What is the relevance of "symbiosis" to Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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When Samuel Beckett was once asked to explain the meaning of his play Waiting for Godot, he famously replied, “It’s all symbiosis . . . It’s symbiosis.”  What, exactly, did he mean by this remark? Unfortunately, the remark is quoted far more often than it is commented on or explained.

The Random House Dictionary defines “symbiosis” in various different but related ways, including the following:

1.Biology .the living together of two dissimilar organisms, as in mutualism, commensalism, amensalism, or parasitism.

2.Psychiatry . a relationship between two people in which each person is dependent upon and receives reinforcement, whether beneficial or detrimental, from the other.

3.Psychoanalysis . the relationship between an infant and its mother in which the infant is dependent on the mother both physically and emotionally.

4.any interdependent or mutually beneficial relationship between two persons, groups, etc.

Of these definitions, the one that seems least relevant to Waiting for Godot is number 3. All the others seem relevant in various ways, including the following:

Firstly, this play, far more than many, depends on a symbiotic relationship with its audiences. In other words, the meanings of most plays are relatively clear and straightforward. In Waiting for Godot, the meanings of the work depend greatly on how different audiences and audience members react to the work. In a sense, the audience is as much a part of the play as the actors, as Beckett himself once famously implied that the scenery, lines, and actors could be dispensed with as long as an audience had to sit and wait.

Secondly, the relationship between Estragon and Vladimir might easily be described as “symbiotic,” especially since they are old friends and especially since Vladimir takes care of Estragon. As the eNotes comment puts it,

Vladimir and Estragon talk to themselves before they talk to each other. For a brief moment they are separate individuals who come together to form two halves of a couple. One of their functions is to verify the existence of the other. “So there you are again,” Vladimir says. “Am I?” Estragon wants to know.

The relationship between the two has also been likened to the symbiotic relationship between body and soul, and indeed the eNotes analysis of the play comments fairly explicitly on many different ways in which their relationship might be described as symbiotic, in the sense that each man seems distinct from the other but each also seems to complement the other. Long ago, Vladimir and Estragon had the opportunity to commit suicide together, which would have been a strikingly symbiotic act. The fact that both men are poor makes them even more interdependent than they might otherwise be.

Lastly, the relationship between Pozzo and Lucky might also be described as symbiotic, although in a different way than that between Estragon and Vladimir. Pozzo is a master and Lucky is his slave; each, in his own way, is dependent on the other.

In short, this play emphasizes symbiosis because it so often emphasizes characters who seem notably distinct but also highly interdependent.