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

SCENE ONE: On The Boat

Summary (continued)

He begins to get hysterical, and Guildenstern, for once, wonders rationally why Rosencrantz would get upset about not having it if he never thought he was supposed to have it in the first place. Rosencrantz has no answer for this. Guildenstern, not wanting this debate to go any further, calmly searches for the letter in his own jacket, producing it in a moment. Once they realize that the entire fuss was over nothing, they get somewhat depressed. Rosencrantz, beginning to get hysterical again, blurts out that he doesn’t believe the story about England--why would this foreign King care what they have to say, or believe their story? He just can’t imagine how they will proceed once they get off the boat. Guildenstern tries to explain that nothing is really real until it happens.

They discuss what death might be, since Rosencrantz is beginning to feel almost dead. Guildenstern argues that death is the ultimate Not. It is nothing. Rosencrantz, wishing he was dead and getting upset again, drags Guildenstern into a game in which Rosencrantz pretends to be the English King and Guildenstern speaks as himself and Rosencrantz. During the game, Guildenstern presents the letter with great confidence, and Rosencrantz, excited by pretending, grabs it and rips it open, reading it aloud without thinking. The letter turns out to ask the King to behead Hamlet. They absorb this gravely, not knowing quite what to do. Rosencrantz feels awful--they are Hamlet’s friends. Guildenstern, however, tries to analyze the situation objectively. Everyone dies, he reasons, and besides, no one knows what death is like, so it might actually be very nice. Rosencrantz tries to protest, wondering why this should happen, especially when Hamlet has done nothing to them, but Guildenstern refuses to allow either of these lines of thought to intrude in his rationalization. Rosencrantz tries to clarify the situation: they were awakened one morning by a summons from the King of Denmark, to try to comfort their old friend Hamlet and find out what is wrong with him.

Hamlet stages a play which seems to upset a lot of people, and murders Polonius, so is being sent to England for his own good and the good of the court. During Rosencrantz’s short speech, Hamlet appears behind them. He blows out his lantern, and the stage goes black for a few moments. When the moon comes out to light the stage, Hamlet can be seen approaching the sleeping Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He takes their letter, and replaces it with another. He then blows out the lantern, and it is morning. Rosencrantz gets up, still trying to establish which way is west, and recites the most recent information he has to work with.

They hear a recorder playing, and Guildenstern gets very excited. He tells Rosencrantz to go find its source. He seems to believe that this will lead to something important. Rosencrantz reluctantly searches out the sound, finding the Tragedians in a group of barrels on deck. The Player emerges joyously, banging on the other barrels. He explains that they are still in costume from the play, because the play upset the King and they had to leave quickly, without even being paid. They are stowaways on the boat. Guildenstern explains that, at the moment, he and Rosencrantz are not under any real obligation. They can relax and do whatever they want--to a point.

Rosencrantz describes Hamlet to the Player--introspection is his major characteristic, according to Rosencrantz--and Hamlet comes forward to spit over the side of the boat, into the audience. Guildenstern gives a long list of Hamlet’s symptoms, which again leads them nowhere. They recite everything that they now know, including the Player’s recent escape from the King, and Rosencrantz angrily demands some coherence, a little action.


Immediately, pirates attack the boat. Hamlet, the Player, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all escape by jumping into barrels. The stage goes black, and when the lights come up again, everyone emerges from their barrels except Hamlet, who has disappeared. The Player explains that he is gone, and not coming back. Infuriated, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern argue that Hamlet can’t be gone--without him, they can’t have their freedom. The Player tells them to simply bring their letter to the English King and explain what has happened. Meanwhile, he tells them, just relax. This time, it is Guildenstern who finds it hard to swallow, so they repeat their game, with Guildenstern playing the English King this time. When he reads the letter aloud, he finds that it now asks the King to murder Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are, of course, shocked.

The Player kicks another barrel, shouting for his troupe to come out. They all form a menacing circle around Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Guildenstern tries to determine what they could have done to avoid this end, and they both wonder why they are suddenly so important as to deserve to be killed. The Player tries to comfort them, telling them that most things end in death, but Guildenstern becomes furious. He grabs a knife from the Player’s belt and holds it against his throat, telling him that their acting has nothing to do with death--death is not dramatic. He stabs the Player, and as the Player is dying, cries out to the crowd that since there are no reasons for him and Rosencrantz, there will be none for the Player either.

Abruptly the Player gets back up again, smiling, and shows Guildenstern that the knife had a collapsing blade. He tells him that dramatic death is, clearly, the only kind of death people believe in. It’s what they expect. He calls for a show from his troupe, and they all die dramatically--in exactly the same ways that their play’s characters died in Hamlet. During this scene, in which even the Player falls, Guildenstern protests. Death is not anything, he argues again, death is nothing, so, he seems to mean, it cannot be represented.

The light falls until only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are visible. There doesn’t seem to be anything left to do. Quietly, Rosencrantz wonders aloud why they cannot simply assert themselves. No one can make them leave, he says, and they’ve done nothing wrong. When he gets no answer, he finally gives up, and says he is relieved to be going. He disappears, and Guildenstern does not notice. He wonders whether they could ever have refused their duty. He looks around for his friend, murmurs that "we’ll know better next time," and also disappears.

Immediately, the stage brightens, and the entire court is revealed dead, just as it happens in Hamlet, and just as it happened a few moments before with the Tragedians. An ambassador from England is telling Hamlet’s friend Horatio, the only survivor, that they have killed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as planned. Horatio begins to explain what has happened, but music swells over his voice, and the stage darkens.

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