One of the clearest themes in Endgame, that of play, branches into two metaphors. To live is to play a game; it is also to play a role. Hamm’s first words. “Me—to play,” twice echoed later, suggest both. Specifically, the game is chess, “endgame” being the point at which victory for one player or stalemate must occur. As in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600), all the world’s a stage, but Samuel Beckett has contracted the world into a bare room, with only four players remaining for the final act.
A series of exchanges between Hamm and Clov near the curtain show Hamm as both ham actor and Hamlet. “Let’s stop playing!” exclaims Clov; Hamm responds, “Never!” Hamm seems to anticipate Clov’s sighting of the boy during his final inspection of the landscape and mutters, “Not an underplot, I trust.” Clov, about to leave, says, “This is what we call making an exit.” Hamm accepts Clov’s defection: “Since that’s the way we’re playing it . . . let’s play it that way,” and then continues (in the manner of Hamlet’s final “The rest is silence”), “and speak no more about it . . . speak no more.” On occasion, Hamm also suggests Prospero and Clov suggests Caliban the sullen but obedient servant. At one point, Hamm quotes Prospero: “Our revels now are ended.”
Hamm’s final words, however, point to an even more pervasive thematic concern with Christ’s crucifixion. Holding his handkerchief, he concludes: “Old stancher! . . . You . . . remain.” A number of critics have associated the bloody handkerchief with Saint Veronica, who, according to an old tradition, wiped the face of Jesus with her kerchief on his way to Golgotha to be crucified. A number of other elements in the play point in the same direction. All the characters have names suggesting the act of nailing. Hamm’s name resembles the Latin hamus-(hook), Clov’s the French word for nail, clou, and both “Nagg” and “Nell” can be seen in the German word for nail, Nagel. Even the name of Mother Pegg, alluded to twice as a person to whom Hamm refused oil for her lamp, might be added. Clov’s first words—“Finished, it’s finished”—echo Christ’s final ones on the Cross. The play is dotted throughout with the words “end” and “finish.” Hamm’s lament in his opening speech, “Can there be misery . . . loftier than mine?” comes from the Lamentations of Jeremiah and has long been used in Holy Week services such as the Stations of the Cross.
Christ’s Crucifixion presages and effects redemption, but Endgame emphasizes humanity’s crucifying role rather than a Savior’s effectual sacrifice, the end of life rather than new life in the Spirit. Hamm at one point recommends praying to God but silences Nagg after he begins the Lord’s Prayer, and the subsequent silent prayer of Hamm, Clov, and Nagg ends with Hamm’s “The bastard! He doesn’t exist!” to which Clov responds, “Not yet.” Like Jesus, Hamm calls out “Father! . . . Father!” near the end, but he then adds, “Good,” as though satisfied that he hears no response. Hamm cannot finish the story of the man who seeks sustenance for his son, and the audience never learns whether the boy whom Clov reports seeing outside (the possible “procreator”) really exists. At any rate, the only female in the play is old and presumably dead by the end of the play, and neither redemption nor procreation appears likely. As long as life remains, suffering remains, but the blind and immobile Hamm has ceased to do anything but...
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wait for the end. Like Godot in Beckett’s earlier play, Hamm seems to be facing an imminent end, but the audience is left guessing about its arrival. Still, while life persists, a small—and perhaps absurd—hope for salvation remains.
Live or Die? The characters, trapped in their single room occupy themselves with routines and tasks. Hamm is paralyzed and blind, Nagg and Nell cannot leave their ashbins, and the action of the play occurs in a single room, outside of which life evidently cannot survive. These characters struggle to move on or take action, and the actions they do take are often stagnant and nondescript. Each is dependent upon another for his or her very survival and Hamm questions the benefit of continuing life at all, often pestering nag for the ultimate painkiller—death.
The existence of God is also questioned and indirectly denied, painting a bleak picture of life as hard and without redemption, directed by the needs of handicapped tyrants like Hamm. When Hamm orders both Clov and Nagg to pray to God, Hamm cries in agony, ‘‘The bastard! He doesn’t exist!’’ Hamm and the other characters, in their stagnant misery and frustrations, lack faith in a benevolent promise of God to reprieve or redeem their anguish. Life seems a merciless cycle of desire and grief, of handicaps and ashbins, and, to these characters, death is no reward for enduring that cycle. The characters of Endgame maneuver through lives of emotional strife that anticipate death, though they lack the means to achieve it on their own.
Interdependence One of the most obvious themes of Endgame is the necessity of interdependence, even if the relationship is one of hate. Clov, for example, depends on Hamm for food since Hamm is the only one who knows the combination to the cupboard. Hamm relies completely on Clov for movement and vision. Critics often compare Endgame to Beckett’s previous drama Waiting for Godot, noting that characters in both plays are grouped in pairs. Endgame is bleaker and more perplexing because it lacks the hope for redemption that Waiting for Godot contains.
Generational Conflict Generational conflict, particularly between father and son, also emerges as a prominent theme. Hamm twice tells a story about a father and son and seems to view parent-child relationships only in terms of power and resentment. Critics have argued that Hamm resents Nagg, his father, for not being kind to him when he was young, whereas Hamm resents Clov, his son, for being young at a time when his own life is in decline. Endgame has also been interpreted as a depiction of humanity’s denial of such life processes as death and procreation.
ArtistryEndgame is a self-reflexive work in which the hand of Beckett can often be seen. For example, Hamm’s narration is at once taking its own course in developing his personality while it also comments on the idea of creation, alluding to the creative process of an author. At the end of the story Hamm talks about the difficulty of creation:
CLOV: Will it end soon?
HAMM: I’m afraid it will.
CLOV: Pah! You’ll make up another.
HAMM: I don’t know. (Pause.) I feel rather drained. The prolonged creative effort.
The characters make numerous, explicit references throughout Endgame to their roles as characters in a play. Hamm at one-point states: ‘‘I’m warming up for my last soliloquy.’’ Clov, at another instance, announces: ‘‘This is what we call making an exit.’’ Such self-reflexive references to the action of the play are representative of modernism and also suggest humankind’s inclination for dramatization to assign meaning in life and help understand the world.
Humor ‘‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.’’ Though Endgame is dark, there is humor in the play. Clov’s confusion over which items to fetch first and his antics with the ladder could be directly out of a film starring Charlie Chaplin, whom Beckett admired. Commenting on Endgame himself, Beckett identi- fied the phrase ‘‘nothing is funnier than unhappiness’’ as key to the play’s interpretation and performance.