"Because the play is so stripped down, so elemental, it invites all kinds of social and political and religious interpretation" wrote Normand Berlin in a tribute to the play in Autumn 1999, "with Beckett himself placed in different schools of thought, different movements and 'ism's. The attempts to pin him down have not been successful, but the desire to do so is natural when we encounter a writer whose minimalist art reaches for bedrock reality. 'Less' forces us to look for 'more,' and the need to talk about Godot and about Beckett has resulted in a steady outpouring of books and articles.
Throughout Waiting for Godot, the audience may encounter religious, philosophical, classical, psychoanalytical and biographical – especially wartime – references. There are ritualistic aspects and elements taken directly from vaudeville and there is a danger in making more of these than what they are: that is, merely structural conveniences, avatars into which the writer places his fictional characters. The play "exploits several archetypal forms and situations, all of which lend themselves to both comedy and pathos." Beckett makes this point emphatically clear in the opening notes to Film: "No truth value attaches to the above, regarded as of merely structural and dramatic convenience." He made another important remark to Lawrence Harvey, saying that his "work does not depend on experience – [it is] not a record of experience. Of course you use it."
Beckett tired quickly of "the endless misunderstanding". As far back as 1955, he remarked, "Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can't make out." He was not forthcoming with anything more than cryptic clues, however: "Peter Woodthrope [who played Estragon] remembered asking him one day in a taxi what the play was really about: 'It's all symbiosis, Peter; it's symbiosis,' answered Beckett."
Beckett directed the play for the Schiller-Theatre in 1975. Although he had overseen many productions, this was the first time that he had taken complete control. Walter Asmus was his conscientious young assistant director. The production was not naturalistic. Beckett explained,
It is a game, everything is a game. When all four of them are lying on the ground, that cannot be handled naturalistically. That has got to be done artificially, balletically. Otherwise everything becomes an imitation, an imitation of reality [...]. It should become clear and transparent, not dry. It is a game in order to survive."
Over the years, Beckett clearly realised that the greater part of Godot's success came down to the fact that it was open to a variety of readings and that this was not necessarily a bad thing. Beckett himself sanctioned "one of the most famous mixed-race productions of Godot, performed at the Baxter Theatre in the University of Cape Town, directed by Donald Howarth, with [...] two black actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, playing Didi and Gogo; Pozzo, dressed in checked shirt and gumboots reminiscent of an Afrikaner landlord, and Lucky ('a shanty town piece of white trash') were played by two white actors, Bill Flynn and Peter Piccolo [...]. The Baxter production has often been portrayed as if it were an explicitly political production, when in fact it received very little emphasis. What such a reaction showed, however, was that, although the play can in no way be taken as a political allegory, there are elements that are relevant to any local situation in which one man is being exploited or oppressed by another."
"It was seen as an allegory of the Cold War" or of French Resistance to the Germans. Graham Hassell writes, "[T]he intrusion of Pozzo and Lucky [...] seems like nothing more than a metaphor for Ireland's view of mainland Britain, where society has ever been blighted by a greedy ruling élite keeping the working classes passive and ignorant by whatever means."
Vladimir and Estragon are often played with Irish accents, as in the Beckett on Film project. This, some feel, is an inevitable consequence of Beckett's rhythms and phraseology, but it is not stipulated in the text. At any rate, they are not of English stock: at one point early in the play, Estragon mocks the English pronunciation of "calm" and has fun with "the story of the Englishman in the brothel".
"Bernard Dukore develops a triadic theory in Didi, Gogo and the absent Godot, based on Sigmund Freud's trinitarian description of the psyche in The Ego and the Id (1923) and the usage of onomastic techniques. Dukore defines the characters by what they lack: the rational Go-go embodies the incomplete ego, the missing pleasure principle: (e)go-(e)go. Di-di (id-id) – who is more instinctual and irrational – is seen as the backward id or subversion of the rational principle. Godot fulfils the function of the superego or moral standards. Pozzo and Lucky are just re-iterations of the main protagonists. Dukore finally sees Beckett's play as a metaphor for the futility of man's existence when salvation is expected from an external entity, and the self is denied introspection."
Jungian (Carl Jung, personality studies/behaviorist)
"The four archetypal personalities or the four aspects of the soul are grouped in two pairs: the ego and the shadow, the persona and the soul's image (animus or anima). The shadow is the container of all our despised emotions repressed by the ego. Lucky, the shadow serves as the polar opposite of the egocentric Pozzo, prototype of prosperous mediocrity, who incessantly controls and persecutes his subordinate, thus symbolising the oppression of the unconscious shadow by the despotic ego. Lucky's monologue in Act I appears as a manifestation of a stream of repressed unconsciousness, as he is allowed to "think" for his master. Estragon's name has another connotation, besides that of the aromatic herb, tarragon: "estragon" is a cognate of oestrogen, the female hormone (Carter, 130). This prompts us to identify him with the anima, the feminine image of Vladimir's soul. It explains Estragon's propensity for poetry, his sensitivity and dreams, his irrational moods. Vladimir appears as the complementary masculine principle, or perhaps the rational persona of the contemplative type."
Broadly speaking, existentialists hold that there are certain fundamental questions that every human being must come to terms with if they are to take their subjective existences seriously and with intrinsic value. Questions such as death, the meaning of human existence and the place of (or lack of) God in that existence are among them. By and large, the theories of existentialism assert that conscious reality is very complex and without an "objective" or universally known value: the individual must create value by affirming it and living it, not by simply talking about it or philosophising it in the mind. The play may be seen to touch on all of these issues.
Much of Beckett's work – including Godot – is often considered by philosophical and literary scholars to be part of the movement of the Theatre of the Absurd, a form of theatre which stemmed from the Absurdist philosophy of Albert Camus. Absurdism itself is a branch of the traditional assertions of existentialism, pioneered by Søren Kierkegaard, and posits that, while inherent meaning might very well exist in the universe, human beings are incapable of finding it due to some form of mental or philosophical limitation. Thus humanity is doomed to be faced with the Absurd, or the absolute absurdity of existence in lack of intrinsic purpose.
Just after Didi and Gogo have been particularly selfish and callous, the boy comes to say that Godot is not coming. The boy (or pair of boys) may be seen to represent meekness and hope before compassion is consciously excluded by an evolving personality and character, and in which case may be the youthful Pozzo and Lucky. Thus Godot is compassion and fails to arrive every day, as he says he will. No-one is concerned that a boy is beaten. In this interpretation, there is the irony that only by changing their hearts to be compassionate can the characters fixed to the tree move on and cease to have to wait for Godot.
Much of the play is steeped in scriptural allusion. The boy from Act One mentions that he and his brother mind Godot's sheep and goats. Much can be read into Beckett's inclusion of the story of the two thieves from Luke 23:39–43 and the ensuing discussion of repentance. It is easy to see the solitary tree as representative of the Christian cross or the tree of life. Some see God and Godot as one and the same. Vladimir's "Christ have mercy upon us!" could be taken as evidence that that is at least what he believes.
This reading is given further weight early in the first act when Estragon asks Vladimir what it is that he has requested from Godot:
VLADIMIR: Oh ... nothing very definite. ESTRAGON: A kind of prayer. VLADIMIR: Precisely. ESTRAGON: A vague supplication. VLADIMIR: Exactly.
According to Anthony Cronin, "[Beckett] always possessed a Bible, at the end more than one edition, and Bible concordances were always among the reference books on his shelves." Beckett himself was quite open on the issue: "Christianity is a mythology with which I am perfectly familiar so I naturally use it." As Cronin (one of his biographers) points out, his biblical references "may be ironic or even sarcastic".
"In answer to a defence counsel question in 1937 (during a libel action brought by his uncle) as to whether he was a Christian, Jew or atheist, Beckett replied, 'None of the three'". Looking at Beckett's entire œuvre, Mary Bryden observed that "the hypothesised God who emerges from Beckett's texts is one who is both cursed for his perverse absence and cursed for his surveillant presence. He is by turns dismissed, satirised, or ignored, but he, and his tortured son, are never definitively discarded."
Waiting for Godot has been described as a "metaphor for the long walk into Roussillon, when Beckett and Suzanne slept in haystacks [...] during the day and walked by night [... or] of the relationship of Beckett to Joyce."
That the play calls on only male actors, with scarcely a reference to women, has caused some to look upon Vladimir and Estragon's relationship as quasi-marital: "they bicker, they embrace each other, they depend upon each other [...] They might be thought of as a married couple." In Act One, Estragon speaks gently to his friend, approaching him slowly and laying a hand on his shoulder. After asking for his hand in turn and telling him not to be stubborn, he suddenly embraces him but backs off just as quickly, complaining, "You stink of garlic!"
When Estragon reminisces about his occasional glances at the Bible and remembers how prettily coloured were the maps of the Dead Sea, he remarks, "That's where we'll go, I used to say, that's where we'll go for our honeymoon. We'll swim. We'll be happy." Furthermore, the temptation to achieve post-mortem erections arises in the context of a world without females. Estragon in particular is "[h]ighly excited", in contrast with Vladimir, who chooses this moment to talk about shrieking mandrakes. His apparent indifference to his friend's arousal may be viewed as a sort of playful teasing.
Another possible instance of homoeroticism has been discerned in the segment in which Estragon "sucks the end of it [his carrot]", although Beckett describes this as a meditative action.
Beckett's objection to female actors
Beckett was not open to most interpretative approaches to his work. He famously objected when, in the 1980s, several women's acting companies began to stage the play. "Women don't have prostates," said Beckett, a reference to the fact that Vladimir frequently has to leave the stage to urinate.
In 1988, Beckett took a Dutch theatre company, De Haarlemse Toneelschuur to court over this issue. "Beckett [...] lost his case. But the issue of gender seemed to him to be so vital a distinction for a playwright to make that he reacted angrily, instituting a ban on all productions of his plays in The Netherlands." This ban was short-lived, however: in 1991 (two years after Beckett's death), "Judge Huguette Le Foyer de Costil ruled that the production would not cause excessive damage to Beckett's legacy", and the play was duly performed by the all-female cast of the Brut de Beton Theater Company at the prestigious Avignon Festival.
The Italian Pontedera Theatre Foundation won a similar claim in 2006 when it cast two actresses in the roles of Vladimir and Estragon, albeit in the characters' traditional roles as men. At the 1995 Acco Festival, director Nola Chilton staged a production with Daniella Michaeli in the role of Lucky.