The museum of tragedy: ‘Endgame’ and ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead’


Robert Wilcher


‘Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished,’ says Clov at the start of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, after drawing the curtains that cover the two small, high windows and removing the dust-sheets from the two ashbins and from the sleeping figure of Hamm. Hamm stirs, yawns, removes the handkerchief from his face to reveal a pair of dark glasses, and speaks: ‘Me - he yawns to play.’ He wipes his face, eyes, and glasses with the handkerchief, folds it neatly and puts it in his pocket, clears his throat, joins the tips of his fingers, and speaks again: ‘Can there be misery—he yawns—loftier than mine?’ As John Spurling has pointed out,1 the words resonate with echoes from the long past of European drama. He quotes examples of what Hugh Kenner, citing Othello, has called ‘the tragic hero’s self-appreciation,’2 from Oedipus rex, Phèdre, King Lear, Purgatory and Six characters in search of an author. He might have added Milton’s Samson, apostrophizing his miseries:


            So many, and so huge, that each apart

            Would ask a life to wail, but chief of all,

            0 loss of sight, of thee I most complain!


Hamm is to be seen—or rather Hamm sees himself—as belonging to the line of tragic heroes stretching back to Sophocles’s Oedipus, one of whom, we might guess from his name, was Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamm’s gestures reinforce the allusiveness of his opening statement. The careful folding of the handkerchief is reminiscent of the ritual folding and unfolding of the cloth which opens and closes Yeats’s At the hawk’s well and The only jealousy of Emer. His speech continues: ‘Can there be misery—loftier than mine? No doubt. Formerly. But now?’ Formerly, in the work of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Racine, tragedy was possible. But now? It is a widely held view that tragedy is no longer viable as an art-form in the mid-twentieth century. Fifty years ago, Joseph Wood Krutch declared: ‘Tragedies, in that only sense of the word which has any distinctive meaning, are no longer written in either the dramatic or any other form’3 More recently, J. L. Styan has based his study of the characteristic modern form of the ‘dark comedy’ on the premise that ‘Today the ethical conventionalism of tragedy seems impossible to adopt’; George Steiner’s account of the ‘death of tragedy’ traces its demise to the loss, at the time of the Enlightenment, of the shared ‘context of mythological, symbolic, and ritual reference’ which validated the tragic universes of Oedipus or Hamlet or Phèdre: and Geoffrey Brereton has maintained that ‘the growing size and diversification of societies’ make it difficult to relate the traditional ‘tragic idea of descent’ or ‘tragic sense of failure’ to ‘a subject of common interest’ and to ‘convey them more or less pure to the ideologically fragmented societies of today.’4 A different view is argued by Raymond Williams, who considers that the kind of tragedy which is now impossible is one appropriate to an obsolete world-view, and that those who lament its passing are in fact lamenting the passing of outdated beliefs and values.5


It is not the intention of this paper to get embroiled in this particular controversy, but it is necessary to mention it here because both the contemporary plays to be discussed raise the question of the relation of modern drama to the tragic art of the past quite explicitly. In Endgame, Hamm’s name, his physical appearance and situation (a blind king on his throne), and his opening words, together with his later allusion to Richard III—‘My kingdom for a nightman’—demand comparison with the central traditions of European tragedy; and in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead fragments of Shakespeare’s play are actually incorporated into the action. My chief purpose is to see what light is thrown on the plays of Beckett and Stoppard by reading them in the context of Hamlet in particular and of the tradition of tragic art alluded to by Hamm in general. This exercise may, incidentally, have some bearing upon the death or survival of tragedy in the modern age.


Tragedy, according to Aristotle, is not simply an action, but ‘the imitation of an action.’ It is on this point that Raymond Williams takes issue with certain common attitudes to tragedy: ‘The argument that there is no significant tragic meaning in “everyday tragedies” seems to rest on two related beliefs: that the event itself is not tragedy, but only becomes so through shaped response (with the implication that tragedy is a matter of art, where such responses are embodied, rather than of life where they are not); and that significant response depends on the capacity to connect the event with some more general body of facts, so that it is not mere accident but is capable of bearing a general meaning.’6 Whether one agrees with William’s repudiation of the conventional view of tragedy or not, this passage brings into sharp focus some of the basic assumptions of the tradition within which Beckett and Stoppard deliberately locate their own works. One assumption has to do with the nature of the tragic action, and it is with this that I shall be chiefly concerned. A serious action in life, however pitiable or terrifying it may be, is not a tragedy, because tragedy depends upon the ‘shaped response’ of art. The essence of life is that it is untidy and it goes on. The essence of the action of tragedy is that it has a definite end, so that, in another of Aristotle’s defining phrases, it is ‘complete in itself,’ isolated from the flow of time for our contemplation. Aristotle’s insight has been endorsed by contemporary dramatists working consciously within the tragic tradition. Jean Cocteau offers us, in place of the messiness of life, an image of the Infernal Machine of tragedy, ‘one of the most perfect constructed by the infernal gods for the mathematical destruction of a mortal.’ Jean Anouilh pursues this image in his 1942 version of Antigone: ‘The spring is wound up tight. It will uncoil of itself. That is what is so convenient in tragedy. The least little turn of the wrist will do the job . . . The rest is automatic. You don’t need to lift a finger. The machine is in perfect order; it has been oiled ever since time began, and it runs without friction . . . Tragedy is clean, it is restful, it is flawless . . . In a tragedy, nothing is in doubt and everyone’s destiny is known. That makes for tranquillity . . . Tragedy is restful; and the reason is that hope, that foul, deceitful thing, has no part in it. There isn’t any hope. You’re trapped.’7


Hope is at the very core of the experience of Waiting for Godot, which takes as its context not the tragic tradition called up by Hamm but the New Testament scheme of damnation or salvation, with its allusions to the parable of the sheep and the goats, the two thieves crucified with Christ, and the Second Coming. By contrast with Estragon and Vladimir, the figures in Endgame are caught in Anouilh’s trap without hope. Even Clov’s opening reference to Christ’s words on the Cross can be taken, emptied of their Christian significance, as a prologue to the unwinding of the tragic mechanism. According to classical tragic theory, the play begins at a point when the action is ‘nearly finished.’ By removing hope—what Beckett has called ‘our pernicious and incurable optimism’8—the tragic dramatist takes us out of the chaotic flux of life and carries us up to a high place from which we can see the clear outlines of an action moving towards completion. We, as spectators privileged with a knowledge of the inevitable end as we never are in our own lives, watch human beings who are still a prey to hope trapped within the action of Oedipus rex or King Lear. T.R. Henn has shown how the idea that the tragic action must be complete in itself leads inevitably to the conception of the tragic machine: ‘The dramatic character, it seems to me, has a limited amount of free-will . . . But, from the spectator’s point of view, the action is in a sense predetermined . . . The ending (given the genre) is inevitable . . . to attribute free-will to characters within the given structure as ordered by the dramatist appears to me inconsistent, and to demand presuppositions as to the rationality of character which causes us, too often, to lose sight of the compulsive nature of the pattern, and to lose ourselves in the subtleties of motivation.’9 While we may share in the sufferings of the tragic figures, we also experience the tranquillity that Anouilh describes, because for us ‘nothing is in doubt.’ Even as we watch the opening scenes, we know that a conclusion must be reached, the action will be completed, because this is tragic art not life.


Stoppard’s Player, in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, puts the contrast between art and life succinctly: ‘There’s a design at work in all art - surely you know that? Events must play themselves out to aesthetic, moral and logical conclusion.’ The quotation from the final moments of Hamlet which gives Stoppard his title performs the same function as Clov’s ‘It’s finished,’ ensuring that the audience recognizes from the beginning the destination that will be reached when events have played themselves out. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, on the brink of understanding that their lives do have a direction, an end in view, are terrified of what they glimpse. Taking up the same image as Cocteau and Anouilh, Guildenstern declares: ‘Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are . . . condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one—that is the meaning of order. If we start being arbitrary it’ll just be a shambles: at least, let us hope so. Because if we happened, just happened to discover, or even suspect, that our spontaneity was part of their order, we’d know that we were lost.’10 This is the dilemma of a man caught in the tragic mechanism. The desire for order, the fear that life is just a shambles, is set against the fear of abandoning hope, of giving up the freedom to direct the course of one’s own life. The tragic character exists on these two planes: the plane of spontaneity and hope and the plane of design and inevitability. Tragedy’s purpose is to provide the spectator with a perspective from which both these planes of experience can be contemplated simultaneously.


Another of the assumptions on which the traditional view of tragedy rests, to quote again from the passage by Raymond Williams, is ‘that significant response depends on the capacity to connect the event with some more general body of facts, so that it is not mere accident but is capable of bearing a general meaning.’ Since, as Styan, Steiner, and Brereton claim, there is no longer a cultural consensus of ethical and metaphysical values completing the circuit of communication between artist, play, and audience, it is difficult for the spectators to accept a cosmic design behind the events that take place on the stage. This would seem to make the composition of tragedy in the traditional mould (which is the only kind of tragedy I am concerned with here) impossible. But there may be a way out of this impasse by means of an inversion of a familiar metaphor. ‘All the world’s a stage.’ ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage.’ T.S. Eliot uses the same metaphor, but makes its reference more particular, towards the end of The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock:


            No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;

            Am an attendant lord, one that will do

            To swell a progress, start a scene or two . . .


Real life can be seen as being, in a variety of ways, like life imitated on the stage. Life is real, the stage is unreal, and when the writer wants to suggest elements of unreality and insignificance in life (as in the words of Jaques, Macbeth, and Prufrock) he appeals to the stage metaphor. But this distinction between the reality of life and the unreality of the stage has been blurred and inverted in the twentieth century. Pirandello took the decisive step in Six characters in search of an author. The Father, the spokesman for the Characters who are seeking embodiment on the stage, tells the Producer that they are more real than the supposedly real people who are busy rehearsing one of Pirandello’s plays. They are more real because their reality is not governed by the laws of time and matter which cause living beings to change from day to day: ‘No, ours doesn’t change! You see . . . That’s the difference between us! Our reality doesn’t change . . . It can’t change . . . It can never be in any way different from what it is . . . Because it is already fixed . . . Just as it is . . . For ever! For ever it is this reality,’11 Not, any longer, all the world’s a stage, but the stage is itself a world with its own laws: a world in which the script is destiny. In Greek or Elizabethan tragedy the script written by the playwright works in harmony with an accepted view of a grand universal design. In Pirandello’s play this harmony has disappeared. There is no Oracle, no God, and no Order of Nature. The world his characters inhabit is one made by him; that is their only world; and they are fixed immutably in the events of the story he conceived for them. Hope has been taken away not only from the audience, but also from the Characters who are aware of themselves as Characters, as Hamm is aware of himself as a tragic player. They cannot rewrite the end of their story. There is no possibility that a Godot will ever come. The little girl must drown, the little boy must shoot himself, the Father must meet the Step-daughter in the brothel every time the drama is enacted. It is this insight into the script as a viable theatrical alternative to Destiny or Grace that Stoppard exploits in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.12


There is a crucial difference, however, between Stoppard’s play and Pirandello’s. Whereas Pirandello had to tell us the story in which his Characters were trapped as he went along, Stoppard can rely on his audience’s knowledge of the source play, Hamlet. The text of Hamlet functions as the world which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inhabit. Just as Prufrock hung about on the fringes of life like an attendant lord, so these two characters, who really are attendant lords in the Hamlet universe, hang about on the fringes of the play’s action. Their attempts to make sense of the situation at the Danish court produce apparent absurdity: ‘The position as I see it, then. We, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, from our young days brought up with him, awakened by a man standing on his saddle, are summoned, and arrive, and are instructed to glean what afflicts him and draw him on to pleasures, such as a play, which unfortunately, as it turns out, is abandoned in some confusion owing to certain nuances outside our appreciation—which, among other causes, results in, among other effects, a high, not to say, homicidal, excitement in Hamlet, whom we, in consequence, are escorting, for his own good, to England. Good. We’re on top of it now’ (80). Regarded as a series of incidents like this, Shakespeare’s play does appear ridiculous. It is through the soliloquies that the significance of events emerges, as the audience watches each device thought up by Claudius or Polonius to see what effect it will have on Hamlet’s mind. Now, it is precisely because they do not hear the soliloquies that Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are so lost and bewildered. This becomes clearer when they try to assess Hamlet’s character from an accumulation of external details:


            Guil: It really boils down to symptoms. Pregnant replies, mystic

            allusions, mistaken identities, arguing his father is his mother, that           

            sort of thing; intimations of suicide, forgoing of exercise, loss of mirth,

            hints of claustrophobia not to say delusions of imprisonment; invoca-

            tions of camels, chameleons, capons, whales, weasels, hawks, hand-

            saws - riddles, quibbles and evasions; amnesia, paranoia, myopia;

            day-dreaming, hallucinations; stabbing his elders, abusing his parents,

            insulting his lover, and appearing hatless in public—knock-kneed

            droop-stockinged and sighing like a love-sick schoolboy, which at his

            age is coming on a bit strong.

            Ros: And talking to himself.

            Guil: And talking to himself.



It is not that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are short of facts. But being unable to enter Hamlet’s world and view it subjectively—being denied the privilege which is granted the audience of overhearing what he says when he is ‘talking to himself’—they fail to discern the significant patterns developing within the sequence of incidents that makes up the outer action.


In the soliloquies and the other long speeches of the hero which provide the chief dramatic perspective for the audience during the first four acts of Hamlet, the stress is constantly on the way Hamlet looks at the world. He sees it as ‘an unweeded garden, / That grows to seed’; he confesses that ‘this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory’; he declares the ‘majestical roof’ of heaven ‘appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.’ We are drawn into something verging on a solipsistic vision as the sick imagination of the Prince casts its gloomy shadows over the stage-world of the play. But after the sea-voyage and the fight with the pirates all this changes, Hamlet himself is transformed when he reappears in Act V, and there are, significantly, no more soliloquies. When he does muse on the nature of the world and on the facts of death and decay in the grave-diggers scene, there is a new objectivity in his attitude and a new note of acceptance in the poetry. He is no longer obsessed with himself and can speak with philosophical peace about the universal experience of mankind. Later, when the king summons him to take part in the rigged fencing match with Laertes, Horatio suspects treachery and tries to dissuade him from going. Hamlet, recognizing that ‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will,’ submits himself willingly to whatever is in store for him: ‘Not a whit; we defy augury: there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all; since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.’


Along with this change in Hamlet’s attitude goes a change in the dramatic perspective provided for the audience. We shake ourselves free of the morbid, brooding mind of the earlier soliloquies and watch in a more detached way the completing of the play’s action. We know beforehand that Claudius and Laertes have planned to kill Hamlet, and we wait patiently for the inevitable working out of the plot. There is no sense of outrage when Hamlet dies, but a feeling that this had to happen and that it is somehow satisfactory and good. The tragic machine has functioned cleanly, flawlessly, restfully. Shakespeare, in artistic terms the divinity of the play, has shaped Hamlet’s end, and the audience concurs in its fitness as a mirror of the divinity that operates in the universe.


The universe of the modern characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, is not the Renaissance macrocosm of Prince Hamlet, Shakespeare, and the Elizabethan audience, but simply the unchanging artefact of Hamlet the play—and it is important to stress again that it is not a view of the world but a familiarity with Hamlet that is shared by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard, and the twentieth-century audience. One passage in particular illustrates how their identity and their fate are bound up inextricably with the details of Shakespeare’s script. They are playing the word-game of asking each other questions:


            Guil: What’s your name when you’re at home?

            Ros: What’s yours?

            Guil: When I’m at home?

            Ros: Is it a different home?

            Guil: What home?

            Ros: Haven’t you got one?

            Guil: Why do you ask?

            Ros: What are you driving at?

            Guil, with emphasis: What’s your name?!

            Ros: Repetition. Two-love. Match point to me.

            Guil, seizing him violently: WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?

            Ros: Rhetoric! Game and match! Pause. Where’s it going to end?

            Guil: That’s the question.

            Ros: It’s all questions.

            Guil: Do you think it matters?

            Ros: Doesn’t it matter to you?

            Guil: Why should it matter?

            Ros: What does it matter why?

            Guil, teasing gently: Doesn’t it matter why it matters?

            Ros, rounding on him: What’s the matter with you?


            Guil: It doesn’t matter.

            Ros, voice in the wilderness: . . . What’s the game?

            Guil: What are the rules?



Rosencrantz is concentrating on playing the word-game. He is aware only of the linguistic form of the questions, which is why he replies to Guildenstern’s ‘That’s the question’ with the bewildered ‘It’s all questions’—that, after all, is the game they are playing. Guildenstern, on the other hand, is disturbed by the content of the questions. The words name and home raise for him the problems of identity and of one’s place in the scheme of things. There may be, as C.J. Gianakaris has suggested, existential implications in this for the modern audience.13 But in the context provided by Stoppard there is a more specific and limited point. Characters, in the Pirandello sense, have no being and no ‘home’ but the text and the stage; when they are not on the stage, speaking the lines written for them, then they cease to exist.


At the end of the passage, Rosencrantz is completely caught up in the particular moment, and is baffled by the repetition of the word matter. ‘What’s the game?’ he askes in bewilderment. Guildenstern, realizing that there must be some larger game—the play itself—in which they are only minor actors, comes up against the two crucial questions: What are the rules?’ and ‘Where’s it going to end? . . . That’s the question.’ In the world of the stage play, what are the rules that govern the fates of the characters? And above all, isolating the issue of the tragic action which must be ‘complete in itself,’ where is it going to end for them?


They wonder, when they set sail for England, if that is the end of their part in the action. In fact, as we know, it is: they never appear again on the stage in Hamlet. But, muses Rosencrantz, ‘Are there likely to be loose ends?’ And later: ‘we take Hamlet to the English king, it depending on when we get there who he is, and we hand over the letter, which may or may not have something in it to keep us going, and if not, we are finished and at a loose end, if they have loose ends’ (81). Of course, ‘they’ (people who present plays) do not have loose ends, as the Player reminded us. For a variety of reasons (aesthetic, moral, or logical) Shakespeare tied them up. ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,’ we learn from the Ambassador in the closing moments of Hamlet, ‘are dead,’ executed by the king of England as the letter forged by Hamlet ordained. But why? Why, at the climax of the tragedy, when Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, and, Laertes lie dead on the stage, should Shakespeare bother to tell us what happened to two insignificant attendant lords? Such is the fate of those who inhabit the world of the stage, where aesthetic laws apply as well as moral ones. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might echo what Hamlet said in his larger dramatic role: ‘There’s a divinity that shapes our ends.’ Hamlet’s words reach out of the play to become a comment on life, which the Elizabethan audience would endorse; in the mouths of the attendant lords, they would be no more than a comment on art. In the twentieth century, when we may doubt the existence of a Creator or a Providence, we can still share a belief in the creative power of the artist and see evidence of its activity in a play like Hamlet. By using Shakespeare’s play as a substitute for a cultural consensus about the nature and the meaning of the universe, Stoppard can provide us with a formal equivalent for the agreement between dramatist and audience on which tragedy depends.


I should like to turn back now to the image of Clov and Hamm in the opening moments of Endgame. As Clov potters about uncovering the windows and removing the dust-sheet from Hamm, it is as if we are entering a museum or kind of shrine in which the defunct phenomenon of tragedy is occasionally put on view. Here is the blind tragic hero, now reduced to being a mere ham, and rather bored by the whole business of going through the motions of an outdated ritual. Clov’s opening remark that ‘It’s finished . . . it must be nearly finished’ may be a reference to the play we are about to witness, or perhaps to the entire tradition of tragic drama of which this is to be the end game, the final running down of the mechanism of tragedy. The text emphasizes the machine-like functioning of the world we are watching: ‘There are no more bicycle-wheels’; ‘There’s no more nature’; ‘There are no more sugarplums’; ‘There’s no more pain-killer.’ ‘We’re getting on’; ‘Something is taking its course.’14 Beckett thus contrives to dispense both with the ready-made action provided by Shakespeare’s play in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead and with the need to narrate the plot-destiny of his characters as he goes along as Pirandello did in Six characters in search of an author. He provides us with what one might call an ‘abstract action,’ which performs the functions of a tragic action without the usual trappings of narrative content.


The tragic machine, running down at last, not just completing the action of this play, but itself now petering out, is presented to us in simple, concrete form. Clov brings a large alarm-clock onto the stage, holds it against Hamm’s ear and sets the alarm mechanism going. Its loud insistent ringing gradually fades away into silence as the clockwork runs down. Clov comments ironically: ‘Fit to wake the dead! Did you hear it?’ Later, in the closing sequence of the play, he places the clock on the lid of Nagg’s ashbin, so that it forms part of the final tableau, when Hamm sits and Clov stands motionless. The machine has stopped. Clov’s own mechanism—he walks throughout with a stiff unnatural gait, like a clockwork doll—has run down, and he cannot leave the stage.


I mentioned at the start Hamm’s aping of the tragic hero’s awareness of himself playing out a role and giving expression to his own wretchedness. Hamlet, for example, after the Player’s speech about Hecuba, uses a theatrical image to describe his own failure to find and play a part:


                                                What would he do

            Had he the motive and the cue for passion

            That I have?


Beckett takes this a step further, along the path marked out by Pirandello. Hamm is aware of himself as an actor not in a metaphorical sense, but in reality. He is actually on a stage; the stage is his reality; the script is his destiny. As he says in reply to Clov’s question: ‘What is there to keep me here?—The dialogue.’ This awareness of being part of an artistic design is reinforced several times in references to asides, soliloquies, underplots, and ‘making an exit.’ Endgame, as Ruby Cohn has pointed out in her examination of this feature in a number of Beckett’s plays, ‘is unique in its relentless focus upon the play as play.’15


Usually in a tragedy the characters continue to hope, until some climactic moment of recognition when they abandon themselves to the unyielding facts of their situation. The tranquillity and restfulness ascribed to tragedy by Anouilh derive from the audience’s knowledge that the characters, however much they may twist and turn, are trapped in their destiny. In Endgame, Beckett follows Pirandello’s lead in removing hope not only from the audience but also from the tragic hero on the stage. Hamm knows from the start that ‘It’s time it ended,’ and the action of the play represents his final hesitations before actively co-operating with the universal entropy of his stage world by discarding his last remaining stage properties—the gaff, the dog, and the whistle. He functions throughout both as actor and as spectator of his own performance. He suffers, within his own subjective world, like Hamlet; but he is also ironically aware of the figure he is cutting. Hamm must provide the objective viewpoint himself, because there is no other perspective available for the audience within the play. In Hamlet, we share Hamlet’s subjective vision through the soliloquies, but we also see the world of Claudius and Polonius, Laertes and Fortinbras, which, even before Hamlet’s transformation in Act V, provides an alternative version of reality. In Endgame we never see the world beyond the room. We only have Clov’s word for it that both sea and land are ‘Corpsed,’ and Hamm’s word for it that ‘Outside of here it’s death.’ Hamm and Clov seem to be in the solipsistic situation of the mad painter described by Hamm: ‘I’d take him by the hand and drag him to the window. Look! There! All that rising corn! And there! Look! The sails of the herring fleet! All that loveliness! Pause. He’d snatch away his hand and go back into his corner. Appalled. All he had seen was ashes. Pause. He alone had been spared.’16 In place of the loveliness of earth and ocean, Clov sees only a dead, grey world through the two windows; but is he, like the mad painter and like Hamlet who saw only a ‘sterile promontory’ and a ‘foul and pestilent congregation of vapours’ when he looked upon the universe, merely projecting outwards his own inner sickness? We have no way of knowing, because Beckett, unlike Shakespeare, allows us no escape from the perspective of the solipsist.


The play does have, however, a structural equivalent for Hamlet’s fight with the pirates: a turning-point after which it enters a final phase of acceptance. Throughout the action Hamm has been insisting that Clov cannot leave him, and whenever a sign of life appeared it was immediately exterminated. But when Clov looks through his telescope and claims to see ‘a small boy,’ Hamm orders him not to go out and kill it:


            Clov: No? a potential procreator?

            Hamm: If he exists he’ll die there or he’ll come here. And if he

               doesn’t . . .


            Clov: You don’t believe me? You think I’m inventing?


            Hamm: It’s the end, Clov, we’ve come to the end. I don’t need you any more.



And Clov prepares to leave. The movement of Hamm’s speech—‘If he exists he’ll die there or he’ll come here. And if he doesn’t . . .’ —is very similar to Hamlet’s ‘If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now.’ The end is upon both Hamlet and Hamm. They move into the conditional tense, content to let things run their course as they will and as they must. The impetus of the tragic action, which must complete itself as Hamm acknowledged at the very beginning, carries them unprotesting towards a conclusion. Beckett, by adopting the pure form of the ‘tragic action’ without its traditional charge of meaning derived from a shared world-view, has contrived to offer the modern audience an experience of tragedy emptied of explicit tragic significance.


1 John Fletcher and John Spurling, Beckett: a study of his plays, London, 1972, 78-9.

2 Hugh Kenner, A reader’s guide to Samuel Beckett, London, 1973, 124.

3 Joseph Wood Krutch, The modern temper, New York, 1929, reprinted 1956, 81.

4 J.L. Styan, The dark comedy, second edition, Cambridge, 1968, 33; George Steiner, The death of tragedy, London, 1963, 292; Geoffrey Brereton, Principles of tragedy, London, 1968, 279.

5 Raymond Williams, Modern tragedy, London, 1966.

6 Williams, 46-7.

7 Jean Anouilh, Antigone, translated by Lewis Galantière, London, 1960, 34-5.

8 Samuel Beckett, Proust, London, 1965, 15.

9 T.R. Henn, The harvest of tragedy, second edition, London, 1966, 41.

10 Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead, London, 1968, 42-3. Page references for all further quotations from this play are incorporated into the text.

11 Luigi Pirandello, Six characters in search of an author, translated by Frederick May, London, 1954, 58.

12 William Babula explores various aspects of the play image and the notion of script as destiny in ‘The play-life metaphor in Shakespeare and Stoppard,’ Modern drama, 15, 1972, 279-81.

13 C.J. Gianakaris, ‘Arbsurdism altered: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,’ Drama survey, 7, 1968-69, 52-8.

14 Ruby Cohn points out how repetition and stylized patterning of gesture were used to reinforce the design of the verbal text in Beckett’s own production of the play in Berlin in 1967: Back to Beckett, Princeton, New Jersey, 1973, 152-6. Richard M. Eastman has commented on the replacement of Providence and Fate by ‘mere entropy’ in Endgame: ‘The strategy of Beckett’s Endgame,’ Modern drama, 2, 1959, 38.

15 Ruby Cohn, ‘Play and player in the plays of Samuel Beckett,’ Yale French studies, 29, 1962, 44.

16 Samuel Beckett, Endgame, London, 1964, 32. Page references for further quotations from this play are incorporated into the text.