Saturday, December 4, 2010

How would you interpret Godot? What purpose does he serve in Beckett’s play?

A Mysterious Personage, Variously Interpreted
Godot is one of the riddles of Beckett’s play called Waiting for Godot. Godot is a mysterious personality, and it is nowhere made clear to us who or what he is, so that at the end of the play we are left guessing or speculating as to who he is and what exactly he represents. When Beckett was asked who or what was meant by Godot, his reply was equally puzzling. “If I knew,” he said, “I would have said so in the play.” Does this reply mean that Beckett himself was not aware of the meaning or significance of Godot? It is hard to believe that it was so. All that Beckett meant by his reply was that Godot should be interpreted in any way that suited the readers or spectators in the context of the play as a whole. The result is that critics have offered many interpretations of the identity and role of Godot.

Godot May Be God, Or A Mythical Human Being
Much ingenuity has been shown in establishing at least the origin for Godot’s name, so that some clue could be found to Beckett’s conscious or subconscious intention regarding his purpose in making the two tramps wait for Godot. It has been suggested that Godot is a weakened or diminutive form of the word “God”, with the added association of the Charlie Chaplin character of the little man, who is called Chariot in France and whose bowler hat is worn by all the four main characters in the play. It has also been noted that the French title of the play, En Attendant Godot, seems to contain an allusion to a book called Attente de Dieu, which would supply further evidence that “Godot” stands for “God”. Yet the name “Godot” may have something to do with the character called “Godeau” in Balzac’s play Mercadet. In Beckett’s play, as in Balzac’s, the arrival of Godot is the eagerly awaited event that will miraculously save the situation. According to these theories, then, the name “Godot” either suggests intervention of a supernatural agency, or stands for a mythical human being whose arrival is expected to change the situation. It is also possible that both these meanings are implied through the use of the name “Godot”.
Hope of Peace and Rest
To the two tramps, Godot represents peace, rest from waiting, a sense of having arrived in a place; that provides shelter and comfort. His coming means that they will no longer be tramps, homeless wanderers, but will have arrived home. They wait for him even though his coming is by no means certain.
The Tramps’ Need of Godot
Although Godot fails to appear in the play, he is as real a character as any of those whom we actually see. Godot very much exists for the tramps, and he directs the course of the evening for them. The tramps need Godot, to give a meaning to their universe: they depend on his arrival; so long as Godot does not come (and he does not come at all), everything that happens is only provisional. Indeed, Godot dominates the play even though he does not appear at all. Although he is, at best, a dimly remembered acquaintance, a general image of Godot does emerge in the play so that we are able to form at least a vague picture of him in our minds,
God of the Old and The New Testament
From the conversation of the tramps we learn that he lives in the capitalistic world of “family”, “agents”, “correspondents”, and a “bank account”. The tramps identify him with power and authority. To the boy who brings his message, Godot has a white beard and his life is occupied by his mastery over the sheep and the goats. Godot favours this boy who is a goat-herd but beats the boy’s brother who is a shepherd. The two tramps feel uneasy about Godot. When the time comes to meet him, they will have to approach him “on their hands and knees”, and if they stopped waiting for him he would punish them. Thus Godot has several traits in common with the image of God as depicted in the Old and the New Testament. (The name “Godot” is a bilingual pun on God and water, the two needs, of the hero in his isolation and spiritual thirst). Godot’s white beard reminds us of the image of the old-father aspect of Godot. His irrational preference for one of the two brothers recalls Jehovah’s treatment of Cain and Abel; so does his power to punish those who would dare to ignore him. The discrimination between the goat-herd and the shepherd is reminiscent of the Son of God as the ultimate judge; as a saviour for whom men wait and wait; he might well be meant as a cynical comment on the second coming of Christ; while his doing nothing might be a cynical reflection concerning, man’s forlorn state. (In answer to a question, the boy-messenger tells the tramps that Godot does “nothing”). Thus it would seem that Beckett wishes to draw our attention to the barrenness of a mind that expects and waits for the old activity of God or gods. Whereas, St. Matthew says: “And he shall seat the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left,” in the play it is the shepherd who is beaten and the goat-herd who is favoured. What the tramps expect from God is food and shelter, and goats are motherly, milk-providing animals.
Godot, an Empty Promise in a Meaningless Life
We hear that, once, Vladimir and Estragon had seen Godot. But they do not remember him quite clearly, and the vague promises he gave them are treated by them with a light-heartedness born of doubt. In fact, it seems to them as if God, Godot and Pozzo were sometimes merging into one blurred picture. When, in Act II, they talk of God, Pozzo appears and is mistaken by Estragon for Godot. Godot is explicitly vague, merely an empty promise, corresponding to luke-warm piety and absence of suffering in the tramps. Waiting for Godot has become a habit with them, a habit which is an adaptation to the meaninglessness of life.
Keeping His Dependants Unconscious
Godot’s function in the play seems to be to keep his dependants unconscious. His boy-messenger, for instance, does not have much of an awareness or knowledge: he does not know whether he is unhappy or not; he does not know why Godot is kinder to him than to his brother; he is not certain whether Godot’s beard is white; he even fails to recognise the tramps he has seen on the previous day. The uncertainty and unreliability with which Godot surrounds himself reveal him as highly ambivalent. The unconsciousness and ambivalence appear in his promise to rescue the tramps and in his preventing them from becoming conscious.
Godot’s Ambiguity
Godot is surely ambiguous. As a farmer who promised food and shelter, he is obviously of the earth. As one who reminds us of the God of the Old and the New Testament, he seems to rule from above. Furthermore, he beats the guardian of the sheep which are gentle and submissive creatures, and prefers the guardian of the goats which are wayward and self willed animals; and yet he obviously expects unconditional patience and obedience from those who depend upon him and prevents their becoming aware of their own centre. It is quite possible, then, that Beckett in this play leads us into a deep regression from all civilised tradition; he leads us into a stage in which consciousness sinks back into an earlier state of its development.
Other Interpretations of Godot
The theory that Godot symbolises God has found a wide acceptance. But other interpretations have been offered too. It has been suggested that Godot is the earthly ideal of a better social order. It has also been suggested that Godot is death and that the tramps will hang themselves on the next day. Another view is that Godot represents silence: the tramps have to speak while waiting for it in order to have the right to be still at last. Or Godot may be the inaccessible self that Beckett pursues through all his work, always with the ultimate hope that “This time, perhaps at last it will be I.” Several critics advise us not to bother too much to know who or what Godot is. This advice is based on the view that the play is not about “Godot” but about “waiting”. Now it is true that the play is about “waiting”, but one naturally asks waiting for what? If the tramps are waiting for Godot, we should know what or who Godot is, especially because Godot seems to be a descriptive name. One of the critics, wishing to emphasise the foolishness of trying to identify Godot too closely said: “Godot is that character for whom two tramps are waiting at the edge of a road, and who does not come.” Perhaps Godot means only something for which one waits vainly, some promise that remains unfulfilled, some development that does not occur, some hope that does not materialise. In other words, waiting for Godot means waiting for something to turn up which does not really turn up.

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