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). 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...
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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