Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

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Jaded, domineering, loud-mouthed and long-winded, the Player is the leader of the Tragedians and frequently expounds on the view that humanity's only real understanding of death is as a melodramatic death on stage. Though Rosencrantz and especially Guildenstern resist his cynical perspectives, the Player and his troupe reappear again and again to undermine all traces of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's idealism and encourage their darkest views on the essential meaninglessness of human life.

The Player Quotes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead quotes below are all either spoken by The Player or refer to The Player. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Death Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Grove Press edition of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead published in 1967.
Act 1 Quotes

We have no control. Tonight we play to the court. Or the night after. Or to the tavern. Or not.

Related Characters: The Player (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have just met the Tragedians, who arrive on stage with a cart full of props. The Player, their spokesperson, first offers them a private performance, making various ribald suggestions, and then he exchanges a few gloomy words with Guildenstern. 

Here, we encounter one of Stoppard's many meta-theatrical flourishes: while the Tragedians are the actors in the play's universe, everyone on stage is an actor in the audience's universe. Stoppard asks us some difficult questions in this section: is the stage all that different from our daily reality? Do we all progress along paths without any agency, just as actors follow their scripts? The Player's repeated and fragmented use of "or" brings to mind the very monotony of a world without free will: each person's path is fixed yet unknown to him. And we see this combination of monotony and confusion throughout the work; characters react to events with an unruffled calm and yet never fully understand the plot's trajectory. 

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Act 2 Quotes

You don't understand the humiliation of it—to be tricked out of the single assumption which makes our existence viable—that somebody is watching

Related Characters: The Player (speaker), Rosencrantz, Guildenstern
Page Number: 63
Explanation and Analysis:

In Act 2, the Tragedians arrive at Elsinore, where they plan to perform "The Murder of Gonzago" at Hamlet's request. The latter has just retired for the night, leaving Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the actors on stage. The Player confronts the two men and explains that their behavior — they walked away midway through the Tragedians' performance — has offended the troupe.

Here, Stoppard again reminds us that his play works on many levels: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are audience members, in a sense, and yet they are also merely characters played by actors. The "somebody watching" in this section is not only Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, but also anyone watching Stoppard's play. The play-within-a-play structure of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" is an allusion to Shakespeare's original, which features the same device, as well as a commentary on the similarities between life in and outside the theater. Of course, actors can only perform if "somebody is watching," but all of us, even off stage, must act and speak before witnesses, people who can attest to our reality. 

Everything has to be taken on trust; truth is only that which is taken to be true. It's the currency of living. There may be nothing behind it, but it doesn't make any difference so long as it is honoured. One acts on assumptions.

Related Characters: The Player (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Coin
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are relieved that the Tragedians have arrived at Elsinore: Guildenstern explains that they are otherwise alone and that their solitude breeds uncertainty and uneasiness. In response, the Player instructs them to "act natural" and take things on trust, since he considers truth inaccessible. 

This section calls to mind the earlier bet between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and its unlikely outcome. The word "currency" reminds us of the ninety-two coin tosses, all of which landed on heads: both men trusted that the coin would follow a particular law of probability, though it did not. In this way, Stoppard brings our attention to the discrepancy between reality and a governing law, reality and some imagined deeper truth. The Player explains that we all must make decisions relying only an incomplete and faulty understanding of the situation, relying only our assumptions. The verb "acts" is also crucial to this quote, as Stoppard again acknowledges the blurry boundary between the theater and life.  

Do you call that an ending?—with practically everyone on his feet? My goodness no—over your dead body.

Related Characters: The Player (speaker), Rosencrantz, Guildenstern
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

The Tragedians begin their rehearsal of "The Murder of Gonzago" only to be interrupted by Hamlet and a wailing Ophelia, who come onstage and promptly break off their engagement. When the tumult has died down and the actors begin their rehearsal anew, Guildenstern asks: "Wasn't that the end?" The Player is shocked, and adamant that a play's ending involve multiple deaths.

Humor plays an essential role in this passage, as it does throughout the text. The Player uses the idiom "over your dead body" to express his dismay at Guildenstern's question; however, the expression also functions on a literal level, as no ending is complete without a pile of dead bodies, in the Player's estimation. Again, the play within a play sheds light on Stoppard's work and Hamlet itself, both of which end with the deaths of major characters. By virtue of his occupational knowledge, the Player understands much about the shared fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While this line does indeed foreshadow the play's grim ending, almost every interaction and pun in the play has a similar effect. Even the title, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, lays out the central plot point. 

It's what the actors do best. They have to exploit whatever talent is given to them, and their talent is dying.

Related Characters: The Player (speaker)
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

Guildenstern, disturbed by the play's gruesome end, has just asked the Player "what [he knows] about death." And the latter, coolly professional, explains that mimicking death in a variety of styles (e.g. heroic, ironic, comic) is an actor's primary skill. 

Stoppard brings our attention back to death, as he does repeatedly throughout his play. Death is the inevitable conclusion of all plot lines, both acted and lived, and all movement, both on stage and off, carries us toward death. Again, the barrier between the theater and real experience is a shaky one — the Tragedians in Stoppard's play have a particular honesty and insightfulness insofar as they understand their collective position, whereas Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain confused, not fully aware that they are simply characters in a play. The play within a play has an obvious artifice that helps us understand the larger work. And the question of death's theatricality is also essential, as Guildenstern later takes issue with the Tragedians' conviction that a true death is not a convincing death. Stoppard poses the question: if death is "not being," can it be acted out? 

I extract significance from melodrama, a significance which it does not in fact contain; but occasionally, from out of this matter, there escapes a thin beam of light that, seen at the right angle, can crack the shell of mortality.

Related Characters: The Player (speaker)
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, the Player elaborates on his earlier definition of an actor's talent: while the other Tragedians can only "exploit" their talent, dying, their spokesperson has the more impressive and "more general" skill of pulling "significance from melodrama."

The Player is the main point of contact between the play within the play and the play itself; as the only self-aware actor, he understands dramatic devices and rules better than Rosencrantz or Guildenstern understand them. When the Player states that melodrama "does not in fact contain" significance, we should follow this claim to its logical conclusion and ask ourselves: does Stoppard's work contain significance? This paradox — between the hilariously, senselessly absurd and the highly philosophical — generates much of the play's power and tension. Can a text seriously declare that it lacks all seriousness? And where can the Player find significance, if not in the melodrama? 

The Player claims that this beam of light can "crack the shell of mortality," suggesting that significance and life are incompatible, that meaning leads to death. The words "shell of mortality" are an echo of Hamlet's famous soliloquy, in which he calls his body a "mortal coil."

On the contrary, it's the only kind they do believe. They're conditioned to it. I had an actor once who was condemned to hang for stealing a sheep…so I got permission to have him hanged in the middle of a play…and you wouldn't believe it, he just wasn't convincing! It was impossible to suspend one's disbelief—and what with the audience jeering and throwing peanuts, the whole thing was a disaster!

Related Characters: The Player (speaker)
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

Guildenstern has expressed indignation at the Player's simplistic and garish understanding of death: he maintains that death is "a disappearance gathering weight" rather than the "mechanics of cheap melodrama." In response, the Player recounts an actor's death onstage and the ensuing negative reception: in his estimation, this proves that an acted death is always more convincing than a true death. 

Of course, the situation itself is an absurd, impossible one. (Note the Player's pun on the expression "suspend disbelief," an allusion to the actor's demise, as well as the anachronistic image of Elizabethan spectators throwing peanuts.) This recurring question — is death a disappearance or a spectacle? — prompts us to imagine and anticipate the inevitable deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; we might also question our own expectations as readers or audience members. While the two buffoonish spies do simply die offstage and disappear in Shakespeare's play, Stoppard takes it upon himself to reexamine the lives (and deaths) of these two minor characters in his adaptation. And do their offstage deaths confirm Guildenstern's conviction, or is Stoppard mocking his protagonist? 

Act 3 Quotes

Life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn't take it.

Related Characters: The Player (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Coin
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

In a brief wordless interlude, Hamlet replaces Claudius' letter with another, this one asking the King of England to execute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern rather than Hamlet. When the protagonists awake, unaware of this unfortunate turn of events, they discover that the Tragedians have been hiding in barrels onboard the ship. The Player explains that Claudius banished them from Denmark because their play offended him. 

This metaphor, comparing life to a risky bet, brings to mind the play's endless coin tossing, the succession of 92 heads in the first scene. When the Player says that "life is a gamble," he means that life is a sort of lucky streak, inevitably cut short by death. And yet this prediction — "if it was a bet you wouldn't take it" — isn't quite true, as both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make unwise bets again and again. They must in order to live: all human life is a ridiculous, impossible bet against death. Such inevitability gives the play both its grim edge and its absurd levity, as death renders sincerity and solemnity futile. 

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The Player Character Timeline in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

The timeline below shows where the character The Player appears in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1
The Theater Theme Icon
...Guildenstern hear music and the Tragedians march in, carrying their instruments and lead by the Player, who halts his troupe assuming that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are an audience for them. "Don't... (full context)
Individual Identity Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
Guildenstern stops them and asks where they're going and how they came this way. The Player is noncommittal, attributing the meeting to "chance" "or fate" and saying they're going to perform... (full context)
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
When Guildenstern asks about the potential of "getting caught up in the action," the Player happily sends the tragedian Alfred to get dressed as a woman for an "uncut performance... (full context)
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
Rosencrantz stops them and asks what the Tragedians do. The Player responds that they "do on stage the things that are supposed to happen off. Which... (full context)
Death Theme Icon
Individual Identity Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
In order to make the Player pay his bet with a play, Guildenstern asks him about what play the Tragedians might... (full context)
Act 2
Individual Identity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
The Player reveals the cause of his cold manner: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern left in the middle of... (full context)
Free Will 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... (full context)
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
The Player starts to leave but Guildenstern tries first calmly, then desperately, to get him to stay... (full context)
Individual Identity Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
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:... (full context)
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... (full context)
Death Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
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... (full context)
The Theater Theme Icon
The Player calls for the Tragedians to take up Act Two and the action begins. The Player-Queen... (full context)
Death Theme Icon
Individual Identity Theme Icon
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,... (full context)
Death Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
The Player calls the play "a slaughterhouse" and says it thus brings out the Tragedians' best. When... (full context)
Act 3
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
...tune of the Tragedians. Rosencrantz, anguished, cries out "Plausibility is all I presume!" and the Player cheerfully pops out of a barrel followed "impossibly" by the Tragedians in the costumes they... (full context)
Death Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
The Player explains to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that they had to hide in the barrels to escape... (full context)
Free Will Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
The Player asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern if they've spoken with Hamlet. They reply: "it's possible" but "pointless."... (full context)
Free Will Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
...adds, and Guildenstern repeats. They move off and converse among themselves in fragments recounting the Player's situation: offending Claudius, dodging arrest, meeting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern taking Hamlet to England, etc. Rosencrantz,... (full context)
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
...stage runs around frantically shouting with swords out in a great hullabaloo. Eventually, Hamlet, the Player, and Rosencrantz with Guildenstern jump into the three barrels on stage to hide. Lights dim,... (full context)
Death Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
...It orders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's execution. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reread it in speechless shock. The Player rises and kicks his barrel shouting into it "they've gone!" The Tragedians emerge and form... (full context)
Death Theme Icon
Individual Identity Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
...who they are that their deaths should be important. "Who are we?" he asks the Player, who responds with their names. When Guildenstern protests that's not enough explanation, the Player retorts,... (full context)
Death Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
...vengeance, scorn" Guildenstern balks at the experience of "actors" and grabs a dagger from the Player's belt that he holds at the Player's throat. Guildenstern makes a speech saying he's talking... (full context)
Death Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
After the Player lies silent, the Tragedians applaud appreciatively and the Player rises. "You see," he tells Guildenstern,... (full context)