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Endgame | Study Guide

Samuel Beckett

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Endgame | Themes


Search for Meaning

"We're not beginning to ... to ... mean something?" Hamm's query alludes to one of Endgame's central themes. Clov's response, "You and I, mean something! Ah that's a good one!" shows the play holds little hope life can have meaning. Hamm, Clov, Nagg, and Nell exist in a seemingly endless string of empty moments. Their struggle to fill those moments with meaningful action is the central aim of the play. In Samuel Beckett's postmodern world where the present is unmoored from the past, history is unable to function as a meaningful backdrop for the characters' lives. Thus, Hamm and Clov engage in trivial activities—Clov pushes Hamm around the room, Clov looks out the windows, Nagg tells his story yet again—all to pass the time. The present moment is all they have. One minute is like the next, and the audience suspects each day is like the one to follow: "it's a day like any other day," Hamm observes gloomily. Even when Clov seems to decide he will finally take meaningful action and depart, the audience is left wondering if he will really leave. Or does he, like Hamm, remain only to repeat the day again and again?

This search for meaning by the characters in the play reflects the search for meaning in life beyond the theater. The existential dilemma—does life have meaning and if so, what is it—can lead humanity to construct meaning out of absurd moments.

Loneliness and Pain

Although the play holds four characters together, each exists in his or her own world of misery and pain. They are the remnants of what appears to be a world destroyed, possibly victims of war or disease. Whether any companionship is better than none at all is an open question but one which underpins the play.

The relationship between Hamm and Clov is fraught with conflict and contradiction. They are dependent on, yet despise, each other. Clov is bound to Hamm by obligation, especially if Clov was the boy Hamm saved. Hamm is bound to his chair and depends on Clov for everything in his life. Their conversation continually circles back to whether Clov will really leave Hamm, which will free them from each other but ultimately kill them both.

Each of their lives is filled with pain. Clov complains of the excruciating pains in his legs. Hamm repeatedly demands his painkillers until Clov finally tells him they are all gone: "You'll never get any more pain-killer." Hamm's response is a scream of panic. Hamm and Clov live in a world filled with unrelenting pain in which companions offer no real comfort.

Nagg and Nell, on the other hand, have genuine affection for each other, but are physically isolated in their trash bins. Their failed attempt to kiss is pathetic and foregrounds their ultimate loneliness. Their relationship shows it is possible to have a past filled with happiness ("Ah, yesterday!"), but the glimpse of their happy history makes their present barbaric circumstances even sadder. Beckett stages his characters in physical distress to highlight the human condition—people exist together but ultimately die alone.

Work of Language

The ultimate failure of language to provide meaningful connection between the characters is a crucial theme in Endgame. Beckett shows in his theater that language has much work to do, but this work is not always successful. Communication between the characters repeatedly falls short. Nagg frets he told his story poorly. Hamm keeps up a running critique of his own language: "nicely put, that" or "a bit feeble, that." Beckett suggests language lacks the ability to convey any meaning at all. Hamm asks, "Yesterday! What does that mean?" Clov responds and then says brutally, "I use the words you taught me. If they don't mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent."

Furthermore, Beckett is concerned with language as a theatrical construct. Language is what drives a play, which begins when characters speak and ends when they utter the last lines of the script. Hamm and Clov desperately prod each other to keep going, to keep talking. Just as when a person's final silence signals death, Hamm and Clov are afraid to stop speaking for fear of signaling their end. "What is there to keep us here," Clov asks. "The dialogue" is Hamm's reply. As much as the characters try to control their language, it is really language which controls them. The tyranny of language forces them to speak even if what they say has little logical meaning, even when they might prefer to be silent. As long as there is dialogue, they live to play another day.

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