A New-Historicism and Reader-Response Exploration of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot"

Academic Paper, 2021

14 Pages, Grade: 2.5

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Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot occupies a reverend domain in literary history for reasons critics are quick to mention when the need arises. From its first premiere in 1953 to this current day, the text is still being highly reputed. The intention here is to attempt an investigation for such hallowed disposition in the oeuvre of literature through the application of New-Historicism and Reader-response criticsms. The research motivation stems from the interest in noting how Beckett is able to encode the prevailing manners of the Modernist literary era. Beyond this, the objective of generating subjective meaning through text-reader transaction adds to the sympathy of this study in that, it is the intention here to present the features that qualify the text as an Absurdist play.

Keywords: Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, New-Historicism, Reader-response, Modernist Play, Absurd Drama


Among all the works of Samuel Beckett, his play, Waiting for Godot, enjoys huge attention right from its foremost premiere in 1953 to this present day. Indeed, what accounts for this monumental relevance is, arguably, because the play has been able to preserve history; it has been able to serve as a conduit through which the manners, attitudes and consciousness of its time can be revisited. Upon this curve, the submission of Hippolyte Taine becomes valid. In his celebrated text, titled, History of English Literature, Taine unequivocally quips that "literature is no mere individual play of imagination, the isolated caprice of an excited brain but a transcript of contemporary manners, a manifestation of a certain kind of mind (1). What assumes the cardinal focus here is the fact that Taine attempts to emphasise that literature is entrusted with a reflection function. Thus, it becomes almost impossible to separate literature from the existential life lived around it. Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot encapsulates within it, the prevailing temperament of the era it seeks to reflect. Having established this premise, the goal of attempting to merge New-Historicism and Reader-response literary theories is not just predicated on the transient value of aesthetics but to mediate as a conerstone of historic-pedagogic curative function. Through New-Historicism, there is an attempt to investigate the formulaic approach in which Beckett adopts in encoding the characterising features of the modern drama era. In addition to this, critiquing the text from a Reader-response perspective, provides one with the avenue to begin to see the promises it keeps with the Absurdist tradition.


Basically, New-Historicism is a theory that seeks to generate meaning in a text by situating it within the context of the prevailing ideas and social assumptions of the historical era that births it. Unlike the traditional Historicist, the New Historicist are not particularly interested in noting down actuality of events or considering accurate dates but seek to understand literature from a historic perspective of context. The reality of ‘context’ becomes the critical methodology that the New Historicists concern themselves with. To consolidate Nyauma Mokaya in "New Historicism Theory" avers that:

Led by Greenblatt, the New Historicists view history as not just an account of events that took place in the past but rather an intricate description of human reality which is regarded as a yenet by the society in question. While a literary work may or may not tell is about the factual aspects of the world for which they emerge, they will tell us about the prevailing ways of thinking at that particular time (1).

In echoing Mokaya's submission, Tajani Sharma opines that a literary work “should be considered a product of its time, place and circumstances of its composition rather than an isolated creation of a genius (2). It becomes practically inconceivable among the new historicists to divorce literature from the external contextual intervening variables.

New-Historicism as a theory has been the product of the research efforts and academic contributions of the foremost new historicists such as: Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Montrose and Jonathan Goldberg. These critics revolted against the ideas of the old historicists who viewed the text as an autonomous entity. For them, people cannot be divorced from their commitment to the politics and cultural system that defines them. Therefore, their activities and interactions with their daily living (both political and cultural) has the capacity to uncover their belief system that becomes an analytical material for the new historicists. William Mukesh in "New Historicism and Literary Studies" contends that in rejecting the theory and methodology of New Critics, New Historicists divert their attention “from closed system perpetuating fixed meanings to open systems creating significance” (117). For Mukesh, the significance of a text originates from its capacity to mirror the values and culture prevalent in its time. For him, until this is adequately met them significance will lost its place in the identity of literature.

New Historicists seem to have their foundation upon the tenets of Poststructuralism in that it beliefs that meanings or outcomes are only a system of signifiers and that the destination of that signifier, it becomes the signified pointing to yet another meaning. Consequently, they believe that the place of intertextuality is a critical aspect of the theory. To this, Mokaya affirms:

New Historicists further assert that interconnectedness of literary text with the non-literary ones signifying that a literary work is not a product of a single author, but of its relationship to other texts which are extra-literal. Since literature cannot be ‘timeless’, that is, it is located within a historical period, the systems of power present during the period in which the text emerges are reflected and reinforced in both literary and cultural texts. The structure of analysis of a literary text as far as New Historicism is concerned lays equal importance to both literary and non-literary text of the same period of which both are ‘allowed to work as sources of information and interrogation with each other’

The foregoing goes to establish that the doctrine of textuality is a dominant factor that drives the literary theory.


Just like New-Historicism, Reader-response theory attempts to generate meaning form extraneous factours . However, for the Reader-response, in the generating of meaning, the reader plays a significant role. The theory informs that a text is meaningful only when a reader ascribe meaning to it. For the critics of this school of thought, the absence of the reader of a text is coterminous with the death of such a text. Thus, Reader-response theory is based on an effort to illuminate the relationship between the reader and the text. Emphasising on this transactional interaction between a text and a reader, Anson Yang in "Science Fiction in the EFL" class educates that the dominant idea of the theory is that “literary texts frequently contain social dilemmas and conflicts. Such reading demands personal responses from readers (50). Therefore, a text can only be what the reader says it is. To corroborate the outlined views, Lois Tyson in Critical Theory : A User-Friendly Guide remarks “the role of the reader cannot be omitted from the understanding of literature and readers do not passively consume the meaning presented to them by an objective literary text; rather they actively make the meaning they find in literature” (170).

The theory present two approaches I'm the generation of meaning, namely: the Aesthetic and Efferent modes. The interest of the aesthetics reader rests with associating meaning with the qualities of feelings, ideas, situation, scenes, personalities and emotions that are called forth and participates in the tensions,conflicts and resolutions of the images that they unfold . For the Efferent reader, the interest lies with clear answer about the meaning of a text. In this case, the reader does not yield to the aforementioned aesthetic tropes , rather through several arrays of signifiers, the critic is able to arrive at a meaning which is largely the product of personal experience of the text. In both approaches, notwithstanding, what seems constant is that the place of the reader is very pivotal to the generation of meaning. This is why Louise Rosenblatt in The Reader, The Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work argues that the reader is “not seen as a separate entity, acting upon the environment, nor the environment acting on the organism, but both parties acting as a total event” (98). What this suggest is that the symbiosis of the text and the reader must occur for meaning to have expression. Beyond the approaches, there are concepts of the theory that aid the user I'm the generation of meaning in a text. These concepts are: Transactional reader-response; Affective stylistics; Subjective reader-response; psychological reader-response and social reader-response. Among the listed, what becomes important to this study is the Transactional concept which was propunded by Louise Rosenblatt and supported by Wolfgang Iser. The highpoint of this concept is that there is a transaction between the text's inferred meaning and the individual interpretation by the reader which is influenced by the reader's personal emotions and knowledge.

In the exploration of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the theories of New-Historicism and Reader-response criticsms shall be adopted. The adoption here emerges with a need to generate meaning for the text from its context. Given that, while the Transactional concept initiates an avenue for for personal knowledge to intervene, the intervention of this knowledge will predominantly be based around the historical factors that construct the meaning of the text. Also, knowledge based on the interpretive community of the text, that is, an appeal to textuality shall also account for the meaning generated here.


The text, Waiting for Godot, has been explored by critics through justifiable literary prismatic lens, enabling the possibility of a collection of several critical views/appreciation. However, literature is replete with explorations chronicling the coterminous relationship between the text and the subgenre, Theatre of Absurd; the rationale that accounts for such corpulent investigation and reinvestigation originate with its appeal to the sufficient deployment of elements that characterise Absurd plays. Given this knowledge and research inquest, the onus is upon us to provide detailed exegesis within the framework of history in the furtherance of this area of study..

In their well researched paper entitled, "Universality of Waiting for Godot", Khalid Oudah and Ali Khalaf asset that Waiting for Godot is “not about experiences, but[...] experience [it]self” (39). The inference here is that the scholars resolutely believe that Beckett's magnum opus became a celebrated work because it was able to hoist its raw material from the prevailing Modernist consciousness of its time. They further substantiate their point by admitting that “though the audience was already introduced to the modern modes of theater prior Beckett's ‘Waiting for Godot’, the play had the most profound and wide-ranging effect on them” (39). Admittedly, the Absurd drama does not gain its critical lexicon with the publication of Beckett's text, rather the formation of the name is incontestably attributed to Martin Esslin's The Theatre of Absurd (1961). Albert Camus distinguished paper, "The Myth of Sisyphus" also ensures the literary recognition of Beckett's precursory Absurdist text. Other advancers of this tradition include, Arthur Adamov, Jean Ganet, Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco and a host of many others. Even then, Beckett seems more recognised because he charted this territory and orchestrated the architecture of this literary corpus. In the dissertation titled, "The Absurd and Irony in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Eugene Ionesco's The Lesson", Boukeffa Dhiyaeddine defined “Absurdism [a]s a philosophy which is structured upon the belief that human beings exist in an illogical universe” (9). They add that “in an absurd world, minds seek to find meaning in life and struggle through a series of obstacles, only to be faced by the inevitable truth that there is not any value or meaning” (9). This notion is validated by Oxford Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms as it captures that Absurdity is “often applied to the modern sense of human purposelessness in a universe without meaning or value” (1). The question that this progression of literary intervention births is, how was this philosophy defined into the drama genre milieu? Supplying substantive response is coetaneous with detailing a cursory background information on the life of Samuel Beckett himself.

Born on April 13, 1906 to William Beckett and Maria Jones Roe, Samuel Barclays Beckett grew up in Foxrock of County Dublin in Ireland. Biographers have often maintained that Beckett lived an uneventful life which later found possible ventilation through Waiting for Godot. In 1997, Morris Dickstein published a biography of Beckett titled, An Outsider in His Own Life. In the text, the biographer details that, “externally Beckett's life was uneventful” and “with a sense of utter isolation”. Dickstein also acknowledges that Beckett lived a life of depression who was haunted by a feeling of absence with a preview of life as little more than a futile stay of execution, “a long day's dying”. Perhaps, what accounts for this world-view is the tragic situation in which the world was left in after the World Wars, which ultimately resulted in the Modernist agenda. The febrile uneasy marked the emergence of fear, hopelessness, meaninglessness, futility, sorrow, pain, angst, and uncertainty; it made people question everything, including challenging conventions - this became the narrative even in the literary oeuvre. On the heels of this, the Absurd play found a safe landing for canonization. Oudah and Khalaf register that “before Theatre of Absurd, the audiences expected a well-made and life-like play [...] but this theatre devastated all these expectations” (39); this becomes true of the Absurdist drama archetype, Waiting for Godot. In Beckett in Performance, J. Kalb maintains that in Waiting for Godot, the characters are unfamiliar and tramps who are eccentrically motivated. The dialogue is incoherent and meaningless. The play has no identifiable beginning, middle and an end, thus, it has no defined plot progression, ensuring its rebellion against conventional modes.

Waiting for Godot recounts the travails of two tramps who purposelessly wait under a barren tree for Godot who never comes. While they wait, they encounter two other absurd characters who do nothing to alleviate them of their predicament. Still in the waiting preoccupation, a boy brings a message from Godot saying he will arrive the following day. From the title of the text, there is already the confirmation of hint of an absurd anticipation, exploring the text suggests that this anticipation is futile and hopeless. Arguably, through this, Beckett aims to mirror a society in which humanity is trapped in the waiting monomania until “he dies [...] and is forgotten” (57). The situation of this frame drives us into the aspects of the existential society of the text. The text happens to be a product of two major World Wars: World War I - 1914-1918; World War II - 1934 - 1945. The double dose of such unexpected reckoning, led to a change in the way society was to be perceived. The text borrows its raw materials from this unprecedented events and the changes it orchestrated to fashion out its structure. unlike the texts of the Elizabethan theatre that identified with a hero or a tragic hero, perhaps, flawed; perhaps, made to undergo several hurdles in life before reaching his safe haven or, by fate, destined to pay the ultimate price in the currency of a tragedy. In this society in which the delicate balance of rationale has been distorted, the injection of this status becomes an ideal for Beckett, in that, Beckett does not identify with a hero even the actual labels of characters are vague. The reason for such conclusion is because the audience cannot tell who is the villian and the hero. In fact, that conventional infrastructure does not exist in Beckett's play. In the play, it is witnessed that rather than giving a clear-cut label of characters, Beckett promotes the importance of an anonymous character, a character that is never seen. Unarguably, the entire story is anchored on the waiting of this person that never shows up. This is indicative of the aberration of an order. The orderless creation and presentation of the text evidently hint on what has become of this society. This dramatist formulae mirrors a society that has lost its balance. Again, through this Absurd intervention, Beckett attempts to revolt against the receding dramatic traditions which is evidenced by an earlier mentioned point that the events made people rejected what they have come to internalized as truths. Therefore, creating this totally new theatrical piece, Beckett mirrors the prevailing manners that permeates over the chronological clime.

The absurdity in setting is also worth bringing to the fore. Unlike the conventional play where events take place is an identifiable and meaningful setting, here what is witnessed is an isolated, barren, alienated and meaningless setting. The play presents Vladimir and Estragon as occupants of the deserted road of a countryside, waiting under a leafless tree. What this presupposes is the abandonment that humanity is faced with. Notably, after the World Wars, people were forced to believe that God had abandoned humanity, and earnestly anticipated a Messiah. However, some completely doubted the existence of God. Perhaps, this appears to be the spectacle that Beckett attempts to portray. Indeed, in critically analysing this text, one needs to pay attention to its setting. Conventionally noting, settings of a particular drama are usually within an identifiable environment. For example, if we are to reference Shakespeare, it is noticed that some of the plays are actually in a court with a name. Here, there is no name or importance placed in setting. The event as it is told, takes place in an abandoned nameless roadside of a country. Therefore, apart from it lacking the vitality of name, it also goes to situate the condition which is a meaning extracted at a deeper level. At this deeper level of meaning, one can conjecture that the malady and utter destruction of the people of the world make destitutes out of people. Such destitution and displacement is what is hoisted up at the level of condition. The tramps do not have a house or at least a comfortable environment, rather, an abandoned road is where they seek refuge. The condition also is spoken of the tree. Symbolically, a tree is expected to flourish, especially the matured one that seems to be projected in the text but what is noticed here is an absurdity. The tree here manifests a living-dead tendency; it is living yet barren. At the beginning of the play, the tree is void of leaves and fruits. This goes on to emphasise the destruction that the events of the period brought upon nature. By merging the characters and this tree, Beckett makes claim that both man and nature are not exempted from this opportunity cost. The characters not finding shelter under the tree is indicative also of an uncomfortable condition. Arguably, through this, Beckett signifies that the events of the period has caused a disadvantaged dramatic change that has made everyone participants of an uncomfortable scene.

Absurdity also stretches through the characters. The characters are largely invalid. Again, unlike the conventional 18th century mode in which characters develop dynamically before the audience, here the characters remain exactly the way they were introduced. Vladimir and Estragon are offered as tramps and the play ended on that note without any possible resolution. The audience is not furnished with the buildup of character, neither is there a foreknowledge on the background of this characters. Evidently, it is safe to say that Beckett's characters happen suddenly and vanish abruptly on the audience; the audience is therefore left in a clueless state of knowing what the future holds in the text with regard to the appearance of characters. The consistency in the application of this modes reminds the audience of the clueless state that assaulted the time and the helplessness of the people. The existential society was clueless and the people helpless. Gradually, meaning and purpose become abated from the sociology of living. In the same manner in which the audience cannot fortell which character is to be introduced in the play or at worst, to intimate us with the organic growth of an introduced character, so also is the society in which know one seems to know what next will happen or where the economy will lead to.

Closely related to the foregoing is the meaninglessness in the establishment of time. Time which happens to be an inexorably conditioning in the traditional mode of dramaturgy is made a travesty of in the Absurd drama. For example, it is noticed that Vladimir and Estragon constantly argue over events of the previous day as they seem to lose touch with time. In addition, the barren tree that is introduced to the audience in Act one is seen sprouting few leaves in Act two without a proper correspondence with time. To add emphasising bearing to the situation, the black shoe Estragon pulls off becomes brown when they go back for it; Pozzo and Lucky that are healthy in Act one become blind and dumb respectively. The text delivers:

POZZO: I woke up one fine day as blind as Fortune [...]

VLADIMIR: And when was that?

POZZO: I don't know

VLADIMIR: But no later than yesterday

POZZO: Don't question me! The blind have no notion

of time [...] (85).

This constant rape of time mirrors the rejection of traditional rationaleand model. Indeed, time is an invaluable entity upon which events and conflicts in the text find expression. In this text, it is noticed that such supreme power is being spirited away from it. Time, indeed lost its essence. To draw a corollary between fact and fiction is to establish that just as time lost its regard in the text, so was the existential society fraught with a situation in which, as a result of their pathetic state, the people were disinterested with events that would have, hitherto, caught their regard. Their indifference to time is clearly notice in their disenchantment to the meaningfulness of life. This absurd aspect of presentation is critical to the text in the sense that it creatively documented the prevailing attitude of the time.

The tone and mood of the play consolidate each other and go to identify with uncertainty, venal indifference, pain and hopelessness. The tripartite markers are equally some of the conscious realities of the sorrowful Modernist era. The text notes Vladimir's condition as suffering from prostrate which equates to the problem faced by the human race. The text captures of Estragon “giving up again” (1; emphasis, mine) and renders of Vladimir “advancing with short, stiff strides, legs wide apart [...] he broods, musing on the struggle” (54). Even Vladimir himself admits that speaking of the problems of humanity, “it's too much for one man” while Estragon notes “the best thing would be to kill me[...]” (54).


The text, Waiting for Godot has been able to provide us with an accessory into history and an opportunity to generate a personal meaning for the text by observing some of the characteristics that elevate it as an Absurdist play. Through the critical theories of New-Historicism and Reader-response criticsms, the areas that are important to this research is brought to bare for exploration. The findings here that have undertaken such analytical adventure brings us to an understanding that the text privileges and encodes the prevailing manners of the Modernist literary era and that it captures within its infrastructure, the features that suggest an Absurdist tradition.

Works Cited

Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove, 2004.

Camus, Albert, and Justin O'Brien.“The Myth of Sisyphus”. Translated by Justin O'Brien. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1955. Web.

Cuddon, J.A. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. New York: Penguin Group, 1998.

Dickstein, Morris. An Outsider of His Own Life, 1997. https://www.nytimes.com/1997/08/03/books/an-outsider-in-his-own-life.html; accessed 11 February, 2021.

Dhiyaeddine Boukeffa, The Absurd and Irony in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Eugene Ionesco’s The Lesson. Dissertation of University of Oum El Bouaghi, 2018/2019.

Esslin, Martin. The Theater of the Absurd, Third edition.1982. Web.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Beckett; accessed 27th February, 2021.

https://www.enotes.com/homework-help/what-significant-historical-human-events-may-have-445697; accessed 27th February, 2021.

Kalb, J. Beckett in Performance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Mokaya, Nyauma. "New Historicism and Literary Studies". https://pdfcoffee.com/new-historicism-theory-pdf-free.html; accessed 27th February 2021.

Mukesh Williams. "New historicism and Literary Studies". Journal of General Studies. Vol. 27(1), February, 2003.

Oudah, Kalid and Ali Khalaf. Universality of Waiting for Godot. International Journal of Languages, Literature and Linguistics, Vol. 4(1): 39-44, March 2018. doi: 10.18178/ijlll.2018.4.1.147

Rosenblatt, Louise. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale, IL: Sothern Illinois University Press, 1978.

Taine, Hippolyte. History of English Literature. South Carolina: BiblioLife, 2008.

Tyson, Lois. Critical theory: A user-friendly guide, 2nd. ed. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Yang, Anson. Science fiction in the EFL class. Language, culture and curriculum, 15(1):50-60, 2002. http//dx.doi.org/10.1080/07908310208666632


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A New-Historicism and Reader-Response Exploration of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot"
University of Lagos
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Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot, New-Historicism, Reader-response, Modernist Play, Absurd Drama, Literature
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Nnadube Ejiogu (Author), 2021, A New-Historicism and Reader-Response Exploration of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1011235


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