The scene opens with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a nondescript setting in Elizabethan dress. They are playing a game of spinning coins. In this game, they bet on whether a tossed coin lands heads or tails. Having called heads several times in a row, Rosencrantz is winning the game and has a nearly full bag of coins. Guildenstern is not angry about the loss of the money, but is rather concerned at the improbability of a coin landing on heads over seventy times in a row: "A weaker man might be moved to re-examine his faith, if in nothing else at least in the law of probability." Rosencrantz does not share these same concerns, but is rather excited about the prospect of setting a new record of the most wins in a row. After losing several more times, Guildenstern begins to mull over some logical reasons for the events taking place. He hypothesizes that he might be entertaining self-defeat within himself. He also considers the possibility that the event actually occurred once, but that time stopped and is repeating a single moment over and over again. Two other possibilities that he considers are divine intervention, and the notion that he should not be surprised, because each time a coin is spun it is just as likely to end up on heads as it is on tails.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's conversations are quite often a series of nonsequitors. While Guildenstern is trying to figure out the coin-spinning phenomenon, Rosencrantz intermittently inserts irrelevant information, such as how beards and fingernails continue growing after death. In the midst of his queries, Guildenstern asks Rosencrantz, "What's the first thing you remember?" After many questions that lead to nowhere, it is revealed that Guildenstern remembers nothing save from the fact that they both were sent for by a messenger. Then, as if through no effort of his own, Rosencrantz gradually begins to recall the morning in more detail: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were awakened before dawn by a messenger standing on his saddle delivering an urgent royal decree, calling each of them by name. Where they have been called to and why is still unknown.
Drums are heard in the distance. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter a debate as to whether the sounds they hear are real or an illusion. Guildenstern answers the uncertainty with an illustration about a unicorn: a man sees a unicorn cross his path, but as more and more people witness the event, it becomes apparent that it is just a horse with an arrow sticking through its forehead. After Guildenstern's illustration, Rosencrantz announces confidently, "I knew all along it was a band."
After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's conversation about illusion and reality, six tragedians enter. The troupe includes a spokesman ("the Player"), musicians, actors, clowns, and a young boy named Alfred.
Excited to have come across "an audience" in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Player attempts to sell them "gory romances, full of fine cadence and corpses, pirated from Italian" for an unspecified price. In typical fool fashion, Rosencrantz rises and introduces himself and Guildenstern, but mixes up their names. He does not realize his mistake until Guildenstern corrects him. Despite this, Rosencrantz continues to assume the primary role of communication with the Player. The Player attempts to sell them a pornographic show, and tries to convey the nature of his product to Rosencrantz in indirect terms. At one point the Player says, "It costs little to watch, and a little more if you happen to get caught up in the action, if that's your taste and times being what they are." The Player's insinuations and euphemisms, however, completely escape Rosencrantz. The humorous encounter continues when the Player attempts to negotiate a price for the show. The Player initially names ten guilders per person as a price, yet Rosencrantz, fumbling through an obtuse dialogue, argues him down to seven. When Rosencrantz is unable to grasp the Player's speech about the declining standards of theatre, the Player very nearly gives up and continues on his way.
Guildenstern finally steps in and asks the troupe where they are going. Through a series of questions, Guildenstern attempts to discern whether the troupe met them on the road by plan or design. The Player evades his questions, and asserts that they have no control over where they play, whether in the court or in the tavern. Guildenstern implies that he has influence in the court and may be able to help the troupe perform there. However, the Player questions Guildenstern's influence; Guildenstern, indignant, shakes the man violently. Having collected himself, Guildenstern returns to the Player's mention of getting caught up in the action. Realizing that Guildenstern is brighter than Rosencrantz, the Player enthusiastically bargains with Guildenstern, offering him a private and uncut performance of The Rape of the Sabine Women starring Alfred, a young boy dressed in drag. Guildenstern is enraged at the notion and slaps the Player in the face. He says, "it didn't have to be obscene" as he questions why the nature of the sign had to be obscene rather than mystical (such as a bird dropping a feather on his shoulder) or absurd (such as a mute dwarf pointing the way). The Player, offering no real explanation for the obscenity, apologizes, saying, "You should have caught us in better times. We were purists then."
Before the Player can turn to leave, however, Rosencrantz, who now understands the nature of the show, stops him, wishing to know more about the gory details of what they do. Faced with the threat of the troupe leaving, Rosencrantz offers up a single coin. The Player rejects the offer, but his troupe grasps for the coin. Rosencrantz suddenly becomes indignant and denounces them as disgusting filth, and the Player turns to leave. Before they exit, Guildenstern entices the troupe to gamble. They toss the coin several times, and each time it lands on heads, with Guildenstern winning. The Player places his foot on the coin to stop the betting, but is tricked into betting whether or not the year of the Player's birth doubled is an odd number. Not realizing until too late that all numbers doubled are even, the Player loses the bet. Unable to pay his debt, Alfred, the young boy, is offered up to settle the bet. Guildenstern sees in the boy a charitable project. He aims to turn the boy away from filthy theatre and demands that the troupe perform an actual play to pay off their debt. The actors move to take their places, but the Player remains stationary, directing the others. When Guildenstern questions when the Player is going to change into costume and go on stage, the Player replies that he is always in costume, and always on stage. Just as the Player's immobility is becoming awkward, Rosencrantz steps up to the Player and asks him to move his foot, which hides beneath it the coin. When Rosencrantz stoops to examine it, he discovers that it has landed on tails.
As Rosencrantz tosses the coin to Guildenstern, the lighting changes and Ophelia runs by, holding the garment she has been sewing. Hamlet follows her, disheveled and shaking. He clasps her tightly, and then lets go of her with a shudder. He backs off stage without releasing his gaze; she runs in the opposite direction.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been frozen during this scene, and Guildenstern unfreezes first. Before they can leave, however, Claudius and Gertrude, the King and Queen of Denmark, enter. The King greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, mistaking one for the other. This causes a usually well-choreographed bow sequence to go off kilter. Both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are uncomfortable, adjusting their clothes awkwardly as the King briefs them as to why they have been sent for. It seems that Hamlet's father has died, and that the King and Queen have observed a measurable "transformation" in Hamlet's manner and appearance. As Hamlet's childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sent for so that the King and Queen may better understand the reasons for Hamlet's distress. Gertrude, unable to distinguish between the two, addresses both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and lets them know how fondly Hamlet thinks of them and how grateful both she and her husband are for their arrival. Attendants come so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may visit Hamlet immediately. Before they can exit, however, Polonius (the King's advisor) enters and appears to have found out the cause of "Hamlet's lunacy." Polonius and the King and Queen exit before Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hear the reason. Once gone, Rosencrantz immediately lets Guildenstern know of his discomfort and desire to go home. Rosencrantz is disturbed about the ever-present uncertainty he feels within the court. Here, he is not even certain of his name. Guildenstern comforts Rosencrantz by telling him to relax and to allow the events to play out for themselves. He also tries to explain Rosencrantz's dilemma on a philosophical level. Guildenstern explains that what was once an innate fact becomes subject to question when the very nature of how one perceives the world changes. When Rosencrantz suggests that they go looking for Hamlet, Guildenstern convinces Rosencrantz to stay where they have been "placed" and pass time by playing a game of "Questions". The object of the game is to carry on a coherent conversation without making a statement. In this trite game they breach deep questions regarding their identity and the purpose of their existence.
Hamlet passes by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and they debate briefly whether or not they recognize him and how he has changed. They attempt to put the "question" game to practical use without much success. Guildenstern is pretending to be Hamlet so that they can rehearse for their interrogation. However, Rosencrantz does not catch on very quickly, and much confusion ensues before they are able to glean any new information from the exercise. By the end of the game, they find are able to summarize the plot of Hamlet. Rosencrantz says,
To sum up: your [Hamlet's] father, whom you love, dies, you are his heir, you come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother popped onto his throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice.
With the successful completion of the exercise, Rosencrantz confuses their identities once again. Hamlet enters backwards as he aggravates Polonius with senseless verbal play. Polonius eventually leaves. At the end of the scene, Hamlet enthusiastically greets his dear friends but also mistakes their identities.
In plays, the setting is often critical to orienting the audience to key elements such as time, place, and mood. Stoppard, however, describes the set of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as "without any visible characters." In the tradition of many absurd plays, Stoppard seeks to strip from the audience the illusion of certainty. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter a world full of uncertainty: their past is a mystery, their names seem interchangeable, and they must struggle for even the most fundamental knowledge of why they have been sent for. Rosencrantz's and Guildenstern's activity of tossing coins at the beginning of the play serves not only as an indicator of the paranormal nature of their world, but also as an example of how much of their existence is spent merely passing time.
The world of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is not normal. The law of probability appears to have no jurisdiction here - as shown by the fact that the coin repeatedly lands on heads. This occurrence seems to be an ominous and persitent sign foreshadowing their deaths. Although Rosencrantz is oblivious, Guildenstern seems to sense that a law is being violated each time the coin lands on heads. Frustrated at his partner's inability to grasp the gravity of the situation, Guildenstern says, "Fear! The crack that might flood your brain with light!" Yet even though Guildenstern senses there are implications for the event, he is not certain of what those implications are. Guildenstern approaches the question of what this means in a very methodical, scientific fashion. He comes up with a series of possible explanations, but despite his methodology, Guildenstern does not arrive at any concrete answer. When Guildenstern says, "The scientific approach to the examination of phenomena is a defence against the pure emotion of fear," the inclination is to regard his convoluted tangents as mere ramblings that alleviate his fears rather than lead toward a conclusion. Stoppard has created a space in which science is not a certainty.
Secondly, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's world, time seems to stretch on indefinitely. As in Beckett's Waiting for Godot, characters must pass time, and Stoppard's pastime of choice is play. Although they are betting while flipping coins, competition is not in the air. Guildenstern is "not worried about the money, but he is worried by the implications." There seems to be no true gain or loss. Money is simply transferred between identical bags that belong to characters whose names are interchangeable both to themselves and others. Even in the face of his significant earnings, Rosencrantz does not seek material gain, never mentioning what he might buy with his money. In fact, by the end of the act, barter becomes the mode of commerce: the troupe acts out a play in exchange for their debt. Although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not seem to be motivated by money, the Player is. He says of the actor's motivations, "For some of us it is performance, for others, patronage." The loss or gain of money does not sustain Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's relationship. They are as easily entertained by word games as they are by betting. However, the mixture of "performance" (the desire to be seen) and "patronage" (money) drives the actors to interact with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Acting becomes a vital means to survival in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's world. It is important to note that the Player and his troupe are introduced in the first act right after Guildenstern talks about the unicorns. The anecdote illustrates how the dismantling of the miraculous actually removes one from individual experience, forcing one to settle upon the mundane perception of the masses. Ronald Haymen, in his chapter on "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, makes a key connection between the two. Haymen says:
It is clever [for Stoppard] to bring on the troupe of players before Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet any of the other characters from Shakespeare's play and it is apt that these specialists in illusion are introduced just after Guildenstern's story about the unicorn. (37)
As will become more apparent in the following act, the Player seems to possess an almost omniscient knowledge concerning the meaning of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's predicament. In other words, he knows the plot of Hamlet, and in that way stands outside the action of the play. However, the extent of the Player's power is ambiguous. Guildenstern is able to delude this "specialist in illusion" when they bet on the coin toss and the birthday riddle. The Player and his troupe find themselves with the same destiny as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the end of the play - on a boat to England.
While acting is a means to survival, Elsinore is what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must survive. Meeting King Claudius and Queen Gertrude is a confusing and disorienting affair not only for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but for the audience as well. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear in medias res upon the stage of Hamlet. In Act II scene I of Shakespeare's play, Ophelia tells Polonius the events that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern witness: the disheveled Hamlet surprising Ophelia in her sewing room and embracing her extended arm. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern face the Queen without preparation or briefing. They are like actors that have been pushed onto stage, never having been through a dress rehearsal. They know all the words, but their behavior betrays their uncertainty. Although the words are Shakespeare's, Stoppard's stage directions allow the brief scene to come alive to illustrate his agenda - not his predecessor's. While Shakespeare intended this to be a minor scene where the audience learns that Hamlet will be spied on by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard creates a scene where the audience sees that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have names that people often interchange. This illustrates Stoppard's subtle critique of Shakespeare that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not fully developed characters. They do not have separate and distinct identities, and because of the author's neglect, the audience witnesses the challenges Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must go through. The scene illustrates how masterfully Stoppard has used Shakespeare as a vehicle to endorse the deep-seated conflicts of the postmodern audience.