The Meaning of the Endgame

by Kim Orsel (June 6th 2006)


Meaning is characteristically elusive in much of Samuel Beckett’s work, and his play Endgame (1958) is no exception. Any attempt to apply meaning to the play seems unrealistic. But that there is some significance to the play can be deducted from Beckett’s own words; after finally finishing Fin the partie (1957), rewriting it extensively and eventually even changing its initial two-act format to that of a single act, Beckett dedicated it to actor-director Roger Blin who had inspired it, and sent him a copy with a note to accompany it, saying: “For you, if you really want it, but only if you really want it. Because it really has meaning, the others are only everyday.”¹ Endgame does have meaning, but not in a conventional way. Beckett presents the ideas he wants to bring across in new ways, and layers the play throughout. This begins with the title itself. Both the French title as well as the English one is too carefully chosen to be incidental. The New Oxford Dictionary of English summarises the term endgame as “the final stage of a game such as chess or bridge, when few pieces or cards remain.”² This is basically an accurate description for Endgame as well, even considering the English title refers to the game of chess and the French title, Fin de partie, refers to games in general. Despite that difference between the titles the theme on the whole remains the same, so it must be assumed that for chess or any other game the basic metaphor must still be viable. In trying to understand Endgame, the chess metaphor is too obvious to not investigate further. In anything written by Beckett, intertextual links are not there for nothing.

A game of chess generally consists of three parts, of which the endgame is the last. When this final part is reached the black and white pieces that remain have to execute the moves still left. In a game of chess of reasonable skill, with knowledgeable players on each side of the chess board, the endgame of a match played can be a predictable situation, because the fieldwork, the preparatory moves, have already been done; unless one player makes a mistake it can be reasonably predictable even before the endgame officially begins who is going to come out of it successfully because of what happened before. By that time the end is imminent and cannot be avoided. Beckett uses chess as a layer to cover another subject: life. But he does this in such a way that the layer sometimes shines through, and shows where life and chess are comparable and where they are very different. In at least one sense life and chess are similar: they both have a partly predictable endgame, namely one that ends in death in the case of life, or the end of the game in the case of chess. It is also comparable in that what goes before the endgame influences it heavily. But where Beckett inserts a nuance is exactly in the endgame and what follows it. Endgame suggests that perhaps they are not so dissimilar as life and death.

Endgame is the Beckett play that has chess as a theme most clearly, but it is not the first time Beckett refers to chess or uses it in his work. Most notably, in his first full-length novel Murphy (1938) Beckett describes all 86 full moves of a chess game between the characters of Murphy and the psychiatric patient Mr Endon. It is an irrational game, which adheres to the basic rules of chess, but not to the purpose of the game, namely winning by checkmate. White makes the first offensive move but what follows are only passive moves. In Murphy Beckett uses chess to provide insight: Murphy believes that he and Mr Endon communicate through chess, but he initially interprets this wrongly, in fact, he discovers that Mr Endon may not intend to communicate at all. Through Mr Endon’s curious moves Murphy realises everything he has thought before, about his patients, about how the patients view him, was wrong. What this means for Murphy is that he must reconsider everything, including the question who he really is. He gains insight into his own self. That his death follows shortly afterwards is ironic, but not unsuitable, echoing the nature of the chess game itself, as well as darker Beckett themes, such as eternal disappointment in the outcome of, especially personal, pursuits. In Endgame Beckett turns the situation around and folds his play into the game of chess, weaving them together, taking advantage of the similarities between life and chess, and their respective endgames. Life takes place within a game of chess, and the rules of chess apply.

Deirdre Bair notes that in Endgame: “For every story that is told, there is an appropriate response.”³ There is action and reaction, just as there is in a game of chess. The characters of Endgame behave like chess pieces, and they even represent specific chess pieces. This is most obvious in Hamm. With his limited ability to move and his role as ruler over the other characters he mimics the behaviour of a chess King, who can only move a single square at a time in the general circumstances of the game, but whose safety and preservation is fundamental. Beckett himself remarked that “Hamm is a king in this chess game lost from the start [who] ... is only trying to delay the inevitable end.”⁴ For Hamm, everything and everyone else is subservient to his purpose of surviving. He has given everything up, has sacrificed all, which has left him surviving, but in a world that is almost post-apocalyptical; the nearly empty chess board of the endgame. It really is a battlefield after the decisive battle has taken place. But due to the domestic elements introduced, Nell and Nagg who are Hamm’s parents, and Clov and his kitchen, it is a battlefield of life as well. As a chess piece, Clov is far more difficult to place. He can move across the stage easiest of all the characters, and so might be considered a Queen, Bishop, or Rook, but at the same time his curious way of moving and his obvious inability to do certain things remind more of the l-shaped movements of a chess Knight. Clov cannot sit, while his eyes and legs are by his own admittance: “Bad.”⁵ There is the suggestion that Clov’s movements are limited, but not as limited as Hamm’s: Hamm is a chess King with Clov as his only remaining piece of value. When Clov leaves he will really have no way left to win. But as Deirdre Bair puts it: “Although he [Clov] assumes attitudes of a servant, he maintains his independence and distance.” (Bair 392) This implies that there is a possibility that Clov’s actions are not just to serve Hamm, but may in fact have some ulterior motive.

But if everything important in Endgame, action, characters, and setting, really mirrors a game of chess, and the rules of chess apply at least to some extent throughout, with Hamm as a King and Clov as a Knight, one cannot help but wonder where the opponents are. Once starting on this path, considering the situation of the endgame, where there are only few pieces still left on the board, perhaps it is worth considering whether Nagg and Nell are not two pawns, black and white, opposite each other and unable to move because of it. They would have effectively blocked each other. Hamm and Clov, as the only other remaining pieces, would both be Kings. Within the realm of chess this makes some sense; the sequence in which Clov pushes Hamm around in his wheelchair, hugging the walls, would be possible if the two were Kings; Clov would be forcing Hamm to move because one king is not allowed to put the other in check, because he would be in the same vulnerable position, and two Kings cannot checkmate each other. In fact, the entire play seems to exist around the conflict between Hamm and Clov. Hamm cries out: “My kingdom for a nightman!” (103) This can be interpreted as his asking for a Knight, for Clov, because when Hamm whistles immediately after it is Clov who comes onto the stage. But in reality nothing suggests he is talking of Clov specifically: in fact, he might be asking some higher power to provide him with a Knight because that would enable him to gain some advantage against his opponent who is in exactly the same hopeless position as he is. If Clov were a King it would also make sense that Hamm fears his possible departure, which would effectively mean the end to the game. Only a pair of bad players would keep on playing with only a king and pawn left. Beckett himself remarks about Endgame:

It’s like watching a game of chess between two tenth rate players. Three quarters of an hour have gone by and neither of them has touched a piece. There they are like two half-wits gaping at the board; and there you are, even more half-wit than they, riveted to the spot, nauseated, bored to extinction, worn out, flabbergasted by such stupidity. Finally you can’t stand it any longer. You say to them: “But for God’s sake do this, do this, what are you waiting for, do this and it’s finished, we can go off to bed.” There’s no excuse for you, it’s against all the rules of good manners, you don’t even know the blokes, but you can’t help yourself, it’s either that or hysterics.⁶

In the realm of chess it would make little sense to continue, except, as Beckett says, if half-wits were playing, but used as a metaphor for life, it is far more applicable: life usually goes on, no matter how little you have left. There is no choice but to go on until it all ends.

Because of the many possible interpretations, Endgame can be a bewildering play, and some of the action taking place is nothing more than puzzling if the idea of games or chess suggested in the French and English titles is not taken into account. In chess, the term “endgame” is used when the game is coming to an end after most of the pieces, and in particular the Queens, have been removed from the board. In this final phase the king becomes an important and powerful piece which is ideally brought to the centre of the board in order to be able to attack the remaining pieces, which are often advancing pawns seeking promotion. The segment in which Clov must push place Hamm in the centre of the room makes no sense at all unless it has to do with chess: if Hamm is a King in a chess game, whether Clov is a King also or any chess piece, he would wish to be at the centre of the board because he would be safest and most powerful there, because there he can move most freely, and for the other chess pieces, giving Hamm up, or leaving him alone, would mean the end of the game, and in this case would also mean the end of the play. It would also explain Hamm’s limited mobility; a King in chess is only allowed to move one square at a time under normal circumstances. But Clov initially does not want to put him in the centre, and seems more insurgent than loyal. As pawns Nell and Nagg do not seem able to promote, which is their last chance in the endgame. The King’s increased power in the endgame is not doing Hamm much good. No matter how the characters are viewed as chess pieces, it is clear there are only very few left on the chess board. Beryl S. Fletcher puts it like this: “The fates are playing with Hamm a game of chess which he is losing, a game now in its last moves.”⁷

Within the bounds of the play there is a sense that everything is running down. Nell dies. Clov admits to loving Hamm “Once!” (95) but not any more. The pain-killers have all gone, and food seems to be running out. Though Clov is “dressed for the road” (132) when he appears for the final time at the end of the play, it is never revealed whether he leaves or not; perhaps this is a routine, though perhaps significantly it is only the audience who can see his change of clothes, where Hamm is not able to. On the one hand, his desire to give up announces the end of the play, as well as the chess game. On the other hand his departure does not occur on stage, and subsequently does not have to happen, does not have to be true. Just as the audience cannot be certain what happens after the play ends human beings cannot be certain what will happen to them after they die. All throughout Endgame there is the impression of an approaching ending, of some kind of climax, but the title suggests it is concerned with the last few moves before the ending, and not quite the definitive conclusion. The climax, it seems, looms on the horizon, but is not included in the play. But there is also the sense that this is only just the case, and the revelation is only moments away from the curtain.

At the same time, in life, death is the inevitable consequence of the endgame of living. But as it can occur in chess, the play seems to end in a stalemate: no one comes out of it as the victor, and it seems likely the same game will be played again tomorrow, in exactly the same way and that this was not the first time it happened like that. As in many of Samuel Beckett’s work, there is the suggestion in Endgame that beginnings and endings are entwined, and that everything is cyclic. The nature of chess and that of plays is in essence cyclical; plays are performed from beginning to end, and are performed again and again, in more or less the same manner night after night. The first line uttered by an actor onstage in Endgame runs: “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished.” (93) Starting the play also signals the beginning of the end; a certain number of things will happen, but the end is coming, irreversibly. The same is the case with chess; once the first piece is moved, the game has begun, but the players are inevitably moving towards the end of the game, whatever the outcome. There are an almost unlimited number of moves that can be made, but the outcome is certain and always the same.

Like this, the world of the stage and that of chess are both metaphors for life, and they echo a sentiment Beckett repeatedly enters into his work: from the moment someone is born he or she is inevitably moving towards death. As Pozzo puts it in Waiting for Godot: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.”⁸ In life as in a game of chess, the details, the moves and decisions individuals can make during their lifetime are nearly limitless: the only certainty is death, or at least some kind of end. So there is a Nietzschian idea of reliving life after death again and again. Previously the days appear to have been much alike, “Something is taking its course” (98) Clov states. Coming up with the final answer, explaining what this “something” exactly is; the play itself as it was written by Beckett, or the approaching ending of the chess game, or life itself, is left to the audience. Beckett does not claim to have the answers, and that is exactly what Endgame is about. He writes in a letter:

My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin. Hamm as stated, and Clov as stated, nec tecum nec sine te, in such a place, and in such a world, that’s all I can manage, more than I could.⁹

Beckett captures the penultimate moment, pre-climactic, the moment before everything ends. He feels that his responsibility is to describe this fundamental philosophical dilemma of the endgame of life, not to provide any straight answers on any possible afterlife. He presents this age-old philosophical problem in an entirely new way and causes his audience to question it all over again, possibly without them even realising it.

But through chess, through the nature of playwriting and the theatre, Beckett refers to the possibilities of Nietzsche’s theories of the possible reliving of life in death. On the one hand there is the cyclical nature that Nietzsche suggests, but Beckett combines that with the continuing fear of ending, the fear of not knowing for certain what exactly lies beyond. Throughout Endgame there is a sense that the characters want to keep the action going, and that their activities and behaviour cause the plot to progress. It is not explicitly clear whether this has to be done to bring the play to an end, whether it is a case of going through the motions, or whether it is to prolong it. What makes it interesting is that most of the characters’s actions can be considered meaningless, as if they are moving and acting simply for the sake of keeping things going, suggesting that no one wants to give up playing. Clov drops a telescope: “I did it on purpose” (106), and even Hamm’s eternal questioning of Clov seems to have only one real reason: it is to pass time, to do something. The questions have been asked and answered before, as Clov remarks: “All life long the same questions, the same answers.” (94) This is definitely Nietzsche, but here Endgame echoes Murphy as well, with pieces moving according to the rules of chess, but not in order to reach a goal, for example to end the game by checkmate, because that is virtually impossible at this stage and with so few pieces left. The only reason the pieces are still moving and the game goes on is because Hamm is not willing to give up, and continually keeps doing things, not necessarily making moves though, to keep the game going. Once Clov decides to finally leave at the end of the play, the play actually ends, as the game would have if one of the players finally admitted defeat. “If I could kill him I’d die happy,” (105) Clov remarks, the implication being that their fates are linked together as if they were one and the same person: there will not be an existence for either of them without the other; there is no game if black and white are not pitched against each other. Hamm and Clov detest one another, but at the same time they need each other, and not just because Clov has to wait on Hamm, or Clov needs Hamm because: “I don't know the combination of the cupboard.” (96) They need each other because it is part of the game, part of the unwritten rules both of games in general and chess as well as of acting: as the play is written, they cannot perform it on their own. Without any pieces to move, or an opponent, there is no chess game.

Are the moves they go through between the beginning and the end of the play deliberate or accidental? As a play, the moves must be deliberate; the play is already written, and the actors are doing what the script demands of them. In the realm of the chess game Hamm’s actions are to prolong the game, because he does not want to give up, or reach the end. Chess is not a game of chance; it depends on tactics and strategy. Clov acts because by acting the initiative returns to Hamm again, and Hamm is the only person who can end the play, except, perhaps, Clov himself, if he actually leaves. The fact that this is unclear suggests that it is not the reason behind the moves but the moves themselves matter, and this resembles another theme Beckett used in Murphy as well: that of varieties and possibilities. Murphy had his biscuits and his theories on in which order he could (and does) eat them. This theme is more general in Endgame, echoing how there are certain amounts of moves that can be made in a chess game; a metaphor for the choices and possibilities of life, but not forgetting that with a few remaining pieces you can still do a great many things. Taken from the Nietzschean perspective, Hamm and everyone else are simply going through the motions; they have died and are reliving their lives, have reached the endgame of their lives for the umpteenth time and are too familiar with it. There is also the suggestion that if someone must relive their life again and again once they have died it would be best to make the right choices the first time along, or at least act offensively rather than passively. So it is also a contrast between freedom and the illusion of it. Are we watching the endgame of actual lives which will afterwards turn into a Nietzschean repeat performance, or are we already watching a repeat?

When Beckett paraphrases or alludes to other works of literature, he does so with reason. There are references to at least three plays by Shakespeare and allusions to at least one more in Endgame. These references are not incidental, which is even clearer when they contain links to chess as well. The name “Hamm” can be derived from Hamlet (1600), and Hamm’s pondering over endings: “And yet I hesitate, I hesitate to... to end. Yes, there it is, it's time it ended and yet I hesitate to— (He yawns.) —to end” (93) mirrors Hamlet’s “to be or not to be”¹⁰ soliloquy. As Jodi Hatzenbeller says in the essay “Beckett and Brecht: Keeping the Endgame at a distance”: “Beckett uses Shakespearean allusions, theatric references, and formal stage conventions to constantly remind the audience that the play is a fictitious performance within the boundaries of a stage.”¹¹ In his “My kingdom for a nightman!” (103) there is a clear allusion to Richard III’s (1592) “My kingdom for a horse,”¹² perhaps ironically appropriate when considering Hamm as the king caught up in a battle he cannot ultimately win, at the mercy of his enemies. But the mere presence of intertextual links also implies that the plays share important similarities between them.

Hamlet’s actions in Shakespeare’s play of the same name compare very well to the moves in a chess game, after all, Hamlet too has a goal to checkmate the king and punish him for his crimes. In fact, the final scene, Act 5 Scene 2, bears resemblance to a kind of endgame in chess as well, with Hamlet and Claudius as Kings facing off, the dead Ophelia and Gertrude as Queens, Horatio and Laertes as knights or bishops on opposing sides. Like this, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern become pieces that have been sacrificed by Hamlet to reach an end. Similarly Richard III’s behaviour can be compared to that of a chess game. Besides allusions to King Lear (1604) there are also paraphrases of The Tempest (1610). The Tempest features a chess game between Ferdinand and Miranda which is mise-en-abyme for the entire play, in which Prospero has captured the king, the brother that once betrayed him, and has married the king’s son Ferdinand to his daughter Miranda. Prospero’s actions are all tactics and calculation, a great feat of chess-playing skill. But as he has used almost everyone else available as pawns to achieve his goal, he has also used his daughter Miranda as a pawn. Just as Hamm can only abuse those around him, despite having loved, or at least cared for them once, Prospero betrays his humanity to regain his dukedom, at least for his progeny. Prospero has more motivation for his actions than Hamm does, but their behaviour is very similar. William Poole remarks that “Not only does this chess game stand as a symbol of Prospero’s artistry, but it also functions as a king of self-reflective comment on the grandmasterly art of the playwright.”¹³ Hamm is no Prospero as far as his skill in playing chess goes, but Beckett is, and he is as successful as Prospero is in getting his point across through the failing endgame in his game of chess.

The problem with interpreting Endgame is exactly its many possibilities. Presenting an audience or reader with too many choices introduces doubt. Beckett’s profuse use of intertextual links and allusions only adds to this doubt. It can cause a feeling to surface that unless someone is in complete control of the text and what it refers to the text cannot be correctly interpreted. Endgame has a sense of being a complicated labyrinth with only one correct route to reach its centre, one way to uncover its true meaning. But Beckett’s genius in fact has made Endgame into a labyrinth with many centres and meanings, one with ways that almost all lead to the same conclusions. What causes the audience or reader to stumble is uncertainty over what they are seeing and reading. Brooks Atkinson in his review of Beckett’s Endgame wrote that “it never comes precisely to the point.”¹⁴ Atkinson considers this to be a weakness, but in fact it is only logical when considering how the play ties chess and life together: they already have an obvious point. Life ends in death, a chess game is destined to end; the point does not need to be made, it is so palpable. But the way in which Beckett makes his point is not as clear-cut as to underscore it again and again as is common in the world of theatre. Beckett presents his characters, their actions and words, and leaves different ways open for their interpretation. What is so admirable is that nearly all those ways inevitably lead to the same conclusions, if the audience is willing to engage themselves. The play is about chess, about playacting and playwriting, and about life and death. It is about all those things individually as well as collectively. Lifting out one of those themes provides the same answer as lifting all of them about; they are interconnected as well as interpretable on their own merits. There is no endgame in the chess game of Murphy, though there is one of sorts in Murphy’s death. Realisation comes before the endgame in the case of Murphy. There is no death, no concrete end, in Endgame, and that is exactly its strength. While playing the characters make the same mistakes and come to the same conclusions to questions that seem to have already been asked and answered. But what their dogged determination not to understand creates in the audience is what Beckett predicted and aimed for; by desiring it to end, they are forced to reconsider their own situation, life, death, and what kind of endgame they want to create for themselves. Endgame becomes the Mr Endon to the audience’s Murphy, with the only exception that the audience has the ability to live on, and increase their odds when their endgame comes.



¹ Samuel Beckett, undated letter to Roger Blin; quoted in Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett, London: Picador, 1978, p.405.

² The New Oxford English Dictionary,  ed. Judy Pearsall, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

³ Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett, London: Picador, 1978, p. 395.

Ruby Cohn, Back to Beckett, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973, p. 152)

Samuel Beckett, Endgame, as in The Complete Dramatic Works, , London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1990, p. 95. All further quotations from Endgame are taken from this edition.

Samuel Beckett, Eleutheréria, translated by John Spurling in John Fletcher and John Spurling, Beckett: A Study of His Plays, p.50, quoted in James Knowlson , Damned to Fame, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996, p. 331.

Beryl S. Fletcher, John Fletcher, Barry Smith and Walter Bachem, A Student’s Guide to the Works of Samuel Beckett, London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1978, p. 89.

Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, as in The Complete Dramatic Works, London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1990, p. 83.

Samuel Beckett, letter of 29 December 1957 to Alan Schneider; quoted in Deirdre Bair, Samuel Beckett (London: Picador, 1978), p.397.

¹⁰ William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 3.1.57-91, Stephen Greenblatt, gen. eds., in The Norton Shakespeare, New York and London: Norton, 1997, 1668-1759.

¹¹ Jodi Hatzenbeller , “Beckett and Brecht: Keeping the Endgame at a distance”, <>, consulted May 25th 2006.

¹² William Shakespeare, Richard III, 5.7.7, as in The Norton Shakespeare, New York and London: Norton, 1997, 507-600.

¹³ William Poole, “False Play: Shakespeare and Chess” in Shakespeare Quarterly 55.1 (2004), p. 51.

¹⁴ Brooks Atkinson, “Beckett's ‘Endgame’” in The New York Times, January 29, 1958.