Samuel Beckett

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Endgame Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Samuel Beckett's Endgame. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett grew up in Dublin and attended Trinity College, Dublin, where he studied French, English, and Italian. After graduating, he taught in Paris, where he met fellow modernist Irish writer James Joyce and worked on both critical and creative writings. Beckett moved back to Ireland in 1930, when he took up a job as a lecturer at Trinity College. He soon quit the job, though, in 1931, and traveled around Europe, continuing to write. He moved to Paris in 1937, stayed there when World War II began in 1939, and joined French Resistance forces when the Nazis occupied the country. Meanwhile, Beckett continued to write, including a trilogy of well-known novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable). But it was for his experimental plays that he would become best known, especially Waiting for Godot, which premiered in Paris (in its original French) in 1953. This was followed by more plays, including the equally experimental Endgame. Beckett's literary reputation and acclaim steadily improved in the 1960s, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 (he gave away the prize money). Beckett died in 1989 and was buried in Paris along with his wife.
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Historical Context of Endgame

Beckett never clarifies the greater setting in which Endgame takes place. The only thing the audience knows for sure is that the play unfolds in a room with very little furniture and two windows, which look out onto a vast expanse of greyish blackness. Furthermore, Hamm and Clov intimate that life and the world at large have ended, at least beyond the walls of this room. For this reason, Endgame is largely dislocated from both time and place, making it quite difficult to tie it to any significant historical events. Having said that, though, Beckett wrote the play just over a decade after World War II and the Holocaust. Given that these events ravaged the entire world—and especially Europe, where Beckett lived and worked—it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Beckett was influenced by the horror that the Holocaust proved humans were capable of. Indeed, this is perhaps why there is so little hope in Endgame, especially when it comes to humanity achieving any kind of progress. In fact, the vast majority of human life seems to have ended in Endgame, a fact that possibly symbolizes Beckett’s dim view of humankind’s future in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

Other Books Related to Endgame

It is helpful to consider Endgame alongside Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, his most famous work of absurdist theater. Like the characters in Endgame, the protagonists of Waiting for Godot spend the entire play waiting for something to happen. Unlike in Endgame, though, there is a bit more context surrounding their actions, since audiences understand that they’re waiting for a man named Godot to visit them. In contrast, Endgame features characters who wait in vain for something to end without knowing—or at least without revealing—what, exactly, they want to end. In this sense, the play lacks much in the way of a plot, thereby linking it to Beckett’s well-known experimental novel called The Unnamable, a book in which an unknown voice narrates its existence while trying to withhold plot, characterization, and context. It’s also worth mentioning that Beckett worked with James Joyce as a young man, aiding the older writer in his composition of Finnegans Wake, which relied upon Joyce’s virtuosic use of language. By the time Beckett fully committed himself to his own work, he took Joyce’s examination of excess and language in a new direction, deciding to more thoroughly explore nothingness and the emptiness of words—a vision that Endgame mines with its lack of contextual information and logical, coherent dialogue. Furthermore, Beckett’s absurdist approach was informed by the work of existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre (Nausea) and Albert Camus (The Stranger), both of whom paved the way for his explorations of nothingness.
Key Facts about Endgame
  • Full Title: Endgame
  • When Published: Premiered on April 3rd, 1957.
  • Literary Period: Modernism, Existentialism
  • Genre: Drama, Theatre of the Absurd, Tragicomedy
  • Setting: A room with only two windows, which is possibly the only place in the world where humans—or anything—still exist.
  • Climax: Endgame evades meaning and interpretation because nothing truly happens to change the circumstances of the play from beginning to end. For this reason, it’s difficult to pinpoint a climax, though it could be argued that Nell’s sudden death is the most significant thing to happen and, therefore, the most transformative moment in the play. However, it is more likely that the climax is Clov’s inability to leave Hamm at the end of the play, when he’s dressed for departure but can’t bring himself to turn away from Hamm.
  • Antagonist: The misery and agony of existence

Extra Credit for Endgame

Head-Scratcher. Readers who find themselves exasperated by how difficult it is to understand Endgame should take solace in the knowledge that simply trying to comprehend the play has preoccupied even the sharpest intellectuals. In fact, the respected and prolific philosopher Theodor Adorno even wrote an essay entitled “Trying to Understand Endgame”—an indication that even the 20th century’s best thinkers struggled to grasp the import of Beckett’s play.

Pardon My French. Like many of his plays and novels, Beckett first wrote Endgame in French, titling it Fin de partie. The reason he worked this way was because his French was worse than his English, and he liked the effect this had on his writing. He translated Endgame into English himself in 1957, the same year it premiered in French. The first English production opened in New York in 1958.