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Life has different paths to embark on. At times it can seem as though we move at a constant pace never reaching our true capability, and other times we fly happily through our days one activity on top of the other, knowing our lives are exactly how we dreamed they could be. The actions we take to direct the course of our daily life can either lead to a life of happiness or one of meaninglessness. Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare distinguish the meaninglessness of life and how it can originate through absurd human actions.
Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, addresses two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, in a seemingly endless cycle of life where they are constantly waiting around for a person named Godot, who could potentially show up today, tomorrow, next week, or never. William Shakespeare’s King Lear augments the life of King Lear and his family, directing how King Lear’s absurd decisions ultimately destroy his familial bond as well as his life.
The absurd inhibits the growth of anything meaningful to develop within the character’s lives. The absurdism in both King Lear and Waiting for Godot, through Beckett’s construction of a cyclical storyline and Shakespeare’s use of King Lear’s decisions, addresses the meaninglessness of life, therefore, highlighting the eminence of human actions.
Beckett’s Waiting for Godot begins with Estragon sitting on the ground near a tree trying to take of his boot. The only other objects on stage are a tree and country road, addressing that the main focus should be on the characters actions.
Estragon’s beginning line of the play, as Beckett writes, states “there is nothing to be done” (Beckett 1.1). This beginning statement directs the plight of Vladimir and Estragon: how they always choose to remain in a cycle. Every time Vladimir states that they are waiting for Godot, it is directed less as a choice but almost as if it has been engrained in his mind out of habit. From multiple occurrences of waiting, they have developed a habit. As shown later in act one, the question of what they did yesterday arises (1.161). Neither Estragon nor Vladimir can remember for sure what they did the day before. Their inability to recall information that should still be fairly new provides evidence suggesting that they have been partaking in this cycle for much longer, therefore, showing the effect their decisions have had on the meaning of their lives.
The cycle of waiting and waiting for someone to come manifests the absurdities that cause their life to lose meaning. At the end of each act Beckett writes, “Estragon: Well, shall go? Vladimir: Yes, let’s go. [they do not move]” (1.1242-3). This choice to wait, results in the conclusion that the only way out of the cycle is by dying. Their remarks regarding death, particularly hanging themselves, are just as absurd, if not more, than the overall context of the story. They contemplate committing suicide in both acts but decide not to for fear that it will not work. Discussion of death is always tragic, but in Waiting for Godot Estragon and Vladimir look towards it as a way out, something they can casually discuss. Ultimately, they decide no action at all because they cannot be sure what it will bring. To talk of death in such a way only expresses the meaninglessness of their lives in a greater depth.
The meaninglessness of life in Waiting for Godot begins as the curtain rises and is further constructed throughout the story, whereas in King Lear the shift from sensibility to absurdity is nothing less than the result of wrong doings. Shakespeare begins King Lear with Lear’s discussion amongst his daughters to divide up the kingdom between them. To do so, Lear asks them to explain how much they love him. Lear’s decision to divide the kingdom, is ultimately the first decision that steers him from senselessness. The lines spoken by Goneril and Regan consist of meaningless flattery. The loving statements presented by Goneril and Regan mean nothing but power to them, resulting in the mistaken division of the land between two of Lear’s daughters and the banishment of the third, Cordelia. From this decision forward, Lear descends into madness. Shakespeare writes, “O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! I would not be mad. Keep me in temper, I would not be mad” (Shakespeare 1.5.43-45). King Lear tries to fight his madness, but he knows that the events set into motion will not allow this. Lear is powerless to stop the chaos he has caused by his absurd decisions, and knowing he cannot change his decisions pushes him further into a life without meaning.
Shakespeare uses King Lear’s madness to show absurdity and how life can lose meaning. In multiple conversations between Lear and other characters, Shakespeare shows Lear’s inability to properly conduct a conversation without absurdity. A section of the conversation between Lear and Edgar reads, “Look, look a mouse: peace, peace, this piece of toasted cheese will do’t” (4.6.88-9). As in Waiting for Godot where many of the conversations while they wait are absurd, as Lear descends into madness the words constructed for him by Shakespeare are also absurd. After the death of his daughters, specifically Cordelia, King Lear finally reaches the conclusion that life is meaningless and that he has nothing left for himself. Shakespeare writes the following lines for King Lear, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life and thou no breathe at all?” (5.3.304). Lear proposes the question as to why certain things even have life if one specific person cannot live. Lear dies thereafter, showing that he has escaped this life that has become meaningless. Unlike King Lear, the characters in Waiting for Godot never reach a traumatic moment that allows them to shed light on life’s meaninglessness, but instead remain stuck in their constant cycle.
Both Waiting for Godot and King Lear address absurdity and the meaninglessness of life. Absurdity in Waiting for Godot is shown throughout the work, but in King Lear, Shakespeare gradually develops absurdity. Estragon, Vladimir, and King Lear are all characters whose decisions have ultimately resulted in their lives having nothing to show and nothing to live for. The results of their decisions convey the importance of human actions. Every day we are forced to make decisions. These decisions can lead to happiness or a life that is less meaningful than expected. Vladimir and Estragon refuse to leave the tree due to the fear of missing Godot. They believe Godot will bring them safety, as King Lear believes splitting his kingdom up will do, but, unfortunately, they become caught in a cyclical web. Shakespeare and Beckett both use absurdity to show the meaninglessness life can have, and the impact it has on someone.
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