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Endgame | Study Guide

Samuel Beckett

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Endgame | Motifs



The endgame of chess frames the play's action. Chess endgames begin when there are few pieces left on the board and the resolution of the match comes into view. The match ends with either the checkmate, or capture of the king, or in a stalemate, in which the king is not able to move but also is not captured. Samuel Beckett's play is an endgame which shows the characters scripted in a struggle lurching toward an inevitable but uncertain end: checkmate or stalemate? In the play Hamm is cast as the king, and in spite of his fierce efforts to control the game, his status at the end of the play is undecided. If Clov really leaves, Hamm is defeated, the checkmated king. If Clov stays, Hamm's life is a stalemate, not dead, not really alive, an interminable draw.


At many levels Endgame is a play about plays, players, and the theatrical experience. Beckett weaves allusions to traditional drama throughout the play: Shakespeare's Richard III (Hamm: "my kingdom for a nightman"), The Tempest (Hamm: "our revels now are ended"), and perhaps Hamlet (who mirrors Hamm and Clov's inability to act). In his blindness Hamm echoes the classical Greek protagonist, Oedipus, as well as Shakespeare's King Lear. Beckett styles Hamm as an actor who is always performing and who provides a running critique of his performance.

In a larger sense the play is a commentary on the experience of being in the theater, onstage and off. Hamm's lines, "this is slow work" and "this is deadly" refer to his life and relationship with Clov, but they also describe the play itself. The experience of performing and watching Endgame is slow, difficult work. Beckett writes the stage direction "Pause" after many lines of dialogue in the play, places in which normal dialogue would not pause. So the play moves ever so slowly, seemingly going nowhere fast. Like Hamm, the audience is trapped in their chairs. Like Clov, they might want to leave but theatrical conventions dictate that they stay until the dialogue stops and the curtain falls. Hamm and Clov sense that "something is taking its course" and that something is Endgame.

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