Endgame is a one-act play for four characters by Samuel Beckett. It was originally written in French, entitled Fin de partie; as was his custom, it was translated into English by Beckett himself. Published in 1957, it is commonly considered, along with such works as Waiting for Godot, to be among Beckett's most important works.
Its protagonists are Hamm, an aged master, who is blind and can't stand up, and his servant Clov, who can't sit down. They exist in a tiny house by the sea, although the dialogues suggest that there is no exterior left - no sea, no sun, no clouds. The two characters, mutually dependent, have been fighting for years and continue to do so as the play goes on. Clov always wants to leave but never seems to be able. Also present are Hamm's parents Nagg and Nell, who live in rubbish bins. Hamm once ruled over peasants of some kind, and Clov complains that he had to survey Hamm's peasants on foot because he was denied access to a bicycle.
The English title is taken from the last part of a chess game, when there are very few pieces left. (The French title can be applied to games besides chess, and Beckett lamented the fact that there was no precise English equivalent). Beckett himself was known to be an avid player of the game, and the struggle of Hamm to accept the end can be compared to the refusal of amateur chess players to admit an inevitable defeat, though professional players usually resign after facing a major setback. Hamm perhaps represents a king with Clov as his last remaining pawn.
The literary critic Harold Bloom considers 'Hamm' to be an allusion to Hamlet and finds an intertext (transumptive litotes) within Hamm's line:
Bloom contends this is an intertext with Hamlet's famous 'To be or not to be' soliloquy, in which doubt prevents the character in Hamlet's revised version of The Mousetrap from taking decisive action, and Endgame is a play devoid of action, in Beckett's typical absurdist style.
It has also been suggested that Hamm also relates to 'ham actor' and Ham, son of Noah, while Clov is a truncated version of Clown, as well as suggesting cloven hof (devil) and glove (a distant echo of Hand and Glove, perhaps). Nagg suggests 'nagging' and the German 'Nagen' (to gnaw), while Nell recalls Dickens' Little Nell. (Theodor Adorno Trying to Understand Endgame). Equally Hamm could be short for Hammer and Clov be 'clove' (etymologically 'nail'), hammer and nail representing one aspect of their relationship.
Ruby Cohn, in her book Back to Beckett, writes that "Beckett's favorite line in the play is Hamm's deduction from Clov's observation that Nagg is crying: 'Then he's living.' But in Berlin he felt that the most important sentence is Nell's 'Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.' And he directed his play to show the fun of unhappiness."
The implication in the play is that the characters live in an unchanging, static state. Each day contains the actions and reactions of the day before, until each event takes on an almost ritualistic quality. It is made clear, through the text, that the characters have a past (most notably through Nagg and Nell who conjure up memories of tandem rides in the Ardennes). However, there is no indication that they may have a future. Even the death of Nell, which occurs towards the end of the play, is greeted with a lack of surprise that suggests it is an everyday event, with her being resurrected for the next day. The isolated setting, and the constant references to aspects of civilisation that no longer exist, have led many to suggest the play is post-nuclear. However, Beckett has always denied this.