“At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.”
While trying to understand the text, Waiting for Godot, 1953, one often finds themselves in a myriad of possibilities or lenses to look at it through. Although it is all but an attempt to understand Beckett’s one of the most versatile plays; it also limits its ability to express its labyrinthine nature. My attempt then, far too inexperienced and singular in decoding this comprehensive text; would try to explore some of the various forms it has been seen through to understand its content, with the hope of not falling into its ‘ misreadings’. One such is that Beckett approaches life with a nihilistic vision and thus, the play is nothing more than a ‘meaningless’ form to express this vision, forms deliberately jumbled, arbitrary, and chaotic, without logic or coherence. (Watson, George.) Or is essentially plotless with no meticulously chalked-out themes.
Several critics like Nealon view the text with a postmodernist approach. Following Wittgenstein’s theory of Language Games, they believe Vladimir and Estragon, while waiting for Godot; the only man who can help them arrive at a sense of meaning and purpose, pass their time by playing games. What they don’t realize, but the reader does, is how these games are ultimately geared towards a larger metaphysical narrative, of Godot. Godot is essentially the center of their world. Even though he never once appears in the play, he is the metaphysical support that is legitimizing their survival; despite their suicidal ideations and games to pass away time. For instance:
VLADIMIR That passed the time.
ESTRAGON It would have passed in any case.
VLADIMIR Yes, but not so rapidly. (Pause)
ESTRAGON What do we do now?
VLADIMIR I don’t know.
ESTRAGON Let’s go.
VLADIMIR We can’t:
ESTRAGON Why not?
VLADIMIR We’re waiting for Godot.
The irony perhaps lies in the relationship between Pozzo and Lucky. Whereupon asked about Lucky’s unquestioned submission to his Master, Pozzo replies that Lucky chooses to be his slave. He willingly enters into a subhuman relationship. His adherence to what one might call a Hegelian notion of Master-Slave Dialectic is a means to existence and survival. Just like Estragon and Vladimir find waiting to be a process and routine to exist, Lucky finds purpose in a world of decay and death through the God-like entity Pozzo.
This is not to say Lucky has turned a blind eye toward the human condition. His speech is perhaps the most chilling statement about the depravity of existence. It’s not saddled with incoherence but instead is a narrative that disrupts and deconstructs all notions of a universal, ahistorical, consistent metanarrative – all Godot’s. Lucky’s think is directed against all the grand Narratives of Western metaphysics. (Nealon, Jeffrey)
It’s a replica of the human condition; where one is constantly seeking means to make sense of an indifferent universe. We gear ourselves towards a lifetime of labor and belief with the hope that it will drive us through the sea of confusion. But only “only time will tell” whether our self-validating and referential ideas of God, knowledge- thought dictated by the dialectic of reason, and time- flowing in one fluid motion, stand any chance.
This is something that both Vladimir and Estragon have accepted. Deterioration of memory in a dull, repetitive time-bound existence, countering even Pozzo’s fixated, clock world; renders any possibility of meaning to hold ground effectively in the past, present, and future. Characters of Waiting for Godot, then seem to be suspended in limbo with a need to play games, act out, and form habits to ensure survival. They indulge in performativity knowing its artificiality only to sustain the illusion of individual experience. As Estragon says, “We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression that we exist?” How else do you prove your existence in a world of constantly fading present, unreliable memory, and no one coming to rescue us from this unpredictability?
This meta theatricality is not only true for the plot but for the structure of the play itself. It’s a two-act play with almost the same tripartite actions being repeated in the second one. With minor variations in what the characters say and do, our sense of individuality of characters finds it difficult to sustain. There is no shared past, whether personal or cultural between them. The backdrop doesn’t identify with anyone’s source. The setting of a deadening tree, a mound leaves us hanging in the middle. Language itself cannot cope with these sensations, leaving a metaphysical farce of Nothingness. Presence is the issue of the form. The form is extremely logical and patterned giving it a prison-like existence. It is cyclic, which will keep repeating itself without any tangible result.
Waiting for Godot, then clearly, unsettles our linear way of interpreting character and form. This is not just because of the meta theatricality, but because the characters are suspended in limbo, even in literary terms. They are stuck between relational and independent identity, between repetitive patterns and complete autonomy, between surface and depth, between tragedy and comedy. Although they derive their individual traits from these antithetical forms- in the manner of their speech, how they move and access the stage, and what they wear- they are never able to fully fit in any of them.
This fractured, disjointed sense of self and identity has invited many psychological readings of the couples. While each of them holds a certain satisfactory explanation of the inner conflicts and psyche of an individual; Beckett effectively denies the reader any background or complex motivation for any of his characters. We know nothing more of Vladimir and Estragon at the beginning of the play than we know in the end. And so, as Michael Goldman states, it is clear that Beckett rejects any performance mode that invites the audience in, so that ‘there can be no cozy sharing of a human essence’. This denial of emotional affect is what makes the reader frustrated with the dispossession of all uncertainty and even the illusion of it; essentially because it is a terrifying reminder of our own existence. Once understood, our response might not be very different from that of Estragon and Vladimir who try to beat up Lucky and take off his hat after his speech- logical and rational thought can never capture our states of being and becoming (“Essy In Possy”), since they are fixed concepts, and becoming is constant.
As Richard Simon has noted, in a curiously comic way Godot plays a game with its critics by anticipating their obvious response and confounding them. The play draws attention to its own superficiality- in its origins, structure, and characters; leaving our experience in a state of suspension.
Waiting for Godot is then, clearly questioning our understanding of ‘lack’, of the blank spaces and the emptiness and void that surrounds us which we constantly try to fill with words, actions, gestures, thoughts, and emotions. It’s a play where ‘Nothing’ can happen, just as where something can happen. As Estragon says, there is “Nothing to be done”. And when there is nothing to be done, play assumes the center of attention, leaving us one step removed from our own personal experiences since we are prisoners of our own infinite sequence of reflections of understanding the world; much like that of the structure of the play.
While one can interpret this void of self as the ultimate devolution of the play, with memory fading in a never-ending cycle of repetition, and physical decay and degradation of characters – Pozzo turns blind, Lucky dumb, Estragon with his swollen foot, Vladimir with his kidney problems, where “everything oozes”. One cannot dismiss the fact that the putrefied reality of existence is giving it an absolute resolution that denies the play its permanent state of tension and ambiguity. Whether one is waiting for Godot or for the “no lack of void”, one is essentially always waiting. Even when one realizes the futility of the rituals of performativity, one cannot simply reject them, since the price of a rejection of pretense is an immersion into absolute nothingness. Thus, one is condemned to play the role. One may choose to perceive the indifferent universe with a sense of curious liberation or an inexorable grimness.
- Beckett, Samuel. “Waiting for Godot”, 1953. Longman Study Edition, Third Impression, 2016.
- Lawley, Paul. “Waiting for Godot, Character Studies”. Bloomsbury, 2008.
- Nealon, Jeffrey T. “Samuel Beckett and the Postmodern: Language Games, Play and Waiting for Godot.” Modern Drama 31 (1988): 520-528.
- Sharma, Anurag. “‘WAITING FOR GODOT:” A Beckettian Counterfoil to Kierkegaardian Existentialism.” Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui, vol. 2, 1993, pp. 275–280. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25781175. Accessed 19 Mar. 2021.
- Watson, George. “Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’: A Reappraisal.” The Maynooth Review / Revieú Mhá Nuad, vol. 1, no. 1, 1975, pp. 17–35. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20557940. Accessed 19 Mar. 2021.