The second act begins almost exactly as the first act did — with one exception: there are now four or five leaves on the once barren tree. As in Act I, Estragon is alone and Vladimir enters, singing some repetitious doggerel about a dog which was beaten to death because he stole a crust of bread. The repetition of the doggerel is typical of the repetition of the entire drama, and the condition of the dog in the doggerel is similar to the condition of the two tramps. Again, as in Act I, Vladimir wonders where Estragon spent the night and discovers that Estragon has again been beaten. Thus, the dog in the doggerel was beaten to death, and now we hear that Estragon is suffering from a beating. Consequently, the second act begins on a note of death, but one that is doubly ominous.
After a moment, the two tramps are reconciled and embrace each other, pretending that all is right between them. However, Estragon immediately reminds Vladimir that he was singing all the while that he (Estragon) was being beaten. Vladimir can only respond that "one is not master of one's moods." Vladimir's remarks characterize the actions of the first act — especially where it was evident that the two tramps were not in control of their lives, that they were unable to determine what was going to happen to them.
We now discover part of the reason for Vladimir's singing. He is happy because he slept all night long. The urinary trouble that he had in the first act did not force him to get up during the night and, therefore, he enjoyed a complete night's sleep. But then, if Vladimir had been with Estragon, he would not have let the people beat Estragon. Vladimir assumes a traditional philosophical position, a position that goes back to the writer of the Book of Job in the Old Testament. If Estragon was beaten, it was because he was guilty of doing something wrong and, had Vladimir been with Estragon, he would have stopped him from doing whatever it was that caused Estragon to get a beating. This scene reminds one of Franz Kafka's The Trial; there, the main character is punished for a crime and is never able to discover what his crime was and feels increasingly more guilty by asking what he is accused of.
After the two convince each other that they are happy, they then settle down to wait for Godot, and the basic refrain of the drama reemerges: the two tramps can do nothing but wait. Suddenly, Vladimir is aware that "things have changed here since yesterday." The change that Vladimir notices (and note that it is always Vladimir who is the most perceptive of the two, even though in the final analysis he is also incapable of changing their predicament) concerns the tree. Later, the change in the tree will be more fully appreciated, but for now, Estragon is not convinced that it is the same tree; he does not even remember if it is the same tree that they nearly hanged themselves from yesterday. In addition, Estragon has almost forgotten the appearance of Pozzo and Lucky, except for the bone he was given to gnaw on. Blankly, he asks, "all that was yesterday, you say?" For Estragon, time has no real meaning; his only concern with time is that it is something to be used up while waiting for Godot. He dismisses the discussion by pointing out that the world about him is a "muckheap" from which he has never stirred.
The world-as-a-muckheap is a central image in Beckett's work — for example, in Endgame, one of the central images is garbage cans as symbols of the status of man, who belongs on the refuse heap of the world. Estragon solidifies the image of the world-as-a-muckheap by asking Vladimir to tell him about worms.
In contrast to the landscape, or world which they now inhabit, Vladimir reminds Estragon of a time once long ago when they lived in the Macon country and picked grapes for someone whose name he can't remember. But it has been so long ago that Estragon can't remember and can only assert that he "has puked [his] puke of a life away here . . . in the Cackon country!" The oblique reference to another time and place where apparently grapes (the biblical symbol of fertility) could be harvested contrasts with this barren landscape where they now eat dried tubers of turnips and radishes. If Estragon and Vladimir are representatives of mankind waiting for God to appear to them, then we realize that possibly they are in this barren land because they represent man as fallen man — man who has been cast out of the Garden of Eden, man who originally was picking the grapes of God has now incurred the wrath of God, who refuses to appear to them anymore.
Vladimir and Estragon make a desperate attempt at conversation in order to make time pass "so we won't think." Their efforts at conversation are strained and useless, and each time after a few meaningless words, they obey the stage directions: Silence. This is repeated ten times within the passing of a minute or so — that is, a few meaningless phrases are uttered, followed by "silences." The two even contemplate trying to contradict each other, but even that fails. The entire passage is characterized by a brooding sense of helplessness and melancholy. The images are those of barren, sterile lifelessness — the falling of leaves, ashes, dead voices, skeletons, corpses, and charnel-houses, etc. All of these images are juxtaposed to the background idea of a once-fertile life "in the Macon country" that can no longer be remembered and the idea that they are constantly involved in the sterile, unprofitable endeavor of waiting for Godot. The entire conversation is absolutely pointless, and yet Estragon responds, "Yes, but now we'll have to find something else." The only effect, then, of their banter was to pass the time.
With nothing else to do, the two tramps are momentarily diverted when Vladimir discovers that the tree which was "all black and bare" yesterday evening is now "covered with leaves." This leads to a discussion of whether or not the two tramps are in the same place; after all, it would be impossible for a tree to sprout leaves overnight. Perhaps it has been longer than just yesterday when they were here. Yet Vladimir points out Estragon's wounded leg; that is proof that they were here yesterday.
The confusion about time and place is typical of Beckett's dramas. How long the two tramps have been in this particular place can never be determined. The fact that Estragon has a wound proves nothing because man is eternally wounded in Beckett's dramas and, furthermore, can show proof of his injuries. The leaves on the tree, which earlier was black and bare, astonish Vladimir. It would indeed be a miracle if such an event could occur in a single night, and this would open up all types of opportunities for miracles to occur. But the discussion of a miracle is rejected by Estragon because the leaves have no mystical appearance. They could be a manifestation of spring, or else this could be an entirely different tree. Consequently, their conversation is inconclusive, and we never know if this is the same tree in the same place or not. This confusion is characteristic of Vladimir and Estragon's inability to cope with life.
As Vladimir is trying to prove to Estragon that Pozzo and Lucky were here yesterday, he makes Estragon pull up his trousers so that they can both see the wound which is "beginning to fester." This scene is especially significant in the manner that it is staged because the actions of the two tramps are those found in a burlesque comedy house, with Vladimir holding up Estragon's leg while Estragon can hardly keep his balance, and against this background of farcical comedy is the contrasting intellectual idea of the metaphysical and spiritual wounds that man carries about with him.
The wound on Estragon's leg, in turn, causes Vladimir to notice that Estragon does not have his boots on. Coincidentally, there is a pair of boots lying on the ground, but Estragon maintains that his boots were black and this pair is brown. Maybe someone came and exchanged boots. Are they the same boots or someone else's boots?
As with the tree, the confusion about the boots is a further indication of the inadequacy of Estragon and Vladimir's logic and reasoning. They are unable to find anything which will help "give us the impression that we exist." The boots were to be objective proof of their particular existence on this particular bit of landscape at this particular time, but in an absurdly tragic manner, they cannot even determine if the boots are the same boots that existed yesterday. They are unable to find within themselves or outside themselves anything which is helpful in establishing their existences. There is no hope within or without. Therefore, even the attempt to arrive at a conclusion totally exhausts them, and with the familiar refrain "we are waiting for Godot," they abandon the problem.
But the boots are still there, and Vladimir convinces Estragon to try them on. Even though they are too big, Estragon grudgingly admits that the boots do fit him. Then with his new boots on, Estragon wishes that he could sleep. "He resumes his foetal posture" and to the accompaniment of a lullaby sung by Vladimir, Estragon is soon asleep, only to be awakened shortly by the recurrence of a nightmare. Frightened, Estragon wishes to leave, but Vladimir reminds him that they can't leave because they are "waiting for Godot."
Estragon's assuming the fetal position suggests his complete resignation and despair, his defeat in the face of such staggering, unsolvable metaphysical problems as the significance of the tree and the mysterious boots. Obviously, too, this is a "return-to-the-womb" situation wherein Estragon can escape from the responsibilities of life. His security in the womb, however, does not last long because he is awakened by a nightmare about falling. Whether it is a nightmare involving falling from the womb (man's most traumatic physical experience) or failing from God's grace (man's most traumatic spiritual experience), we are never sure.
Suddenly, Estragon can bear no more. He is going and tells Vladimir that he will never see him again. Vladimir doesn't pay attention, for he has found a hat, Lucky's hat; and so, in the midst of all these ambiguous physical and philosophical considerations, we have another burlesque interlude. In the tradition of the old burlesque theater, a tramp (Vladimir) in an old bowler hat discovers another hat on the ground. There follows an exchange-of-hats act between himself and his partner that could be found in many burlesque acts. The hat is apparently the one that Lucky left the day before, during the scene when he was silenced after his speech. The comic exchange begins when Vladimir gives his own hat to Estragon and replaces it with Lucky's. Estragon then does the same, offering his hat to Vladimir, who replaces it for Lucky's, and hands Lucky's hat to Estragon, who replaces it for Vladimir's and so on until they tire of the interchange. And then there is silence.
Once more the two tramps must pass the time while waiting. They decide to play a game of pretending to be Pozzo and Lucky, but this game lasts only a moment because they think that they hear someone approaching. After a frantic search for some place to hide, they decide that there is no one coming. Vladimir then tells Estragon: "You must have had a vision," a phrase that is reminiscent of T. S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, a long poem in which the main character, an ineffectual intellectual of the twentieth century, cannot do anything, much less have the strength to have visions. Furthermore, visions are associated with people entirely different from these two tramps. To think that they could have a vision is absurd.
One more game is attempted. Remembering Pozzo's calling Lucky ugly names and recalling the anger and frustration of the master and his slave, they begin a game of name-calling. It is Vladimir who suggests the idea of the game: "Let's abuse each other." There follows in rapid succession a series of name-calling:
After this, they make up, and then they decide to exercise, mutually relieved by the discovery that time flies when one "has fun!"
VLADIMIR: We could do our exercises.
ESTRAGON: Our movements.
VLADIMIR: Our elevations.
ESTRAGON: Our relaxations.
VLADIMIR: Our elongations.
The name-calling, the embracing, and the exercising are finally over; they have been no more than futile attempts to pass the time while waiting for Godot, and Estragon is reduced to flailing his fists and crying at the top of his voice, "God have pity on me! . . . On me! On me! Pity! On me!"