Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a tragicomedy play about two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are courtiers and childhood friends of Hamlet’s. In this absurdist play, they are confused by what is going on, given that they only experience snippets of stage time on Hamlet and they don’t have much to go on. More comedy than tragedy, the play involves many humorous moments of epiphanies from the two otherwise low witted characters.
At the beginning of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are seen flipping coins while wandering about a forgettable wilderness. Each coin goes to the person who calls the flip correctly. What’s strange is that the coins have come up head consecutively dozens of times and so all of them have gone to Rosencrantz’ sack. Guildenstern, instead of being upset he’s lost so many times in this game of chance, is thoroughly bothered by this strange streak of heads. Throughout the play, Guildenstern is the more thoughtful and philosophical of the two, although Rosencrantz does have his moments. Rosencrantz is not concerned at all about the coin tossing game’s outcomes, he just thinks he’s set a new world record. Guildenstern, meanwhile, wonders if the laws of probability don’t exist in the realm they’ve entered or about any other possible explanation. The latter includes the possibility of God himself playing a mysterious game with the pair and even the scenario that they have been stuck in a time loop, with the same coin toss repeating again and again. Perhaps due to the absurdity of the situation, Guildenstern finds himself unable to figure out a likely explanation for it and eventually gives up. He then proceeds to try to remember what his earliest memory is, but it turns out neither Guildenstern nor Rosencrantz can even remember what happened that morning. By piecing together their fragments of memory they are able to remember that they were on their way to a messenger who wants to meet them about an urgent matter.
The pair then hears the sound of music from afar. They come across the troupe who were playing it, called the Tragedians. There are six people in the group, and the leader is called the Player. At first, the Player only speaks to Rosencrantz in efforts to get them to buy a performance from the Tragedians. The Player begins to describe the different performances they have to sell, implying the more sexual a romance is, the more it will cost. Rosencrantz doesn’t catch on to the fact that the Player is actually trying to sell them pornography. He begins to bargain with the troupe leader to get a good deal, eventually going so low that the Player starts to leave out of disgust. This is when Guildenstern finally enters the conversation and realizes just what the Player has been meaning the whole time. The raunchiness of the play they are bargaining for is offensive to Guildenstern, but he still decides to try to trick the troupe. He convinces the Player to gamble with him, and now the strange coin tossing game plays in his and Rosencrantz’ favor. The coin keeps landing on heads and the troupe ends up losing all their money. With nothing else left to give, they agree to put on a show for the pair to make up for what they owe them. The scene ends here.
The two inseparable friends are now at the royal castle where they see Hamlet and Ophelia sharing a moment. King Claudius gives the pair a warm welcome which is tainted by him mixing up their names. He explains that he and the Queen, Hamlet’s mother, asked them here because of their childhood friendship with Hamlet, which might allow them to figure out what is wrong with him and why he has been behaving so strangely as of late. That is, since his father’s untimely demise. They also hope Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might be able to help bring some comfort to Hamlet in his time of need. The two try to hatch a plan that will get them the answers they need from Hamlet. In their discussion, they eventually end up playing a game called Questions, the purpose of which is to talk only in questions. Afterward, they decide one of them will pretend to be Hamlet and the other will question him, a sort of mock interview. Guildenstern plays Hamlet and Rosencrantz is the one questioning him. This finally gets them somewhere, they end up figuring out the entire plot of Hamlet up till then. The first act ends with the pair meeting Hamlet, who also welcomes them warmly, but mixes up their names, a common occurrence in the play.
The two now eavesdrop on a conversation between Hamlet and Polonius; Hamlet is speaking incomprehensively. Polonius tells him that the actors have come and the two leave. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern begin reflecting on their progress. They lament what little progress they’ve made and are unable to draw a conclusion as of yet on whether Hamlet has lost his mind. The actors Polonius mentioned turn out to be the Tragedians from earlier. The Player arrives and starts to get mad at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for making them perform in front of no audience because the two had left. He and the rest of the troupe all feel humiliated. A long speech comes from the Player about how insulting it is for a troupe to perform with no audience to watch them. This ends with him informing the pair of what play his group will be performing at court, The Murder of Gonzago. Now Guildenstern asks for some advice from the Player in a matter he must have expertise in; how to go about in a place like the Royal Court. He tells the two friends to act natural and even helps them on their way to finding out what is wrong with Hamlet. The pair is now in doubt about Hamlet’s sanity and also his love for Ophelia.
The royal court arrives and the Player leaves to practice his play. The Queen asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about their progress. Feeling embarrassed about how little there is to speak of, Rosencrantz ends up exaggerating the extent of their results. The royal court exits. Not being aware of how he is merely a side character in Hamlet, Rosencrantz is bothered by how much is going on around him that he isn’t a part of. He tries to start a dialogue with Hamlet instead of waiting around for something to happen to him but loses confidence at the last second. Then he tries to surprise someone he thinks is the Queen but it turns out to be a cross-dressing actor from the troupe. The troupe is doing a dry run of their play, which is interrupted by Ophelia crying because of Hamlet.
The Murder of Gonzago actually parallels the story of Hamlet. There are in-universe reasons for this that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have not been made aware of. In the play in the play, the King is murdered by his brother using poison. The brother marries the late king’s widow and becomes king himself. The late king’s son is conflicted by this union and murders Polonius in his rage. His uncle, the new king, sends him off to England to face execution. Instead of facing the death penalty himself, the son changes places with two spies his uncle sent with him, who are then killed. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not realize how closely the play follows the events occurring around them, neither do they realize the spies in the play are their counterparts.
The King and Queen ask the two friends to locate Hamlet because he has killed Polonius. The pair cannot decide how to go about doing this, and their lack of a plan is what lets Hamlet escape very easily. Hamlet is caught by others and will be accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on his trip to England to be executed.
The third and final act starts on the boat to England. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are to take Hamlet to the King of England and give him a letter stating Hamlet must be executed. They open the letter and find out its contents. When the pair is sleeping, Hamlet replaces the letter with one saying they must be killed instead. The ship is under attack by pirates and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take shelter in barrels. It turns out the Tragedians are also onboard. The whole group wonders if Hamlet is dead or alive. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, however, are happy with not knowing, but Guildenstern wonders how they can explain the situation to the King of England later. He opens the letter again and notices the changes. The Player begins to explain the concept of death to them but this angers Guildenstern so much that he stabs and kills him. The Player gets up again; the knife was a prop. The pair comes to terms with their inevitable death. An English ambassador speaks of their deaths and how tragically the play ended.