Study Guide

Endgame Themes

  • Language and Communication

    One of the most quoted lines in Endgame is when Clov asks Hamm what there is at Hamm's house to keep him from leaving. Hamm responds, "The dialogue" (1.582). Dialogue in the play is the way that the characters keep up their hope, the way that they keep from giving up. Hamm is the one who most often pushes the language along; at times, he chides Clov for not keeping up with him. The result of this situation is that the language they use is not quite natural. It is theatrical; the characters are speaking because they feel that they must speak, not just because they feel like it. They are performing, not just for us, but for themselves, reminding themselves that they are still alive and capable of continuing.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How is the refusal to stop speaking tied in with the character's endurance – Hamm's in particular?
    2. Where is the tension between dialogue and monologue in the play? Why is it that even the self-centered Hamm prefers dialogue with Clov to having a long monologue by himself?
    3. How is the cruelty between the characters in the play tied to a breakdown in communication between them?

    Chew on This

    The reason that the characters treat others so poorly is that their short staccato dialogue leaves no room for compassion. Their dialogue is not genuine interaction; it is simply convenient, as a way of keeping themselves alive.

    Language has taken on a sensory quality for Hamm, who can't see or move. He is as reliant on language as most people are on vision, and the reason that he forces Clov to keep speaking with him is to remind him that there is such a thing as an outside world.

  • Compassion and Forgiveness

    That there is not a whole lot of compassion and forgiveness in Endgame. For the most part, the characters are extremely cruel to one another. Hamm bosses Clov around constantly and curses his father for giving birth to him. Clov, when he does not actually leave Hamm, makes up for it by being insubordinate in all sorts of sly ways. There is one openly compassionate relationship in the play – that of Nagg and Nell. All the cruelty in the play raises the question of where the good has gone and why the characters are behaving in this way.

    Questions About Compassion and Forgiveness

    1. Where are the moments of compassion in the play? Who is the most compassionate figure?
    2. Why might the characters behave so cruelly to each other? What is their cruelty hiding? Are they unable to be kind to one another or do they choose not to be?
    3. Do Nagg and Nell show compassion toward each other? Why doesn't Nell ever do anything to help Nagg? In what ways does Nagg shield Nell from the cruelty of the other characters?
    4. Do Clov and Hamm move toward forgiveness in the end of the play? Who should be forgiving whom and for what? Why doesn't Clov leave Hamm?

    Chew on This

    There is no real compassion in Beckett's play. The moments where the characters seem to be acting kindly toward one another can always be traced back to personal, ulterior motives.

    There is a great deal of compassion in Endgame. Though the characters often speak cruelly to one another, their actions suggest that their cruelty masks their vulnerability and they actually long for real human relationships.

  • Isolation

    Complete isolation is the ultimate threat in Endgame. It is a large part of what keeps Clov from leaving Hamm, and it is what keeps Hamm clinging to Clov and Nagg. There is, in a sense, competition between the characters as to who feels the most isolated. Hamm threatens Clov with isolation, saying that it will be even worse for Hamm than it is for Clov to be alone because he will not have a servant to take care of him. Nagg wishes total isolation on Hamm so that when he calls for Nagg it will be out of necessity and not just because he feels like it at that particular moment. The play closes with this impending threat of isolation for Hamm. He is about to be left alone, wheelchair-ridden and blind, with only himself for company.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. How do the characters threaten each other with isolation in the play?
    2. Which character is currently the most isolated?
    3. Who seems to fear isolation the most?
    4. What is a bigger threat: the end (presuming the end is death) or isolation and abandonment?
    5. How do the relationships we see on stage themselves suggest a kind of isolation? Why is there so little love in the play?
    6. How does sensory deprivation lead to feelings of isolation in the play? How does dialogue (or the lack of it) lead to feelings of isolation? Which plays a bigger role?

    Chew on This

    The characters speak to each other so harshly because they are all so afraid of being abandoned; if they form attachments, then it will be that much harder when they are ultimately left to their own devices.

    In the play, isolation is a greater threat than death. The way that the characters cling to each other keeps any of them from being able to bring about an end.

  • Defeat

    Let's start with a question. Is defeat something that is defined subjectively or objectively? Is defeat a state of mind or is something that can be determined based on the facts surrounding a particular person's situation? If we define defeat objectively, then the characters in Endgame are utterly defeated. Their situation is hopeless; they will die in Hamm's house or nearby, and there is no sign that there is another life to come. Yet, if we measure defeat subjectively, then most of these characters are not yet defeated, if only because they do not know how to accept defeat and to recognize it. Now, is this refusal to admit defeat just a lack of common sense or is it something like a triumph of the human spirit?

    Questions About Defeat

    1. In what specific ways are the characters defeated? Exactly what hopes have they given up that normal people still have?
    2. What is worse, the external desolation or more immediate failures in their own relationships?
    3. Is the failure to accept defeat an even greater defeat than if they just accepted it? What would the acceptance of defeat in the play mean? In other words, what is up with the title?
    4. How do the characters, and Hamm in particular, perform their defeat in an effort to make it real?
    5. In the play, is defeat a state of mind or is it something that is determined by the external situation?

    Chew on This

    In the play, defeat is something that has to be performed because it cannot be experienced directly. Hamm, in particular, is constantly acting out his own defeat in an effort to make it real.

    The characters are not defeated in the play. Despite the apocalyptic setting, defeat is a state of mind and they are not defeated until they give in to death and decide with certainty that their lives are completely devoid of meaning.

  • Suffering

    If you read more of Beckett's work, you will find that every single one of his characters is, in one way or another, suffering. In his mid-twenties, when Beckett was suffering from severe depression, he began to read the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer proposed that the world was grounded in suffering. He believed that our individual wills (drives, desires, etc.) only bring us more pain and torment, so desire is something to be fought rather than followed. This was a view of the world that Beckett appreciated; he liked Schopenhauer's "intellectual justification of unhappiness." Suffering is a theme explored very deeply in Endgame. Beckett imagined nightmarish situations for his characters and then explored how they might deal with them. It is one of the most fundamental themes of his work.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What is the relationship between suffering and dignity in the play?
    2. In what ways do the characters inflict suffering on each other and in what ways do the characters bring it upon themselves? Is there a way out of their suffering?
    3. What historic factors could have led Beckett to depict a world that is so bleak and grounded in suffering?

    Chew on This

    In a world without hope or higher aspiration, the ability to endure suffering is the closest that the characters can come to human dignity. Hamm, in particular, sees the dignity in his own suffering and thus tries to emphasize how much pain he is in.

    The fact that Clov has always, in part, brought his suffering upon himself by not leaving Hamm makes him feel responsible for his pain. It also makes him feel as if his own suffering is trivial compared to that of the other characters in the play.

  • Perseverance

    Perseverance may not be quite the right word for this theme in Endgame, and you'll find that at other points in this guide, we use the word "endurance." The thing is, perseverance implies the possibility of success if you just keep going. There is an obstacle, and you are going to overcome it. In Endgame, this is not the case. There is no way out of the apocalyptic struggle, but the characters do suffer through it nonetheless. If there is any perseverance, it is mental rather than physical. Their bodies are deteriorating and they will die. Yet, even when the characters seem to have given up hope, they still struggle on for reasons that they cannot comprehend.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. What is the relationship between perseverance and defeat in the play? What is the relationship between endurance and failure?
    2. Are there any moments in the play at which a character imagines that he will actually be able to escape from his situation? What brings on these moments? How does the character think that he will escape?
    3. Which characters show the greatest endurance in the play? Who shows the least?
    4. What is the cost of endurance? How does it affect their behavior?

    Chew on This

    In the play, perseverance and defeat are the same thing. Real perseverance would be working up the courage to accept defeat and bring about an end to this horrible way of life. When the characters seem to be enduring, they are actually just revealing their weakness and inability to admit that they are defeated.

    Hamm is the only character in the play that actually endures anything. His behavior is self-determined, whereas Clov only takes orders. By contrast, Clov is not demonstrating endurance. He is demonstrating inertia.

  • Pride

    In Endgame, the character Hamm, in particular, oozes vanity. He claims to have once been a sort of monarch. In the present, he is blind and wheelchair-bound, completely dependent on other people. Yet he has still not given up on thinking of himself as a king. Having lost compassion and desire, human pride proves to be one of the last traits to go. For example, Hamm has Clov make him a stuffed dog, which Hamm imagines gazing up at him imploringly. Perhaps that reason they can't figure out that keeps them all going is precisely this undying pride. They are beat but they cannot admit it because they are too vain.

    Questions About Pride

    1. What are the reasons that characters find to be proud in the play? Are their reasons justified or do they simply seem absurd?
    2. Is pride a source of weakness or of strength in Beckett's play? How is pride related to the ability to endure suffering?
    3. What is the relationship between pride and vulnerability in the play? Does a character seem most vulnerable when he is acting the most proud or when he is acting the least?
    4. What role does pride play in the characters' relationships? How does it hinder the characters from being able to make real compassionate connections?

    Chew on This

    In the play, vanity and humor are both sources of strength. Clov seeks solace in absurdity, Hamm and Nagg in vanity, and Nell, who can find neither, is the first to give up and die.

    Pride is the means by which Hamm conceals his weaknesses from Clov. Because he has cast himself in the role of master, he is unable to reveal his vulnerabilities to Clov and so he acts vain and cruel.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

    Beckett often gets classed in the "Theater of the Absurd." Beckett himself disliked the label. He disliked it because it sounded like he had a thesis about life (i.e., Life is absurd). For Beckett, the whole point was that we don't know whether or not life is absurd. So, our theme is not a thesis about whether or not life is absurd. Our theme instead refers to the source of so much humor in Endgame. There are many points where the characters concerns are simply incongruous to their situation; it doesn't feel quite right. The fact that Hamm keeps his parents in trash bins, for one, is funny because it is absurd. Whether or not life is absurd, the characters seem to be saying that it certainly seems absurd right now.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: The Absurd

    1. Is there any way to understand Hamm and Clov's situation except through the lens of the absurd?
    2. Does absurdity allow us to sympathize with the characters or does it distance us from them?
    3. In what ways do bodily functions make for constant comedy in the play? How do these become a rare source of enthusiasm for the characters? How is their corporeality (the fact that they have bodies) related to the absurdity of their situation?

    Chew on This

    Clov has a better understanding of humor than does Hamm because Clov has no ego. When one is ready to give up, everything seems humorous and absurd.

    Absurdity gives the characters a rare escape from the horrible nature of their situation. In moments of physical comedy, they forget themselves and what they are going through and thus find brief moments of happiness.

  • Life, Consciousness, Existence

    Beckett was extremely taken with what it meant to be alive – to exist. He was particularly interested in what it meant to exist in a world that seemed to resist any search for meaning to one's life. While a lot of 'humanistic' texts talk about how great it is to be a human being and how dignified we all are, Beckett was obsessed with the nasty underbelly of 'humanism.' What about people who cannot, despite their best efforts, lead dignified lives? What about the tramps and the servants and all the people who get stepped on while the rest of us are busy trying to create an ideal world? The characters in Endgame are borne out of the dark side of humanism.

    Questions About Life, Consciousness, Existence

    1. What is the relationship between the universal and the particular in the play? Are the two distinct? How do characters go about making generalizations and how are these generalizations undermined?
    2. Do Hamm and Clov want their lives to have meaning? In a world in which they are inevitably doomed would it be better or worse for one's life to take on meaning?

    Chew on This

    The pessimism of the play allows Beckett to explore certain themes that are often ignored by optimistic philosophies. In particular, Beckett considers the fact that life is a horrible task to be endured; these statements would not be possible if he took a different attitude toward the material.

    Hamm and Clov do not want their lives to have a meaning. Their suffering is so great that they think it would be better if everything was purposeless and given up to chance. They cannot conceive of a great 'plan' that would justify their suffering, and so meaninglessness becomes a sort of relief.