Natasha Rose Chenier
Vladimir and Estragon of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot inherit and inhabit the vacuum that remains after the sublime tragedy of Shakespeare’s premonitory King Lear. When all has been lost in Lear’s volatile world, nothing is left, and it is this very nothing that Vladimir and Estragon, like Edgar, must reckon with. The tragic and morally ambiguous finish of Shakespeare’s King Lear is the point from which Samuel Beckett creatively departs in Waiting for Godot.
Vladimir and Estragon of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot inherit and inhabit the vacuum that remains after the sublime tragedy of Shakespeare’s premonitory King Lear. When all has been lost in Lear’s volatile world, nothing is left, and it is this very nothing that Vladimir and Estragon, like Edgar, must reckon with. Lear is the embodiment of the patriarch, the monarch, and the glory of the European era all at once. His death denotes the decay of these systems of power, and Vladimir and Estragon live in the ruins. The similarities between King Lear and Waiting for Godot are striking and numerous. To name but a few, each play obsessively contemplates “nothing,” as a word and concept. Each play presents the problem of asymmetrical affection. Both plays involve failed suicide attempts. Beckett’s protagonists occupy Lear’s empty and deserted world, some three hundred and fifty years later when Waiting for Godot was written. In this paper I will look at the many ways in which King Lear sets the stage for Waiting for Godot, and Waiting for Godot harkens back to King Lear. I will argue that the function of time radically distinguishes the works from one another, and that its unconventional representation in Beckett’s notoriously uneventful play is what, in large part, makes the viewing experience so uncomfortable for so many.
“Nothing” is a word and concept that is unusually ubiquitous in both King Lear and Waiting for Godot. It is as if King Lear foresees the inevitable nothingness that lies ahead as a result of the crumbling standing order, and Waiting for Godot reveals the reality after the “old doth fall” (Lear, 3.3.22). In Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, Jan Kott writes,
In King Lear, both the medieval and the renaissance orders of established values disintegrate. All that remains at the end of this gigantic pantomime is earth—empty and bleeding. On this earth, […] the King, the Fool, the Blind Man and the Madman carry on their distracted dialogue. (Kott, 118)
This “empty and bleeding” earth is the point from which Beckett creatively departs.
King Lear demands that his daughters evidence the depth of their love for him by means of words, but no such thing is possible. While Regan and Goneril insincerely speak gushing declarations of affection, Cordelia is unable to “heave [her] heart into [her] mouth” (Lear, 1.1.90-91) as she thinks, “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent” (Lear, 1.1.60). The pivotal scene between Lear and Cordelia reads:
Lear: […] what can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
Lear: Nothing will come of nothing, speak again.
Cordelia: Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth. (Lear, 1.1.84-91)
Similarly, in Waiting for Godot the following words are exchanged between Vladimir and Estragon after the latter attempts to shake something out of his boot without success:
Estragon: There’s nothing to show. (Godot, 4)
Cordelia’s “nothing” is the first of many utterances of the word in King Lear, as is Estragon’s “nothing” in Waiting for Godot, of which “nothing” is also the opening word. The play’s first line reads, “Nothing to be done,” (Godot, 2), which echoes Goneril’s “There is nothing done, if he return the conqueror” (4.6.259) in her letter to Edmund arranging for her husband’s death. Both King Lear and Waiting for Godot obsessively contemplate what exists at the root of the human condition, and both come up with nothing. Shakespeare peels away layers of Lear one at a time—his title, his kingdom, his knights—until he goes mad and finally perishes. Beckett’s story begins and ends with madness and absurdity. It takes place nowhere. The idea that nothing lies at the core of humanity is also put forth by Gustave Flaubert in Madame Bovary, in which Charles’ autopsy at the novel’s end reveals that there is “nothing” inside of him (Flaubert, 435). Perhaps “nothing” is the only common denominator between people; it is what we all become. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human Harold Bloom writes, “We enter crying at our birth, knowing with Lear that creation and fall are simultaneous.” (Bloom, 515). No matter what may happen over the course of a lifetime, the end is always the same.
Following Lear’s decision to disown Cordelia and give his kingdom to Regan and Goneril, the fool tells him, “I am better than thou art; I am a fool, thou art nothing” (Lear, 1.4.168-169). Why Lear has been reduced to nothing in the fool’s mind is never specified. It could be due to his decision to disown the only loving person in his life. The idea that we are nothing without love dates back to antiquity, as the Christian bible reads:
[…] if I […] understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians, 13:1-3)
Indeed, Lear does gain nothing from his decision to carve up his kingdom and grant it to his daughters. And ironically, the “loving” words spoken by Regan and Goneril that earned them the kingdom in the first place are what ultimately amount to nothing, as their cruel treatment of Lear reveals thereafter. Lear, having disowned Cordelia, asks, “Doth any here know me? This is not Lear” (Lear, 1.4.201). Similarly Edgar, alienated from his father, cries “Edgar I nothing am” (Lear, 2.3.21). King Lear explores the catastrophe of love, and the problems that come with it. As Bloom writes, Lear is “very much loved by Cordelia, the Fool, Albany, Kent, Gloucester, and Edgar” (Bloom, 479). Yet the problem is that, in Lear’s world, love is never fully reciprocated, expressed or realized; the complications that arise as a result propel the bulk of the play’s action.
In reference to what she calls the “grotesque” and “absurd” qualities of Beckett’s Endgame Kott writes, “Beckett was the first to see it in King Lear; he eliminated all action, everything external, and repeated it in its skeleton form” (Kott, 127). This can equally be said of Waiting for Godot, in which Beckett plays with the idea of absent and unreciprocated affection, yet he removes the problem of familial love from the play since blood relations play no part in Waiting for Godot. Beckett’s characters are perpetually unable or unwilling to show love or caring. After Pozzo notices that his watch has gone missing he bends over to see if he can hear it ticking in his body, at which point Vladimir and Estragon do the same, and the following dialogue takes place:
Estragon: I hear something.
Vladimir: It’s the heart.
Pozzo: (disappointed). Damnation!
Estragon: Perhaps it has stopped. (Godot, 49)
Whether they are hearing Pozzo’s watch tick or his heart beat is unclear. Whether Estragon alludes to the watch or heart having stopped is also unspecified. While Lear desires transcendental love in a world in which love only operates according to “bond” (Lear, 1.1.92), Beckett’s characters inhabit a post-love world, as Pozzo is disappointed by the possibility that he hears his heart beat rather than his watch, the latter of which is obviously more important to him. At the end of King Lear Kent cries, “Break, heart; I prithee, break!”(Lear, 5.3.311 ). He wishes that his heart would feel more. Pozzo’s exclaiming “Damnation!” at the sound of his heart beat serves as a stark contrast. In Lear’s world, love trumps all else, albeit too late. In Vladimir’s and Estragon’s world love does not exist in any explicitly stated way, yet the problem of asymmetrical and unfulfilled affection remains.
At the beginning of Waiting for Godot the two protagonists are reunited and their exchange is as follows:
Vladimir: Together again at last! We’ll have to celebrate this. But how? (He reflects.) Get up till I embrace you.
Estragon: (irritably) Not now, not now. (Godot, 2)
The play opens with Estragon’s rejection of Vladimir’s want of an affectionate embrace. Beckett goes on to present togetherness as a habit rather than a feeling rooted in desire, as both the first and second acts end with Vladimir and Estragon considering the option of parting ways, before agreeing that it would simply not be “worth while” (Godot, 59). Both King Lear and Waiting for Godot present realities in which affection is never wholly symmetrical, but the latter suggests that togetherness is the result of boredom and habit rather than any sense of genuine caring. Shakespeare contemplates greater themes of love, family, greed, and malice, whereas Beckett’s interest is solely rooted in that which can be seen—tangible human bonds, whatever their driving force, and the physical reality of the unending present moment.
That Lear misappropriates Aristotle’s famous maxim, ex nihilo nihil fit, when he responds to Cordelia by insisting that “Nothing will come of nothing” (Lear, 1.1.89), serves as proof of his inability to understand the paradoxical nature of love as presented by Shakespeare, which is ultimately his tragic flaw. In its proper context, the maxim applies to physical matter. In Physics Aristotle contends that “one thing comes to be from another thing […]” (Aristotle, 230). In other words all matter comes from matter, and thus only nothing can come of nothing. Yet Lear misappropriates the expression in using it to understand matters of human emotion and communication, which leads him to assume that Cordelia’s “nothing” can only come of her feeling nothing for him, which he then reacts against when he rashly disowns her. Yet he is wrong, as we know that Cordelia’s inability to speak her true feelings is in fact due to her genuine love for Lear, which is ineffable, and prevents her from deceiving her father as her sisters so effortlessly do. While unbeknownst to him, in speaking Aristotle’s maxim Lear actually hints at the very thing he fails to understand: we can know nothing beyond that which we see, a claim that is central in Aristotle’s and Beckett’s philosophy alike. Whereas Lear seems to want evidence of a pure and idealized form of love that transcends humanity and the physical realm altogether, Aristotle and Beckett reject all notions of such metaphysical forms as were put forth by thinkers such as Plato.
The ancient idea that what we see is all we can know connects with the boot motif in both King Lear and Waiting for Godot. King Lear is, among other things, a dramatic enactment of the end of the renaissance, an era fueled mainly by idealized notions of human progress. In From Shakespeare to Existentialism Walter Kauffman writes,
Shakespeare, like the Greeks before him and Nietzsche after him, believed neither in progress nor in original sin; he believed that most men merited contempt and that a very few were head and shoulders above the rest of mankind and that these few, more often than not, meet “with base affection” and do not herald progress. (Kauffman, 14)
Similarly, in one of his letters Sigmund Freud writes, “I have found little that is good about human beings on the whole. In my experience, most of them are trash” (Freud, 61). While philosophers of the enlightenment contemplate the nobility of man and the inevitability of progress, boots protect feet from the uncertain present moment. They adorn real people, however ignoble. Thus, their removal symbolizes the human confrontation with the muck of what is as opposed to what ought to be, a central fascination in both Shakespeare’s and Beckett’s works. It is for this reason that Lear, sitting in a field with Gloucester lamenting his tragic fate suddenly cries, “Now, now, now, now! / Pull off my boots. Harder, harder!” (Lear, 4.6.166-167). He wishes to confront reality, although he is unable to, and so his boots are not removed, despite his demand. Later, Edgar describes all attempts to communicate with maddened Lear as “bootless” (Lear, 5.3.293), a term that is annotated as “futile” in the text. “Bootless” is synonymous with “futile” in the context of Lear’s world because it involves turning away from the then-dominant ideologies and systems of power. Bootless futility is the note on which King Lear ends, and is the central motif of Waiting for Godot.
The first act of Waiting for Godot opens as “Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again. As before” (Godot, 2). The second act opens with “Estragon’s boots front center, heels together, toes splayed” (Godot, 62). Unlike Lear, Estragon successfully removes his boots, which is a point that is revisited throughout the text, as for instance Vladimir states that “Boots must be taken off every day […]” (Godot, 3). Indeed the subject is discussed at such length that Estragon eventually exclaims, “Enough about the boots…enough!” (Godot, 78). Not only does Waiting for Godot see the successful removal of boots, but it explores the full depth of the murky present, as Estragon expresses when he says, “All my lousy life I’ve crawled about in the mud! […] You and your landscapes! Tell me about the worms!” (Godot, 67). If the enlightenment is a landscape, existentialism could adequately be described as the worms wiggling beneath it.
The only character in King Lear who is truly willing to embrace the dirt is Edgar disguised as Tom O’Bedlam who “[…] eats the swimming frog, the toad, the tadpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow dung for sallets […]” (Lear, 3.4.119-121). Bloom writes, “The sullen or assumed humor of Tom O’Bedlam is the central emblem of the play: philosopher, fool, madman, nihilist, dissembler—at once all of these and none of these” (Bloom, 489). Edgar’s decision to act like a madman is what enables him to survive the madness of others. Madness as a necessary component of being is certainly an idea that Beckett plays with. Due to his feigned madness Edgar survives, to find himself standing alone among the dead and the ruins of an era past. Yet we are never entirely certain that he has not sincerely gone mad along the way. This uncertainty is also something Beckett further explores, as Vladimir and Estragon straddle the line between unbearable normalcy and outrageous absurdity.
The problem of memory and lack of recognition contributes greatly to the shared absurdity of both King Lear and Waiting for Godot. Gloucester’s failure to recognize his son means that the two are never reunited, at least not within the confines of the script. By the play’s end Lear is so mad that he hardly recognizes Cordelia when she rescues him. Of course there is another kind of recognition that is lacking in King Lear, as, for instance, Gloucester fails to recognize Edmund’s malicious ploy just as Lear fails to detect Regan’s and Goneril’s manipulative tactics. To the contrary, both Lear and Gloucester are strangely quick to react harshly against the people who love them most. It is as though memory does not exist at all, and thus knowledge of the self and of others is inevitably compromised. Even from the beginning Lear “hath but slenderly known himself” (Lear, 1.1.291). In The Theatre of the Absurd Martin Esslin asks, “Can we ever be sure that the human beings we meet are the same today as they were yesterday?” (Esslin, 51). Both King Lear and Waiting for Godot answer in the negative. When Estragon fails to recognize Pozzo and Lucky, Vladimir insists, “Yes you do know them […] Unless they’re not the same… […] Unless they’re not the same…” (Godot, 52). The question of whether people are the same from one moment to the next seems to interest both Shakespeare and Beckett immensely, and the problem of memory plagues both texts. It is a problem most explicitly addressed by Pozzo when he admits, “I don’t remember having met anyone yesterday. But to-morrow I won’t remember having met anyone to-day. So don’t count on me to enlighten you” (Godot, 101-102). Like the enlightenment, memory is a thing of the past, and a past that cannot be remembered. The end result is an unending present that is entirely without direction, such as that which Beckett presents.
Beyond the problem of memory and recognition in both texts is that of misunderstanding. While Lear tragically misunderstands Cordelia’s “nothing” to mean that she feels nothing for him, Beckett’s characters are perpetually in a state of misunderstanding and misidentification. When Vladimir and Estragon first meet Pozzo they mistake him for Godot, before understanding his name to be Bozzo (Godot, 19). Later, when Pozzo asks Estragon for his name, he responds, “Adam” (Godot, 38), and when the boy asks for “Mister Albert,” Vladimir responds as though that were his name (Godot, 53). Thus, it is possible that Godot knows nothing of Vladimir and Estragon at all, in which case the expectation that the play revolves around is a misunderstanding altogether. The impossible distance between Beckett’s protagonists and the ever-absent Godot is reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s An Imperial Message. Yet while Kafka writes of a message intended for someone who will never receive it, Beckett pushes the scenario even further into the realm of absurdity, as the very identity of those who are trying to be reached remains unclear. The result of miscommunication and misunderstanding in King Lear is tragedy, whereas it has a comical and Vaudevillian effect in Waiting for Godot, which moves away from tragedy and into the realm of the theatre of the absurd, taking the madness of Lear and placing it in the ruins of a lost world.
The environment that Vladimir and Estragon inhabit is cruel like Lear’s. Kent’s mention of “The tyranny of the open night […]” (Lear, 3.4.2) certainly corresponds with the beatings Vladimir and Estragon risk getting if they spend the night apart. After Estragon reveals that he spent the night in a ditch Vladimir asks, “And they didn’t beat you?” to which Estragon responds, “Beat me? Certainly they beat me” (Godot, 2). Shakespeare and Beckett present the outdoors as cruel and comfortless, something from which men ought to seek refuge. The fact that Vladimir and Estragon do not only reinforces their madness. Lear’s fool insists that “This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen,” (Lear, 3.4.75) which Vladimir’s and Estragon’s predicament seems to evidence.
Despite the bleakness of Lear’s journey, his death provides relief. It signals the end of a treacherous situation. However horrible the human experience might turn out to be, we find relief in its end. Esslin writes, “The very statement of the desperate situation, the ability it gives the spectator to face it with open eyes, constitutes a catharsis, a liberation. Are not Oedipus and Lear confronted with the full despair and absurdity of their human condition? Yet their tragedies are liberating experiences” (Esslin, 198). Beckett allows for no such catharsis. Instead, Vladimir and Estragon consider suicide as an option multiple times without ever carrying it out. In “Shakespeare and Beckett” Norman Berlin writes,
In Shakespeare we confront an action that moves, a story line, not only the progress of time but the use of time (for destruction and restoration), suffering which leads to recognitions. In Beckett we encounter frozen, static situations—one cannot move in an ashcan; one cannot hang oneself without strong rope. One day is not only like the next, it is the next. (Berlin, 652)
In their deaths, Lear and Cordelia are released from the entanglement that Shakespeare masterfully constructs. On the other hand Vladimir and Estragon, like Edgar, are condemned to keep living. Beckett’s characters must go on in a world in which time stands still, only to be recognized in the fact that things worsen. In “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo” Susan Sontag writes, “Of course, there is a difference between Act I and the replay of Act I which is Act II. Not only has one more day gone by. Everything is worse. Lucky can no longer speak, Pozzo is now pathetic and blind, Vladimir has given in to despair” (Sontag, 97). Perhaps it is for this reason that Waiting for Godot inspired “near riots among a good many highly sophisticated audiences in Western Europe” (Esslin, 19), unlike anything King Lear audiences saw. King Lear provides relief of some kind in death, however tragic. On the other hand, Waiting for Godot insists on living on. It suffers through the unending present in a world in which “Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful!” (Godot, 43). Lear’s story unfolds with time. Time moves the characters forward as the plot develops, and some sort of justice lies in the fact that Regan, Goneril and Edmund die, while loving Kent and Edgar live on. But Waiting for Godot tells the story that has no explicit meaning or defined beginning or end. It does not progress, it only worsens. Perhaps this is why “Blau compared [Waiting for Godot] to a piece of jazz music ‘to which one must listen for whatever one may find in it’” (Esslin, 19). Certainly this would cause a stir among audiences looking forward to a riveting piece of entertainment that ends with a sense of resolution, such as that which King Lear continues to afford viewers.
King Lear encapsulates sublime loss and the rapid deterioration of a king, as well as his descent into madness. When the play opens everything is in order. The king is a respected figure, and his kingdom is secure. Very suddenly, however, things begin to unravel. Shakespeare picks his characters apart until they can no longer bear it and wind up mad, deceased, or standing alone among heaps of corpses. He is fascinated with the precarious human condition, and man’s rapid decent into nothingness. Beckett is only concerned with the latter part of that equation. While King Lear offers plot, drama, violence, seduction, and betrayal, features of any gripping theatrical experience, Beckett’s notorious work encapsulates stagnation, silence, and, somewhat ironically, the act of unsatisfied anticipation, not unlike that which the play’s viewers are bound to experience themselves. Esslin writes, “Waiting for Godot does not tell a story; it explores a static situation” (Esslin, 46). The action in both plays differs greatly, yet the philosophical questions that each presents are the same. King Lear tracks the transformation of a king into a beggar, a respected figure of authority into a mad man, a unified kingdom into broken fragments. On the other hand Beckett starts and ends at nothing, in the middle of nowhere. There is nothing, therefore there is nothing to be lost, or gained for that matter. Not from life, not from any performed play.
Anderson, Bernhard W., Bruce Manning. Metzger, and Roland E. Murphy. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. Print.
Aristotle, and Richard McKeon. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, 1941. Print.
Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot; Tragicomedy in 2 Acts,. New York: Grove, 1954. Print.
Berlin, Normand. “Beckett and Shakespeare.” The French Review 40.5 (1967): 647-51. Print.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead, 1998. Print.
Esslin, Martin. The Theatre of the Absurd. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1961. Print.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Trans. Geoffrey Wall. London: Penguin Books, 2007. Print.
Freud, Sigmund, Ernst L. Freud, Heinrich Meng, Erich Mosbacher, Oskar Pfister, and Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysis and Faith: The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Oskar Pfister. New York: Basic, 1963. Print.
Kaufmann, Walter Arnold. From Shakespeare to Existentialism: An Original Study : Essays on Shakespeare and Goethe, Hegel and Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Freud, Jaspers, Heidegger, and Toynbee. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980. Print.
Kott, Jan. Shakespeare, Our Contemporary. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964. Print.
Sontag, Susan. “Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo.” Performing Arts Journal 16.2 (1994): 87-106. Print.
Shakespeare, William, William Shakespeare, Stephen Jay. Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Andrew Gurr. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies. New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. Print.