Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Act I Summary
Ros and Guil stand side by side in a place with no visible "character."
Ros has a bag that is nearly full. Guil has a bag that is nearly empty.
Guil flips a coin. Ros checks it and announces it is heads and puts it in his bag.
They are betting, and this action happens repeatedly throughout the scene.
Guil begins to speak while they flip coins. He says that there is an art to the building up of suspense.
Ros announces that the (betting) score is seventy-six – love (zero).
Guil moves as if to go. He sees there is nowhere to go, so he spins another coin and Ros announces it is heads.
Guil observes that (in light of this long string of heads) a weaker man might be moved to re-examine his faith. He is clearly bothered by their situation. Ros is not.
Guil explains the law of probability in terms of monkeys thrown in the air, landing on either their heads or their tails.
A few more heads are thrown, and Ros says that the game is becoming a bit of a bore.
Guil is surprised. He asks about the suspense – doesn't that keep it interesting?
Guil says the spell is about to be broken. He dramatically throws up a coin, but it is – once again – heads.
Ros excitedly announces that it is eighty-five in a row.
Guil is upset that Ros is only excited about the new record. He thinks it should make him question, give him pause, instill in him a "flicker of doubt" (1.34).
Ros points out that he won, implying he shouldn't worry about anything else.
Guil challenged that all of the coins might have come down tails. He wants to know if Ros would have questioned the situation then.
Ros jokes that he would have checked the coins (to make sure they weren't two-sided tail coins).
Guil says that he is relieved because at least the principle of self-interest seems to still be operating. He thinks maybe this is the last one to go. He starts to say something about Ros's capacity for trust, but then, quite suddenly, asks him to touch his hand.
Guil begins to say that they have been spinning coins together since…he releases Ros's hand and insists that this is not the first time that they have spun coins.
Ros agrees, and says they have been spinning coins for as long as he can remember. Guil asks how long that is, but Ros says he forgets. He then exclaims, "Eighty-five in a row – beaten the record!" (1.44).
Guil wants to know what he means by his exclamation, and Ros says he imagines his record will take some time to beat. Guil again presses him. He asks if that is all he imagines, if he is not also afraid.
Ros doesn't know why he would be afraid. Guil is furious and throws the coins to the ground; he calls fear "the crack that might flood your brain with light."
Ros notes a coin that has fallen heads (again). Guil is despondent. He flips a coin that lands heads up and he passes it to Ros. He flips another one and passes it to Ros again. With the third coin, Guil throws it up catches it on his right hand, puts it on his left wrist, lobs it up again, catches it with his left hand, raises his left leg, throws the coin under it, catches it and turns it over on the top of his head.
It is heads. He gives it to Ros.
Ros starts to say that he is afraid, and Guil says that he is too. Ros is afraid that it is not Guil's day, but Guil is afraid that it is (his day).
Ros announces the count is eighty-nine.
Guil says that this long string of heads must be indicative of something besides the redistribution of wealth (him giving all his money to Ros). He tries to make a list of possible explanations for what is happening. The first is that he is actually willing the coin to come up heads. Inside himself, he is the essence of a man "spinning double-headed coins, and betting against himself in private atonement for an unremembered past" (1.56). The second is that time has stopped dead, and the one experience of a coin coming up heads has simply been repeated ninety times. He finds this explanation doubtful. The third is that divine intervention is in action. The fourth is that this simply vindicates the principle that any individual coin thrown individually is as likely to come down heads as tails, and thus he should not be surprised when each coin comes down heads.
Ros exclaims that he's never seen anything like it (the string of heads, that is. You've probably noticed this is the focus of their discussion).
Guil offers a syllogism (an instance of deductive reasoning). First, he notes that Ros has never known anything like what is occurring. Second, he notes that Ros has never known anything worth writing home about. Third, he concludes that the string of heads is nothing to write home about. The word home gets him thinking, and he asks Ros what the first thing is that he remembers.
Ros thinks he wants him to say the first thing that comes into his head, but Guil clarifies. Ros thinks, but then says that he's forgotten. Guil is a bit irritated, and says that Ros has misunderstood him. He wants to know what the first thing he remembers is after all the things that he's forgotten.
Ros understands, but then says that he has forgotten the question.
Guil asks if Ros is happy. Ros says he supposes so. Guil asks what he is going to do now (after witnessing this string of heads). Ros says he isn't sure. He asks what Guil wants to do.
Guil paces. He says that he has no desires. Then he stops. He recalls that there was a messenger – that they were sent for. He comes up with another syllogism. The first premise is that probability is a factor that operates within natural forces. The second is that probability is not operating as a factor. The conclusion is that they are now within un-, sub-, or super-natural forces. He wants Ros to discuss the syllogism, but Ros is simply startled. He sarcastically tells him not to discuss it too heatedly.
Ros asks what the matter is with Guil. Guil says that the scientific approach is a defense against the emotion of fear. He notes that if, within their un-, sub-, or super-natural forces it is probable that probability is not operating as a factor, then the law of probability is still operating as a factor. Thus, the law of probability operates within un-, sub-, or super-natural forces, and since it is clearly not in action, they must not be in that state (note that this is madly circular reasoning). He takes this as a personal relief.
Yet Guil then notes that, as long as they were spinning coins, one was only slightly more up than the other or vice versa, which created a sort of confidence, a "union which we recognized as nature" (1.74). Then the messenger arrived, and nothing happened except for the remarkably long string of heads, except that for the last few minutes he has heard the sound of drums and a flute (the approaching band of tragedians).
Since they are on the subject of scientific phenomena, Ros notes that it's odd that the fingernails grow after death and so does the beard. Guil counters that he is not dead, but Ros notes that he did not say they started to grow after death. He also notes that the fingernails grow before birth, but the beard does not.
Ros notes that the toenails don't grow at all. Guil is amused. Ros questions himself. He thinks it is funny that he always has to cut his fingernails, but barely ever his toenails.
Guil asks if Ros remembered the first thing that happened that day. He starts to talk about waking up, but then remembers the messenger: "pale sky before dawn, a man standing on his saddle to bang on the shutters" (1.83).
Ros says that they were sent for and this is why they must be here traveling. It was an urgent message, "a royal summons" (1.93). They took off suddenly afraid that they might come too late (apparently this sense of urgency was lost while they were playing with coins).
Since they aren't exactly clear as to what the message was for, they wonder what they are doing there. They decide to "get on," but realize they aren't sure where they are supposed to go or where they came from (1.100).
Guil notes that they are basically starting from scratch. The man awakened them, and then there was the odd string of heads. He wonders if they were "picked out…simply to be abandoned" (1.104).
Ros suddenly hears the music that Guil has been telling him about. He decides it can't be real.
Guil claims that the colors red, blue, and green are real while the color yellow is a mystical experience shared by everybody. He challenges Ros to demolish the statement.
Ros wonders if it was thunder.
Guil notes that, if a man stops his journey and sees a unicorn cross his path, this is startling. Yet, if one more man sees it, then this second dimension makes the experience even more startling. A third witness doesn't make things any more interesting, however, and if there are too many witnesses then it becomes reasonable and as thin as what we tend to call reality. The crowd cries that it is simply a horse with an arrow in its forehead.
The band approaches, but Guil says he wishes they were a unicorn.
There are six Tragedians, including a small boy named Alfred. They bring in a cart full of props and belongings. There is a drummer, a horn-player, and a flautist. The Player is the spokesman of the group and he has no instrument. He is the last in the troupe, but is the first to notice Guil and Ros.
He tells the troupe to halt, exclaims that they have an audience. Guil and Ros start to rise, but the Player tells them not to move. The Player says it is a lucky thing that they found them.
He says that Ros and Guil catch them "at the very point of decadence" (1.125). If it weren't for them on the road, they might forget all that they knew and have to re-start, simply improvising.
Ros asks if they are tumblers, and the Player says they can be if he would like it. The Player says that, for a couple of coins, they can do "a selection of gory romances, full of fine cadence and corpses, pirated from the Italian" (1.127).
Ros introduces himself as Guildenstern, and Guil as Rosencrantz. They confer and he corrects himself.
The Player says that he recognized the two of them at once as actors. Ros says he thought they were gentlemen. The Player counters that patronage and performance are simply two sides of the same coin.
Ros asks what line of work they're in and the Player replies tragedy. He lists a number of different forms of tragedy that they do. The last is "rape," and he says that they can do realism "for which there are special terms" (1.135). He asks if he is "getting warm" (close to what Ros and Guil want).
Ros is unsure. The Player says that for a little more they could get caught up in the action if that's their taste, and with the times being the way they are…
Ros asks how they are, and the Player says they are indifferent. Ros asks if they are bad, and the Player says that they are wicked. He orders the Tragedians to line up. He asks if Ros and Guil see anything they like.
The Player tells them that they can get a private performance. He says that only two of them is disappointing for an audience, but about average for voyeurs.
They negotiate on price, and Ros asks where the Player has been.
He says that they have been roundabout. The juvenile companies are challenging his troupe, but he says that they don't have the same repertoire. His troupe will stoop to anything, and the Player regards Ros meaningfully, though he doesn't notice.
The Player starts to depart with the Tragedians, but Guil asks where they are going, and the Player commands that they all halt. He says that they are going home.
Guil asks if it was chance that the Tragedians found them, and the Player says that it was. Guil asks if it was fate, and the Player agrees that they have no control – they have to play wherever they get a gig.
Guil suggests that he can use his influence at the court. The player doubts that he has influence, and Guil grabs him and insists that he does. Then he inquires about getting caught up in the action.
The Player is happy, and notes that Guil is quicker than Ros. He offers to put on The Rape of the Sabine Women with the boy Alfred in a skirt. While Alfred gets dressed, the Player notes that the different prices for how caught up in the action they would like to get.
Guil slaps the Player across the face, and he recoils. Guil trembles. The Player tells Alfred to get his skirt off.
Guil is furious – he says that it didn't have to be obscene. He notes he was prepared for much, but is disappointed. He calls the Player a "comic pornographer" and his troupe a "rabble of prostitutes" (1.188).
The Player notes that in better times they were purists, and then tells his troupe to proceed onward, but Ros stops him and they halt again.
Ros asks if they are exclusively players, and the Player says that they are inclusively players. Ros asks if they give exhibitions, and the Player says that they give performances. Ros says that that he had no idea (he's just now beginning to understand what it means to get "caught up in the action"), and asks what exactly they do.
The Player says 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" (1.207).
Ros wants to hear more, but the Player moves onward. Ros asks him to wait a minute. He throws a coin between them and asks what they will do for that. The Player cuffs (hits) Alfred, who is still halfway in and out of the robe he would wear for The Rape of the Sabine Women.
Ros announces that this is "Filth!" (1.211) He says he will report them to the authorities, and the Player moves to leave.
Guil asks if the Player will take a bet. Guil offers him "double or quits" on the coin that Ros threw down between them. The Player calls heads, and Guil removes his foot. The Player picks up the coin.
Guil asks if they would like to bet again. The Tragedians disagree. This time Guil calls heads – it is. They bet again, and the Player calls heads. It is. Guil calls heads it is. With hesitation, the Player calls tails, but it is heads. The Player throws down his lost coin, and Guil calls heads. The Player stops him, and notes that his Tragedians don't like the odds. Guil repeatedly tosses the coin, revealing heads. The Player keeps saying no, but it keeps coming up heads. The Player and the Tragedians turn away.
Guil then offers to bet the Player that the year of his birth doubled is an odd number. The Player wants to bet on his birth instead, and Guil agrees. Then the Tragedians realize that any number doubled is an even number; they all object. The Player notes that they have no money.
Guil asks what they have, and he brings Alfred forward. Guil asks if it was all just for this, and the Player says that this is the best they've got. Guil agrees that the times are very bad. Guil asks if Alfred loses often, and he says that he does.
Guil asks what else he has left to lose. He says nothing. Guil asks if he likes being an actor (he hesitates before choosing the term 'actor'), and Alfred says that he does not. Guil notes that he and Alfred could create a dramatic precedent, but Alfred begins to sniffle. Guil tells him that this is no way to fill the theatres of Europe. He asks the Player if he knows any good plays.
The Player says that there hasn't been much call for plays. Guil asks if they can do any of the Greek tragedies of antiquity. The Player says that they are more of the "blood, love and rhetoric school" (1.258).
Guil says that he will leave the choice to them, if they have anything to choose between. The Player tells him that he can do blood and love without the rhetoric, or rhetoric and blood without the love, and he can do all three "concurrent or consecutive," but he needs the blood: "Blood is compulsory—they're all blood, you see" (1.260).
Guil asks if that is what the people want, and the Player says that is what they do. Guil thanks Alfred and tells him that they will let him know.
The Player tells the actors to take their positions. Guil asks if the Player is going to change his costume, but he says that he never changes out of it. Guil asks if he is going to come on, but the Player says that he is on – that he starts on. Guil wants the Player to move on and then come back on, but the Player does not move. Ros walks right up and says, "excuse me" and the Player lifts his foot, which was covering Guil's coin (1.281). Ros puts his foot on the coin and smiles. He thanks the Player.
Guil tells Ros to come on, and Ros looks at the coin and says it was lucky. The coin was tails. He tosses the coin to Guil, who catches it, and at the same time there is a lighting change to switch the exterior mood to an interior one.
Ophelia runs onto the stage in alarm – followed by Hamlet. Ophelia is holding a garment she was sewing. Hamlet looks pale and disheveled. Hamlet takes her wrist and looks closely at her face. He lets out a huge sigh. He then releases her. She runs off, and he backs off the stage, watching her the whole time.
Ros and Guil are frozen during this scene, but they now unfreeze and Guil tells Ros to come on.
Then Claudius and Gertrude enter with their attendants. Claudius welcomes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but there is some confusion as the two of them do not bow at the same time. Claudius begins to quote the lines he has in Hamlet, where he tells Guil and Ros of Hamlet's transformation, and asks the two of them to find him and attempt to cheer him up and to see what is causing all of his troubles.
Gertrude notes that Hamlet speaks of them often, and that there is no one else that Hamlet is as close to. She says that if they will expand their visit then they will receive great thanks.
Ros notes that they could command them rather than entreat them.
Guil says that they will obey regardless, and that they are there to be commanded.
Claudius thanks them, and again there is confusion as they bow. Guil bows when he says Rosencrantz's name, and then bends double when he says Guildenstern's name. Gertrude corrects the king, and asks them to hurry and find her son. She sends two attendants to show them out.
Guil prays that they will be helpful to Hamlet, and Gertrude says "amen" (1.294).
Polonius tells Claudius that the ambassadors from Norway are returned, and Claudius tells him that he (Polonius) is the father of good news. Polonius asserts his loyalty, and says that he thinks he has found the cause of Hamlet's lunacy.
They all exit, so that it is just Ros and Guil again.
Ros says that he wants to go home, but Guil tells him not to be confused by everyone.
Ros tries to say that he is in over his head, and out of his depth, but he keeps confusing his phrases and his voice begins to crack.
Guil tells him that soon they will be home and they will be "high and dry" (1.307). Guil asks if he has ever had trouble spelling the words "wife" or "house" because you write down the word and then just don't remember seeing the letters in those order before.
Ros says that he remembers a time when there were no questions, but Guil insists that there were always questions. It's just now there is a different set.
Ros says that there used to be answers to everything, and Guil tells him that he has simply forgotten. Ros flares and says that he has not forgotten, that there was a time when he could remember his name and Guil's quite clearly and there were answers everywhere that you looked.
Guil tells him that the trouble is that each of them (the names) is plausible without being instinctive. He says, "All your life you live so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque" (1.315). He recalls the man that called their names, and dawn. He says one thing is certain: that they came.
Ros tells him that he is sick to death and asks him to make up his mind (and to pick a name).
Guil tells him that he couldn't afford to do anything so arbitrary, but notes that they are relatively fortunate. They couldn't have "been left to sift the whole field of human nomenclature, like two blind men looting a bazaar for their own portraits" (1.317). He is happy that at least they have alternatives (two names to choose from).
Ros wants to make a decision (who goes by what name), but Guil insists that they do not have a choice. Ros says that he looked ridiculous, but Guil says that he looked just as ridiculous (they're referring to the bowing fiascoes with Claudius).
Ros just wants some consistency. Guil says, "Give us this day our daily mask" (1.323).
Ros says that he wants to go home, but he has lost track of which direction they came from.
Guil says that "the only beginning is birth and the only end is death—if you can't count on that, what can you count on" (1.325)?
Ros says that they don't owe anything to anyone, and Guil agrees that they have been caught up in something. He says that, if they stay attentive, they'll be okay.
Ros asks how long they have to do this for, and Guil says until the events have played themselves out. He tells Ros that there is a logic at work, and that he needs to just enjoy it and relax. He says that they can be innocent like children, and it will be like a prize, perhaps a prize for never having had a childhood. He then realizes that he contradicts himself.
Ros asks what they have to go on, and Guil says that they have been briefed on Hamlet's transformation. He asks Ros what he remembers, and Ros says that Hamlet has changed.
Guil recalls that they shall "draw him on to pleasures—glean what afflicts him" (1.333).
Ros suspects it is more than his father's death, and Guil notes that Hamlet speaks of them and dotes on them constantly.
Guil says that it's just a matter of asking the right questions and not giving themselves away – like a game (they don't want Hamlet to know that they've been sent by Claudius).
Ros asks if they can go after that, and Guil reminds him that they will receive great thanks if they do. Ros says he likes the sound of that, and asks what was meant when Gertrude phrased thanks in terms of a "king's remembrance" (1.339). Guil thinks that they just meant that the king does not forget his friends.
Ros asks if he would care to estimate what his memory is like. Guil notes that some kings are amnesiac, and others are… He tries to think of the opposite of amnesiac. First, he tries elephantine, but then settles on the word retentive. He says that he is "a very retentive king, a royal retainer…" (1.347).
Ros asks him what he is playing at, and he says, "Words, words. They're all we have to go on" (1.349).
Ros asks if they should do something more constructive, and Guil jokes that they could make a small human pyramid. Ros again notes that they could go, but Guil asks where they would go. Ros says that they could go after him (Hamlet), but Guil notes that they have been placed and if they move they could mess everything up.
Ros walks up to the footlights of the stage, and says that he feels like "a spectator – an appalling business. The only thing that makes it bearable is the irrational belief that somebody interesting will come on in a minute…" (1.356).
Guil asks if he sees anyone, but he doesn't. Neither does Guil. Guil thinks that they are the subjects of a fine persecution, "to be kept intrigued without ever quite being enlightened" (1.359).
Ros proposes that they play at a game they call "questions" in order to practice (for questioning Hamlet). Guil immediately begins keeping score (it scores like tennis). He gives himself points for Ros making a statement (and not asking a question), but Ros says he is cheating. Guil gives himself points for Ros repeating himself and grunting. Ros insists they haven't started and says Guil is cheating and has started too early, but Guil keeps track of the score regardless.
Ros says that he won't play if Guil plays like that. They bounce simple questions back and forth, and then Ros gives himself a point for Guil using a synonym, and then for his using rhetoric. They successfully bounce questions back and forth until Guil asks if a question was rhetoric, and Ros says it was not, and Guil gives himself a point for Ros making a statement.
They get a few questions going again, and then Guil asks, "Is there a God" (1.401)? Ros gives himself a point because they can't use non-sequiturs. The score is now three-two, one game all.
They start again. Guil starts by asking Ros's name, but Ros asks his, and he says that he asks first. Ros gets a point because Guil made a statement.
They get questions going again, but Ros gets a point when Guil again asks him what his name is. Guil asks him who he thinks he is, and Ros gives himself the winning point because Guil used rhetoric. He asks when it will end, and Guil agrees that that is the question.
They play more light-heartedly at questions and wonder whether or not the question (when is it going to end?) matters.
Ros asks what the game is, and Guil asks what the rules are, and then Hamlet enters and crosses the stage reading a book. When he is almost across the stage, Guil notices him.
Guil gets Rosencrantz's attention, and he jumps. Hamlet goes out. They regard this as a triumph (having Ros respond so abruptly to his name) and think that they are clever and instinctive.
They shake hands. Ros now tries to catch Guil's attention, but Guil notes that he has to catch him unawares. Ros agrees, but then asks if Guil is ready. Guil explodes angrily and asks if Ros is stupid.
Ros apologizes. Guil then exclaims "Guildenstern!" (1.444) Ros jumps, and then realizes what has happened (they've gotten their names confused again), and he is crestfallen while Guil is disgusted.
Guil exclaims that consistency is all he asks for (Ros made the same exclamation earlier).
Ros begins new wordplay, saying that all he seeks is immortality, and Guil says "Give us this day our daily week…" (1.448).
Ros asks who crossed the stage. Guil asks if he knew him, but Ros notes that the man did not know him. Guil says that he just didn't see him, but Ros claims that he didn't see the man. Guil notes that Hamlet has changed.
Ros asks how he can see that. He says that Hamlet is transformed, and Ros asks how he knows that, but Guil says that he is changed inside and out (he's repeating phrases from Claudius).
Ros says, "I see" (1.459). He then agrees with Guil.
Guil tells Ros to glean what afflicts him (Hamlet). Ros is confused. Guil wants to role-play at question and answer, with himself as Hamlet and Ros as Ros. Ros is still confused.
Ros asks if Guil is afflicted, and Guil thinks he has figured it out, but it becomes clear that he does not.
Ros begins by addressing him as Guildenstern, and Guil notes that he has forgotten what they are doing. Ros then addresses him as Rosencrantz. Guil tries to control himself and explains again what they are doing.
They try to start, but Ros begins playing at the old game "questions" instead of role-playing the Hamlet scenario. Guil becomes angry and shouts "Not now!" (1.503) He wonders what he and Ros could possibly have in common, except for their situation.
Ros asks if they should go. Suddenly Ros understands what the game is supposed to be. They begin again, and this time Ros gets the address correct. He asks how Guil (as Hamlet) is, and he says that he is afflicted. Guil simply repeats the lines from Claudius at first, and Ros notes that there is "not much new there" (1.526). Guil tells him to go into more detail.
Ros asks if his (Guil as Hamlet) uncle is the king of Denmark. Ros attempts to clarify things. He notes that Hamlet's father was king, that he was his only son, that his father dies, that he was of age, but that his uncle became king.
Ros notes that this is unorthodox, and Guil says that it undid him. Ros asks where he was, and Guil says Germany. Ros calls it usurpation, and Guil says that his uncle simply slipped in.
Ros then inquires about his (Guil as Hamlet) mother's marriage. They note how inappropriate the marriage was.
Ros sums up by noting that Hamlet's uncle replaced his beloved father and then married his mother, "thereby offending both legal and natural practice" (1.571). Yet still he does not know why Hamlet is behaving as he is.
Guil agrees that he can't imagine why. Everything that they have discussed is well known and yet they were sent for anyway.
Ros hears music. He thinks it is a band. Guil addresses him as Rosencrantz, and then as Guildenstern. When he answers to both, Guil asks if he discriminates at all.
Guil sends Ros to see if Hamlet is there, and Ros sees him there talking. Ros says that he is coming their way, and Guil notes that they are "marked."
Hamlet enters backward, followed by Polonius. Hamlet tells Polonius that he would be as old as Hamlet if he could go backward, like a crab.
In an aside, Polonius notes that, even if this is madness, there is method in it. He asks if Hamlet will walk out of the air, and Hamlet says that he will walk into his grave. Polonius agrees that this is out of the air.
Polonius starts to exit, and Hamlet tells him that he cannot take anything from him that he would not willingly part with, except his life.
Polonius tells Ros that, if they are seeking Hamlet, he is right there. Ros thanks him. Polonius exits.
Guil and Ros greet him, and Hamlet enthusiastically says hello to his friends, though he confuses them. They all laugh at the confusion and begin to walk upstage arm-in-arm.