Game of Chess
Beckett was a chess player himself and uses the game of chess as a main metaphor in “Endgame” for the game of life. The metaphor is implied rather than stated. The small room the characters move in is their territory, like the gameboard. Nagg and Nell in the ashcans are the pawns with restricted roles. They speak up a few times and are finally silenced near the end of the game. Clov is the Knight who has the most movement on the board. Hamm is the King who can only move one square in any direction and is waiting for Checkmate or death. Clov uncovers Hamm when Hamm says, “Me—to play.” It is time for the game, which seems neverending. Both Clov and Hamm want it to end and yet want to prolong it. The game is repetitious, as they point out to one another. They make the same moves each day: “Is it not time for my pain-killer?” (p. 7) When it was produced in Berlin in 1967 Beckett told one of the actors, “Hamm is a king in this chess game lost from the start . . . Now at the last he makes a few senseless moves as only a bad player would . . . He is only trying to delay the inevitable end . . . He's a bad player.”
Clov mentions that he cannot sit, just as Hamm cannot stand. They each have their moves and functions. Clov waits on Hamm, who insists on being in his place in the center of the board. Clov moves Hamm around in his chair and is described as taking care of the estate of Hamm, visiting his peasants, sometimes on horseback, like a knight. Clov continually looks out the window for the arrival of any other threatening piece and at last, when he spies a boy walking towards their shelter, he informs Hamm who knows the game is over and lets Clov go. He puts the handkerchief on his face to indicate Checkmate, as he says, “Old endgame lost of old, play and lose and have done with losing. . . Since that's the way we're playing it, let's play it that way . . . and speak no more about it . . . speak no more” (p. 82). The king can move one square in any direction but only one square at a time while the knight can make an L-shaped move. The knight is either a deceiver or protector, and Clov is both.
Chess is a game of moves and reflection. Beckett frequently uses the stage direction, “Pause.” There is a rhythm to the moves, and Hamm and Clov reflect on the play and the status of their endgame, which they both know is ending. The board is almost bare, and there are no known survivors except themselves. Items keep getting detracted: no more bicycle wheels, sugarplums, painkillers, coffins, or people. Hamm indicates Checkmate at the end of the play by putting the bloody handkerchief over his face and withdrawing.
End of the World
The play is set in a single room called “the shelter” which suggests a bomb shelter after a nuclear war. The world seems to be coming to an end to the characters as they note the end of food, items, and people. Everything is going towards the end of existence. Clov keeps checking out the window for signs of life and finds “Zero.” It is the end of humanity. When Clov finds a flea, Hamm jokes darkly that possibly it is enough life to start off humanity again. The characters do not dare leave the room for there is nothing but death outside, and a slow death inside. Hamm is unable to walk in a wheel chair and blind. He relies on Clov, the only one who can move, for his existence. Similarly, Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, in the ashbins, have no legs and rely on their son and Clov for existence. Nagg is always hungry and does not want the dry biscuit he is offered because he cannot chew it. Clov threatens to leave, or as Hamm sometimes wishes, to kill them off, but he says he does not know the combination to the cupboard, so they exist mutually helpless and dependent on one another. All the characters are suffering from physical and mental deformities.
Mention is made of other desperate survivors such as old Mother Pegg, a neighbor, who asked for a lamp, and Hamm refused her. Clov informs Hamm that she died “Of darkness” (p. 75). Hamm tells the story of a man who crawled to him for help for his dying child. Hamm never tells the punchline of this story, but he does not show mercy for other human beings, and we assume he let the man die, although Clov might be the man’s child, adopted and mistreated by Hamm. Hamm relishes dominating others even to the end, refusing to see the humanity of others.
Hamm has a fantasy of escape and tells Clov that perhaps he can make a raft so they can take to the sea and go south to find other mammals. The use of the word “mammals” assumes there are no more humans. He would settle even for the company of animals. He plays with a toy dog. Finally, the bloody handkerchief on his face suggests that Hamm is dying of some disease. He is out of moves, and the handkerchief on the face is a sign of death or withdrawal.
The play itself becomes the most significant metaphor for human life. Hamm is the king, but he is also a “ham,” an actor and storyteller. He makes references to their being in a play, sometimes calling it a farce or revels. When Clov enters the room and uncovers the characters who are covered by sheets, it is the signal for the play to begin, and Hamm says, “Me—to play,” (p. 2) referring to either chess or the drama they are making. Hamm is the artist, the writer, the playwright, bringing all to life, ordering the characters around. When Clov asks, “What is there to keep me here?” Hamm says, “the dialogue” (p.58). Hamm speaks of asides and soliloquies. He orders Clov to make an ending speech before he leaves. Clov is in charge of the props and shows up with the gaff or fishhook, the toy dog, the whistle, and alarm clock.
There are two plays within the play or two performances. One is given by Nagg who tells the story of the trousers and the tailor. This we surmise is a recited piece that Nagg tells over and over. Nell is not amused by it. The second is Hamm’s narrative about the man who crawled to him for help. Hamm has a flair for drama, and he likes to make the scene vivid. We hear him, like an author, composing spontaneously as he sees it in his imagination: “The man came crawling towards me, on his belly. Pale, wonderfully pale and thin, he seemed on the point of--(Pause. Normal tone.) No, I've done that bit” (pp. 50-51). Hamm’s only joy is to dramatize himself and his reflections for an audience. Clov is tired of the stories, but Hamm bribes Nagg into listening to him with a biscuit. Hamm incorporates reflections on language and his own composition, ignoring the emotional impact of what he is saying. Hamm says, “I’ll soon have finished with this story, (Pause) Unless I bring in other characters” (p. 54).