ENGL 2302 - Lesson Six

Distance Learning at Texas Tech University

Lesson Six:
Waiting for Godot


Let me begin with the basic trouble: You cannot read Waiting for Godot. There's nothing personal about the claim. I'm not speaking of your ability to get hold of a copy of the text or of your ability to comprehend one when you do get hold of it. Rather, I am speaking of the nature of drama. You cannot read Waiting for Godot in exactly the same way you cannot read Oedipus Rex or Hamlet or Long Day's Journey Into Night or Star Wars (film isn't quite the same thing as the stage, but the principle at hand remains constant). A play is not a book. That's worth repeating (in part because too few teachers emphasize it enough). A play is not a book.

Plays do not exist on paper; they cannot be bound within covers. All you can find in a paperback is the words which actors might speak and directions for where they might go and what they might do. That is not a play. Rather, it is a record which makes possible the play. For the play exists only during performance. It is temporal and spatial, bound by the time and place in which it is performed. In classical Greek drama, those facts exerted absolute control over the plots of plays. They were designed to take place in one spot and have the action occur during the same length of time that the audience was watching; in a two-hour play, all events would take place within a single two-hour period. Most plays today don't work that way.

Waiting for Godot takes place on what we are told (though the characters don't seem to believe) are consecutive days. The classical Greeks would have had serious trouble with Waiting for Godot. They'd have been confused by its violation of what they called the "unities." They'd have demanded that real time and stage time be identical. Even in those days, I suspect, Beckett would have refused.

To read a play, then, is impossible. All you can do is read the text and imagine the play. That is, at best unsatisfactory. Of course, sometimes you get lucky and can see a staged version of a play. Godot is staged frequently for an avant garde play, but it doesn't show up very often. It's also been produced for television, but it hasn't been shown for many years. Your best hope would be a recording. There's one available from Caedmon Records. If you're near a public library with a large assortment of recordings, there might be a copy. A phenomenal music store might have one available, too, though I'd hate to bet the farm on your chances.

Your other option is to read the play aloud. Better still, perform the play. Speak the parts (don't recite, speak). Mimic gestures (Beckett offers very thorough stage directions). Put a leash on your dog and pretend it's Lucky.

Godot is among the most celebrated examples of what is called "Theatre of the Absurd." Absurdists argue that people today exist in a universe cut off from all roots; that they live in meaningless isolation in an alien world; that life has no sense, no significance beyond what the living may give to it. Translating those philosophical convictions to the stage results not in a series of interconnected incidents telling a story, but in a pattern of images presenting people as bewildered beings in a universe they cannot comprehend. Nevertheless, Godot is, and is intended to be, very funny in performance. It may help to imagine the main roles being played by Laurel and Hardy.

Samuel Beckett was born and raised in Dublin, Ireland. In 1937, he moved to Paris. French is the language in which he now chooses to write. It is in French that he wrote En Attendant Godot in 1948. The translation you are reading is also his.


After completing this lesson, you should understand the following:

How to Proceed

  1. Make sure you have read the Introduction and Objectives for this lesson.
  2. Survey, read, and take notes on Waiting for Godot. Use a notetaking system as suggested in Study Hints.
  3. Read the Discussion in this lesson. It will help you understand what you read in the play.
  4. Reread Waiting for Godot.
  5. Complete the Self-Help Exercises for this lesson. The answers for the exercises are provided in Appendix A of this course guide. Do not submit these for grading.
  6. Complete the Lesson Six Assignment by writing the assigned essay.
  7. Submit the Lesson Six Assignment to Distance Learning according to the directions given for either e-mail or regular mail. Be sure to include a Lesson Cover Sheet if submitting lessons by regular mail.
  8. Review your notes briefly every day until you complete the course. You may now proceed to the Final Examination Directions.


Any discussion of Waiting for Godot quickly reduces itself to three fundamental questions. They are, in no particular order:

Who is Godot?
Why are Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot?
Will Godot ever come?

There are other questions, of course, questions about Pozzo and Lucky, about the relationship between Didi and Gogo on the one hand and Pozzo and Lucky on the other, about hanging and salvation and hope and despair and whether the tree is a willow or is something else and who the boy is anyway. These are not insignificant, not unimportant. They are, however, incidental. They are the questions we ask while waiting to get around to the big three.


"Will Godot ever come?"


"Wait, that's too fast. What do you mean by, No'?"

I mean, no. Godot will never come.

"Well.... But how can you be sure?"

Easy. Didi and Gogo have waited by that tree thousands of performances, maybe a million readings. Godot has never yet appeared. We may assume that he never will.

"That's silly. You're being flip. Will Godot ever come?' is a serious question. You asked it yourself up at the top of the page."

Yes, it is serious. And it deserves a serious answer. But it's also easy. Look. Remember that a play exists only in performance. And Beckett's Godot, Didi's Godot, Gogo's Godot (sorry), the boy's Godot, even the Godots of Pozzo and Lucky and of you and me and all the other folks who've read or seen or heard the play can only come while the play exists. And while the play exists, Godot doesn't come. Hence, Godot cannot come. He has no independent existence.

"This is sophistry, not an answer."

I don't think so, but I'll try it differently. Godot will not come because he will not come. The boy twice tells Didi and Gogo that Godot will not come this evening but will certainly appear tomorrow. The exchange is ritualized:

Vladimir: You don't know me?
Boy: No Sir.
Vladimir: It wasn't you came yesterday?
Boy: No Sir.
Vladimir: This is your first time?
Boy: Yes Sir.
      (Act I, 33a-b)
Vladimir: Do you not recognize me.
Boy: No Sir.
Vladimir: It wasn't you came yesterday.
Boy: No Sir.
Vladimir: This is your first time.
Boy: Yes Sir.
      (Act II, 5b)

There are small modifications in the ceremonial which surrounds the message. In Act II Didi's questions have become declaratives. But the boy's message is delivered in the same way--through "Yes Sir" responses to Didi's statements.

The ritual is, in many ways, its own end (we'll get to that in a bit). But its development and its essence indicate continuity, indicate that however many times Didi and Gogo wait, Godot will always come not today but tomorrow. And in this context, tomorrow never comes.

"Let me see if I've got this right. You're saying that Godot won't show up because he never does show up, that, for some reason or other, Godot wants to keep Vladimir and Estragon coming back day after day?"

Not exactly. I'm not saying anything about Godot's motivation. I'm not even prepared to say that there is a Godot to come. All I'm ready to say is that Godot has had plenty of chances to show up. And Godot has not arrived. Instead, a pattern has developed. Didi and Gogo wait. A boy (who may or may not be the same one each time) comes, declares himself a stranger, answers some odd questions about his relationship to Godot, and tells Didi and Gogo that Godot won't be there that evening but will come tomorrow.

"Do Vladimir and Estragon know that Godot won't ever come?"

Beats me.

"You're being flip, again."



Why are Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot?

In some sense, the answer is simply, "Why not? What else have they to do?" Of course, that's not an altogether satisfying, English-teacher sort of answer. Still, I'm not ready to relinquish it completely. For it's the truth. Who are Didi and Gogo, anyway? They're two men who meet by a tree and declare that they are there to wait for Godot. Gogo has trouble with his boots. There's something wrong with Didi's hat. Gogo thinks hanging themselves is a good idea. Didi wants salvation. They eat, scratch, stumble over each other, quarrel over trivialities, and rehearse a single conversation:

Estragon: Let's go.
Vladimir: We can't.
Estragon: Why not?
Vladimir: We're waiting for Godot.
Estragon: Ah!

Have they lives beyond the waiting? It's hard to say. Both seem to believe that Estragon is regularly beaten in his sleep. Both arrive to wait together, which at least suggests that they aren't together and waiting 24 hours a day. Beyond that?

Then again, they wait for Godot because they have an appointment. They're not quite sure when it's for (they aren't sure when it is that they're waiting, either), but they agree that Godot is supposed to come. So they wait because they have agreed to wait.

And they do hope for something. When Godot arrives, Didi says, they will be saved. It's not altogether clear from what they are to be saved, but saved they are to be. Yet there is a forlorn quality to their hope. Partially, of course, it is that we know the hope will not be satisfied. But they, too, seem at times to realize that Godot will not come. So the hope, the expectation of being saved is, in part, rather more like wishful thinking. And we feel sorry for these men.

Who Is Godot?

This is the hard one. Let me put it off, for a bit, and discuss, instead, first Pozzo and Lucky, then Didi and Gogo.

There are, basically, two interesting things about Pozzo and Lucky: their relationship and what happens to them between Act I and Act II.

The relationship is, I suppose, the more striking of the two, but I suspect it's the less necessary of discussion. It clearly embodies exploitation, and that far at least may be taken as social commentary about man's role in relationship to his fellow man in this world. But that's superficial and false. For one thing, Beckett is not, in any direct sense, a social commentator. And generalizing to such social messages tends to trivialize more complex patterns. My best guess is that we should take Lucky's role as beast of burden not as representative of how men treat men, but of one aspect of mankind in general. We all are Lucky, in part. All of us are tied to circumstances and patterns of behavior that make no sense. We all are victimized. The specifics of the victimizer are irrelevant and unknowable. And we are all Pozzo, arbitrarily deciding and exercising control over that which doesn't concern us. We all are, that is, both in charge of our own lives and enslaved by them. As Pozzo says to Vladimir:

[O]ne day I went blind, one day we'll go deaf, one day we were born, one
day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you?
(Act II, 57b)

But now consider what happens between the acts. Pozzo goes blind. Lucky becomes mute. As a real world event it makes no sense. But in Beckett's terms, in Godot's terms it does make sense. Loss of control is among the central topics of the play, and since Pozzo had been the one to steer, his blindness takes his basic power away. Similarly, what we recall of Lucky in Act I is primarily his grand--if muddled--speech. His muteness denies him what small grandeur he had. And notice the final reversal: Although Lucky is still on the end of a leash, it is now he who actually does the leading, who is physically in control.

And then there are Didi and Gogo. I suggested in the Introduction to this lesson that you think of them as Laurel and Hardy. That's part of their role, certainly, to be clowns and buffoons in precisely that model. But to constrict them to that role is unreasonably limiting. For Didi and Gogo are, in the last analysis, our representatives on the stage. Waiting for Godot is our story, and they are our stand-ins on the stage. One critic has argued, with some justice, that Vladimir represents the intellect, Estragon the emotions. As such, they jointly are mankind in general. And, surely, within the absurdist context, their condition--ambiguous, ignorant, obligated to perform a meaningless activity over and over again, seeking to find some order in their world and their lives--is very much the same as ours.

Except, perhaps, for their relationship with Godot. And what we make of that must rest on what we make of Godot. Nearly everyone's first reaction is that Godot must be God. The name is the same (actually, Godot can be interpreted as meaning "little God"). He has the position of power we associate with God.

He will, when and if he appears, bring some sort of salvation. The boy's physical description of Godot in Act II is clearly akin to our traditional notions of what God looks like. (But if Godot is God, is the boy a deceptive Satan--deceiving mankind? Note that Godot tends the sheep; the boy cares for the goats.)

Alas, it's not that easy. Oh, Godot is God. But he is also a model of an ideal world--a social system that works (and surely the characters in Godot could all use one). And is he not, too, as the French writer and critic Alain Robbe-Grillet suggested somewhat (but not, I think, entirely) facetiously, Silence? Note that much as each sometimes wants to, Didi and Gogo find that they cannot give up conversation. Or is he Death, ironically kept away only by the prospect of his own appearance (remember, if he weren't expected, Didi and Gogo say they would have hanged themselves).

In essence, of course, Godot is who Didi and Gogo await. He is that which does not come. He is blind hope (shades of Pozzo?) and empty dreams, promises without substance, expectations which will never be fulfilled.

But Vladimir and Estragon do hope. They do wait. As one critic has noted, "it is not certain that Godot won't come." And surely he is right to notice that "they have kept their appointment, even if Godot has not." And, to quote the quotation from The London Times from the front cover of my copy of the play, Godot is "a threnody of hope deceived and deferred but never extinguished." Surely that's true. The question is whether we should honor Didi and Gogo for their hope or sneer at them.

It seems appropriate to let Beckett have the last word. The play means no more or less than what it says, he said. "If I knew [who Godot was], I would have said so in the play."

Lessons Five and Six
Self-Help Exercises

Complete the following self-help exercises. Write your answers to the self-help questions on your own paper. When you have completed the exercise, check your answers using the key provided in Appendix A of this course guide. Do not submit these exercises for grading.

Short-Answer Test

Godot and Eliot

  1. Where did Eliot get the name Prufrock?

  2. What two important things did Eliot do in 1927?

  3. What does Shantih mean in English? Where can the word be found?

  4. What happened to Phlebas?

  5. What do the women who "come and go" (Prufrock, line 13) speak of?

  6. In what language was Godot originally written?

  7. Who goes blind in Godot? in The Waste Land?

  8. When Estragon asks for a carrot, what does Vladimir first give him?

  9. What does the boy who comes in Act I do for Godot?

  10. Who must Estragon ask for permission to get the chicken bones?

Lesson Six Assignment
Complete each of the following exercises as instructed.

For submission via regular mail or fax, type or write your answers on your own paper. Submit your Lesson Assignment according to the directions given for regular mail or fax. Be sure to include a Lesson Cover Sheet if submitting by mail.

For submission via e-mail, type your answers in a text-only file. Do not send the message until you have completed all parts of the assignment, then send them all in one message. It may be easier to work in a separate word processing program, then copy and paste the entire text-only document into an e-mail message. Submit your Lesson Assignment according to the directions given for e-mail. Be sure to type your Enrollment ID number, course number, lesson number, and instructor's name in the Subject area of your e-mail and your name and Social Security number at the top of the Message area (before your lesson answers), then send it to distlearn@ttu.edu.

Essay Topics

Waiting for Godot

Answer one of the following questions in a concise, articulate, mechanically correct essay of no more than 1,000 words or three typed pages. Be as specific as you can. Avoid plot summary; it is insufficient as an answer to any of these questions.

  1. Why is it that in Act II--on the second evening Vladimir and Estragon wait--the tree has leaves, Pozzo is blind, and Lucky is mute? Why do things change so drastically?

  2. What is the function of the boy in Waiting for Godot? Please note that I am not asking for a summary of what he does, but of what his significance is for the play. Why is he--and what he does--important?

  3. One critic of Godot has observed that the boy's response to Vladimir's question about what Godot does is "He does nothing, Sir," and has concluded that "Godot, by implication, lives in the same condition, the same spiritual insomnia, agony, limbo, the same despair of one's failing powers which has hung over the play." Agree, disagree, or otherwise comment on this analysis (with evidence from the play, please).

  4. Discuss the function of the audience in Waiting for Godot. After all, do we not wait with Didi and Gogo? Are we not caught up in their dilemmas? Are we not as uncertain about Pozzo and Lucky as they? Are we not as confused? Is Beckett, then, using us? How? and to what end?

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