Themes and Meanings
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 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...
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