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Free Study Guide-Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
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SHORT PLOT/SCENE SUMMARY (Synopsis) (continued)

Once Hamlet has been delivered to Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern think for a moment that their work is done, but then realize that they must go with Hamlet to England. They wake up some time later on a boat, not sure how they got there and not sure where theyíre going, though they assume it is England. Hamlet is off to the side, but they do not notice him. They feel unreal, and wonder whether death might be a boat. Guildenstern decides it could not be--death is nothing, therefore, it is not a boat.

They discover Hamlet and start thinking about the future, getting nervous. What will they tell the English King? Guildenstern assures Rosencrantz that everything will be fine: they have a letter, which will explain everything. Rosencrantz isnít very convinced, so the two begin to role-play, with Guildenstern pretending to be the King. Rosencrantz questions him viciously, and in his excitement tears open their letter. It is directly from Claudius to the English King, and it asks him to behead Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are disturbed, but Guildenstern tries to rationalize their situation by saying Hamlet is going to die someday anyway, and besides, who knows what death is like? It might be a good thing. Rosencrantz doesnít seem to buy this, and Hamlet may have overheard them, because once they go to sleep he sneaks over to them and switches their letter for a different one.


The next morning, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discover the Player and his troupe on the ship. Their play offended the King (the Player wryly points out how similar their play was to the Kingís real life) so they had to make a run for it, as stowaways. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arenít exactly thrilled--they are beginning to feel like their life is a never-ending series of repetitions. Suddenly, pirates attack the ship, and by the time everything has settled down, Hamlet has disappeared. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are very upset - what will they do without Hamlet? - but the Player urges them to calm down: the English King will understand. This time Guildenstern doesnít buy it, and he and Rosencrantz play-act their encounter with the King again, this time with Guildenstern playing the King. He excitedly rips open the letter and reads it aloud. It now asks the English King to execute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hysterical, they appeal to the Player, who offers no sympathy: they should accept their fates, he says. This infuriates Guildenstern, who still believes the Player has no idea what death is. He grabs the Playerís knife and stabs him with it, telling him, "thatís--death." The Player falls, but gets up a moment later. The knife was fake.

The Player has proved that people believe what they expect, and nothing more. Triumphant, the Tragedians stage many deaths at once. They are still in costume from The Murder of Gonzago, so they die as they would in that play--that is, as the main characters of Hamlet do. The light fades until only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are visible. They arenít sure what to think. Slowly, they decide that they cannot fight their destinies. Rosencrantz, in fact, proclaims that he is relieved: he doesnít want to have to struggle anymore. He disappears. Guildenstern doesnít notice. He wonders how they might have prevented this, and doesnít have a clue. He too, gives up, says, "Well, weíll know better next time," and disappears as well. Out of the blackness there emerges the final scene of Hamlet. All the principle characters are dead on the stage, and an Ambassador from England is wondering what has happened. He has just arrived to tell the Denmark court that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, just as they requested.

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Free Study Guide-Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
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