Rosencrantz & Guildenstern: the Importance of "Coin" Essay

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern opens with our two main characters listlessly flipping a coin that continually lands on heads. Thus, the word “coin” – while simultaneously meaning “sovereign,” a type of British currency and therefore representative of the turbulent state of Hamlet’s political structure – is integral to the meaning of Tom Stoppard’s comedic play partly because the act of the flipping the coin introduces several themes, and partly because the word itself can serve as a metaphor for the main characters.

Rosencrantz’s announced that his coin lands on heads 89 times in a row (Stoppard 15). This event is not entirely impossible, but very improbable and, in Guildenstern’s words, indicative either of his own inner will, a repeated moment in time, or divine intervention – in other terms, absurd. This is one of the first themes that the coin introduces. In fact, one scholar notes that by fashioning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s story in the context of Hamlet, Stoppard’s characters “must play a role that is strictly defined but still hopelessly unfathomable” (Freeman 20).

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Additionally, the very fact that Stoppard is “coining” a new version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with two incredibly minor characters could be seen as slightly absurdist. The coin in the first act immediately establishes Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s roles: They are seemingly wasting time until they appear within the text of Hamlet. Therefore they have no control over their roles and do not understand their purpose. In addition, the coin-flipping game introduces the idea of chance and parallels the men’s struggle with the idea of fate. Within the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not have the freedom of choice.

This is highlighted in the film version, particularly when the two are in the forest with the players and then suddenly appear in the middle of Hamlet’s castle. They are put in the framework of Hamlet and must follow what occurs in those scenes, having no purpose outside of Shakespeare’s text. They are therefore subjected to questioning the idea of determinism. The fact that Rosencrantz’ coin always ends on heads annoys Guildenstern, but also represents Stoppard’s underlying theme that these characters must die, no matter what decisions they make (if they were allowed to make them).

Guildenstern has a brief conversation with the Player that reflects lack of control they have over what side the coin lands on: Guildenstern says “Fate, then,” to which the Player responds, “Oh yes. We have no control” (Stoppard 25). Stoppard uses these brief statements to clearly and concisely vocalize what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern already know but have difficulty accepting. In a figurative sense, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can be interpreted as two characters who seem to be two sides of the same coin.

At the beginning of the play, Guildenstern seems to be more philosophical and sharp, with Rosencrantz characterized as the bumbling fool, as evidenced by Guildenstern’s long-winded monologues about probability in the first act and Rosencrantz’s seemingly ubiquitous bewilderment. However, these differences are subtle, as both men’s defining characteristic can be boiled down to their constant questions about what they are doing and their perpetual confusion, thus making their personalities generally interchangeable – they can be flip-flopped, just like a coin.

For example, the two men frequently forget their names, as when Rosencrantz stumbles through the introductions when meeting the players: “My name is Guildenstern, and this is Rosencrantz…I’m sorry– his name’s Guildenstern, and I’m Rosencrantz” (Stoppard 22). Just a few lines later, in reference to the relationship between performance and patronage, the Player says, “They are two sides of the same coin” (Stoppard 23).

This line can be read as Stoppard’s way of telling his audience that these two characters are purposefully similar, as it follows his themes of absurdity and existentialism. The coin-related cliche “doesn’t know heads from tails” easily fits into a description of Stoppard’s bumbling characters. For example, their game of questions quickly turns from lighthearted banter to genuinely concerned inquiries that illustrate their confusion: Guildenstern asks, “Do you think it matters? ” Rosencrantz responds, “Doesn’t it matter to you? Guildenstern replies, “Why should it matter? ” (Stoppard 44) In the text, and illustrated in the film, neither one is exactly sure what they are talking about. In short, the word “coin” aptly illustrates the major ideas of the play and provides an insight into how Stoppard portrays his minor-made-major characters. Works Cited: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead. Dir. Tom Stoppard. Perf. Gary Oldham and Tim Roth. 1990. Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. New York: Grove Press, 1967.

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