Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead | Study Guide

Tom Stoppard

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead | Symbols



With each flip of the coin, Guildenstern is drawn deeper and deeper into a consideration of the governing laws of reality. While ostensibly a symbol of chance, here it comes to represent something different—the collapse of universal laws. The absurd fact that the coin has landed on heads 76 times compels him to reexamine the two meaning-making structures that might explain it—religion and science.

According to Guildenstern, the reason the law of probability is so important is that it bridges the gap between an unpredictable universe and a universe that is knowable and controlled. Speaking of the law of probability, he says, "This made for a kind of harmony and a kind of confidence. It related the fortuitous and the ordained into a reassuring union which we recognized as nature." Fortuitousness, which can be interpreted as luck or chance, stands in opposition to a universe in which actions are "ordained," or sanctioned by either scientific laws or a supernatural power such as the Christian God. Thus the coin becomes a symbol for this tension of opposites.

To say that religion and science are two sides of the same coin helps the audience understand how the coin brings the play's various binaries into relation. Because there are only two options, heads or tails, the coin represents a view of reality as two-sided while also giving physical form to those binaries—science and religion, chance and fate, destiny and free will, life and death, etc.

Despite the deep philosophical implications Guildenstern sees in it, the coin is also a symbol of distraction and escape. In Act 2, when Rosencrantz uses the coin in a guessing game, it is for the purpose of distracting Guildenstern from his pessimism and making him happy. On this level it is simply part of a game, one played by adults and children alike for the purpose of passing the time.


The boat, as an identifiable space, represents a departure from the undefined and uncertain "space" that has been the setting for most of the play. Guildenstern initially expresses appreciation for the boat because of its self-contained nature. It comforts him because it allows him to relax and simply be, without having to make decisions about what to do next. He says, "I like the way they're—contained. You don't have to worry about which way to go, or whether to go at all." Guildenstern also finds comfort in the idea that because boats are a bridge between places, nothing bad can happen on a boat. They are always between events, rather than the site of events themselves. As he says, "Boats are safe areas in the game of tag ... I think I'll spend most of my life on boats." In contrast to the uncertain nature of Elsinore (a city in Denmark and the location of the royal palace in Hamlet), the boat offers Guildenstern the comfort of an escape. The Tragedians, who are stowed away and running from Claudius, whom they offended, understand this. It is literally their means of escape.

By the end of the play, Guildenstern's need for comfort and escape gives way to a deeper understanding of the nature of his existence. As a result, his understanding of the nature of the boat changes. The boat, while allowing for the freedom of movement, is actually on a course of its own. As he says, "We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger on that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current." As a symbol of the human condition, the final destination of the boat is the destination (and destiny) toward which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are headed. All journeys, as it were, end in death.

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