In a nondescript wilderness, Rosencrantz watches as Guildenstern flips coins. Each time a coin lands on heads, Rosencrantz gets to keep it. Guildenstern can hardly believe that Rosencrantz has amassed so many coins, but the coins keep coming up heads. He speculates that the two have entered an alternate universe, in which normal laws of probability, time, and chance do not apply. Unlike Guildenstern, Rosencrantz contentedly continues watching (and winning), not bothering to worry about why the coins keep landing heads up. Guildenstern speculates about possible reasons for the run of heads, including whether he is making his friend win as a way of subconsciously punishing himself, whether time has stopped, and whether a god of some kind has stepped in to influence their lives. He also begins to wonder if actions have ceased to exist in relation to one another.
Guildenstern asks Rosencrantz to describe his earliest memory, but Rosencrantz forgets the question almost immediately. Guildenstern suddenly remembers that the pair has been “sent for.” Then he returns to his speculation about whether they have arrived somewhere in which the usual principles of the world do not apply. Frightened, he uses logic to reassure himself that they have not entered a parallel universe. But, still, he reasons that the coins have landed heads almost a hundred times, a sure sign that the laws of probability have ceased working. He hears music in the distance. As he trims his fingernails, Rosencrantz idly reminds Guildenstern that fingernails and facial hair continue to grow after a person has died. Rosencrantz then mentions that he does not remember ever cutting his toenails. These comments agitate Guildenstern, who asks Rosencrantz if he remembers anything from that morning. Rosencrantz recalls being woken by a stranger, an answer that calms Guildenstern. Rosencrantz says that they are on the road as a result of this stranger, who bade them to hurry up and go. But they do not know where they are going. Rosencrantz hears music but decides that he has only imagined it. Guildenstern claims that an audience makes any event real. The Tragedians enter.
Stoppard does not give much information about the location of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or about the characters themselves. Instead, he expects the readers of his play to be familiar with Hamlet, on which so much of the plot of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is based. Readers who know Hamlet will also know that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are traveling to Elsinore, having been sent for by Claudius, king of Denmark, to watch over Hamlet, the prince of Denmark. The nondescript road on which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern travel is actually the path to the royal castle. Neither Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern remembers the events of the morning very clearly, although they vaguely recall being woken by someone and asked to go somewhere. But now they seem to have no idea what they are doing or where they are. This inability to recall significant events, to understand their circumstances, or to exert any kind of meaningful control over their environment (noticeably they make no real effort to figure out where they are or what they are doing) continues throughout the play, as do Stoppard’s references to Hamlet. The first scene sets the conceptual framework for the remainder of Stoppard’s play.
Their different responses to the coin tosses reflect the different personalities of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Rosencrantz blithely flips a coin, notes it as heads, and pockets it, over and over again, never questioning why the coins keep coming up heads. Guildenstern, in contrast, worries that the two have entered an alternate universe, since standard laws of probability dictate that a coin has an equal chance of coming up heads or tails. The more coins Rosencrantz wins, the more frightened Guildenstern gets. When Rosencrantz tires of the coin flipping, he begins cutting his fingernails and imagining what happens to the nails after death, foreshadowing the deaths in Act III. His actions demonstrate a relaxed attitude toward the world: he generally believes that everything is and will be okay, and he has no interest in worrying about unknowns. Guildenstern, however, shows a more complicated range of emotions and thought patterns. While Rosencrantz passively accepts the results of the coin flipping, Guildenstern actively struggles to figure out what the results might mean. Unlike Rosencrantz, Guildenstern demonstrates a willingness to interpret and engage with the world around him.