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SCENE ONE: On The Boat
The scene opens in total darkness, and we hear Guildenstern’s voice. He is trying to determine whether Rosencrantz is there, and where they are. They hear the sound of the sea. Rosencrantz seems incapable of providing a straight answer--he is confused as to whether he can see, think, or feel. Guildenstern is back to being irritated with Rosencrantz’s stupidity full time. They hear sailors yelling boat terminology, and they realize they are on a boat. Hamlet, a ways off, lights a lantern, so the stage is dimly visible.
Rosencrantz confusedly mentions that it seems to be getting lighter outside. He says that, this far north, it will soon be night, and they will have to go to sleep. Guildenstern says that he thinks he might never be able to be doubtful about anything again. Rosencrantz tries to interest him in a stroll, but he refuses, worrying that someone might come in. They stay where they are, and begin to admire the boat. Guildenstern likes the lack of choice on a boat: one never has to decide where to go or what to do, because there is really nowhere to go and nothing to do. Yet he does not feel completely free: he still feels tied to his duty to Claudius, and no amount of exploration or adventure on this boat will cut that tie.
No matter what, he still has to deliver a letter--and Hamlet--to the English King. Rosencrantz seems to be losing his excitement: he is beginning to feel sick, and the salty air did not enthuse him the way he expected. He begins to explore, and discovers Hamlet behind a large beach umbrella. He returns to Guildenstern and urgently whispers the news. Guildenstern is hardly surprised, and asks what Hamlet is doing. When Rosencrantz tells him he is sleeping, Guildenstern bitterly points out that Hamlet can sleep easily, since every decision has been made for him, and he has his two friends to escort him to the place he has to go.
They wait a moment, then Rosencrantz asks what will happen next. Guildenstern explodes at him, asking him what he expects, when they are on a boat with no instructions, relying only on what they either know or were told, which isn’t much. Without answering, Rosencrantz hides a coin in his fist and invites Guildenstern to guess which hand it’s in. Guildenstern guesses right, and Rosencrantz gives him the coin. They repeat this scene several times, until Guildenstern taps both hands so quickly that Rosencrantz opens them both and shows that he has a coin in each. Guildenstern asks him why he would do this, and Rosencrantz reveals that it was a pathetic effort to make Guildenstern happy. Guildenstern suddenly wants to know how much money Claudius gave Rosencrantz. For some reason Rosencrantz doesn’t want to tell him, and turns the question around. There is some "I asked you first" banter, then they decide that they got the same amount, because the King wouldn’t discriminate between them--even if he could. Suddenly Guildenstern realizes that throughout this conversation Rosencrantz has simply been mirroring his own thoughts, never adding anything.
This infuriates Guildenstern, who longs to hear something original. Rosencrantz begins to cry, admitting that he can do nothing but support his smarter, more domineering friend, and Guildenstern relaxes and comforts him. He tries to answer all of Rosencrantz’s questions, but finds himself getting confused. Rosencrantz demands to know exactly how things will go once they get to England--will the King know who they are? Will he care? How will they present Hamlet to him? Guildenstern tells him that the letter they are bringing will solve everything. They simply present the letter to the King and, if there is something in the letter that directs them further, they follow those directions. If not, they can do as they please. Rosencrantz seems to find this too ambiguous. He wants to know what the letter says, so that they can feel like they accomplished something by knowing just what it was they accomplished. Guildenstern suggests that the letter is merely a description of goings on at court, asking of favors, and other basic forms of diplomacy. Rosencrantz suddenly misunderstands the situation, believing that he is supposed to have the letter, which was in fact given to Guildenstern.