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Free Study Guide-Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

ACT ONE

SCENE 1: The Coin Spin

Summary

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two well-dressed Elizabethan men in the middle of a coin-spinning game. Their location is featureless. Whoever calls the coin correctly wins it, and Rosencrantz has been calling heads and winning dozens of times. While he feels guilty about taking so much money from his friend, he does not see the consistent "heads" tosses as peculiar at all. Conversely, Guildenstern doesn't care about the money, but he is disturbed by the lengthening series of "heads" tosses. Rosencrantz is caught up in the game, but Guildenstern wants to think about it theoretically. He begins thinking about the laws of probability, focusing on the idea that if six monkeys were thrown up in the air repeatedly, they would land on their heads and tails about equally often. He tries to calculate the idea of an "even chance" in his head: he just can’t believe that the coin could land heads-up so many times in a row if there was a fifty-fifty chance each time that it would land tails. Rosencrantz, however, continues to be embarrassed at his success, calling it "boring," which irritates Guildenstern, who is very interested in what is going on. Rosencrantz calls out that heads has come up eighty-five times: a new record for him. Guildenstern gets angrier, asking what Rosencrantz would have thought if the coins had come down against him eighty-five times. Not understanding that, in terms of probability, this outcome would have been no different, Rosencrantz simply tells him he would suspect that the coins were fake. Guildenstern wants Rosencrantz to feel some awe, or even fear, at the strangeness of the results of their game, but Rosencrantz cannot be moved. Guildenstern imagines possible reasons that this could be happening: he is willing it out of some unremembered guilt, or God is willing it, or time has stopped and they are repeating the same coin toss over and over.

Trying, more idly now, to understand, he asks Rosencrantz about his memories. He asks him what the first thing he remembers is, but Rosencrantz doesn’t understand. He tells Guildenstern he’s forgotten it: "it was a long time ago." Guildenstern, irritated, becomes more driven to philosophize. He tries to decide whether, since probability is a natural phenomenon, they might not be in a "natural" realm of existence. He suddenly remembers "we were sent for," by someone, which will gain importance as the play progresses. He tries to prove that if one says that while operating under unnatural forces the probability is that probability does not exist, that in itself is a probability. This means (he says) that since probability does not seem to apply to their coin game, they must not be operating under unnatural forces.


However, his pleasure at his own reasoning does not last long, as he remembers how many times in the past they have spun coins together, never getting such results before. He believes that normal living depends on basic equality; it creates harmony, preventing anyone from losing or winning too much. Rosencrantz, meanwhile, talks randomly about strange scientific phenomenon, such as the fact that fingernails grow after death. Guildenstern becomes more and more tense, demanding what the first thing Rosencrantz remembers from today is. Finally Rosencrantz begins to follow the thread, crying that a messenger woke them up. He summoned them on official business, no questions asked. Rosencrantz remembers them leaving very quickly, afraid of arriving too late, but when Guildenstern asks him "Too late for what?" he cannot answer. They don’t know where to go now; Rosencrantz doesn’t even remember where he came from.

Guildenstern begins to get depressed, feeling that, since they were picked out by this messenger, they should not be left to find their own way from now on. When Rosencrantz thinks he hears a band playing, Guildenstern begins to theorize about the nature of illusions. He suggests that one can turn an extraordinary happening into an ordinary one at will. His example is a unicorn: if one man sees it, he is amazed, but if a whole crowd sees it, they simply assume it is a horse with an arrow in its forehead. As Guildenstern continues, his friend realizes that a band is, in fact, coming.

Notes

In all the debate early in this scene, it is unclear who is "right": while Rosencrantz seems to be the foolish one of the pair, who simply enjoys his game and doesn’t examine it theoretically, Guildenstern also seems misguided. After all, while it is very unlikely that a coin would come down heads nearly a hundred times in a row, it is possible. While it is unusual, it is not necessarily cause for shock and philosophical analysis.

Guildenstern doesn’t see this. He evaluates his elementary ideas about probability, even down to the simple idea that a two- sided, equally weighted coin has as much chance of coming down heads as tails. Guildenstern also seems just as confused about their being "sent for" as Rosencrantz. Neither of them really wonders why they were sent for, and we are not told exactly who sends for them.

Their curiosity about life has no direction. They either ask random questions, like why fingernails might grow after death, or worry uselessly over metaphysical ideas. Rosencrantz doesn’t seem interested in important questions. Guildenstern attempts to answer those questions by applying bizarre, inappropriate strategies. He uses a syllogism to try to determine whether they are still in reality as they know it. This kind of reasoning becomes all the more absurd when the two begin their discussion about where they are going and why.

They barely remember that they were sent for by royalty, and they certainly have no idea what they will be asked to do once they get where they’re going. All of their complicated theorizing means very little when one realizes that they are completely in the dark about the simplest things. They follow orders without any knowledge of the purpose of their mission.

It seems that, while they (or at least Guildenstern) would like to have some understanding of life’s mysteries, they are somehow able to largely ignore an idea so central and personal as their own fates. They skirt around major issues, focusing on the minor ones instead. An example of this is the appearance of the band: Guildenstern is so caught up in wondering about the nature of illusion that, at first, he ignores the fact that the band is not an illusion at all and is, in fact, standing right in front of him. Their surroundings or lack thereof underscore their confused mental states.

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Free Study Guide-Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
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