The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

In the center of a dimly lighted, bare interior, Hamm sits in an armchair, covered by a sheet. Two ashbins, similarly covered, stand at front left. Clov walks stiffly to the back wall and looks at two small windows, high up left and right; then, with the aid of a stepladder, he looks out of both. He removes the sheet from the ashbins, looks into one, and finally uncovers Hamm, laughing briefly after each of these activities.

Hamm, in a dressing gown and apparently asleep, has several objects about his person, the most striking of which is a large, bloodstained handkerchief over his face. He awakes and removes the handkerchief to disclose a red face and dark glasses. It is soon apparent that his is unable either to walk or to see. He and Clov, whose principal duty is attending to Hamm’s needs, engage in short, clipped dialogue about the weather, their health, food, and the possibility of Clov’s leaving Hamm’s service. At one point Hamm asks, “Why don’t you kill me?” The response is, “I don’t know the combination of the cupboard.” Shortly thereafter Hamm observes laconically, “Outside of here it’s death.”

Soon the lid of one of the ashbins stirs and reveals, under a nightcap, the head of Hamm’s father Nagg, who demands “pap,” is given a biscuit, and then is pushed back beneath his lid. Clov and Hamm dispute inconclusively about the possibility of nature’s having forgotten them. Clov has planted some seeds but doubts that they will germinate. Nagg’s head reappears; he wakes his wife in the next bin, and they try to kiss, but their heads will not quite reach each other. Their conversation oscillates between reminiscences and the needs of the moment, such as the state of the sand in the bottom of their bins.

Nagg laughs at the muttering of Hamm but is shocked when the disapproving Nell nevertheless concedes that unhappiness is amusing. Nagg insists on telling an elaborate joke about a tailor, a story that for her has paled from repetition. It concerns a customer’s irritation at the tailor’s inability to finish a pair of trousers for him in less than three months. After the customer points out that God made the whole world in six days, the tailor responds:

But my dear Sir, my dear Sir, look—(disdainful gesture, disgustedly)—-at the world-—(pause)and look—

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Dramatic Devices

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

Endgame’s simple set and stage properties immediately establish an atmosphere of mortality. A picture, turned to the wall, hangs near the door. A sheet covers Hamm, another the two ashbins, themselves reminders of the inevitable human destiny: dust and ashes. The two high windows and the walls, which Clov at one point describes as hollow, suggest a skull. Combined with the prevalent crucifixion imagery, the skull calls to mind Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, as does Hamm’s bloodstained handkerchief. To reinforce the many overt references to death, ending, and finishing, Clov removes the picture from the wall near the end of the play and replaces it with an alarm clock. When asked what he is doing, he replies, “Winding up.”

Endgame employs and at the same time parodies familiar theatrical terms and devices. Nagg is promised a sugar-plum “after the audition.” Clov interrupts one of Hamm’s speeches and draws the rebuke, “An aside, ape! Did you never hear an aside before?” Then Hamm explains, “I’m warming up for my last soliloquy.” He has in fact yawned his way through an opening soliloquy. In his story of the man and starving child he checks himself once, “No, I’ve done that bit.” Hamm is the quintessential ham actor, always conscious of the effects he creates, insistent upon occupying the exact center of the stage.

All this self-conscious stage business reinforces the metaphor of the world as a...

(The entire section is 537 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Shelter. Unnamed place which is apparently the last refuge of humankind on Earth. In addition to providing the characters with protection from the outside world and sustaining them in the last moments of their lives, the shelter serves as both a prison and a tomb. High up on the left and right sides of the back wall are two small windows with curtains drawn. These windows look out on the other world, nature. All that is visible are an ashen gray sea, sky, and sun in the ever-fading light that represents the winding down of time and the extinction of life. Covered by a sheet in the center of the room is Hamm, the blind master of the house. Confined to a chair on castors because he cannot walk, Hamm must be awakened every morning with stimulants and painkillers, fed, and then “put to bed” in the evening. Clov, Hamm’s servant, provides these functions, without which Hamm would die. The shelter contains two other characters, both legless, Nagg and Nell, the remnants of Hamm’s parents, who are confined to ash cans located at the front of the stage. This confinement suggests their status as “garbage” to Hamm, who refers to them as “accursed progenitors.” Periodically, they poke their heads out of their covered cans and speak to each other or ask for sustenance.

Outside world

Outside world. Although dying, the world outside the shelter appears to be more desirable than the world within, which is a psychological hell and a prison almost devoid of provisions. Three of the four characters are physically unable to leave, and the fourth, Clov, who seems to be preparing to leave, is tied psychologically to Hamm. Hamm, a sadistic master, “father figure,” and adult child enjoys tormenting his dependents. However, at the end of the play, Clov, suitcase in hand, waits at the door, apparently ready to leave.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Nuclear Capability
Although Beckett does not place the characters and actions of Endgame in a specific time and place,...

(The entire section is 512 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Words and Stage Directions
Endgame’s visual performance and self-reflexive dialogue constantly remind the audience that...

(The entire section is 322 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1950s: The United States and the Soviet Union are split over Middle East loyalties and support. Fear of a nuclear war increases.


(The entire section is 194 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Beckett is often considered a forerunner to the absurdist movement in theater. Read Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter and David...

(The entire section is 138 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Drama for Students)

Released by Ambrose Video on DVD in 2002, the Beckett on Film DVD set is the first ever cinematic screening of all nineteen of Samuel...

(The entire section is 119 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Waiting for Godot (1953) is Samuel Beckett’s best-known play about two tramps waiting for the elusive Godot.


(The entire section is 263 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Aristotle, ‘‘VI,’’ in Aristotle’s Poetics, translated by S. H. Butcher, Hill and Wang, 1989, p. 61....

(The entire section is 321 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Chevigny, Bell Gale, ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Endgame.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969. Contains illuminating contributions by director Alan Schneider, critics Ross Chambers and Hugh Kenner, and others. Also contains an excerpt from Martin Esslin’s landmark book The Theatre of the Absurd.

Cohn, Ruby. Just Play: Beckett’s Theater. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1980. This volume by a “lifelong” student and critic of Beckett contains a useful comparison/ contrast of French and English texts of Endgame.

Kalb, Jonathan. Beckett in...

(The entire section is 186 words.)