The curtain rises on an entirely non-descript set where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in full Elizabethan costume, have been betting on coin after coin toss for a long time. The stage directions set the scene: every time the coin falls on "heads," Rosencrantz keeps it. Every coin has been falling on "heads," so Rosencrantz holds a bag nearly full of coins while Guildenstern holds one nearly empty. Rosencrantz is unsurprised by the improbable run of "heads," though he appears a bit sheepish to be depriving Guildenstern of all his coins. Guildenstern "is not worried about the money, but he is worried by the implications" of the run of heads. Still, he remains calm.
Straightaway, a dramatic contrast is established between the characters' Elizabethan outfits (traditional Shakespearean costumes) and the utterly blank set. These characters have been plucked from their Shakespearean context and set down in a kind of eerie no-place, a blank space with no characteristics to mark it in time. Rosencrantz's reaction to the absurdly steady run of heads suggests that he is less reflective than Guildenstern.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue to toss coins, which continue to fall on "heads" (it's now been 85 times and counting). They admit that they have been tossing coins for as long as they can remember. Rosencrantz is just happy to be winning all the coins, but Guildenstern turns furious, pushing Rosencrantz to question the situation, to fear it. The run of "heads" goes on and Guildenstern returns to a mild, contemplative mood. He muses on what the run might indicate: 1. that he himself is secretly willing it by betting against himself to atone for a forgotten past; 2. that "time has stopped dead" and the run is just one toss repeated; 3. that there has been some divine intervention; 4. that it really is just chance. Rosencrantz admits he can't remember anything before they started tossing coins. Guildenstern thinks hard and remembers a messenger who sent for them.
Meanwhile, the steady fall of 'heads' suggests that, wherever Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, the conventional laws of probability don't apply here. The fact that the men have no real memory of a past prior to tossing coins is another indication (along with the nondescript set) that the reality Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in is strangely disconnected from ordinary time. Guildenstern's reaction to the situation confirms that, of the two, he is quicker to question things and is more analytical than Rosencrantz. Guildenstern's first three theories could only be true in an absurd world. The fourth could theoretically happen in the real world but would be an absurd event.
To Rosencrantz's uncomprehending surprise, Guildenstern goes off on a long rant trying to make rational sense of their situation. Rosencrantz chimes in with "another curious scientific phenomena" that fingernails and beards keep growing after death, bewildering Guildenstern. "But you're not dead," Guildenstern points out. He is determined to focus on how they got here. Together they piece together a patchy memory of a foreign man on horseback waking them by shouting their names at dawn and ordering them by "urgent…royal summons." Yet neither can remember what they were summoned to do.
While Guildenstern tries to reason his way towards an understanding of their absurd situation, Rosencrantz offers unrelated trivia, again showing Rosencrantz to be the less rational-minded of the two. Still, though Rosencrantz's comment may not connect to the situation in a rational way, it nevertheless introduces one of the play's major themes: death.
Rosencrantz and 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 move!" He tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern mix up their names introducing themselves. The player rattles off the Tragedians' repertoire (they'll perform anything from melodrama to comedy to poetic set pieces to realism), but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern balk at the price and the Player sets off with the troupe.
This play has already presented itself as a play interested in thinking about the theater by introducing two characters appropriated from another play (Hamlet's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) and by setting up a stark dramatic context between its costumes and its set. Now, the entrance of the Player and Tragedians' further develops the theme of theater by setting up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as a potential audience for other characters on stage.
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 for the court or the tavern that night or the next, or not. Guildenstern mentions he might use his "influence" at court: "I have influence yet," Guildenstern says. "Yet what?" asks the Player, and Guildenstern shakes him violently, insisting he has influence.
The Player's noncommittal answers suggest a worldview as willing to accept that human life is governed by fate as it is willing to accept that life is just a matter of chance. Either way, the Player does not ascribe his situation to his own free will. The Player's mishearing points out a second meaning in Guildenstern's words that questions Guildenstern's sense of identity and infuriates him.
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 of The Rape of the Sabine Women" in which the audience can participate. Guildenstern, trembling and enraged, slaps the Player and professes disgust at the obscenity and lowness. The Player bows sadly and says Guildenstern should have found them in "better times" when they were "purists." He and the Tragedians begin to leave.
Again, the double meaning of a phrase ends up causing misunderstanding. Guildenstern uses the word 'action' to mean 'action of the plot,' whereas the Player understands him to mean 'sexual action.' Guildenstern's fury at the Player's lewd offer attests to Guildenstern's idealism and high-minded notion of what theater should be. The Player's attitude towards theater is cynical and pragmatic.
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 is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else." He spits on Rosencrantz's offer to buy a performance with a single coin. He accepts Guildenstern's offer to bet on coin tosses, which all fall on "heads." He accepts Guildenstern's offer to bet that the year of Guildenstern's birth doubled is an odd number and, of course, loses. He offers Alfred up as payment. Guildenstern asks a pathetic, forlorn Alfred what he has left to lose. "Nothing," Alfred replies. Guildenstern chastises his sniffling: "this is no way to fill the theatres of Europe."
The Player's view of theater is not just sexually perverse, it's also perverse in inverting the traditional relationship between the theater and the real world: the Tragedians perform what is "supposed to happen off[stage]" in reality. While the Player may be world-weary and jaded, he is also absurdly naïve, since he agrees to bet that a number multiplied by two will be odd (every possible answer would of course be even). Guildenstern's comment to Alfred pokes fun by bringing up a grand classic ideal of the theater in the context of a tawdry, crude acting troupe.
In order to make the Player pay his bet with a play, Guildenstern asks him about what play the Tragedians might perform. The Player is puzzled by the idea of "plays" and Guildenstern's suggestion of performing a Greek classic, responding that they really just do "blood, love, and rhetoric" or a combination of two, as long as one of the two is blood. "Blood is compulsory." "Is that what people want," Guildenstern asks. "It's what we do," the Player replies. The Tragedians' begin readying for the play. The Player explains that he will not change into costume or make an entrance onstage since he is always in character and always "on." He remains pointedly immobile for a long time until Rosencrantz prods him to lift his foot, revealing Guildenstern's coin beneath it. The Player exits.
Once again, Guildenstern has much higher-minded ideas about the theater than the Tragedians do. Though the Player is describing his theatrical philosophy, his statement "blood is compulsory" also rings true in a larger context. 'Blood' – as in 'death' – is in fact a compulsory experience in human life. In this respect, the Tragedians' performance program is quite realistic. By claiming always to be both in costume and onstage, the Player admits that he has no personal identity other than his role as actor and director. For him, there is no reality other than the reality of the theater.
Rosencrantz exclaims that the coin had fallen on tails and throws the coin at Guildenstern, who catches it. The lights suddenly change the stage from exterior to interior. An alarmed Ophelia runs on stage followed by a piteously disheveled Hamlet. They're mute. He scrutinizes her face, then sighs. They exit. Claudius and Gertrude enter and Claudius address Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" and he, then Gertrude, speak their original lines from Hamlet explaining that they sent for the two to entreat them, Hamlet's dear friends, to find out what has caused Hamlet's recent transformation of character. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respond with their original lines from Hamlet agreeing to do so. As they're leaving, they bump into Polonius who informs Claudius that the ambassadors from Norway have returned and then exits, rambling mid-speech. Claudius and Gertrude exit too.
The sudden change of scene seems to be produced by the sudden "change of fortune" of the coin landing on 'tails.' But breaking the spell of 'heads' only drops Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into another absurd reality: the fragmented reality of the play, Hamlet, that first created their identities. When Claudius and Gertrude address them in Shakespeare's language, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are able to respond with Shakespeare's lines in kind. Still, the world of Hamlet here is not the rich, complete world written by Shakespeare but a piecemeal, partial world with a ragged Hamlet, muted dialogue, abridged actions, and jagged scene cuts.
Rosencrantz is upset and Guildenstern tries to comfort him, both of them jumbling their words: "it's all stopping to a death, it's boding to a depth, stepping to a head, it's all heading to a dead stop," Rosencrantz exclaims, longing for the time in which there were no questions, when he remembered his name, and answers abounded. "There were always questions," Guildenstern retorts, "To exchange one set for another is no great matter." He reflects that one spends all of life living "so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye" so that when one looks at it head-on, it's "like being ambushed by a grotesque." Rosencrantz remains frustrated and disoriented. Guildenstern tells him that the only beginning is birth and the only end death and that he should relax: "There's a logic at work" and that "to be taken in hand and led" is "a prize, an extra slice of childhood."
Rosencrantz stumbles on his words in frustration, but his jumbled phrases end up describing the situation more accurately than the conventional idiom ("coming to a head"). Indeed, the play Hamlet moves towards the many deaths of its final act and its language contains sinister deeper meanings. It also contains a famous scene of 'stepping to a head' in which Hamlet stumbles on a skull. Guildenstern takes on the identity of the adult comforter in his relationship with Rosencrantz. At the same time, Guildenstern's assurances describe a lack of free will (being led through life like a child) as a good thing, "a prize." He sees such a situation here as a kind of innocence, but it can also be described as a kind of enslavement.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern review Claudius' request, become increasingly perplexed about whether and how to take action, but stay in place. "I feel like a spectator" Rosencrantz remarks. "What a fine persecution," Guildenstern notes, "to be kept intrigued without ever being enlightened." Rosencrantz suggests they "play at questions," which, it becomes clear, means firing questions back and forth. Whenever someone makes a statement, the other person gets a point. Rhetoricals and repetitions also affect the tally. Guildenstern shouts out the score and is winning. "Are you deaf?" Guildenstern asks him. "Am I dead?" Rosencrantz replies. They continue and Rosencrantz starts shouting the score, transferring Guildenstern's points to himself and Guildenstern shakes him violently asking him who he thinks he is. Rosencrantz treats this like a question in the game. They ask each other if the game matters.
Paralyzed by doubt and confusion, Rosencrantz describes this state of being in terms of theater – he compares the feeling of lacking free will as the experience of being a member of an audience, "a spectator." Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's game of questions treats language absurdly, turning it from a real-world means of communication into a toy to play with. In the context of the game, Rosencrantz' question "Am I dead?" has no real meaning – yet, the meaning of the question seems relevant to the sudden shift of identity he undergoes by taking Guildenstern's score for his own. In doing so, he extinguishes his identity as Rosencrantz and becomes Guildenstern instead.
Hamlet crosses the stage reading and exits. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern practice being in character by addressing each other by name, but they mix up their names. Then Guildenstern tries to pretend to be Hamlet so Rosencrantz can question him, but this brings about more confusion as Rosencrantz at first can't figure out who's who. Then, with Guildenstern speaking as Hamlet, the two exchange in a back-and-forth that lays out the parameters of Hamlet's situation: his father the king has died; his uncle has married his widowed mother and become the new king "offending both legal and natural practice." Rosencrantz continues to muddle up his, Guildenstern's, and Hamlet's identities.
Hamlet's appearance prompts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to sort out their roles in Hamlet's world but their attempts to do so only confuse those roles further. In taking on theatrical personas, they seem to lose track of their 'real' identities and start mixing up their names. At the same time, the description of Hamlet's situation reveals that it, too, is rife with identity-confusion: his uncle has suddenly turned into his father by marrying his mother.
Guildenstern tells Rosencrantz to go see if Hamlet's there. Rosencrantz peeks offstage where he reports seeing Hamlet talking. He wonders if they should go. "Why?" Guildenstern asks, "We're marked now." Hamlet and Polonius enter upstage mid-conversation. Hamlet is walking backward and telling Polonius that he could be as old as Hamlet if he could go backward. Polonius, aside, remarks that that may be madness but "there is a method in it." When he notices Rosencrantz, he points Hamlet out to him. Guildenstern and Rosencrantz call out to Hamlet who comes downstage greeting them warmly, though he first mixes up their names. They all laugh and Hamlet asks how they are. The lights black out.
Guildenstern's response to Rosencrantz describes their situation in theatrical terms – to be "marked" means to be in an assigned position on stage. Polonius' response to Hamlet recognizes sense in what seems to be nonsense language, suggesting that the absurdity of Hamlet's words in fact contains some logic (indeed, Hamlet connects moving backward in space with moving backward in time). Recognizing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet affirms their identities, though his inability to tell them apart calls those identities into question.