The setting is a bare interior with gray lighting. There are two small windows with drawn curtains, a door, and two ashbins covered by an old sheet. Hamm sits on an armchair with wheels, covered by an old sheet. Clov stares at Hamm, motionless. They stay like this for a moment, then Clov, with a bowed head, surveys the room—he looks at Hamm, then out the window facing the sea, then out the one facing land. He staggers off-stage and returns with a stepladder, which he sets under the sea window. He climbs it, draws open the curtains, looks out, and laughs briefly. He repeats this for the land window. He removes the sheet from the ashbins, raises the lid of one and looks within, briefly laughs, and closes the lid. He repeats this for the other bin. Trailing the sheet, he walks to Hamm and removes his sheet. Hamm, in his dressing gown, a whistle hanging around his neck, and a handkerchief over his face, appears to be asleep. Clov returns to his original spot and turns to the audience. Clov says "Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there's a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap." He says he'll go to his kitchen and wait for Hamm to whistle him. He leaves, then comes back, takes the ladder and carries it out. Hamm awakens and removes the handkerchief. He wears dark glasses.
Hamm removes and then replaces his glasses and folds away his handkerchief. He questions whether anyone—his parents, his dog—suffers as much as he does. He calls for Clov, but gets no response and believes he's alone. He says "it's time it ended," but he "hesitate[s]" to end. He whistles and Clov enters. Hamm insults him and orders Clov to prepare him for bed. Clov argues that he just woke Hamm up. Hamm asks if Clov has ever looked at his eyes while he sleeps—Clov hasn't—as they've turned white. He asks what time it is, and Clov replies "Same as usual." Hamm asks if he has looked out the window, and Clov gives his report: "Zero." Hamm asks Clov if he's had enough of "this thing." Clov says he always had, and Hamm agrees.
Clov laments their life of the same, repetitive questions and answers. Hamm commands him to get him ready, but Clov doesn't move. Hamm threatens to hold back food from him, and Clov goes for Hamm's sheet. Hamm stops him and asks why Clov stays with him; Clov asks why Hamm keeps him. For Hamm, there's no one else; and for Clov, nowhere else. Hamm accuses Clov of leaving him—Clov concedes that he's trying to do so—and that Clov doesn't love him. When Clov says he doesn't, Hamm says he did once, which Clov admits to. Hamm asks if he's made Clov suffer too much, a sentiment Clov finally supports, to Hamm's relief. Hamm asks for forgiveness, and inquires about Clov's bad health. He tells him to move around and come back. He asks why Clov doesn't kill him; Clov replies that he doesn't know the combination of the larder.
Two designs should be apparent with Beckett's set. The bare-bones construction recalls a skull, with the two windows as eyes, the two ashbins as nostrils, and Hamm's central position as the mouth. The constant visual reminder is of death, and the second design feature also heralds death in subtler ways. Endgame is named for the series of moves that constitute the end of a chess game. The outcome is usually inevitable; the memorized moves are a mere formality for experienced chess players, and the player with the advantage coming into the endgame will almost always win. Beckett, a chess player himself, draws a parallel to the endgame of life, in which death is the inevitable outcome. The characters—or players—enact repetitive rituals that are part of their endgame. Repetitions are the basis of much of Beckett's dramatic work, exposing the ways we while away time before death (Waiting for Godot repeats most of its first act in its second act), but Endgame expands the playwright's view of repetitions.
The first use of repetitions, as in Godot and Beckett's short play Happy Days, is to show dependency between complementary figures, either human or inanimate. The set is filled with doubled props—the windows to land and sea, the ashbins, and the sheets. Hamm and Clov are the most obvious pair; Hamm is incapacitated but holds sway over Clov, who can perform simple functions. The underlying tension in the play is whether the submissive Clov will leave the dominant Hamm, but their co-dependency makes this possibility seem unlikely. The dominant-submissive couples in Beckett's other work—Vladimir and Estragon in Godot, Winnie and Willie in Happy Days—exhibit similar co-dependencies, and Beckett has described Hamm's and Clov's tension as analogous to his experiences with his wife in the 1950s, when both wanted to leave each other but felt they couldn't.
The more philosophical use of the repetitions is to demonstrate the stasis in the world of Endgame. While repetitions performed the same purpose in Beckett's earlier work, here he refines his ideas through the conflation of beginnings and endings; the opening words of the play are Clov's announcement that it's finished. Jesus's last words are also "It is finished," also delivered with a bowed head (John 19:30), and his death marked a momentous fusion of ending and beginning, the end of his life with the birth of Christianity. The major theme of Endgame is that life is a circular existence without a specific beginning or ending, and as such creates a sense of repetitive stasis. Clov's definition of the "impossible heap" couches this idea in paradoxical terms. Since one grain is not a heap, when does an accumulation of distinct grains become a single heap? While it will at some point be informally considered a heap, the mass of grains will always be composed of individual grains. It is, therefore, an "impossible" heap. The grains keep repeating, growing larger, but never become a final heap, and in the same way, an existence consisting of individual moments will never become a final "life." This lack of closure is why Clov keeps amending his initial definition of "finished" to "it is finished" to "nearly finished" to "it must be nearly finished"—nothing is ever truly finished until death says so. Our repetitive actions, then, cycle around and become static, just as the "Same as usual"-world of "Zero" change is.