With William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet as the backdrop, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead concerns the musings and mishaps of the title characters. The play is structured as the inverse of Hamlet, in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters who were childhood friends of the Prince; instead, the duo remains the focus and Hamlet himself is a minor role whose actions occur largely offstage, with the exception of a few short scenes in which the dramatic plays converge.
In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern operate under the King’s command in an attempt to discover Hamlet’s motives and plot against him. Hamlet, however, derisively mocks and outwits them, so that they, rather than he, are sentenced to death in the end. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead explores these events from the perspective of the duo; their actions seem largely nonsensical because they are superseded and, therefore, determined by Hamlet’s plot.
After witnessing a performance of The Murder of Gonzago – the play within the play in Hamlet – they find themselves on a ship, transporting Prince Hamlet to the King in England, with the troupe that staged the performance also on board as stowaways. They are supposed to give him a letter with an instruction to execute Hamlet, who discovers this and replaces the letter with another one. During the voyage, the ship is hijacked by pirates, after which it is discovered that Hamlet has disappeared and the letter now instructs the English monarch to execute them instead.
The troupe recreates the duel scene from Hamlet with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, at the end, accepting quo fata ferunt (“whither the fates carry [us]”). The play concludes with the final scene from Hamlet in which the English Ambassador arrives and announces that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead”.