Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

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The Coin Symbol Analysis

The Coin Symbol Icon
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.

The Coin Quotes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Coin. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Death Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Grove Press edition of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead published in 1967.
Act 1 Quotes

The sun came up about as often as it went down, in the long run, and a coin showed heads about as often as it showed tails. Then a messenger arrived. We had been sent for. Nothing else happened. Ninety-two coins spun consecutively have come down heads ninety-two consecutive times…

Related Characters: Guildenstern (speaker), Rosencrantz
Related Symbols: The Coin
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Guildenstern considers the improbability of their situation: he and Rosencrantz have tossed ninety-two coins and each coin has landed face-up. The more curious and clever of the two, Guildenstern lays out the possible explanations for the phenomenon, including "divine intervention," and then introduces a tricky syllogism. In philosophy, a syllogism is logical statement consisting of two factual statements—the premises—and the consequence of those two statements—the conclusion. Syllogisms (both correct and incorrect) appear throughout Samuel Beckett's play "Waiting for Godot"—this speech is one of many allusions to the absurdist play, which also features two male characters engaging in comic repartee in a sort of theatrical limbo.

Here, Guildenstern describes the "messenger" as a disruptive, disembodied presence, one that pushes the two characters toward their improbable and tragic future. The messenger's arrival marks the beginning of a long chain of events, each one unlikely, unlucky and yet inevitable. The ninety-two tosses are a miniaturized version of the play's general plot. 

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Act 2 Quotes

Everything has to be taken on trust; truth is only that which is taken to be true. It's the currency of living. There may be nothing behind it, but it doesn't make any difference so long as it is honoured. One acts on assumptions.

Related Characters: The Player (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Coin
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are relieved that the Tragedians have arrived at Elsinore: Guildenstern explains that they are otherwise alone and that their solitude breeds uncertainty and uneasiness. In response, the Player instructs them to "act natural" and take things on trust, since he considers truth inaccessible. 

This section calls to mind the earlier bet between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and its unlikely outcome. The word "currency" reminds us of the ninety-two coin tosses, all of which landed on heads: both men trusted that the coin would follow a particular law of probability, though it did not. In this way, Stoppard brings our attention to the discrepancy between reality and a governing law, reality and some imagined deeper truth. The Player explains that we all must make decisions relying only an incomplete and faulty understanding of the situation, relying only our assumptions. The verb "acts" is also crucial to this quote, as Stoppard again acknowledges the blurry boundary between the theater and life.  

Act 3 Quotes

Life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn't take it.

Related Characters: The Player (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Coin
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

In a brief wordless interlude, Hamlet replaces Claudius' letter with another, this one asking the King of England to execute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern rather than Hamlet. When the protagonists awake, unaware of this unfortunate turn of events, they discover that the Tragedians have been hiding in barrels onboard the ship. The Player explains that Claudius banished them from Denmark because their play offended him. 

This metaphor, comparing life to a risky bet, brings to mind the play's endless coin tossing, the succession of 92 heads in the first scene. When the Player says that "life is a gamble," he means that life is a sort of lucky streak, inevitably cut short by death. And yet this prediction — "if it was a bet you wouldn't take it" — isn't quite true, as both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make unwise bets again and again. They must in order to live: all human life is a ridiculous, impossible bet against death. Such inevitability gives the play both its grim edge and its absurd levity, as death renders sincerity and solemnity futile. 

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The Coin Symbol Timeline in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Coin appears in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1
Individual Identity Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
...entirely non-descript set where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in full Elizabethan costume, have been betting on coin after coin toss for a long time. The stage directions set the scene: every time... (full context)
Individual Identity Theme Icon
Free Will Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue to toss coins, which continue to fall on "heads" (it's now been 85 times and counting). They admit... (full context)
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
...entrance somewhere else." He spits on Rosencrantz's offer to buy a performance with a single coin. He accepts Guildenstern's offer to bet on coin tosses, which all fall on "heads." He... (full context)
Death Theme Icon
Individual Identity Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
...immobile for a long time until Rosencrantz prods him to lift his foot, revealing Guildenstern's coin beneath it. The Player exits. (full context)
Individual Identity Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
Rosencrantz exclaims that the coin had fallen on tails and throws the coin at Guildenstern, who catches it. The lights... (full context)
Act 2
Free Will Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
The Theater Theme Icon
...doesn't see any, and says the audience should burn to death. He takes out a coin to toss but claims not to have looked to see which face it fell on.... (full context)
Death Theme Icon
The World's Absurdity Theme Icon
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reflect on Rosencrantz's coin trick, which Guildenstern was impressed by. They decide to "think of the future," "to have... (full context)
Act 3
...directions that we can hardly separate from instinct." Rosencrantz reaches into his purse for a coin to hide between his fists. He extends his fists to Guildenstern for Guildenstern to guess... (full context)