incline their heads. Claudius speaks actual lines from Hamlet, musing on Hamlet's psychological state. He's not in love, Claudius thinks, and not mad, but his soul is plagued by a threatening melancholy that has persuaded Claudius to send Hamlet off to England. Claudius, Polonius, and Ophelia exit.
Continuing to play with the idea of theater, the Tragedians' who had just been performing a play suddenly become audience members who "incline their heads" to watch Claudius and Polonius speak lines from Shakespeare's play.
Themes
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
The Player claps his hands for attention and tells the Tragedians they're not "getting across." He calls for them to start Act Two and, when Guildenstern expresses surprise that the dumbshow hasn't just ended, the Player is astonished that Guildenstern would think it could end with "everyone on his feet. My goodness no—over your dead body." He explains to a bewildered Guildenstern that events have to "play themselves out to aesthetic, moral and logical conclusion" which always means that "everyone who is marked for death dies." "Marked?" Guildenstern asks. The Player speaks on despite Guildenstern's confusion and when Guildenstern asks who gets to decide what happens, the Player replies that it's "written." Guildenstern grabs him violently but the Player, unfazed, explains that there is "no choice involved. The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means."
The Player's explanations to Guildenstern directly articulate the connections between death, free will, and theater: as death is the inevitable ending of life, so too is it the "aesthetic, moral and logical conclusion" of drama. As humans have no free will to decide whether or not to progress towards death, so too is a play compelled by its script, unable to choose to act otherwise. Earlier, Guildenstern used the word "marked" to describe being in a designated position on stage. Yet the Player extends the verb's definition revealing that a play's character is not just "marked" by being positioned on stage but by being positioned to die.
Themes
Death Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
The Player calls for the Tragedians to take up Act Two and the action begins. The Player-Queen and Player-Brother engage in a love scene. The Player explains that the Player-Brother has ascended to the throne and won the Player-Queen's heart without her knowing that he'd killed her husband, the Player-King. Rosencrantz protests saying an audience won't want to watch "filth." The Player insists that that's exactly what people want to watch.
Again, the action of the Tragedians' play parallels the action of the play-within-the-play in Hamlet as well as the action of Hamlet itself. Again, the Player cynically insists that high-minded ideals have no place in the theater, whose audiences want only crude entertainments.
Themes
The Theater Theme Icon
The dumbshow continues with the Player narrating everything for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern while now also playing Lucianus, the Player-Brother's nephew, who, devastated by his uncle's marriage to his mother, turns crazy and murderous. They act out a stylized version of Hamlet's "Closet Scene" (in which Hamlet confronts Gertrude and murders Polonius). Here, the Player-King stands in for the Polonius figure. The Player-Brother, guilty and fearful, hires "two spies" to take Lucianus to England with a letter for the King of England. They sail and arrive in England, but Lucianus has disappeared. The King of England (played by the Player-King) reads the letter and orders the two spies' deaths. "A twist of fate and cunning has put into their hands a letter that seals their deaths!" the Player explains. The two spies wear exactly the same coats as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern approach the spies thoughtfully, as if they recognize them, but can't put their finger on what the recognition is. "You must have mistaken me for someone else," Rosencrantz finally tells the spy dressed like him.
The dumbshow's action continues to parallel the plot of Hamlet, now moving on to represent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's role and fate in Shakespeare's play. Watching the dumbshow, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern thus confront their own lives' trajectories, the source of their identities. That the dumbshow versions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wear the same clothing as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watching the play makes this parallel painfully obvious. Yet because Stoppard has appropriated the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern without allowing them any memory of their roles in Hamlet, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watching the play can't recognize themselves in their own roles. They have only a vague sense of their identities, a fact Rosencrantz illustrates by mixing himself up with the spy.
Themes
Death Theme Icon
Individual Identity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
The Player calls the play "a slaughterhouse" and says it thus brings out the Tragedians' best. When Guildenstern protests that actors know nothing of death, the Player insists to the contrary. "[T]heir talent is dying" he says of the Tragedians. His own, he says, is to "extract significance from melodrama" where there is actually only meaninglessness. Guildenstern grows increasingly upset, exclaiming that death on stage is nothing like real death. The Player again contradicts him, pointing out that, when one of his actors was condemned to death, he had the execution performed on stage and that it "just wasn't convincing!" The audience jeered it. "Audiences know what to expect," the Player says, "and that is all they are prepared to believe in." The two spies act out death as lights fade and Guildenstern insists that death is not "gasps and blood and falling about…It's just a man failing to reappear." Rosencrantz claps for the spies. The lights black out.
This exchange connects the themes of death and theater with the world's absurdity. Though Guildenstern insists that death is not about theatricality or melodrama, the Player explains that in fact the melodramatic deaths of the theater are the only version of death that people can understand or recognize. It shapes human expectations, and people absurdly end up (as in the Player's story) having expectations that an actual death should live up to the terms of staged deaths. The Player's seemingly absurd claim – that the Tragedians' "talent is dying" – is in fact literally true. Every mortal being possesses the talent of dying.
Themes
Death Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
Through the dark come shouts to "Give o'er the play" and cries for lights. The lights come on as a sunrise on a stage empty except for two figures lying down in the exact positions where the two spies died. The figures are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Still prone, they argue about which way is east. Guildenstern says "they're waiting to see what we're going to do" and that, as soon as they act, the others will come racing on to confuse them.
Lights rising as sunrise (rather than stage lights) indicates a shift into the "real world" of the play. The reflections are dizzying. In this world, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have taken the positions of the actors' who were just executed in the dumbshow (as indeed those actors' roles were simply modeled on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's actual fate).
Themes
Individual Identity Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
Before Rosencrantz can protest, Claudius calls Guildenstern's name from offstage. Claudius and Gertrude enter. Claudius explains that Hamlet has killed Polonius in madness and asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to go find Hamlet and bring the corpse to the chapel. Claudius and Gertrude exit. Alone on stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern procrastinate following Claudius' order and make numerous false starts to leave stage in search of Hamlet. Finally, seeing Hamlet approaching from offstage, they make traps with their belts for Hamlet to trip over coming on stage. Hamlet enters from the opposite end of stage dragging the corpse of Polonius and exits from the same side. "That was close," Rosencrantz says.
Though they may still be passive and ineffectual, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's attitude towards the Hamlet plot has grown more agitated, even vindictive, as they try to trap Hamlet into falling on his face. Nevertheless, they remain afraid and threatened by Hamlet and are thus relieved by being spared an interaction with him. Polonius is the first real corpse of the play.
Themes
Death Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
Confused again, Rosencrantz shouts for Hamlet, who comes on stage. They ask about the corpse, which Hamlet says he's compounded. When Rosencrantz asks where he put the corpse, Hamlet tells them not to believe "I can keep your counsel and not mine own." He calls Rosencrantz "a sponge…that soaks up the King's countenance, his rewards, his authorities" and warns Rosencrantz that the King will throw him away once he's done with him. He orders Guildenstern to bring him to the king. The three approach one side of the stage and Hamlet bows, presumably towards an approaching Claudius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern follow and while they're deep in their bows, Hamlet turns and exits stage from the other direction. Claudius enters behind Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and demands, to their dismay, that they bring him Hamlet. They lie and say Hamlet is under guard right outside. Then, just as Claudius exits, Hamlet is escorted by a guard onstage and off, following Claudius.
Hamlet, previously friendly and welcoming to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, has soured towards them. He accurately accuses them of being Claudius' pawns. By ordering them to take him to the king, he undercuts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's will. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were supposed to order Hamlet to accompany them to Claudius but Hamlet has turned this escort into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's obedient fulfillment of his own order. Again, just as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to be getting a grasp over the situation, Hamlet eludes them. Then, again, Hamlet undercuts their authority by performing the action they would have ordered him to do (i.e. approaching Claudius) on his own.
Themes
Free Will Theme Icon
Lighting changes to Exterior. Guildenstern, pensive, reflects that "it doesn't seem enough; to have breathed such significance." Rosencrantz reflects that it was "a trying episode" but that "they're done with us now." "Done what?" Guildenstern asks. Rosencrantz breezily dismisses everything, claiming not to care, then catches sight of Hamlet offstage. Guildenstern exclaims he knew it wasn't over and that they will be taking Hamlet to England.
Guildenstern's reflection indirectly describes the experience of speaking a play's lines (and echoes the Player's earlier comments on melodrama's "significance"). Guildenstern's mishearing – thinking "done" means 'performed' rather than 'finished – turns a conclusion into a continuation of action. Indeed, the play will go on.
Themes
Free Will Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
Hamlet enters with a soldier who explains that the troops coming through are sent against Poland by Fortinbras of Norway. The soldier exits and Rosencrantz approaches Hamlet, asking if he'd like to go. Hamlet says he will in a minute but that Rosencrantz should go first. Hamlet turns to face upstage. Rosencrantz returns downstage. Guildenstern faces front and doesn't turn, asking Rosencrantz about what Hamlet's doing. Rosencrantz looks over his shoulder and reports that Hamlet's talking to himself. He starts to leave, pointing out that Hamlet gave them permission to. Guildenstern says, "I like to know where I am. Even if I don't know where I am, I like to know that. If we go there's no knowing." "No knowing what?" Rosencrantz asks. "If we'll ever come back," Guildenstern replies. Rosencrantz points out that they don't want to return, that once they leave they'll "be free." Guildenstern is skeptical, but follows Rosencrantz to exit. Blackout.
The impending arrival of Fortinbras is carried over from Hamlet. As usual, Hamlet turns any order of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's into an order of his own: though he consents to board the ship for England, he insists Rosencrantz go on ahead of him. Guildenstern's insistence on knowing where he is, even if that means knowing he's lost, demonstrates his desperate wish to exert his will and gain control (knowledge) of his situation. Yet Rosencrantz suggests that having some control (knowledge) of an undesirable situation is not as good as surrendering all control for the opportunity to escape that undesirable situation. These are their only options in this absurd world. And at the same time it describes human of the real world, who seem always to be forgetting that their fate is sealed: they are going to die.
Themes
Free Will Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon