Analyzing Chess in Samuel Beckett's Endgame

Endgame
Endgame | Source

Samuel Beckett’s one-act play, Endgame, was first performed in London in 1957. Since that time, many literary scholars have attempted to understand the play's various symbols and meanings.

This article will analyze the claim that the play reflects a post-apocalyptic narrative, shown through the decaying characters and catastrophic environment while analyzing the motif of chess in the play, and demonstrate how the game of chess is intrinsically connected to the characters and overall meaning of the play.

Hamm and the Bible's Ham

many scholars have argued that Endgame can also be interpreted as a post-apocalyptic story that is very comparable to the Bible. One of the primary observations behind this logic is that the main character of Beckett’s play, Hamm, shares the same name as Noah’s son from the Bible—Ham.

In the Book of Genesis, Ham is the cursed son who, along with his two brothers, is responsible for the survival of life after the Great Flood catastrophe. Similarly, Beckett’s Hamm appears to be cursed with extremely bad health (blindness, bleeding, chronic cough) and, along with Clov and his parents, has the burden of preserving humanity after an apocalypse-type event.

However, one cannot ignore the significant differences between Beckett’s Hamm and the Bible’s Ham. For example, Ham was one of the very few to be blessed by God and chosen to save life from the Flood. He played a vital role in helping Noah save the world according to God’s will. But in Endgame, the character of Hamm could not be more different. For example, Hamm is disdainful of his own existence, curses God, and welcomes the apocalypse.

At many times throughout the play, Hamm loathes the thought of potential procreation and the preservation life. One example of this when he discovers a flea on Clov and begs him to kill it because, “humanity might start from there all over again!” (24). Beckett’s Hamm frustrates the intention of the Bible’s Ham. Therefore, Hamm should be viewed as an apparent reference to Ham, not a direct allusion.

Beckett’s Characters

Over the past forty years, various literary critics have argued that Beckett’s Endgame can be viewed as a post-apocalyptic narrative—and there is a great deal of evidence to support this claim. For instance, in the 1984 Yale French Studies article, “On the Dialectic of Closing and Opening in Samuel Beckett’s End-game,” Gabriele Schwab and D.L. Selden assert that:

Beckett’s characters’ most striking attribute is their advanced state of bodily deteriorization… this is so suggestive of symbolic meaning that one can hardly evade the atmosphere of finality, decay, and apocalypse. The characters themselves suggest that they might be the last survivors of a great disaster, and the lifelessness of the world outside supports this view. Nothing seems more evident than to see this scene as anticipating the advancing decay of our culture or an imminent global catastrophe. (192)

For Schwab and Selden, the characters and environment of Endgame are, in many ways,rooted in catastrophe, decay, and the apocalypse. Hamm is blind and extraordinarily sick. His parents, Nagg and Nell, have no legs and live in dustbins. Clov is the only character in the play who still has the ability to move.

Furthermore, Beckett’s depiction of the world in the play is gray and bleak. In this medium shade between light and darkness, the characters grasp onto the smallest hopes for life, but simultaneously suffer in anguish under the shade of death.Therefore, this evidence supports the claim that Endgame can be viewed as a post-apocalyptic narrative.

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"Endgame" Definition in Chess Terms

In order to understand the purpose of chess in the play, it is crucial that we examine the meaning of the term “endgame. In the game of chess, “endgame” refers to the stage of the game when there are few pieces left on the board.

More specifically, endgame is the series of moves at the end of a game, where the outcome is usually decided or predetermined before it formally ends. From this understanding of the term, many scholars have argued that Beckett’s play demonstrates that humanity is a constant game with God, and that the four characters may be viewed as the last players remaining. Their survival is based on their ability to make the correct moves.

However, it must be noted that in endgame, the destined loser can only prolong the game. Therefore, although Hamm and Clov prolong their life through worship of rituals, their fate is already determined in death. Furthermore, the notion that Endgamedemonstrates that humanity is a game with God is justified by Hamm and Clov’s frequent attempts to prolong their fate.

Beckett's Endgame as a Symbolic Representation of Chess

But some scholars strongly object to the biblical and post-apocalyptic interpretations of Endgame. For example, in the 1980 Critical Quarterly article, “Chess with the audience: Samuel Beckett’s Endgame,” James Acheson asserts that:

Initially, the action might seem to take place in a bomb shelter in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Yet there is no explicit evidence that this is the situation the play presents; moreover,comments in the dialogue to the effect that there is ‘no more nature’, that there are ‘no more tides’ and that the seeds Clov plants will ‘never sprout’ suggest that a disaster of a quite different kind has taken place.

This quote is significant because it addresses the assumption that Endgame is essentially naturalistic— presenting seemingly real people enacting a real-life situation. However,Acheson claims that this is not the case. These interpretations of Endgame fail to understand that Beckett designed the play to resist ingenious explications. Furthermore, he believes that the author purposefully frustrates the attempt to interpret Endgame definitely. Therefore, it is understandable why some scholars feel that the post-apocalyptic interpretations are incomplete.

Opposed to studying the post-apocalyptic environment and characters, Acheson argues that a much more significant and complex aspect of Endgame is the motif of chess. Initially, it is important to make note that in 1957, Beckett mentioned the play to his friends, and corrected their translation of the title as “End of the game,” emphasizing “[it] is Endgame, as in chess.”This comment is important because it justifies the claim that the play is the last part of an on-stage game of chess. Acheson then distributes the characters in the play to their respective positions in chess:

Hamm should be viewed as a king threatened by checkmate, Clov as a knight, and Nagg and Nell are either rooks or pawns. Disagreement arises only over the identity of the side seeking to checkmate Hamm. (1)

The final sentence of Acheson’s statement reveals an interesting divide between scholarly interpretation of the chess motif. One understanding of the motif is that Hamm and Clov have“very red” (11, 12) faces and Nag and Nell have “very white” (15, 18) faces, thus, they differ and are in opposition. However, Francis Doherty makes the crucial point that red and white are the same side in chess, and therefore Hamm, Clov, Nag, and Nell actually have a common black opponent—death. Clearly, these examples demonstrate that the game of chess is intrinsically connected to the characters and overall meaning of the play.

Friedrich Nietzsche
Friedrich Nietzsche | Source

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Nietzsche and Beckett's Endgame

Many scholars have ignored the connection between the cyclical nature of the play and Nietzsche’s theory of eternal recurrence. Eternal recurrence is a concept developed by Friedrich Nietzsche during the late 19th century. Although he was not the first to write on the subject, he greatly expanded the idea of recurrence in the Western world. Eternal recurrence, or “The Eternal Return,” is basically the theory that given an infinite amount time, the universe will continue to recur, and every event will happen again forever. To further understand the concept, Nietzsche scholar, Matt McDonald, explains that eternal recurrence can be likened to a complex game of chess:

If games of chess are played one after another forever, eventually a game will be repeated since there is only a finite number of possible games. It is the same with the world; eventually events will recur in the same order. The world is an eternal process of coming to be and passing away. The process, however, has no beginning or end. Eventually every combination of matter and energy will be realized and repeated an infinite number of times.

This quote is significant because it gives even more emphasis to the idea that beginning and endings are intertwined, and that existence is cyclical. By comparing the finite number of events in the world to the finite number of games in chess, McDonald reveals the foundation of Endgame—that the game of humanity has no beginning or end, it is just a meaningless repetition of cycles. Even Nietzsche called his own idea “horrifying and paralyzing,” and said that the burden of eternal recurrence is one of the heaviest weights imaginable. Therefore, eternal recurrence is important to Endgame because it emphasizes the idea that existence is cyclical, and that humanity has no beginning or end.

Works Cited

Acheson, James. "Chess with the Audience: Samuel Beckett's Endgame." Critical Quarterly 22.2 (1980): 33-45. Print.

Birkett, Jennifer, and Kate Ince. Samuel Beckett. London: Longman, 2000.

Connor, Steven. Samuel Beckett: Repetition, Theory, and Text. Aurora, Colo: Davies Group, 2006. Print.

Hassan, Ihab Habib. The Literature of Silence; Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett. New York: Knopf, 1968. Print.

McDonald, Matt. "Eternal Recurrence." Nietzsche-Eternal Reccurence. LMU. Web. 20 Apr. 2011. <http://myweb.lmu.edu/tshanahan/Nietzsche-Eternal_Recurrence.html>.

Szafraniec, Asja. Beckett, Derrida, and the Event of Literature. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2007. Print.

Schwab, Gabriele, and D.L. Selden. “On the Dialectic of Closing and Opening in Samuel Beckett’s End-game.” Yale French Studies 67 (1984): 191-202.

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