Sitting on the side of a country road by a tree, Estragon tries repeatedly to pull off one of his boots. Vladimir enters and Estragon exasperatedly tells him there's "nothing to be done." Vladimir agrees and asks Estragon where he spent the last night. Estragon says he slept in a ditch.
The general statement, "nothing to be done," can refer to Estragon's inability to pull off his boot, waiting for Godot, or the characters' lives in general—even the human condition itself.
Vladimir asks if "they" beat Estragon while he was sleeping there and he says that they did. Vladimir says, "It's too much for one man," but then reasons that there's no point in giving up now. Estragon tells Vladimir to stop talking and help him get his boot off. Vladimir asks if the boot hurts, and Estragon balks at the question. Vladimir reminds him that he's not the only one who suffers, and points out to Estragon that his fly is unbuttoned.
The beginning of the play introduces the audience to the characters' bleak world, which is filled with all kinds of suffering, from the more trivial (a boot that is stuck on) to the more serious (an anonymous "they" who beat Estragon mercilessly). Beckett mixes this suffering with abrupt humor, here in the form of Estragon's unbuttoned fly.
Estragon again asks for help, but Vladimir ignores him, taking off his hat, looking in it, and shaking it upside down, as if hoping for something to fall out. Nothing does, and he says, "nothing to be done." Estragon finally gets his boot off and then looks inside it and shakes it upside down, apparently also hoping to find something inside it. Vladimir says, "show me," but Estragon tells him there's nothing to see.
The characters' absurd behavior (looking inside their hats and boots) is never explained. Vladimir ignores Estragon's pain, and repeats Estragon's assertion that there is nothing to be done: they are not only bored, but crippled by their inability to do anything at all.
Vladimir wonders what would happen if he and Estragon repented. Estragon asks what they would be repenting for and Vladimir doesn't say. Estragon suggests repenting being born, which makes Vladimir laugh. Estragon tells him not to laugh, and instead only to smile.
The Christian idea of repentance no longer has any real value for Vladimir and Estragon. Estragon's comment underscores the uneasy quality of the play's humor. Should the audience heed his warning too, or is it okay for us to laugh?
Vladimir asks if Estragon has ever read the Bible and if he remembers the Gospels. Estragon remembers only colored maps of the holy land. As Estragon describes the colorful maps, Vladimir jokes that he should have been a poet. Estragon says he was one. Vladimir asks how Estragon's foot is doing. It's swollen.
In somewhat typical Postmodern fashion, Estragon's stance toward Biblical tradition is devoid of any reverence or specialness. It is unclear whether Estragon's absurdly abrupt statement that he was a poet is to be taken seriously or not.
Vladimir tells Estragon about the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus in the Bible. One of the two thieves was damned to hell, while the other was saved. "Saved from what?" asks Estragon. Vladimir says from hell. Vladimir wonders why only one of the four Evangelists writes of the one thief being saved. Estragon is bored by the conversation.
The Biblical story introduces the idea of salvation into the play. But in the Modern-Postmodern world of the play there is no God by whom the characters hope to be saved—only Godot. Estragon, meanwhile, is bored even by his friend's conversation.
Vladimir continues to wonder about the two thieves, and whether one was saved or not. Estragon doesn't follow Vladimir's thinking and is confused. Vladimir asks why they should believe the one Evangelist who says a thief was saved, when the other three disagree. Estragon asks who believes that one of the thieves was saved and Vladimir says that everybody does. Estragon says people are "bloody ignorant apes."
Vladimir is skeptical of the Bible and points out its self-contradictions. Estragon's comment shows the bleak status of humanity in the play. While he nonchalantly compares humans to apes, Vladimir will be greatly pained throughout the play by his lack of dignity.
While Estragon gets up and looks around, Vladimir looks in Estragon's boot but doesn't find anything. Estragon suggests they go somewhere, but Vladimir tells him they can't, because they are waiting for someone named Godot. Estragon asks if Vladimir is sure that they are in the right place, and Vladimir says that it must be, because of the tree at the side of the road.
Estragon will ask this question repeatedly over the course of the play, due to his absurd lack of memory. The promise of some kind of help from Godot is actually an insidious form of control and entrapment, as it forces Vladimir and Estragon to stay put, waiting indefinitely.
Estragon asks where the tree's leaves are and Vladimir says it must be dead, or else it's not the right season for leaves. The two agree that the tree is more like a bush or shrub. Vladimir doubts whether Godot will really come. Estragon asks what they will do if he doesn't come, and Vladimir says they'll come back to the same place the next day, and the next day, and so on, until Godot arrives.
Vladimir and Estragon absurdly deny that the tree on-stage is really a tree. Vladimir's plan to wait for Godot indefinitely shows how he and Estragon are trapped here in a kind of prison of their own making: they are free to leave but kept here by their hope for Godot's arrival.
Estragon says they came to this place yesterday, but Vladimir disagrees. Estragon asks if Vladimir is sure that they are at this spot on the right day. Vladimir thinks so (it is Saturday), but looks through his pockets to see if he wrote down somewhere on which day they were supposed to come. Estragon doubts what day it is and worries that maybe Godot came yesterday and they weren't there to meet him.
Unlike Vladimir, who has a somewhat stable sense of time, Estragon is completely temporally disoriented, and has no idea what day it is, let alone a sense of what he and Vladimir did yesterday.
The two take a break from talking and Estragon falls asleep. Vladimir wakes him and Estragon asks why he won't let him sleep. Vladimir says he was lonely. Estragon says he had a dream and begins to tell Vladimir about it, but Vladimir angrily shouts at him not to describe the dream. He tells Estragon to keep his nightmares private.
Vladimir has an intense fear of loneliness. He feels painfully alone even when Estragon simply stops talking to him and falls asleep.
Estragon wonders if it would be better for he and Vladimir to go their separate ways. He is reminded of a joke about an Englishman at a brothel that he tells to Vladimir, who stops him in the middle of the joke and leaves the stage. Vladimir returns and Estragon asks if he has something to tell him. Vladimir says he has nothing to say.
Estragon's unfinished joke and Vladimir's having nothing to say to Estragon lend an absurd tone to the scene. Vladimir says he has nothing to say, but just saying this proves that he did, in fact, have something to say.
Estragon apologizes and the two embrace. Estragon jumps back, though, because Vladimir reeks of garlic. Vladimir asks what they should do now. Estragon suggests they wait. Vladimir asks what they will do while they wait and Estragon suggests they hang themselves. They go over to the tree, but neither wants to be hanged first.
Estragon's jumping back from the garlic smell of Vladimir undercuts their tender embrace with abrupt humor. Estragon's nonchalant suggestion of suicide is uneasily absurd and uncomfortable for the audience, as it is both comical and deeply troubling.
Estragon says Vladimir should hang himself first because he is heavier. If Estragon hanged himself first, and then Vladimir tried but the branch broke under his weight, Vladimir would be all alone. Vladimir asks if he is really heavier than Estragon and then asks, "Well? What do we do?" Estragon says it's safer to do nothing at all. Vladimir suggests they wait and see what Godot says.
The characters' calm consideration of the details of how they might hang themselves continues the eerily absurd quality of the play. In the end, though, they decide simply to keep on waiting, doing nothing at all.
Vladimir says he is interested to hear what Godot will offer them. Estragon asks what they asked Godot for and Vladimir says nothing very specific; it was just a vague sort of prayer. Estragon asks what Godot's reply to the prayer was and Vladimir reminds him that Godot said he would wait and see. Estragon remembers and adds that Godot said he couldn't promise anything.
The promise of some kind of salvation through Godot is anything but certain. Not only are Vladimir and Estragon not sure that Godot will come, but they don't even know if he would really help them if he did. Nonetheless, they keep waiting for him.
Estragon asks, "Where do we come in?" and Vladimir is confused at first, then responds, "on our hands and knees." Estragon asks if they don't have rights any longer and Vladimir tells him they got rid of them. Suddenly, Vladimir tells Estragon to listen, as if he hears something. The two listen, but neither actually hears anything. They sigh in relief.
Vladimir's comment that they would approach Godot on their hands and knees might suggest a parallel between Godot and God. However, this subservient posture might also suggest that Godot is not some kind of savior, but merely a new, oppressive master.
Vladimir says he thought he had heard Godot. Estragon says he's hungry and Vladimir offers him a carrot, but then all he can find in his pockets are turnips. At last, he finds a carrot and gives it to Estragon, who excitedly eats it.
Estragon is desperate for food. Vladimir's confusion over whether he has a carrot or not adds some humorous levity to the characters' suffering.
Estragon asks Vladimir if they are "tied." Vladimir asks what he means and Estragon asks if they are tied to Godot. Vladimir says they are, at least for the moment. Estragon asks if they are sure that this person is named Godot, and Vladimir says he thinks so. Estragon finishes his carrot and says again, "nothing to be done."
Waiting for Godot has become such an obligation that Vladimir and Estragon are "tied" to him, trapped though apparently free to leave. Estragon repeats his earlier assertion of boredom and nihilism: there is nothing for them to do, and perhaps there is really nothing ever to be done.
The two are interrupted by a horrible scream off-stage. They run to the edge of the stage. Estragon stops and runs back to get his boot, then runs back to Vladimir. They huddle together, frightened by the noise.
In the face of their fear and suffering, Vladimir and Estragon huddle together. They are each other's only companions.
Pozzo and Lucky enter. Pozzo drives lucky like an animal with a rope around his neck. He carries a whip to drive him along, while Lucky carries a folding stool, a bag, a picnic basket, and a coat. Pozzo whips Lucky as they pass across the stage and just as they are leaving the stage, he stops Lucky suddenly, causing him to drop all his things. Vladimir goes to help Lucky, but Estragon stops him. Pozzo tells the two of them to be careful, as Lucky is dangerous.
Pozzo's horrible treatment of Lucky and Lucky's physical suffering are, at the same time, tragic and (with Lucky's slapstick clumsiness) somewhat comical. The audience or reader is unsure whether to laugh or cringe.
Estragon asks Vladimir if this is Godot, but then Pozzo introduces himself by name and asks if they are not familiar with him. Estragon mishears him and ponders out loud if he knows a Bozzo. Pozzo angrily corrects him. Estragon apologizes, saying they are not from here, but Pozzo says, "you are human beings none the less," and ironically says they are all made in God's image.
Pozzo's ironic reference to the Bible emphasizes the undignified position of suffering humans in this environment. The mix-ups with Pozzo's identity and name further the sense of unstable identities in the play.
Pozzo asks who Godot is. Vladimir says he's an acquaintance, but Estragon says they hardly know him. Pozzo asks if they were waiting for Godot here, on his land, but then he admits that the road is free land. He changes the conversation and jerks the rope that is tied around Lucky's neck, calling him "pig." He continues to pull Lucky around by the rope around his neck, then asks Lucky for his coat.
Pozzo's treatment of Lucky, whom he simply calls "pig," is the most blunt and obvious form of dehumanizing suffering that Beckett displays on-stage. And Estragon and Vladimir, for now at least, seem not at all interested in trying to help Lucky.
Pozzo asks Lucky for his stool, which Lucky places on the ground for Pozzo to sit on. He orders Lucky around some more, ordering him to bring his basket, from which he takes out a piece of chicken and a bottle of wine. He eats and drinks, as Vladimir and Estragon inspect Lucky, who is exhaustedly falling asleep as he stands.
Pozzo continues to maltreat Lucky as his slave. Vladimir and Estragon inspect Lucky, but more out of curiosity than empathy or pity for his suffering.
Vladimir and Estragon continue to examine Lucky, noticing how the rope chafes his neck and how tired he looks. They examine Lucky's appearance, with eyes "goggling out of his head." Vladimir suggests they ask Lucky a question and Estragon begins to speak to him, when Pozzo stops them, telling them to leave Lucky alone. He calls for his basket again and when Lucky doesn't move, Pozzo yanks the rope again. Lucky takes the bottle of wine and puts it back in the basket.
Again, Vladimir and Estragon observe Lucky's suffering, but don't seem to sympathize with his pain. Their indifference to his suffering allows Pozzo to continue to treat him so horribly.
Estragon looks at the chicken bones that Pozzo has thrown on the ground and tentatively asks if he can have them. Pozzo says he doesn't need the bones, but that they should go to Lucky, so Estragon should ask Lucky if he can have them. Estragon asks and Lucky doesn't reply. Pozzo yells at Lucky to answer, but when he says nothing Pozzo tells Estragon the bones are his.
Estragon stoops so low as to beg for the leftover bones of Pozzo's meal, displaying both how his suffering has robbed him of his dignity and how insensitive Pozzo is to the suffering of others. He could have offered some actual food to the nearly starving Estragon, after all.
Vladimir suddenly shouts out, "It's a scandal!" Pozzo asks what he is talking about, and Vladimir says that it is a scandal to treat Lucky in such a way. Pozzo asks how old Vladimir is (he does not respond) and then says he must be leaving. He thanks Vladimir and Estragon for their company. But then he debates smoking some more from his pipe before he leaves.
Vladimir finally protests against Pozzo's treatment of Lucky, but doesn't actually do anything about it. The ease with which Pozzo moves on in the conversation after Vladimir's accusatory outburst is uncomfortably absurd.
Vladimir tells Estragon they should leave, but Pozzo stops them. He yanks Lucky's rope again and has him move the stool. He sits back down and refills his pipe. Vladimir wants to leave, but Pozzo tells him, "wait a little longer, you'll never regret it," and Estragon admits they are "in no hurry."
Estragon's humorous comment that he and Vladimir are "in no hurry," encapsulates their predicament. They will keep waiting "a little longer," for quite a long time.
Vladimir still wants to go, and Pozzo tells him to think carefully, asking what would happen if Vladimir missed his "appointment" with Godot. Pozzo says he would like to meet Godot as well, since, as he says, "the more people I meet the happier I become." Estragon asks Pozzo why Lucky doesn't put down his bags and Vladimir encourages Estragon to ask Lucky himself. Lucky doesn't reply, but Pozzo says he will tell them.
Pozzo is perhaps also lonely, eager to encounter new people. Vladimir wants to leave, but feels obligated to stay and wait for Godot (though no one is forcing him to).
Pozzo prepares to speak and makes sure everyone is listening (jerking the rope around Lucky's neck to make him pay attention). He pauses to think and then asks what the question was. Estragon and Vladimir remind him. Pozzo says that Lucky has the right to "make himself comfortable," so the only reason why he doesn't must be that he doesn't want to. He says Lucky doesn't want to, because he wants to impress Pozzo, so that Pozzo will "keep him."
Pozzo makes everyone pay attention but then comically forgets what he was going to say. Pozzo's explanation for why Lucky endures such horrible treatment is absurd, yet it is reminiscent of arguments made by other slaveholders. For instance, Southern slave owners often argued that their slaves were better off for being slaves, or pointed to slave songs as indications of their slaves being happy as slaves.
Vladimir and Estragon are confused, wondering why Pozzo would get rid of Lucky. Pozzo repeats that Lucky wants to show how well he carries things so that Pozzo will keep him. But, Pozzo says, Lucky actually carries things "like a pig." He says that he has plenty of slaves and cries out, "Atlas, son of Jupiter!"
Pozzo inverts the entire logic of slavery, asserting that Lucky acts like a slave because he wants to be Pozzo's slave, which seems ludicrous. Atlas is not the son of Jupiter, suggesting that the knowledge and authority Pozzo projects are based on false premises.
Vladimir again asks if Pozzo wants to get rid of Lucky. Pozzo says he is on his way to the fair to sell Lucky, but that it would be better just to kill him. Lucky begins to weep, and Pozzo says, "old dogs have more dignity." Pozzo gives his handkerchief to Estragon and tells him to wipe away Lucky's tears. Estragon hesitates, so Vladimir says he'll do it. The two fight over the handkerchief.
Pozzo cruelly comments on Lucky's lack of dignity, caused by his suffering at Pozzo's own hands. Vladimir and Estragon absurdly fight over the right to wipe away Lucky's tears—it is never explained why either of them should care who does this.
Estragon walks up to Lucky with the handkerchief, but Lucky kicks him in the shins. Pozzo shouts for the handkerchief, which Lucky picks up and returns to him. Meanwhile, Estragon's leg is bleeding, and he cries out that he can hardly walk. Vladimir says he'll carry Estragon, "if necessary." Pozzo notes that Lucky has stopped crying and jokes that Estragon has replaced Lucky. "The tears of the world are a constant quantity," he says.
Should we see Lucky's kicking Estragon as some light slapstick comedy or as a continuation of the haunting world of suffering that pervades the play? As is typical of Beckett's dark humor, the answer is a mix of both. Pozzo sees the suffering of the world as a constant, unavoidable fact (though this may also just justify his own role in inflicting abuse on others that might create tears).
Pozzo says that "our generation" is no unhappier than any previous one and says that Lucky taught him that. He says that he took Lucky as a slave 60 years ago and Vladimir is astonished that he would turn away "such an old and faithful servant." Vladimir says that Pozzo is throwing Lucky away "like a banana skin."
Pozzo characterizes the unspecified time of the play as no unhappier than any other time. This can be taken optimistically (the present time is just as happy as any other) or more pessimistically (all other times have been as bleak as this one). Vladimir is again upset by Lucky's suffering.