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The stage opens in darkness with the sounds of the sea in the background.
Guil asks if Ros is there, and Ros asks where. Ros asks if it is Guil, and Guil assures him that it is. Ros asks how he knows, and Guil becomes angry.
Ros asks if they are finished, and Guil counters that they are somewhere. Ros is unsure because he can't see anything. Guil tells him that he can at least think, and Ros thinks that this is true. Guil points out that Ros can still talk, and Ros wants to know what to say. Guil tells him not to worry about it, and tells him that he can still feel. It is at this point that Ros becomes confident that he is still alive.
Guil asks him what he is feeling, and Ros says that he is feeling his leg, but that his leg feels dead. Ros begins to panic because he can't feel anything. Guil tells him to pinch his leg, and Ros yelps. He apologizes, and Guil is happy that they have cleared things up.
The sound of the sea grows, and there are the sounds of ships and of sailors calling a bunch of different nautical instructions.
Ros observes that they are on a boat. He says that it is dark, but Guil says not for night, and Ros agrees. Guil says it is dark for day, and Ros agrees.
Guil says that they must have gone north because that is the "land of the midnight sun" (3.32).
A lantern is lit by Hamlet, and the stage becomes light enough to reveal Ros and Guil sitting downstage, amidst the vague shapes of a ship.
Ros says that he thinks it is getting light, but Guil says that it is not for night unless they are off course.
The light improves, revealing three casks on the deck with lids. There is a gaudy umbrella on a pole in the deck.
Ros says that it is lighter than it was, and wonders if it will be night soon this far north (where night and day are reversed). He supposes that they should go to sleep.
Guil asks if he is tired, but Ros says he's not. He wonders how one can sleep all night and then have it be dark all day. He thinks that Eskimos must lead very quiet lives.
Guil says that he has lost all capacity for disbelief, and he is not even sure that he could rise to a bit of skepticism.
Ros asks if they should stretch their legs, but Guil doesn't feel like it. Ros offers to stretch Guil's legs for him, but Guil refuses. Ros says they could stretch each other's legs, but Guil says no because someone might come in.
Ros comments on the planking, and Guil says that he likes boats because they are contained: "You don't have to worry about which way to go, or whether to go at all – the question doesn't arise, because you're on a boat, aren't you" (3.55)?
Ros agrees that boats are very healthy. He is expectant, then bored. Guil stares out at the audience. He thinks that one is relatively free on a boat for a time.
Ros asks what it is like (presumably freedom), and Guil says that it is rough. They both look out at the audience, and Ros says that he is going to be sick.
Guil licks a finger, and holds it up. He tells Ros to go to the other side, and Ros goes upstage and looks behind the umbrella. Guil continues to look out on the audience.
In a monologue, Guil debates their level of freedom. He thinks that they are somewhat free, but they have not been cut lose: "our truancy is defined by one fixed star" (3.61). Yet in the end they must face the fact that they are bearing a letter from one king to another, and are taking Hamlet to England.
Ros has discovered something. He secretly tiptoes up to Guil, and points behind him. He whispers that someone (Hamlet) is there. Guil asks what he is doing, and Ros says that he is sleeping. Guil says that it's okay. Ros says that Hamlet has them, and Guil bemoans the fact that they have nothing.
He says, "Give us this day our daily cue" (3.75).
Ros wants to know what to do, and Guil becomes frustrated. He says, "We act on scraps of information…sifting half-remembered directions that we can hardly separate from instinct" (3.81).
Ros puts a hand in his purse, puts both hands behind his back and then holds out a fist. Guil taps one. Ros opens it and there is a coin, which he then gives to Guil. He does it again, and again there is a coin, which he gives to Guil. They repeat three more times, and Guil begins to get nervous about losing. Guil taps one hand, changes his mind and taps the other, and Ros accidentally reveals that he has a coin in both fists.
Guil points out that there are two coins, and Ros is embarrassed. Guil asks if he did it every time, and Ros admits that he did. Guil asks what the point was, and Ros says that he wanted to make Guil happy.
Guil asks how much money the King gave Ros, but Ros wants to know what the King gave Guil. Ros says he got the same as Guil, and Guil agrees that he would not discriminate between the two of them.
Ros again asks how much Guil got, and he says the same. When Ros asks how he knows, he says because Ros told him, and wants to know how Ros knew.
Ros says that the King wouldn't discriminate between them, and they wonder if the King even could discriminate between them.
Ros keeps playing off of Guil's words, and Guil gets angry with him for not being original, for just repeating what he says in a different order.
Ros says that he's no good at being original, only at support. Guil says that he is sick of being in the lead, and Ros wonders if it is his dominant personality. He then exclaims, "Oh, what's going to become of us!" (3.107).
Guil comforts Ros, who is near tears. Ros thinks they are lost, but Guil reminds him that they have the task of taking Hamlet to England. Ros worries that they won't know what to do when they get there.
Guil says they will take him to the King, but Ros points out that the King is not expecting them and will not know what they are playing at. He wonders what they will say, and Guil reminds him that they have a letter.
Ros wonders what they do after they take Hamlet to the King and give him the letter. Guil thinks that there might be something in the letter to keep them going on. Ros wonders what if there's not, and Guil admits that, if that's the case, then they are finished.
Ros asks what the letter says, and Guil suggests that it just says typical general diplomatic things. Ros asks if it will say anything about Hamlet and what they are all doing in England, and Guil thinks that it will.
Ros and Guil get confused about which one of them is actually carrying the letter. It turns out to be Guil.
Guil worries that things are getting undisciplined, and in an effort to tighten them up, he reasons carefully through the location of the letter and then finds it in his pocket. He says that they must not drop off like they did again.
Ros asks why they are looking at the letter, and Guil says that it is because they thought it was lost. Ros asks if there is another reason, and Guil says there is not.
They become deflated, and worry that they have lost the tension of the moment.
Ros tries to remember the last thing he said before they wandered off, but they can't. Guil worries that they aren't getting anywhere, and Ros says that they are not even getting to England. He says that he doesn't believe in England anyway.
Guil asks if Ros thinks that England is just "a conspiracy of cartographers" (3.166).
Ros says that he just can't imagine England, and he is worried that they are slipping off the map.
Guil counters that one doesn't believe anything until it happens.
Ros says, "We drift down time, clutching at straws. But what good's a brick to a drowning man?" (3.169).
Guil tells him not to give up, but Ros says that they might as well be dead. He asks if Guil thinks that death could be a boat.
Guil disagrees. He says, "Death is… not. Death isn't. You take my meaning. Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can't not-be on a boat" (3.172).
Ros counters that he has frequently not been on boats, and Guil corrects the confusion.
Ros wishes that he were dead. He looks over the edge of the boat and thinks that he could jump off of the side. He says this would "put a spoke in their wheel" (3.175).
Guil points out that it would not do so if they were already counting on his jumping off. Ros decides to stay on board in order to put a spoke in their wheel. Ros exclaims that he is done with questioning and doubting, that he is happy simply to perform. He says that a line must be drawn somewhere, and reasserts that he does not believe in England. He says that even if it is true, England will just be a shambles.
Guil doesn't see why, and Ros says that the King won't know what they are talking about.
They begin to act out the scenario with Guil as Guil and Ros as King. Guil announces that they have arrived, and Ros as King asks who they are. Guil identifies himself, but the King says that he has never heard of him. Guil says that they have instructions, but the King claims this is the first that he has heard of it. Guil says that they have come from Denmark, and that they are delivering Hamlet. The King has heard of Hamlet but wants nothing to do with him.
Ros as King scolds Guil for trying to pass a lunatic off on him. Guil tells him that he has a letter. Ros as King opens the letter. Ros looks over the letter efficiently, but then notes that it says that the King of England should have Hamlet's head cut off.
They snatch the letter back and forth from each other, then read it together and separately.
Ros notes that the sun is going down and it will be dark soon. Guil asks if this is true, and Ros says that he was just making conversation. He then points out that they are Hamlet's friends.
Guil asks how he knows this for sure, and Ros says because they were raised together. Guil sets about rationalizing their situation. He says that death comes to us all, and that Hamlet's just one man among many, and that Socrates once pointed out that, since no one knows what death is like, it is irrational to fear it. It could be nice. He says that they should not mess with fate and the will of King's and urges Ros to re-seal the letter.
Ros asks what the point is, and Guil tells him not to be logical. Ros thinks that it is awful, but Guil says that it could have been worse and then laughs.
Hamlet appears form behind the umbrella and goes to the lantern.
Ros summarizes their situation – from the point where Claudius asked them to cheer Hamlet up and figure out what afflicts them, up to the point where they are taking Hamlet to England for his own good. He leaves out the fact that they know they are taking Hamlet to his death.
Hamlet blows out the lantern, and the stage is black. The black shifts to moonlight. Hamlet approaches the sleeping Ros and Guil and takes the letter behind his umbrella. Hamlet emerges and replaces the letter.
Ros watches morning come. Behind him, Hamlet sits in a deck chair reading and smoking. Stage becomes as bright as high noon.
Ros re-asserts that he is assuming nothing. He summarizes their situation again, including the fact that the King gave them a letter, which Guil is carrying, and they are taking Hamlet to England.
There is the sound of a record, and both of them sit up and listen to it.
Guil is excited. He admires the poetic nature of the moment, and describes the situation in eloquent terms. He thinks that this recorder "could change the course of events" (3.216).
Ros announces that the sound is someone playing the pipe. Guil tells him to go find him and request a tune.
Ros can't decide where the music is coming from. He finds it is coming from the middle of the three barrels. He keeps looking back to Guil for help, but not quite speaking. He kicks the barrel, and the sounds stops. He opens the barrel and then closes it. He then hears a drum in the left barrel, and a lute in the right. More instruments join in. The music becomes familiar as the tune of the Tragedians.
The music stops, and Ros says that he thought he heard a band, but he just wants plausibility (it seems impossible that all this music is coming from inside the barrels).
Guil says, "Call us this day our daily tune…" (3.225).
The lid of the middle barrel pops open and the Player climbs out. He commands everyone else to get out. All of the Tragedians are there except for Alfred.
The Player wonders where they are, and Ros says that they are traveling. The Player is surprised they are not in England yet. He calls for Alfred who emerges from the middle barrel.
Guil asks what he is doing there, and the Player says that he is traveling. He tells the Tragedians to blend into the background. They are still wearing their costumes from the mime.
The Player asks if Guil and Ros are happy to see him, and announces that their play displeased the King. He notes that since the King was a second husband, the play was really quite tactless.
Ros says that the play was good anyway. The Player says they didn't get too far into it before it got interrupted. He looks at Hamlet (in his deck-chair) and says that's the way to travel.
Guil asks why they were in the barrels. The Player says they were hiding. They had to make a run for it after their play. The Player says they never got paid, and recalls that they lost all their money betting on certainties. He says "Life is a gamble, at terrible odds – if it was a bet you wouldn't take it" (3.243).
The Player asks if they know what happens to old actors. They do not. He tells them that nothing happens. The actors are still acting.
The Player asks if Ros and Guil are surprised to see his troupe. Guil says that he knew it wasn't the end, and the Player notes that it couldn't be because almost everyone is still on their feet.
The Player asks if they've spoken to Hamlet, but they assert that it wouldn't make much difference, though it is allowed. Guil thinks that they are in a position where they can be spontaneous, where the wheels are turning but without their control. They can do and say whatever they like.
Ros points out that this is only true within limits, and Guil agrees.
Hamlet goes to front-stage, clear his throat, and spits into the audience. A second later, he claps his hand over his eye and wipes himself (as if he were the one getting spit on). He goes back upstage.
Ros notes that Hamlet's chief characteristic is a "compulsion towards philosophical introspection" (3.261), which may or may not mean that he is mad.
Guil says that, in the end, it just boils down to symptoms, and he begins to list all of Hamlet's symptoms (the list is long).
Ros points out that Guil has left out the fact that Hamlet talks to himself. Guil remembers.
Ros and Guil move apart and wonder where they are now.
Ros and Guil complete and repeat each other's phrases, recalling that they are looking at the Player who offended the King Claudius, and who is now escaping to England on the same boat that they are riding in as they take Hamlet to see the English King.
Ros is upset that all they get is incidents and no sustained action. As he says this, pirates attack. Everyone is frantic. They all draw swords – Hamlet included. There are a few collisions, and general panic. They make battle cries. Hamlet leaps into the left barrel. The Player leaps into the right barrel. Ros and Guil leap into the middle barrel. They all close the lids.
Lights dim and sound fades. Ros and Guil's barrel has disappeared. The lid of the right barrel is raised to reveal Ros and Guil. The lid of the left (Hamlet's) barrel is raised to reveal the Player. When they see each other, they slam down the lids and then raise them again cautiously.
They get out of the barrels, and note that Hamlet's is gone. The Player takes off his hat in mourning. Guil and Ros question the Player as to Hamlet's location. Ros says that Hamlet is dead as far as they are concerned.
The Player says that they may be dead as far as Hamlet is concerned.
Guil is worried about what they will do with their letter to the King. The Player congratulates him on having the letter and thus being in an unambiguous situation.
Guil points out that their whole trip is pointless without Hamlet. The Player tells them to just deliver the letter, and then the English will send ambassadors to Denmark to explain what happened.
Guil is worked up and points out that the pirate attack left them high and dry.
The Player comforts him, but Guil is near tears. Guil asks what they are supposed to do, and the Player turns away.
They wonder whether or not they are saved, and observe that the sun is going down. Guil gets angry with Ros for making conversation, which can't help them now.
Ros tries to bet him that the year of his birth doubled is an odd number, but Guil refuses. When he tries to bet on Guil's birth, Guil strikes him.
Guil says that they have gone too far and now momentum has taken over: "We move idly towards eternity, without possibility of reprieve or hope of explanation" (3.312).
Ros tells him to be happy; otherwise there is no point in surviving. He thinks that they will be alright. They can still go to England.
Guil says that he never believed in England anyway (repeating Ros's lines from earlier).
They re-play the situation with the King, except now Ros is Ros and Guil is the King. It goes much as before, up to the point where Ros asserts that they have a letter.
Guil snatches the letter and opens it. It is the same except that this time it does not condemn Hamlet to death. It condemns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Hamlet obviously switched the names in the letter).
They snatch the letter back and forth and read it together.
The Player goes and kicks the barrel and yells into it. Impossibly, all of the Tragedians emerge from within it and form a menacing circle around Ros and Guil, who are still in a state of shock.
Guil thinks that where they went wrong was in getting on the boat. Ros thinks that the Players had it in for them from the very beginning, and wonders at how important he and Ros were without knowing it.
Guil asks why "so much should converge on their little deaths" (3.334). In anguish, he asks the Player who they are.
The Player tells them they are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and that should be enough.
Guil is not satisfied. He says, "No – it is not enough. To be told so little – to such an end – and still, finally, to be denied an explanation – " (3.336).
The Player says that in their experience, most things end in death.
Guil is furious. He derides their experience and calls all of them actors. He then pulls a dagger from the Player's belt and holds it to his throat.
He tells the Player that he cannot act death. He says, "You die a thousand casual deaths – with none of that intensity which squeezes out life…and no blood runs cold anywhere. Because even as you die you know that you will come back in a different hat. But no one gets up after death" (3.338).
He pushes the blade into the Player's throat, and the Player dies dramatically. Guil turns to the Tragedians and tells him that this was the Player's destiny. If he and Ros are to get so little explanation, then there will be no more for the Player.
The Tragedians watch the Player die with interest. When he lies still, they applaud. The Player rises and brushes himself down. It tells the Tragedians not to flatter him, that his performance was "merely competent" (3.339).
The Player points out that this was the type of death the Tragedians expected, the one in which they believe. The Player holds out his hand, and Guil pushes the blade into it. The blade withdraws into the hilt, and the Player smiles (it is a trick knife). The Player says that for a moment Guil thought he had cheated.
Ros laughs nervously and notes that the Player took him in completely. He calls for an encore.
The Player resumes his professional stance, and begins to list all the sorts of deaths that the Tragedians can provide. The actors act out the different deaths, ending with the two "spies" being stabbed, as they were before. The Player re-asserts that death is commonplace.
Guil is tired, but he still insists that this is not death. He says, "Death is not anything…death is not…It's the absence of presence, nothing more…the endless time of never coming back…a gap you can't see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound…" (3.331).
The lights are down so that only Ros and Guil are visible.
Ros asks if this is it. He notes that either the sun is going down or the earth is coming up, though it makes no difference. He tries to remember where it all began, and wonders if they can just stay put. He then cries that they have done nothing wrong, that they never harmed anyway. He looks to Guil for confirmation.
Guil can't remember.
Ros says that he doesn't care and that he has had enough. He says that, truthfully, he is relieved. Ros disappears, but Guil does not notice.
Guil recalls the messenger that called their names at dawn. He wonders if there was a moment at the beginning when they could have said no. He thinks that they have missed it. He sees that he is alone, and starts to call "Rosencrantz." Then he starts to call "Guildenstern."
Guil gathers himself, and says "Well, we'll know better next time. Now you see me, now you – " (3.347). Guil disappears.
The whole stage is lit up, revealing the closing scene of Hamlet. The stage is littered with the bodies of the King, Queen, Laertes, and Hamlet. Horatio is holding Hamlet, and Fortinbras is there. There are also two ambassadors from England.
The ambassador observes that he has come too late. The one that he was supposed to deliver news to is dead. He announces that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, and then asks where he should get his thanks.
Horatio tells him that Claudius never actually commanded the deaths of the two men. Horatio orders that Fortinbras and the ambassador assure that these bodies be placed on a stage to be viewed. He wants to speak of what happened, of the carnage and the blood and the accidents. He claims that he can "truly deliver" all of these details.
Yet, as Horatio makes this assertion (which is taken directly from Hamlet), the stage is already going dark and his voice is overtaken by the music.