Endgame is the term used to describe an ending in chess where the outcome is already known. Chess masters often study endgames in order to guarantee themselves victory once they maneuver their opponent into a certain position. Beckett, an avid chess fan, saw the parallel between the chess endgame the final stages of life. He realized that death is the final outcome and that regardless of how a person plays the game, he or she will die. The imagery of chess is presented in the play through Clov and Hamm who are red and Nagg and Nell who are white.
The stage setting is important because it has been likened to a skull. The two windows on the back wall form the eye sockets of this skull, and the characters represent the brain and memory. Thus the entire stage serves as a metaphor for an aging mind.
This skull-like setting is complemented by several textual references to Dante's Inferno. For instance, Clov comments at one point that they are in a refuge between earth and sea, while Hamm observes, "That here we're down in a hole." The text later adds that the sun is sinking, "down among the dead," that they are beyond certain hills, and that beyond the walls, "is the...other hell." The implication of placing the characters in Dante's inferno is that they will be doomed to repeating the act of their crime for all eternity. In typical Beckettian fashion, the crime can be viewed as "life," meaning that they are doomed to repeat life forever.
The subject of Endgame is whether Clov will leave Hamm. Their relationship, which alternates between slave/master and son/father, is also a mutually beneficial one. Hamm provides food and shelter, whereas Clov provides legs and eyesight. Part of the problem with Clov leaving is that doing so is an act of suicide. If he leaves Hamm, he will not have any food, and without someone to feed him, Hamm will die as well.
The relationship between Hamm and Clov is also confused by Hamm's biographical story. Told daily and seemingly without an end (because a biography can only truly be ended when the person is dead), the story seems to hint at the possibility that Clov might be the boy alluded to. This is supported in the text by Clov's comment, "And then he [the boy] would have grown up." Hamm responds enigmatically with, "Very likely."
Beckett highlights one theme in particular, that of "finishing". This theme is presented right in the opening moments, with Clov saying, "Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be finished." This same theme is later echoed by Hamm. However, what soon becomes clear is that things remain unfinished; actually finishing something represents death.
The theme of finishing ties in with the daily rituals and games. These serve as a means of affirming life for the various characters; Clov knows he is still not dead as long as Hamm demands that he look out of the windows. Nagg and Nell do the same thing: Nagg asks Nell to kiss him as a way of affirming that he and she are still in the same position they were in the day before. Thus when both Nell and Clov ask, "Why this farce, day after day?," we realize that they do nonetheless perform the ritual in order to satisfy their own need to affirm their existence.
It is interesting and important that Nell dies. Although Hamm asks Clov to kill him, he is unable perform the act. Thus Nell is the only character able to escape this world. Her last word is "desert", which has several interesting implications. Clov interprets this to mean that he should go into the desert. This brings to mind Christ venturing into the desert for forty days of temptation by the devil; perhaps Nell has given Clov a hint as to how he can achieve salvation. However, Clov does not listen well enough, and we soon learn that he did not understand everything that she said to him.
One of the greatest fears that all the characters share is that of being reincarnated or resurrected after death. Thus they make an effort to kill all potential procreators such as the flea: "But humanity might start from there all over again! Catch him, for the love of God!" This is taken to the extreme in the form of trying to kill the the rat and later trying to kill the little boy.
The emergence of the boy at the end has been interpreted by many critics as a symbol of resurrection. Whether or not this is accurate, his appearance does cause Hamm to say, "It's the end, Clov, we've come to the end. I don't need you any more." However, Clov's eventual departure is thrown into doubt at the very end when Clov does not actually leave the stage, but rather remains standing in the doorway dressed to leave.
One of the things that Beckett said about Endgame is that it is "Rather difficult and elliptic, mostly depending on the power of the text to claw." He also pointed out that it is less hopeful than Waiting for Godot. As one critic noted, Waiting for Godot is a despairing play about hope, Endgame is a despairing play about despair. A further difference is that the ambiguous "thing" replaces Godot in terms of tormenting the characters. Hamm asks, "Do you not think this has gone on long enough?...This...this...thing." Endgame stands out as one of Beckett's best plays, and it happened to also be Beckett's favorite play.