Topic 5: Theatre as a Channel for Religion


According to Zarilli, religion emerged as an engine to maintain social, civic, and cosmic cohesion. Cultural performances were at the forefront of the earliest civilizations, from the Upper and Lower Kingdoms of Ancient Egypt, Greece, South America, Persia and Europe. While the advent of writing and introduction of new technologies may have shaped the production of drama, it still sought to ‘provide distinctive ways of encountering myths, epics, or narratives’ (Zarrilli, 52). Religious festivals were accompanied with dramatic productions served to enhance communal relationship, honor appropriate figures, communicate with the divine, and celebrate historical moments. The theme of good vs. evil, featuring the battle of Gods having access to supernatural abilities, is consistent throughout the history of religious performances. Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire in 312 C.E paved the way for works preaching the “Word of God”.


Hrotsvitha was a noble member of the all-female Abbey of Gandersheim, in Saxony. Some of writings included six plays, based of Terence, a Roman playwright. While her works were not necessarily designed for theatre performance, she was one of the first writers to blend elements of comedy with religion. She based her works upon the legends of the saints, aiming to glorify religion in its most supreme and exceptional efforts. This phenomenon is exemplified in Dulcitius. Even though the play was probably intended for Hrotsvitha’s sisters’ reading in the convent, its elements of wit, comedy, tragedy, and religious manifestations make it enjoyable and interesting for peasant to serf to monarch.


In the play, general Dulcitius is motivated by evil desires to rape three young maiden named Chionia, Agape, and Irena. Supernatural forces then posses him and Dulcitius hallucinates, convinced that scalding pots and pans are the three ladies he soughts. He then burns from head to toe. He then orders Sisinnius, the general’s right-hand to perform the killing of the three maiden but supernatural forces take hold of him as well as he becomes delusional. Eventually, however, he succeeds in killing the 3 girls, which serve as a sacrifice to the Holy Spirit.


Hrotsvitha wrote Dulcitius to honor the strength and presence of God. When the general becomes burnt, even his soldiers believe he is the Devil. Their loyalty for him is all but destroyed when they notice him covered in black soot: “The voice is our master’s voice, but the face is a devil’s. Come, let’s take to our heels! This devil means us no good” (Hrotsvitha). The soldiers are not willing to question what they believe is an act of God, even when it comes to obeying their master in commander. God acting in almighty ways to save the three girls is evidenced when the flames, that were originally intended to burn them, ends up saving them by retaliating the act against the general. In the Bible, flames are regarded as a sacred manifestation and they may a symbol of God himself in Dulcitius to save those that are faithful in him. Hrotsvitha wrote about the mysterious strength of the Lord, trying to spread the ‘Word of God’ by using supernatural powers to gain followers of the religion.


The printing revolution pushed Europe from the medieval age into modernity. It gave way to the Enlightenment by accelerating learning and serving as an agent of freedom. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1439 permitted the vast spread of religion. With copies of the bible flowing throughout cities, people could learn and appreciate the lessons of God and interpret them themselves. However, this revolution put a dent into the power and prominence of the Catholic Church, as “the church had an exclusive monopoly on information, and enforced it efficiently and ruthlessly’ (Kovarik 21). The church sought to control the availability of written texts by issuing the First Index of Prohibited Books in 1559. This censorship only fueled forward thinking attitudes by individuals like John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau, pushing for freedom. Revolutions arose throughout Europe and even North America for people to obtain their freedoms.


With regards to Dulcitius, the text was written prior to the invention of the printing press. Considering Hrotsvitha’s intentions for writing it, though, it would be surprising if it were published as a mass-scale work if she did have access to such a printer. The work was intended for her sisters in the convent and wasn’t meant to be a large production. If Dulcitius were to enter common households, it would have been another individual, seeking a profitable opportunity, responsible for its widespread and not Hrotsvitha. While the work clearly has some religious elements to it, it also serves as a piece of entertainment and comedy and not particularly for the spread of learning either. Hrotsvitha probably had no intentions of the work reaching mass publication and that would not have changed regardless of the time period in which she lived. Much like the printing press, Dulcitius was revolutionary in its own right. It was one of the first works to combine religion and comedy, featuring witty situations and symbols, aiming to spread the ‘Word of God”.





-What were Hrotsvitha’s intentions with Dulcitius? Was she trying to reach a larger segment of the population than her sisters in the convent? Would the story be different if she had access to the printing press?


-How did Gutenberg’s printing press change the way in which religious performances were carried out as depicted by Zarrilli? Did people follow their religious beliefs more independently as a result of their new access to texts?


-Why did it take so long for comedy and religion to intertwine in Theatre? Had it always been some combination of religion and tragedy up until Hrotsvitha? What caused this change?

Topic 5: Religious Persecution and Censorship of the Press

Hrotsvit’s Dulcitius and the effect of the printing press on various forms of publications, discussed by Kovarik, both highlight the struggle of promoting or believing in an idea that conflicts with the dominant notion of the time. The religious persecution faced by the three female characters in the play mirrors the censorship of the press that writers during the middle ages and beyond had to deal with.

Much like the object of many newspapers is not to simply convey completely unbiased, objective information to its readers, Hrotsvit is trying to “promote images of female virtue and chastity” though her play ( Norton 215). Hrotsvit was very comfortable with advanced Latin rhetorical structures, including stichomythia. This practice of using alternating lines of a dialogue to dramatize a dispute can be seen multiple times throughout the play (Norton 216). A notable example is the conversation between Dulcitius and the Soldiers when discussing the three captured virgins (Hrotsvit 219).

Soldiers- Yes, they are perfectly lovely.

Dulcitius- I am captivated by their beauty.

Soldiers- That is understandable.

Dulcitius- To draw them to my heart, I am eager.

Soldiers- Your success will be meager.

Dulcitius- Why?

Soldiers- Because they are firm in faith.

Dulcitius- What if I sway them by flattery?

Soldiers- They will despise it utterly.

This exchange highlights the virgins’ steadfast belief in chastity and virtue that Hrotsvit is trying to convey. Diocletian wants to have the three virgins married to prominent men of his court. Agape speaks for all of them by replying that they should not bother planning any weddings because they “cannot be compelled under any duress to betray Christ’s holy name, which we must confess, nor to stain our virginity” (Hrotsvit 218). Dulcitius still believes that he will be able to satisfy himself “in their longed-for embrace” (Hrotsvit 219). Dulcitius mistakenly embraces the pots and the pans for the three virgins, and covers himself soot. While the three virgins look upon Dulcitius and his soot covered face, Agape observes, “it is only right that he should appear in body the way he is in his mind: possessed by the Devil” (Hrotsvit 220). Dulcitius’s new appearance renders him unrecognizable to his soldiers and guards. His wife and Diocletian recognize the humiliation these Christians have caused him and Diocletian orders Sissinus to kill them. The lack of bodily harm to Agape and Chionia despite their death from being burned alive, and Hirena’s strength in the face of her impending death are how Hrotsvit shows the power of faith and that those who remain strong in their beliefs will be protected. Hrotsvit is showing that even though Agape, Chionia, and Hirena may have suffered on earth they, in fact, are the ones who will experience salvation.

One of the aspects of this play that I thought was interesting was that it delivers the same effect of some of the longer plays we have read in fewer pages. Every scene is very important and after each scene the play seamlessly shifts ahead to another important scene. Similar to Mr. Burns where Anne Washburn is trying to show the effect of a nuclear apocalypse on a play about the Simpsons, Hrotsvit is trying to show the effect of the power of faith and virtue on three women in the face of torture and death. Both authors, especially Hrotsvit, are first and foremost concerned with getting their messages across.

Similar to the persecution faced by the three Christian virgins in Dulcitius, early printers and writers who spread controversial ideas were persecuted and censored by the government and ironically, the Catholic church. The printing press was one of the most important inventions of our time because it provided us with the ability to connect to each other in a much faster way. Printing was very dangerous to the church because as bibles were translated to languages other than Latin, lay people could read and interpret the bible themselves (Kovarik 21). Reformers, most notably Martin Luther, known for his 95 Theses, could get their ideas out to the public like never before. The newfound ability to spread accessible information to a large group of people at a low cost, threatened the power the church had as the all knowing presence in a world of uninformed people.The religious reformation was spread rapidly across Europe thanks to the press. There was a counter reformation levied by the Catholic Church, in which people were “executed simply for owning the wrong version of the bible” (Kovarik 22). Since the church saw the clear connection between books and other forms of media and the spread of anti-Catholic ideas, the church along with the state had to approve all publications in Catholic countries (Kovarik 29). The church wanted to limit the influence of books and later, newspapers, on Catholics, much like the Romans wanted to limit the influence of Christianity on Roman citizens. Early Christians, such as the three virgins from the play were punished for not conforming to the beliefs of the Romans, and early American colonists who critiqued the government were imprisoned and publications such as Publick Occurrences were shut down (Kovarik 32). The printing press helped give a voice to the oppressed and outnumbered. Just as the three Christian virgins stood strong in their beliefs in the face of the mighty Romans, American colonists spread their ideas and sentiments in the face of a harsh government. Hrotsvit showed that those who remain unwavering in faith were awarded, and Kovarik showed that those who used the power of the written word to spread the ideas they believed in, were eventually awarded as well.

Who are the two figures with Hirena at the end of the play? Who or what do they represent?

How is social media and the internet revolutionizing the way information is spread around the world?

Thinking back to the time when we tried to update The Importance of Being Earnest to appeal to today’s audiences, how could we do the same with Dulcitius?

Brian Pushie

Topic #5: Origins of Theater: Religion as Performance

According to Zarrilli, early theater stemmed from religious festivals and rituals, “choreographed performances” dedicated to the gods (Zarrilli 52). Drama was used in a competitive fashion, as well as a way to honor deities, edify citizens, and commemorate history. With the rise of democracy in Ancient Greece, theater only popularized, as citizens began to finance choruses and productions at annual festivals. Across cultures, both internationally and generationally, religion seemed inherently tied to performance and the rise of theater. Mesoamerican performances always involved religious elements, and their conquerors, the Spanish, later used religious performance to suppress and instruct them. The development of Christianity stemmed from performance, as Mass itself became a commemorative sort of theater. Drama was used to communicate biblical and moral ideals to those unable to read or without access to texts. As Kovarik claims, the printing press gave rise to the proliferation of texts in the Middle Ages, yet prior to the printing revolution, access to cheap and accurate text was difficult.

Theater continued to grow with the help of municipal communities, but its ties to religion remained evident, particularly with later “morality plays” (Zarrilli 78). Theater, Zarrilli claims, was meant to “incorporate large numbers of people in an activity with a common purpose,” not unlike performances today (Zarrilli 85). As we have discussed, theater differs from media such as television in its interactive rapport between audience and actors. The audience influences the production in ways impossible if separated by a medium.

Hrotsvit’s play, “Dulcitius,” is a prime example of the use of theater to promote religion. Though it is unclear if her text was a closet drama, never staged and relatively unknown, the clear Christian values of virginity, purity (in women), and loyalty to God are still present. The dialogue of the three sisters, Agape, Hirena, and Chionia, appears strangely similar to the call and response developed in church Masses. The sisters speak eloquently, almost as though they are reading directly from a bible. They are unaffected by the violent threats against them, instead citing Christ and God as their saviors, and the afterlife as their heaven. The play brings gender roles into question, by declaring the women more chaste and honorable, and the men licentious and foolish. As plays were used to communicate religion to new members or those conquered, Hrotsvit’s play makes sense in that it seems didactic towards those of pagan faith.

I believe discussing religion and performance together is necessary to understand the origins of theater. Personally, I was surprised to discover that theater so strongly resides in religion, and that its development was used mainly to propagate religion even before the printing press. The notion of religion as a sort of choreography, staged instead of naturally arising out of faith, seems fascinating, and I believe it is something worth discussing in class, particularly now where personal performance on social media is prevalent.



Particularly with Restoration Theater, religion and drama began to oppose one another. Instead of teaching moral lessons, theater explored more scandalous subjects of harlotry, gambling, and alcohol, mostly in comedic manors. I wonder how theater was able to grow and detach itself from religion enough to even oppose it, when its roots are so interconnected?

Zarilli claims that Aristotle wrote: “mimesis-direct imitation of reality-was theatre’s goal” (Zarilli 65). As theater later morphed into varying levels of realism, symbolism, and more stylized representations, I wonder how its purpose has changed? How has theater developed to suit the time in which it exists, particularly when realism is not the focus? Thinking especially to “Waiting for Godot,” and the impact of WWII on minimalism and symbolism.

I wonder how many of our historic institutions (religion, government, etc.) are based in performance. Particularly now that our presidential election has turned into a sort of reality television, I wonder if performance reduces the importance of various pillars of our society, or if in fact these pillars are just rooted in theater. Does that make them less legitimate or real?

Similarly, Zarilli discusses Christian Mass as a performance in itself. I wonder about the role religion plays today in a performance setting rather than simply in one’s private faith. With the infiltration of social media allowing anything to become public, as well as society’s fascination with broadcasting themselves as a sort of performance, I wonder if religion has remained performative despite plays becoming more secular? Does this mean customs such as religion have become more surface rather than sincere, or has performance always been an aspect of strong faith?

I am generally surprised that Hrotsvit’s play presented women with greater moral quality than men, for this seems quite controversial. From Zarrilli’s reading, plays did often inspire controversy, yet I wonder the reaction to women playwrights in general, as well as plays that, in a way, reversed gender roles?

Topic 5: Religion Depicted in Theater

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the influence of theater was somewhat limited. The Christian Church opposed organized theater in this era, which caused theater to be largely absent from daily life. Church authorities declared theater to be obscene and dangerous to audiences. This did not prevent the proliferation of ritualistic ceremonies in the medieval period, however: the growth of guilds and medieval towns facilitated the expansion of theatrical performances. Hrotsvit of Gandersheim, a canoness in a tenth-century abbey in northern Germany, created some of the first significant dramas in the history of Western literature. Classical authors Virgil, Ovid, and Terence influenced Hrotsvit’s Christian dramas. Scholars marvel at Hrotsvit’s knowledge of theology and classical literature; few could believe that a woman possessed such expansive and qualitative knowledge. Interestingly, Hrotsvit’s plays may never have been intended for live performance; instead, the plays may have been intended for reading and reflection (Zarrilli p. 72). Hrotsvit’s play Dulcitius has had arguably the most significant implications in presenting alternative views to traditional Christian axioms.


In Dulcitius, Hrotsvit explores classical notions of Christian faith, as well as the pious dynamic among men and women. In the play, Dulcitius (a Roman governor), Diocletian (a Roman emperor) and Sissinus (a Roman count) attempt to forcefully coerce three virgin women (Agape, Chionia, and Hirena) to renounce their devotion to Christ and the Christian faith. The men torture the women with imprisonment and attempted public exposure. Despite their efforts, the men cannot convince the women to reject Christianity. Agape and Chionia are burned at the stake, but their bodies remain unharmed and their souls rise to heaven, symbolizing their unyielding faith. Hirena attempts an escape, but she too is killed while reaching toward heaven.


The men in this drama are presented as weak, incompetent and unfaithful. Dulcitius mistakenly embraces pots and pans, which leaves his face blackened by soot. The women remark that “it is only right that he should appear in body the way he is in his mind: possessed by the Devil” (Norton 220). In addition, Diocletian ridicules the women for following the “useless, newfangled ways of the Christian superstition” (Norton 218). Moreover, the men are unable to flatter the women or use force to cause their renunciation. The women, on the other hand, are portrayed as relentlessly strong and faithful. They refuse to give in to persuasion and torture. As a result, Hrotsvit challenges the image of women as the weaker sex, as well as their connection to Eve, who symbolizes women as prone to disobedience and temptation in ‘The Fall of Man.’


Kovarik articulates the widespread implications of the printing revolution in his first chapter. Printing led to increased dialogue and confrontation among literate thinkers. Printing allowed standard knowledge to be disseminated easily, and to be developed by others around the world. Gutenburg’s introduction of moveable type printing led to the Bible being translated into vernacular languages. Christian fundamentalists interpreted this innovation as an attack on the Christian religion, as it allowed ‘ordinary’ people and reformers to interpret the Bible for themselves. This facilitated the Protestant Reformation, as well as other alternative perceptions of the Christian faith.


In many ways, the advent of printing had a similar effect as Hrotsvit’s depiction of women. Both challenged traditional biblical notions (women in Hrotsvit’s case, original interpretations in printing’s case), and constituted radical changes in modes of thinking. Printing also challenged established political thought by circulating previously non-discussed ideas to large audiences. In many cases, if printing did not directly cause revolution, it most definitely played an important role (American/French Revolutions, for example). David Hume conceptualized printing freedom as a ‘cool’ form of media: “press freedom can not excite popular tumults or rebellions… A man reads a book or pamphlet alone coolly” (Kovarik p. 29). Theater, on the other hand, is a live spectacle, which could very well have elicited a strong, tangible reaction from audiences when radical ideas are shown. It would be interesting to investigate how audiences responded to Hrotsvit’s plays.



  • Does Hrotsvit’s depiction of women remind you of Ibsen’s portrayal of Nora in A Doll’s House? Where do we see radical concepts distributed today?
  • If Hrotsvit were trying to present a similar concept today, would she still elect to use theater as her outlet, or would she choose a different form of media?

– Connor Rooney

Topic 4: Existentialism, Allegory, and Religion

Existentialism is the study of human existence and free will. Samuel Beckett clearly took a comical approach in understanding human existence in Waiting For Godot by using allegory. Allegory is often used in stories to exhibit a hidden message by using characters to represent people in reality and can be traced back to medieval plays such as Everyman, or modern movies such as Inside Out. Existentialism and allegory were mere apparatuses, for the big picture of Waiting for Godot was the symbolism of religion.
Samuel Beckett inquiries our existence as humans and our authority over our free will; multiple times throughout the play it seems as if the character don’t have any control over there own actions. For Example, in the last lines of the play Estragon and Vladimir decide to leave the tree, but don’t:

Estragon: Well, shall we go?
Vladimir: Yes, lets go.
They don’t move (lines 1075-1076)

The continuous repetition of Estragon and Vladimir’s lives is Beckett’s main argument for human’s not having free will. The two protagonists relive each day similarly to the next, and the predictability of their lives drives them to heavily consider suicide. For example, when Boy visits Vladimir and Estragon a second time to convey a message from Godot, Vladimir was able to predict what he was going to say:

Vladimir: You have a message from Mr. Godot.
Boy: Yes Sir.
Vladimir: He won’t come this evening.
Boy: No Sir.
Vladimir: But he’ll come tomorrow.
Boy: Yes Sir (lines 986-991)

Although, this is only our second time hearing from Boy, Bennett hints that Vladimir and Estragon have seen him multiple times already, but still decide to wait for Godot.
The characters in Waiting for Godot represent mankind in this play—this is called allegory. For Example:

Vladimir: …Let us not waste our time in idle discourse! (Pause. Vehemently.) Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not… (lines 638-643)

In this statement, Bennett asserts that the characters in his play exemplify mankind; therefore, he’s stressing that our control over our lives and actions is comparable to Estragon and Vladimir’s power of free will, which is minuscule.
The religious aspects of Waiting for Godot include my theory that Godot is a depiction of God. I believe Bennett is symbolizing religion because Godot never goes to meet Estragon and Vladimir at the tree, similar to Christians and Catholics waiting for the second coming of Jesus Christ. Godot is governing Estragon and Vladimir’s lives without him ever being seen, playing the role of God.


Does repetition occur in our everyday lives as humans?

Do we actually have control over our lives, or does this only apply to followers of God?

How are Estragon and Vladimir interchangeable to one another?

What does the tree symbolize?

Topic 4: Godot and existentialism

Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot is a play that is somewhat rooted in the absurd, but offers us an array of possible interpretations.  In the play, two characters, Estrogan and Vladimir spend two full days waiting for the namesake character of Mr. Godot.  While they wait, they are happened upon twice by the characters of Pozzo and his slave Lucky, as well as a young boy.  The play was composed in 1953 and first performed in 1955, right about at the time when the philosophical concepts of existentialism were gaining popularity following World War 2.

One of the holding theories of existentialism is that there is no objective or universal value in life, and that the individual must derive their own meaning from essentially “living” towards a goal or for a value which is only of relative importance.  Every character in Beckett’s play has their own goal which they are living towards in the play.  For Estrogan and Vladimir, they find their purpose in waiting for the character of Godot who never seems to arrive.  Throughout the play, they lament that as soon as Godot comes, everything will be alright, however, it is the waiting that gives their lives meaning.  They could just as easily leave as “Go-go” consistently points out, but every time, “Didi” will point out that they need to wait in the ritualistic dialogue of:
E:”Let’s go.”
V: “We can’t.”
V: “We’re waiting.”
E: “For who?”
V: “Godot!”
E: “Ah, yes!”
The play causes us to believe that this cycle has been going on for an indefinite amount of time as only Vladimir can seem to remember what has happened in days previous, and even so, his recollections seem fuzzy.

The character of Pozzo places his value in his slave Lucky.  Although when Pozzo is introduced he is intending to sell Lucky at the market, we find out that in fact Lucky and Pozzo are complimentary beings of a sort.  We find that Lucky had quite the intellect and was well versed in philosophical thought, dance, and recitation and taught Pozzo.  However, over time his mind had devolved to the commands of think, recite, and dance, all of which are incoherent and almost disgusting to Pozzo to watch, as the example of Lucky’s speech shows, with Pozzo silencing the slave by getting Estrogan to remove his hat.  The boy of the play is forever tasked with the deliverance of the message to the two men from Godot.

Because all of the characters have assigned these goals or values to their lives, we see that none of them are willing to part with them.  Estragon and Vladimir will wait day after day for Godot, Pozzo will make the trek to the market daily to sell Lucky, and the boy will deliver the message from Godot at the end of the evening.  The closest that any character comes is Go-go’s comment that they could hang themselves from the tree.  However, it seems that this too could simply be a part of the daily cycle, as we as spectators are left to speculate as to the length of time they have repeated this same day.  This is where the existentialism comes full circle as the school of thought suggests that humans are blocked by some mental or philosophical conundrum from finding the true meaning of the universe.  Go-go and Didi are mentally restricted by the possibility of Godot’s arrival and Pozzo is restricted by his philosophical ties to the relationship he shares with Lucky.

For discussion:

In what ways do we as humans manufacture these goals or values for ourselves?  In what ways do Estrogan and Vladimir turn this process of waiting into a life?  What role does ritual play in Waiting for Godot?



Topic #4. Symbolism and Humor in Life, Death and Time

In a clear departure from the realism of the late 19th century plays that we have studied the past two weeks, the lack of context in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot gives the play deeper meaning. The play opens with Vladimir and Estragon meeting on a deserted road. There is little theatrical scenery and no character background is given. This allows the audience to more easily draw connections between their own lives and the plight of Vladimir and Estragon, which is to be forever waiting until death, while trying to find meaning in life. To execute this commentary on a dark topic, Beckett employs a combination of humor and symbolism.

There are elements of humor throughout the play. Beckett even uses the subtitle A Tragicomedy in Two Acts. Early in the play Vladimir and Estragon contemplate committing suicide by hanging. They then enter into an exchange about the order they should be hung and Estragon humorously states about the tree on stage; “If it hangs you it’ll hang anything”(1, 254). Beckett clearly enjoys taking a serious topic, such as suicide, and then making fun of it to lighten the atmosphere. Vladimir and Estragon decided to wait to hang themselves until Godot arrives. They are waiting to find meaning in their lives which they see as Godot’s arrival. Later in the play Vladimir states, “We wait. We are bored to death, there’s no denying it”(2,679-680). Vladimir and Estragon are both figuratively and literally bored to death. They are bored waiting for Godot but also they are waiting to die. At this point Vladimir begins to make a realization that waiting will not help him find meaning and he convinces Estragon to help the now blind Pozzo.

Symbolism is important to Waiting for Godot. Zarelli describes the motivation of symbolism, “The symbolists urged viewers to look through the photo-like surface of appearances to discover more significant realities within – spiritual realities…”(Zarelli, 358). By focusing on death in the play, Beckett is urging the audience to examine their own relationship with life and death. The most important symbol of the in the play is the tree. The lack of any scenery besides the tree shows this symbol’s importance to the Waiting for Godot. The tree is a representation of life. Between the first and second acts the tree develops leaves, even though Vladimir and Estragon claim only one day has passed and have trouble remembering Pozzo. The sprouting of leaves is a step in a tree’s life cycle just as the passage of time is a step in the lives of Vladimir and Estragon. There will only be so many steps in the life cycle of the tree before it dies.

Given the inevitability of death, does Beckett make any conclusions on how one should live their life?

What role does the passage of time play in Waiting for Godot? Does the amount of time that has passed between Act 1 and Act 2 matter?

What are the connections between Vladimir and Estragon’s search for meaning in life and the general dissatisfaction with the world following the death and destruction World War II?

Topic 4: Death and Mortality

In Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Beckett seeks to explore the topic of death and mortality. Death is something that is not taken very seriously in the play as Vladimir and Estragon constantly undermine the severity and gravity of it. This is evidenced when they are trying to figure out what to do and Estragon suggests that they hang themselves, to which Vladimir replies “Hmm. It’d give us an erection,” and Estragon excitedly responds “An erection!…Let’s hang ourselves immediately!” (1.231-236). The characters lack an understanding of the consequences of death and do not seem to be able to fathom the seriousness that comes with it. Estragon talks about death further in the play when he says “the best thing to do would be to kill me, like the other,” and then when Vladimir asks “what other?” Estragon replies “billions of others,” causing Vladimir to say “to every man his little cross. Till he dies. And is forgotten” (2.136-140). While most people fear death, Estragon seems to find comfort in it, calling it the ‘best thing.’ Meanwhile, Vladimir seems to have a greater comprehension of the sadness associated with death as he sadly speaks of passing away and being forgotten. While Estragon appears to value life very little and is indifferent towards death, Vladimir seeks to find meaning in his own life.  This is apparent after Pozzo asks him for help, causing Vladimir to go into a short speech about action, saying

“let us not waste our time in idle discourse! Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it…” (2.638-644).

Vladimir becomes excited and assigns meaning to his life after being relied upon. He feels that Pozzo needs him, and that is suddenly enough to break the cyclical inaction that Beckett is known for. This suggests that while Estragon is largely unfazed by the prospect of death, Vladimir finds a meaning for his life when he feels needed by others.

In Zarrilli chapter 8, one of the topics is the 1900s move away from naturalism/realism and towards symbolism. Waiting for Godot is an excellent example of this as a mid-1900s play that is flooded with symbolism. One could speculate for hours or even days about the true meaning of the play and what Samuel Beckett’s message or intentions were. Theatre Histories describes symbolism as urging audiences to look past the surface and literal appearance of a play in order to “discover more significant realities within” (page 358). The exploration of death and mortality is a great example of this because Beckett orchestrates lines that can seem silly on the surface, but actually can be a message about more significant realities. An example of this is the erection line from earlier that is absurd but actually is a reflection of a carefree and potentially naive attitude regarding mortality.

Is there any evolution of character in Godot like we saw with Nora in A Doll’s House?

The obvious question the play brings up: What is the meaning of Godot and what can we make of its portrayal in the play?

Is there anything comparable to Waiting for Godot in modern media?

How could the play function differently or similarly with the addition of female characters?



The Avant-Garde: Samuel Beckett as a Dramatist and Symbolist

When he wrote Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett established himself on the forefront of the avant-garde. Becket did so by experimenting with avant-garde techniques such as dramatism and symbolism. The play itself seems to expose the concept of time in relation to the human experience.


The play focuses on Vladimir and Estragon as they wait and wait with no obvious progress towards their goal in meeting up with Godot. This seems like a rather boring topic for a play. However, Beckett is able to squeeze meaning out of the non-action of waiting. Zarilli makes it clear that dramatists often dramatize a “photogenic ‘slice of life,’ with all its banality, cynicism, sentimentality, and violence,” ( Zarilli, 357). This is exactly what Beckett is doing in Waiting for Godot. Becket dramatizes waiting in a way that exposes the concept of time and a pessimistic view on the cycle of life. Vladimir and Estragon continue to wait and wait but these periods seem to be separated into different stages. At first, they wait alone, and eventually they encounter Pozzo and Lucky. They then go back to waiting alone and eventually encounter the boy. I got the idea that Beckett was attempting to relate these stages of waiting to different stages of life. In doing this, Becket was essentially illustrating life as many different non-productive stages of waiting until ultimately ended with death. For example, a point when Vladimir and Estragon consider ending their wait is when Estragon suggests that they should “ hang ourselves immediately!” ( ACT I, 236). The two characters discussed hanging themselves as a means of ending their wait, further illustrating Beckett’s idea that life is a series of stages of pointless waiting that only ends with death.

Zarilli notes that playwrights often times “evoke a mood of mystery through multiple symbols,”( Zarilli, 358). Perhaps the most prominent symbol used by Beckett is the tree, which is where Vladimir and Estragon have been told to wait for Godot. Vladimir and Estragon continually wait at the tree, which in many ways represented life. In the second act, the tree grows leaves, which depicts the tree as being alive. However, the tree is an immovable object, which always seems to be waiting. This is how Becket uses the tree to further represent life as continual waiting. The tree is a natural representation of life because it seems to change and grow leaves, yet it is always still and continually waiting until it dies. This further parallels the situation of Vladimir and Estragon and strengthens Beckett’s comparison between life and waiting.




  1. Is Samuel Beckett’s portrayal of life as continual waiting until death accurate? Does his view here have any connection to his situation as a writer in post WWII Europe?
  2. Symbolism can often have multiple meanings, and different members of the audience may understand certain symbols differently. What other meanings does the symbol of the tree have?
  3. In what ways do we see dramatism and symbolism today? Do you see dramatism or symbolism on TV or on social media?

– Jordon Castonguay

Being a working woman/mother/wife


In light of our discussion on Tuesday, I thought this clip from Parks and Recreation is a good reply to the prejudice that working women face in their careers. With the use of humor this video shows how women are targeted for pursuing career goals, and that men and women are expected by the society to take different roles in their families.