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SCENE 2: Meeting the Players
A band of players ("tragedians"-- actors, musicians, clowns, etc.) appears in the woods. The spokesman for the group, the Player, is thrilled to have an audience, even if it is just two people. He tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that they are actors who perform high tragedy-- battles, ghosts, romance, etc. He also implies that they might offer more services, of a sexual nature, for a higher price. He tries to interest Rosencrantz, who is far too innocent to understand what is going on. Nevertheless, Rosencrantz begins to haggle with the Player over a price.
The Player discusses the declining morals of todays world, all the while attempting to make a deal. When he finally realizes that Rosencrantz will never catch on to what he is being offered, the Player gives up, and is about to leave when Guildenstern begins to question him and his troupe. He seemingly understands that the Player is offering him prostitutes but when the Player tries to seal the deal (a private performance of "The Rape of the Sabine Women, or rather woman, or rather Alfred") Guildenstern is disturbed.
When the Player tries to push him into accepting the offer, Guildenstern "smashes" him across the face. The Player seems used to this sort of treatment, and when Guildenstern cries that he wishes he could receive another-worldly sign of some kind, not just an encounter with a "comic pornographer," the Player agrees quietly. He begins to leave again, but then Rosencrantz comes forward, seeming finally to understand what the Player is really selling. He asks the Player what he and his group "do," and, while protesting that he is not the type to enjoy such things, nevertheless throws a coin down and says, "What would you do for that?" The Player dismisses the coin, even though some members of his troupe reach for it. This makes Rosencrantz furious, and he begins yelling about the "filth" the players practice.
Suddenly, Guildenstern asks them if they would like to bet on a coin toss. They play several times, and each time the coins come down heads. The Player begins to protest, but Guildenstern keeps going. Finally the Player stomps on the coin to prevent the bets from continuing. Guildenstern then begins to tease them, asking them to bet him that the year of his birth doubled is an odd number. When they reject this, he suggests that they bet on the year of the Player’s birth doubled being an odd number. The troupe agrees, then slowly realizes that any number doubled is even.
The Player admits that they have no money, and brings forward Alfred, a young boy, as "payment." Guildenstern feels sorry for Alfred, and is angry at the Player for doing this to the boy. Guildenstern begins to comfort Alfred, then suddenly requests that the players act out a play to pay for their lost bet. Rosencrantz is still confused, thinking there will be some kind erotic performance, but the players get organized to perform a real play. The Player just stands there, doing nothing.
Finally, Rosencrantz approaches him, and as the Player moves away, leaving the stage with the rest of his troupe, Rosencrantz reaches down and picks up the coin from under the Player's shoe, saying, "That was lucky. It was tails."
The difference between the two main characters, who nevertheless cannot keep their own names straight, is made clearer in this scene.
While what the player is really offering remains obscure to Rosencrantz, Guildenstern not only understands it, he clearly has enough experience with it to feel cheated. He says he wanted a "tongueless dwarf" or "a bird out of season" as a sign to mark his journey. When he is confronted with a "rabble of prostitutes," he is furious, because they are nothing like the poetic, classic symbols he expected. In fact, they seem to signify nothing at all, which drives Guildenstern crazy. He wants life to have meaning, to fall together in a pretty and satisfying way.
This is part of why Rosencrantz is often so annoying to Guildenstern. The former is not interested in the meaning of life. He is curious, but in a silly, random sort of way. Guildenstern wants to find someone who will help him understand all of his burning questions, because not knowing disturbs him. However, he is clearly not the kind of philosopher he would like to be. He cannot grasp the issues, either theoretical (the coin toss) or worldly (the actors/prostitutes) in a useful way.
The banter between the Player and his "audience" has the feeling of Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett. This play concerns Vladimir and Estragon, who wait for the entire play for something that never comes. Nothing ever happens, and all their excitement and efforts feel depressing and hopeless. Similarly, even the pompous Player says at one point, "We have no control."
Interestingly, however, only Guildenstern seems to have a problem with this. Rosencrantz and the Player move through life relatively unconcerned with meaning. But Guildenstern, who tries to be humane, to fulfill his humanity, cannot keep it up for long either. He begins talking to the young Alfred, but does not get very far in comforting him before he grows more interested in seeing a play performed. Much of the action and thought in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead feels undirected, misdirected, or merely cut off. Guildenstern rambles endlessly about theoretical coin tosses to little effect. He attempts to extract answers about life’s questions from the Player--clearly a poor choice.
Rosencrantz half-heartedly tries to piece his life together, something he hardly finds interesting. The players start to perform a play, but somehow get stalled and then disappear before they can proceed. All of this has something of the flavor of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," a play whose influence on this one will become more obvious in the scenes to come.
Hamlet is a character who, though wracked by great emotion and ideological angst, does very little until the end of the play. Indeed, many of his actions are half-hearted or strangely motivated or contradictory, much like those of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. At this point, Stoppard’s play shares much of Hamlet’s philosophizing but little of its high drama. In fact, when Guildenstern wishes for a sign, one imagines something along the lines of the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who appears before his son and tells him what to do.
The equivalent of the ghost in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appears to be the Player, who has little interest in or ability to direct Guildenstern.