Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Symbols

Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)
Sections x

The Coin

First featured in the uncanny coin toss between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at play's start, coins appear throughout the play and symbolize the forces of mortality that control human life and render human free will meaningless. While a tossed coin should, according to the law of probability, have a 50-50 chance of falling 'heads' or 'tails,' the coins in this play fall almost exclusively on 'heads,' signaling that probability's law is suspended. Such suspension may seem at first to be the stuff of make-believe, but the play quickly reveals that there is nothing fantastical about such odds: they are in fact the odds of human will against death. Death always prevails, no matter how badly humans try to fight it or struggle to stay alive. Throughout the play, coins feature in various games (be it the coin toss of play's start, Guildenstern's coin toss with the Player, or Rosencrantz' coin tricks) that replace a 50-50 law of probability with an 100% likelihood, thereby symbolically gesturing towards death's utter inevitability.

Look for the red text to track where The Coin appears in: Act 1, Act 2, Act 3, Act 1

The Boat

The boat symbolizes the trajectory of human life and the fundamentally limited and futile nature of human action. As a boat's passengers are able to move at will within the contained space of the vessel but are ultimately swept up in the greater movement of the boat's motion, so too are a human individual's actions and developments dwarfed by the unstoppable progress of his life towards death. Though Act Three's setting on a boat is in line with Shakespeare's original play, the set also resonates with symbolic significance as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hurdle helplessly towards their own deaths. As Guildenstern reflects, describing his and Rosencrantz' situation on board, "We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current…"

Look for the red text to track where The Boat appears in: Act 3, Act 3