Boys and Girls

  • Play title: Boys and Girls
  • Author: Dylan Coburn Gray
  • First performed: 2013
  • Page count: 43


Boys and Girls is a theatre piece in verse by Dublin playwright, Dylan Coburn Gray. There are just four characters who are economically named A, B, C, and D. They speak in separate monologues, but their stories are united by their quests for fun, alcohol, sex, and satisfaction during one singular night in the city. A and B are starkly opposite young men, one is dominant, brash, and lustful while the other is soft spoken, timid, and conscientious. D is a young woman already in a steady relationship with a boring, even if adoring boyfriend, while C is a loud-mouth ladette who endeavours to reclaim the controversial c-word. This work is a snapshot of youth culture in Ireland’s booze-drenched capital city circa 2013 with all the appropriate slang, curse words, and some cultural references to boot. Coburn Gray’s writing is clever, sexually explicit, engaging, crass, energetic, and it rhymes too. Themes addressed in the work include seduction, self-expression, misogyny, drink and drug culture, and young adulthood.

Ways to access the text: reading

It is possible to purchase this play and others by Coburn Gray on the Nick Hern Books website. Alternatively, one may access the playscript for free via Perlego or Scribd (both offer free trials).

Please note that while the text is reader-friendly, it is written in ‘Dublinese’ aka the dialect of Dubliners so some vocabulary may be unfamiliar, but it can often be guessed from the context.

Why read Boys and Girls?

A slice of night life.

The play encapsulates all the energy and madness of a young person’s night out. There is the quick witted, macho guy; the sensitive, naïve lad; the girl who’s already in a relationship; and the girl who is painting the town red just like one of the boys. Each character tells their own individual story about their pals, crushes, lovers, and how the night ends. The theme of the play may be summed up in Daft Punk’s 2013 hit, “Get Lucky.”

“She’s up all night ’til the sun

I’m up all night to get some

She’s up all night for good fun

I’m up all night to get lucky”

Post reading discussion/interpretation.

“Dublin by Strobe Light and Black Light!”

Dylan Coburn Gray took the unusual decision of writing Boys and Girls in verse. Maybe not so unusual when one takes into account that he is a spoken word artist as well as a writer. There is a YouTube video of D.C.G. (his initials) performing a piece named “If I Were a Dog” that ponders the concept of now, the current moment, in objective and subjective terms. One will find the same trademark, assured style of monologue in Boys and Girls. The attraction of the play is not pinpointable to one single thing but is the combination of tongue-in-cheek coolness, modernity, intellect, and a touch of crudeness. The message is cleverly packaged so that it will appeal to a young audience, a contemporary audience of the writer’s peer group. Spoken word artists have a particular skill with the presentation of narrative so that an audience may be easily hooked and thus engaged in the topic at hand. Boys and Girls is a testament to this skill, but it remains a play that one may nevertheless discard as frivolous or obscene. D.C.G. arguably just prettifies modern, youth culture through clever verse which only mirrors rather than seeks to critique the status quo. This does not mean that the work is without merit, far from it, because highlighting a historical moment, even one as recent as 2013, reveals a certain stubborn inflexibility in social attitudes when viewed retrospectively. This essay will delve into what D.C.G.’s play reveals by focusing on the effect of the work and the conundrums it raises. Nested within this modern play is something quite old and familiar.

D.C.G. studied music at Trinity College Dublin, and this may have been a key motivation for his choice of verse over prose for his play, combined with his experience of spoken word. It is worth acknowledging that reading Boys and Girls is a deprivation of sorts since, as Cecilia J. Allen writes, “if you have truly heard, even once, you know there has been a dimension lacking in the dramatic poetry which only your eye has perused” (556). This valid point raises an associated problem, namely that Boys and Girls is not the formal verse of Shakespearean plays which Allen has in mind. Instead, the play is presented in informal, modern verse. Yet, D.C.G. as a spoken word artist brings ‘positive baggage’ with him when he enters the realm of theatre since informality has value too. Scott Woods, writing about poetry slams, seems to sum up the transformational potential of modern poetry – “Poetry slams are a device, a trick to convince people that poetry is cooler than they have been led to believe by wearisome English classes and dusty anthologies” (18). Boys and Girls similarly sells verse to the masses precisely because it is made accessible and engaging. In 1980, William G. McCollom wrote that, “The declining visibility of verse drama in this century raises the question whether the verse medium can again attract large numbers of playgoers” (99). Modern plays show how this may be achieved through diversification and adaptation. Woods makes a point about poetry slams that is equally relevant to the theatre world, but which bears repeating – “art belongs to people and not institutions or fashion-makers” (19). Understanding how D.C.G. hooks his audience, via poetic sounds that are informal enough to avoid alienation yet formal enough to earn admiration, is inextricably linked to the work’s message. The play speaks in a familiar, common language that flatteringly mirrors modern society rather than negatively distorting it or puritanically correcting the scene.

As D.C.G. is a spoken word artist too, it is worth mining the links to theatre for significance. Susan Somers-Willett, explains that in slam poetry, being perceived as ‘authentic’ is evaluated as a mark of success. She writes that, “If a slam poet performs, for example, a poem about being a black male, those who judge that poem on the criterion of authenticity must compare that identity with other expressions of black masculinity” (Somers-Willett 56). D.C.G. achieves authenticity in Boys and Girls by credibly ventriloquizing the voices of a young generation, paying particular attention to their vocabulary, attitudes, and motivations. In the 2019 edition of the play published by Nick Hern books, D.C.G. wrote that he aimed for “stylish sincerity” (4) in Boys and Girls. He admits that he would not write the play in the same way now, given the sometimes-sexist voices of the male characters and the fact that specific cultural references were obsolete almost as soon as ink was committed to paper. Yet these ‘obstacles’ were intrinsic to the authenticity of the piece since the playwright aimed for a depiction as close to real life as was possible. Indeed, the comparisons between D.C.G.’s work and slam poetry go much further. D.C.G. wrote the four monologues in the very style of slam poetry, it is just that the performance takes place in a theatre instead of a competitive environment.

Take for example, the staging mechanics of D.C.G.’s play where each character faces the audience when divulging their inner thoughts so that there is consequently no interaction with the other players. Somers-Willett analyses the effect of this when used in slam poetry, as follows.

“Because most slam poems engage a first-person, narrative mode which encourages a live audience to perceive the performance as a confessional moment, one of the most defining characteristics of slam poetry is a poet’s performance of identity and identity politics.”

(Somers-Willett 52)

D.C.G.’s warts-and-all portrayal of four young people requires the monologues to be somewhat confessional. Since A, B, C, and D are apparently homogenous i.e., white, Irish, and heterosexual, then the identity politics is primarily about youth identity, and this is defined by drinking, drugs, and sexual exploration. In short, youth identity is about the exercise of freedom. For a young audience, these characters are immediately relatable.

Elements of slam poetry are brought to the stage by D.C.G., but does this wholly justify the verse form he utilizes? In an essay by William G. McCollom in which he analyses different examples of verse drama, he comments that, “slangy realism arranged iambically does not constitute poetry” (107). What then should one think of D.C.G.’s humorous line about a young man watching porn when he reads an online advert for a penis extension – “a pop-up offers a top-up on my penis” (10). The line has the distinctive iambic rhythm of stressed syllables followed by unstressed syllables but is it just a derivative art form? In a bygone era, McCollom argued that verse drama was superior to prose drama because, “Visions of human reality that are at once vivid, profound, and comprehensive are poetic visions or, what is more to the point, are poetry” (100). Beyond the possible goal of popularizing poetry (with a small p) for a contemporary audience, does D.C.G. actually need poetry in his play or would prose have been just as effective? Is verse a way to achieve a particular vision or merely stylistic excess?

In 1950, T. S. Eliot gave a lecture at Harvard University entitled, “Poetry and Drama.” It is illuminating to juxtapose someone like Eliot with Coburn Gray because one finds quite unexpected areas of common ground. One of Eliot’s key points in his lecture was that “Whether we use prose or verse on the stage, they are both but means to an end” (12). Eliot elaborated on this as follows.

“If poetry is merely a decoration, an added embellishment, if it merely gives people of literary tastes the pleasure of listening to poetry at the same time that they are witnessing a play, then it is superfluous. It must justify itself dramatically.”

(Eliot 12)

There are two easily identifiable motivations for D.C.G. to use verse which interlink with his dramatic goals. First, he seeks to find a perfect equilibrium where witty, rhyming, and generally ear-pleasing monologues will counteract/neutralize the harshness of some of the views and coarse language used. For instance, had the play been in prose then the curse words and characters’ motivations would lack the sheen of what he himself referred to as stylishness (“stylish sincerity”). In this way, the bluntness of real-world vocabulary has its tone moderated so that it is more palatable to an audience, maybe even deceptively so. The second point is more of a hypothesis and is simply that D.C.G. wishes to present us with modern life not from a different and interesting camera angle, but modern life with an arresting soundscape. In this way, one can absorb it anew, and more importantly, look at it critically. The scene remains a boisterous night in Dublin, but the scene is now given the gravitas of an artwork through verse.

In his day, Eliot grieved the fact that verse was deemed appropriate only for plays whose subjects were mythology or remote historical periods.

“What we have to do is to bring poetry into the world in which the audience lives and to which it returns when it leaves the theatre; not to transport the audience into some imaginary world totally unlike its own, an unreal world in which poetry is tolerated.”

(Eliot 27)

Eliot goes on to enthuse about the democratisation of poetry. He writes that if more plays were produced in verse, then “our own sordid, dreary daily world would be suddenly illuminated and transfigured” (27). Eliot’s ideas correspond to what has been achieved by spoken word artists like D.C.G. who have gone on to shape verse to reflect modern society. D.C.G. as playwright certainly engages with the sordidness of daily life and this represents a point of entry into the play’s significance.

Two key themes stand out in Boys and Girls, and these are sex and vocabulary. The four characters of the play, namely, A, B, C, and D, seek to sexually pleasure their respective partners, Laura, Niamh, Conor, and Jamie, while language, specifically word choice, is the most revealing indication of their motivations. Since this essay has focused on verse in modern theatre then it is logical to reference Shakespeare, the original crème de la crème of verse technicians. D.C.G. makes several allusions to Shakespeare in Boys and Girls, for example, a paraphrased quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. These references prove enlightening. By focusing on sex and language, it is possible to reveal what D.C.G. purposefully or perhaps inadvertently communicates about modern life.

Eliot writes that “It is a function of all art to give us some perception of an order in life, by imposing an order upon it” (33-34). D.C.G. convincingly charts the order of events in one lust-fuelled night but there is also a deeper, primal order that is reflected in Boys and Girls. The energy that propels D.C.G.’s play to its conclusion is the animalistic, carnal drive that the characters unashamedly display. All is a quest to find sexual release and hopefully satisfaction too. The four characters’ quite separate nights are synchronised in the moments when they chime numbers that refer to increasing alcohol or drug consumption, and they chime again when they consummate their respective nights! D.C.G. thereby imposes an order in how the night is dramatically presented and this order emphasises the unified goals of the youths. Regarding language, the slang used is arguably ultra-modern but a few simple cross references, prompted by D.C.G.’s allusions to Shakespeare, show that not only has sexual drive remained unchanged through the generations (uncontroversial) but the related vocabulary is also surprisingly intact. One may quite productively analyse this covert depiction of the status quo in a play that initially appears quite of its time and even slightly taboo. If the play is cunningly showing us how all remains the same, then this insight must hold significance.

Besides Shakespeare, the other great literary names that D.C.G. references are Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charlotte Bronte. These women famously wrote of great loves in their literature. It is a reworked quote from Barrett Browning’s sonnet 43, “How do I love thee? / Let me count the ways” that unexpectedly ushers in the positively cynical tone regarding love that defines the play. D responds to her boyfriend’s premature declaration of love as follows – “Let me count the ways, fuck that like, that’s bollocks, simplest is best. Though it’s interesting that ‘I love you has come to mean less, right?” (Coburn Gray 18). The boyfriend’s love is not reciprocated and D’s musings on love render it a hollow word in the mouths of anyone under twenty years old. She breaks love down into a simple codeword that means “mutual reliance plus mutual lust” (19). Additionally, love is a permission slip to release your anger on your partner, “someone to go to town on” (19). Romance is truly dead and buried. When B is talking to Niamh, they also reference anger by an allusion to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Similar to D’s viewpoint, Niamh believes that anger is an excuse “to pull out all the stops and loose the mad wife in the attic” (27). This refers to the character of Bertha Mason in Bronte’s novel, Mr. Rochester’s first wife, who is now locked in his attic since her sexual allure has faded in light of her depraved, unhinged behaviour. Bertha becomes a legal obstacle to Mr. Rochester as he cannot marry his new love, Jane Eyre. The anger that Niamh describes is the anger of the wronged woman but also the pleasure of choleric release, “as anyone with a penis or a gun knows” (27). The literary allusions set the tone of the play, exposing the frequently insincere declarations of love by youths who prefer to scratch the surface and find the rot beneath. Relationships morph back into what they were in olden times: a game of conqueror and conquered, master and submissive, Rochester and Bertha.

Men have traditionally held the power in society and continue to do so in Boys and Girls. Modern audiences are familiar with the phallic symbolism of a gun, but few know that this links back directly to the more vulgar word for penis, namely cock. References to the penis in D.C.G.’s play using a panoply of terms expose the powerplay in multiple scenes. One of the more deceptively humorous lines is C’s joke about her tall friend, “What’s pink and three millionths of a Dave long? Dave’s cock” (23). By reference to Gordon Williams’ Shakespeare’s Sexual Language, one finds that penis and cock were synonymous, even hundreds of years ago. There is also a reference to roosters which is apt given that D.C.G.’s play ends at dawn. The examples that follow are respectively from Shakespeare’s Henry V and Two Noble Kinsmen.

cock penis. The prevailing metaphor in Elizabethan use is that found in H5 II. i. 50, where the aptly named Pistol refers to the raising of the firearm’s cock, making it ready to discharge: ‘Pistol’s cock is up, And flashing fire will follow.’…

The ancient link between the dawn crowing of the cock and phallic assertiveness provides innuendo in … ‘I must lose my maidenhead by cocklight.’”

(Williams 72)

In Boys and Girls, the focus of both the male and female characters is on the male climax, and female satisfaction takes second place. Proof of this comes when even the sexually liberated C ends up reluctantly giving her partner, Conor, a high-five to celebrate his conquest as he poses “legs wide, tackle flopping” (Coburn Gray 37). Despite any protestations, the societal narrative is that she has acquiesced to his lust, has been conquered. The scene belies C’s earlier estimation of Conor when she said – “Hard to see he cares deeply but doesn’t care for right-on types and circle- jerk fawning” (25). She thought that behind his use of politically incorrect terms still hid a good guy. His post-coital bravado dashes her high hopes. C’s reference to jerk is most revealing as the word also goes back to Shakespeare’s day.

jerkin vagina. Jerk (DSL) is a common term for coitus (thrust with a quick, sharp motion); hence jerkin is that which is jerked in.”

(Williams 173)

Conor is indeed just another jerk given that his goal is no different from the type of men C normally avoids. This brings us to the final term for penis used by C when she comments on Conor’s “absurdly good, wood pressing against me, fingers send me to happy places” (Coburn Gray 33). Williams explains the connotations of the word wood by reference to Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and Two Noble Kinsmen.

wood As a place where the sexual hunt may take place, the literal wood provides a powerful metaphor for lust and disorder throughout Act II of Tit. In TNK III. iii. 39, ‘A pretty brown wench’ is recalled, and ‘a time When young men went a-hunting, and a wood, And a broad beech, and thereby hangs a tale’ (cf. brown, tail 2).”

(Williams 344)

The rude vocabulary of D.C.G.’s play is shown to have quite old roots in the plays of no less an esteemed author than Shakespeare. Even though the colourful references to the male penis in Boys and Girls are steeped in humour, they nonetheless expose the foundational and age-old scheme of things where men treat women as potential conquests. It is ironic that it’s the liberated, assertive woman, C, who unwittingly uses these terms that are steeped in a history of male dominance. On the other hand, one could readily counter this argument with the assertion that C uses the various terms for the penis in two quite modern ways. First, she is derogatory towards men, namely men with small penises and those she sees as jerks, and second, she is sexually assertive and unabashed when naming what she desires (wood). She wields various slang words for the male genitalia as terms of abuse. More importantly, she attempts to refashion old words to new uses, for example the notorious c-word. In this manner, C indeed tries to disrupt the status quo.

The character C makes a strident case for the reclamation of the c-word. It occupies an extended section of her monologue and is a standout moment in the play. The topic arises naturally since the c-word is bandied about during an informal conversation between girls. C lists some of the other derogatory terms for female genitalia but decisively concludes – “But then, I like cunt. Try to contain yourselves. I like that it’s unsellable in a world where sex sells” (Coburn Gray 15). She states that the word has an undeniable air of aggression, even the sound is harsh, and most importantly, it is not a sexy word. In fact, the c-word is an unfailing passion killer, a deflator of male tumescence. The negative power of the word comes from the hate with which it is imbued – “Cunt means his hate, and hate’s the hard drug that’s gatewayed by his fear” (16). C theorizes that men’s fear of women is conditioned in them from the time they are breast fed. Church teachings about sexual restraint and abstinence add to the problem. She posits that “Cunt is insecurity” (16), specifically the insecurity felt by men who do not measure up to the gender ideal of a fittingly, masculine male.

“cockito ergo cunt ergo hateful denigration of all undicked.”

(Coburn Gray 16)

D.C.G. employs clever wordplay in the above quoted line which mimics an aphorism by French philosopher, René Descartes, who wrote – “cogito, ergo sum,” which means ‘I think, therefore I am.’ The statement is the essence of human existence because thinking is proof that one exists. D.C.G. swaps cogito for cockito with the suffix ‘ito’ meaning small so the problem belongs to the small-cocked man who employs the word ‘cunt’ as revenge, a compensation for his own lack of power. Of course, the new quote also equates the male genitals with the organ of human thought – the brain!

The chief difficulty, as C admits, is the toxicity of the c-word. She comments that “Boys may use it, can’t own it, can’t make it less” (15). The paradox is that women own the word, but it is a hateful inheritance, something that needs to be detoxified. C considers the dilemma and says, “So take it! (Cunt.) For fuck’s sake, own it. Best fucking way to dethrone it!” (16). The argument is bold and almost convincing but like the other words already mentioned, the c-word has a long history which hinders any attempt to reclaim it.

Williams gives the example of Hamlet’s vitriolic attack on Ophelia in Hamlet where the young prince refers to ‘country matters’ which is a coded reference to the c-word (5). There is also an example in Twelfth Night which is refenced by Williams in his glossary of Shakespeare’s sexual language. The example appears like an Early Modern version of ‘see you next Tuesday.’  

cunt vagina (taboo evaded by disguise). In TAfII. v. 85, Olivia’s supposed letter provides scope for equivocal comment: These be her very c’s, her u’s, and her t’s, and thus makes she her great P’s’ (cf. P).”

(Williams 87)

How does one counter such a long history of directly using a word, or implying it, to refer either to sex or curse someone out? It seems unfortunate that D.C.G.’s linguistic crusader has the initial C, just as the character D seems a loaded name choice for a woman who discusses bra sizes – “apocalyptic double Ds” (Coburn Gray 18). Is the play just a play on words because what you think you are getting is constantly undercut by an older, unchanging agenda? The following example where a character playfully avoids the c-word is a confirmation that all roads inevitably lead to Rome regardless of the intention.

“Leah says recently her ma’s been using ‘ladygarden’ as a joke.”

(Coburn Gray 15)

The deliberate avoidance of the c-word by employing a seemingly innocuous term instead still manages to backfire. The explanation rests in Williams’ glossary with the entry – “garden used like park, [is] another Renaissance commonplace, to render woman as sexual landscape” (138). In Boys and Girls, character A gleefully engages with the same gardening terminology, “Haven’t seen her [Laura] in weeks and you could literally plough with the hard-on I’m harbouring” (Coburn Gray 12). Williams references Shakespeare’s Pericles to enlighten readers as to the age-old connotations of plough – “plough coit with. In Per xix. 169 (IV. vi. 144), a virgin is threatened: ‘An if she were a thornier piece of ground than she is, she shall be ploughed’” (240). The thorny ground is indicative of danger. Representations of the female vagina as dangerous are nothing new as outlined in an essay by V. Braun and S. Wilkinson entitled, “Socio-Cultural Representations of the Vagina.” They write that “Lederer (1968) uses the `fairytale’ Sleeping beauty, with its impenetrable wall of dangerous and deadly thorns, as one Western illustration” (24). D.C.G. also alludes to this typical representation of the vagina as dangerous, especially if the man foolishly seeks love rather than just sex.

“True love’s path ever did run tortuous, hatcheted through briars or hazarded with liars or both. Quoth this maven: the fires of passion will swallow you whole. Safer to safeguard the ol’ ticker and just get yer – if you follow – hole.”

(Coburn Gray 10)

Once again, this is a reworking of a famous quote, this time from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Lysander says, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Keeping with the tone of Boys and Girls, love is constantly eschewed by the characters. Women become mere sexual landscapes to be ploughed and seeded. D.C.G.’s character, A, reduces the female to a mere orifice of pleasure. Braun and Wilkinson quote Shildrick & Price when discussing this idea of the vagina as an absence with the result that it is just an orifice – “Women are castrated men, their bodies marked by lack, and what is hidden is just a hole” (19).

This digression into an analysis of the term ‘ladygarden’ shows just how incredibly unwieldly language can be, especially words with sexual connotations. Even deliberately avoiding offensive words proves ineffectual since the meanings of associated words are still impossibly interlinked with the rude ones. A crusader like C is betrayed by the language she hopes to rein into submission. There is an undercurrent to the language used for sexual relations that simply privileges men over women, full stop. The battle to imbue words with new meanings or even to simply neutralize the aggressiveness of words such as the c-word, seems doomed to failure.

An analysis of the play at the level of characters is highly informative but the overarching concern remains the effect of Boys and Girls and the questions it raises. D.C.G. skilfully connects with an audience via ear-pleasing verse; the authenticity of real characters; colourful and sometimes confronting language; and a clear delineation of the structure of the night. But how does this translate when processed as an audience experience? As previously queried – is the writer simply mirroring society and thereby he is restricted from portraying an extraordinary character who sets an unprecedented, elevating example? C does not reach the threshold for extraordinariness. Is the play therefore a victim of successful verisimilitude with misogyny, excessive inebriation, and vulgarity as the required compromises needed to convince an audience that they can see themselves on stage, just in rhyme? Or, has all the talent and work that D.C.G. poured into Boys and Girls got a greater, meaningful purpose?

It is clear that D.C.G. breaks new ground within the theatre world. For one, he successfully brings a style of modern, expressive poetry which comes from slam poetry, and sets this on the formal stage. However, he also uses obscene language and even though it is basically the same vocabulary as the Bard utilised, it still raises eyebrows! Does D.C.G. deserve credit for daring to employ the language that ordinary people actually use on a daily basis? Maybe the playwright is deliberately avoiding the sort of pretentiousness linked with literature that attempts to teach or improve an audience. In an article entitled “On Obscenity and Literature,” Ed Simon refers to “the brave defenders of free speech pushing the boundaries of acceptable discourse.” Simon adds that, “In our current season of a supposed Jacobin “cancel culture,” words have been ironically re-enchanted with the spark of danger that was once associated with them.” D.C.G. certainly adds an incendiary element to the monologues by using the c-word. By focusing on this one word for just a little longer, it is possible to distil Boys and Girls down to a single, take-away message.

D.C.G. joins a long line of literary figures who daringly used the c-word in their works. For instance, this term was used by D. H. Lawrence in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and by Jack Kerouac in On the Road (Moriarty).Circa 2001, Braun and Wilkinson noted that “Promotional material for theatrical pieces whose titles contained the word vagina has been censored in various ways” and they provide the example of “Eve Ensler’s (1998) The Vagina Monologues” which caused a media furore (20). Ensler also used the c-word in the actual monologues. Each of these writers sought to find a word that would capture the sexual/expressive/political moods they wished to portray.

It is interesting to note that D.C.G. was not the first Dublin writer to cause consternation by using expletives in his text. There was James Joyce’s Ulysses which also includes the c-word but the tradition of swear words goes back much further, as far as 1663.

“In the OED, our good friend the dirty lexicographer Richard Head has the earliest example given in the entry for the word “fuck,” the profanity appearing as a noun in his play Hic et Ubique: or, The Humors of Dublin, wherein a character says, “I did creep in…and there I did see [him] putting the great fuck upon my wife.”

(Simon 5)

John Millington Synge, another controversial Irish writer, caused a riot in Dublin in 1907. This happened because Irish nationalists were unhappy with a reference to young women dressed only in undergarments in Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. One detects a theme here because not just words but even states of undress apparently prompt thoughts of women’s privates. T. S. Eliot made a helpful observation about Synge, writing that – “Synge wrote plays about characters whose originals in life talked poetically, so he could make them talk poetry and remain real people” (19-20). D.C.G. manages to use expletives so casually for the same reason – they are taken from the mouths of everyday Dubliners. The achievement is that the work is an example of literary naturalism and commendable as such.

Yet, the c-word remains a lightning rod for critics of Boys and Girls. Given the long history of the word’s use, Mina Moriarty ponders, “Why, then, is “cunt” still considered one of the most offensive words in the Western Hemisphere?” The answer surely lies in the intent behind using the word and the context of its usage too. Braun and Wilkinson explain how, “representations are not simply `ideas’, but have material impacts on people’s lives, with implications for women’s sexual and reproductive health” (18). They refer here to representations of the vagina and D.C.G.’s play is one such representation. The view of Braun and Wilkinson “is a social constructionist one, which assumes that the meaning of the body (at any time, in any given context) is constructed by socio-cultural representations and practices, and that these develop, and change, across time and context” (17). In Boys and Girls, the representation of the female genitalia, regardless of the word chosen, is derogatory and even when C feistily uses it, it is nonetheless counterproductive. The thrust of the play (excuse pun) is that men’s desires are only consumed and quenched by the female genitalia. This is not about procreation or fun, it is simply about powerplay and language is a treacherous conspirator.  

The reclamation of the c-word that character C valiantly attempts echoes broader societal trends. For example, Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues contains a section named “Reclaiming Cunt” where a character says – “I call it cunt. I’ve reclaimed it, “cunt.” I really like it. “Cunt.” Listen to it. “Cunt.”’ (Moriarty). Germaine Greer approached the problem from a different angle and tried to change not the word but how the body part was understood – “in The Female Eunuch I attempted to provide a different version of female receptivity by speaking of the vagina as if it were active, as if it sucked on the penis and emptied it out rather than simply receiving the ejaculate’” (Braun and Wilkinson 26). Greer, a Shakespearean herself, probably well understood the difficulty of attempting to reclaim or neutralise words, especially those with such a long heritage. For context, one may refer to Braun and Wilkinson who give an overview of “seven persistent negative representations of the vagina: the vagina as inferior to the penis; the vagina as absence; the vagina as (passive) receptacle for the penis; the vagina as sexually inadequate; the vagina as disgusting; the vagina as vulnerable and abused; and the vagina as dangerous” (17). Despite giving C a feisty monologue, D.C.G. fails to show her triumphing at the play’s close – instead, she high fives her juvenile, one-night stand. Thus, the vagina continues to be “represented merely as a receptacle for the penis” (Braun and Wilkinson 20). Character A misses out on sex due to a vomiting, underage drinker whom A must babysit until he is safely brought home. Ironically, this makes A the hero of the piece. D.C.G.’s play is a modern incantation of absolution for wayward, inebriated youths but the girls take second place, as ever. Writers who use the c-word always risk perpetuating the violence of language because reforming it is a mammoth task.

What D.C.G. does excellently is paint a dramatic scene for an audience. It is the story of a night, opening in the evening and closing at the break of dawn. As Eliot wrote, “it is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality” (35) and D.C.G. achieves this succinctly and daringly. As Simon writes – “Profanity is by definition profane, dealing with the bloody, pussy, jizzy reality of what it means to be alive (and thus the lowering of the sacred into that oozy realm is part of what blasphemously shocks).” Maybe it is best not to be prudish and appreciate the play as a thought-provoking piece that holds a mirror up to society so that people can laugh, or cringe, or think again about the too predictable order in which things usually play out.

Works Cited.

Allen, Cecilia J. “Finding the Drama in Dramatic Verse.” The English Journal, vol. 22, no. 7, 1933, pp. 556–62. JSTOR, Accessed 14 Jan. 2023.

Barrett Browning, Elizabeth. “How do I love thee?” (Sonnet 43). Sonnets from the Portuguese. Caradoc Press, 1906. 

Braun, V. and S. Wilkinson. “Socio-Cultural Representations of the Vagina.” Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, vol. 19, no. 1, 2001.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Wordsworth Editions, 1992.

Coburn Gray, Dylan. Boys and Girls. Nick Hern Books, 2019.

Coburn Gray, Dylan. “If I Were a Dog.” YouTube, uploaded by CultureNight, 28 November 2019,

Daft Punk. “Get Lucky.” Random Access Memories, Columbia Records, 2013. 

Eliot, T. S. “Poetry and Drama.” Faber and Faber Ltd., 1951.

McCollom, William G. “Verse Drama: A Reconsideration.” Comparative Drama, vol. 14, no. 2, 1980, pp. 99–116. JSTOR, Accessed 16 Jan. 2023.

Moriarty, Mina. “A Brief History of the C-Word.” The Establishment, A Brief History Of The C-Word – The Establishment. Accessed 17 Jan. 2023. 

Simon, Ed. “On Obscenity and Literature.” The Millions, On Obscenity and Literature – The Millions. Accessed 17 Jan. 2023. 

Somers-Willett, Susan B. A. “Slam Poetry and the Cultural Politics of Performing Identity.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, vol. 38, no. 1, 2005, pp. 51–73. JSTOR, Accessed 16 Jan. 2023.

Williams, Gordon. Shakespeare’s Sexual Language. The Athlone Press, 2006.

Woods, Scott. “Poetry Slams: The Ultimate Democracy of Art.” World Literature Today, vol. 82, no. 1, 2008, pp. 16–19. JSTOR, Accessed 18 Jan. 2023.


Can words kill?

  • Play title: Chatroom
  • Author: Enda Walsh
  • First performed: 2005
  • Page count: 71


Chatroom explores the murky, often-unregulated world of cyberspace. The play was released in 2005 by Irish playwright Enda Walsh. The characters in this work communicate with one another through various online chatrooms. They are all aged between 15 and 16 years old and come from the affluent, middle-class area of Chiswick in west London. Jim is a depressed teen who seeks help online. He first chats with Laura who serves as a listener but she offers no advice. When Jim enters another chatroom, he meets William and Eva along with Jack and Emily. Due to Jim’s vulnerability, he is unable to recognise who is really on his side versus those who seek to ridicule and ultimately hurt him. Walsh explores how power may be exercised in the most depraved ways by anonymous, online teens. Jim is pushed towards a fatal decision which his depressed mindset comprehends as a logical solution.

Ways to access the text: reading/watching

Walsh is a prolific, contemporary playwright so one may prefer to purchase this work. As an alternative, Chatroom may be read for free via the Open Library, Scribd (free trial), or Perlego. The work is reader friendly.

The play was adapted into a film with Walsh as the screenwriter. Chatroom, the movie, was released in 2010 and was directed by Hideo Nakata. I have not viewed the movie, but further information is available on the IMDb website.

Why read Chatroom?

Cowboy country.

Chatroom was one of the early plays that focused on the sometimes-shady enclave of anonymous, online chat. Personal information provided in such chatrooms is normally not vouched for, and uncheckable in practical terms. The play trolls through scenarios where things go wrong because the participants have an agenda quite at odds with their stated purpose in the various chatrooms. The teenagers involved treat the scenarios as play rather than real life which leads to a toxic environment of bullying, shaming, and coercion. The domain becomes cowboy country because it is without rules or standards. Teens advise one another in often careless ways and without the qualifications or life experience appropriate to the advice demanded by the situations. Upon reading the play, one finds that there is also the ‘cowboy country’ of childhood, a benevolent place of play and healing.

Post reading discussion/interpretation.

“A Maelstrom of Suicidality in Cyberspace.”


In Enda Walsh’s play Chatroom, one witnesses the interconnectedness of suicide with traditional media as well as modern, mobile media. By reading the playscript one gains the unusual perspective of spying on the characters’ texts from various online chats. In contrast, an audience hears these lines spoken due to the nature of theatre, but it is important to note that what is portrayed is actually silent communication between the characters via their computer or smartphone keypads. None of the characters in the play have the advantage of seeing the others, nor hearing accents, nor noticing tones or intonations of voices. There are no facial gestures or body poses – just silent screens with rolling text. Since the online communication lacks the readable nuances of face-to-face contact, it constantly risks becoming arid and uninteresting. Keeping in mind that the characters in the play are all teenagers, it is unsurprising that the nature of the discussion perforce becomes more exaggerated and extreme at times. This is a compensation for the otherwise anaemic flow of words on digital screens. The playwright utilises this cyberspace environment to address the myriad negatives that anyone but especially teenagers may encounter. Walsh examines how such an environment can easily turn toxic and why it differs so drastically from ‘real life.’ In real life, few teenagers hope to drive a person to kill themselves in public. Media become an accommodating accomplice to this premeditated ‘murder.’ The key themes of the play are depression, bullying, and suicidal ideation. This essay will examine the motivations of bullies and the tools they use to dominate online discussions, and how victims sometimes get brainwashed and fall into the cyclical waves of imitation suicides.

The play highlights the ever-changing nature of 21st century media. In the case of traditional media like national newspapers or TV channels, the dissemination of information is a one-way process. The public at large are fed particular news items, stories, and assorted forms of entertainment. Modern media include mobile media which is an umbrella term for all the smart devices used to communicate with others. Everything from one’s mobile phone to a laptop allows for the spread of information as well as live exchanges of information and opinions. In this respect, new media is quite distinct from traditional media. Chatroom takes account of both traditional and modern media in an effort to understand the pressures that may lead to teenage suicide.

The suspicion that media influence suicides, even encourage them, is far from new. David P. Phillips addresses one of the most famous examples.

“Two hundred years ago, Goethe wrote a novel called The Sorrows of the Young Werther, in which the hero committed suicide. Goethe’s novel was read widely in Europe, and it was said that people in many countries imitated Werther’s manner of death.”

(Phillips 340)

While few people nowadays would consider a novel to be potentially injurious, it was a powerful medium of ideas in the 18th and 19th centuries. Goethe’s novel so effectively raised the spectre of suicide imitations that the book was banned in Italy, Leipzig and Copenhagen (Phillips 340). A brief look across history since then shows that the medium itself is not the core problem but rather what information is communicated and how. For instance, in August of 1962 the Hollywood movie star, Marilyn Monroe, died of an apparent suicide. Her death was reported widely in the US media and internationally. In the 1960’s, such stories did not come with the now familiar mental health warnings. The result was symptomatic of what Phillips terms “the Werther effect” (341) since “In the United States, suicides increased by 12% in the month after Marilyn Monroe’s death and by 10% in England and Wales” (350). In more recent times, Jeffrey A Bridge carried out a study with the objective of estimating “the association between the release of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why and suicide rates in the United States” (236). He found that – “In absolute numbers, we estimated 195 (95% CI, 168–222) additional suicide deaths among 10- to 17-year-old youths occurred between April 1 and December 31, 2017, following the series’ release” (238). These examples show the potency of large-scale media formats like novels, newspapers, and modern TV shows streamed online. However, the problem also emerges in one-on-one digital communication. This is evidenced by the notorious case of Michelle Carter who stood trial in Massachusetts for homicide after the death of Conrad Roy by suicide in 2014. Carter was put on trial due to her suspected culpability for Roy’s death – “Prosecutors argued that her calls and texts fueled her boyfriend’s suicide” (Esquire). The judge ultimately found her guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced her to 15 months in prison. It is ironic that this court case spawned TV series like The Girl from Plainville, and the documentary, I Love You, Now Die (2019) because such shows keep the topic of male, teenage suicide in people’s consciousness which is the crux of the problem. Written in 2005, Walsh’s play predates the Michelle Carter case yet similarly exposes the inherent dangers of coercion and bullying when the victim is already depressed or even suicidal. Like any environment, cyberspace dictates the freedoms and restrictions imposed upon visitors, and the rules of the game need to be fully understood to remain safe.

The real and the surreal.

Many people view cyberspace as quite a distinct realm which is notably different from the real world of everyday life. Yet, deeming something as less than real, or a substitute for reality, does not alter the inherent power of the cyberspace realm. People of all ages actively choose to express themselves online and this is often in preference to doing so within their real-life, social circles. In Chatroom, there are specific and quite valid reasons for each character’s presence in the online forums. A further consideration is that the internet is a realm that facilitates escapism of all sorts, from creating an impressive but fake public profile to entertaining sexual fantasies through viewing pornographic material – the web offers an escape from the humdrum norms of life. From another perspective, cyberspace is the realm of the surreal. Originating in the 1920’s, the artistic movement known as surrealism had the aim of “revolt[ing] against all restraints on free creativity, including logical reason, standard morality, social and artistic conventions and norms …” (Abrams 310). Such rule breaking is apparent in Chatroom, especially regarding morality and social conventions. It is distasteful to consider suicide as an artistic statement, but this is precisely how William packages Jim’s imminent live-streamed death – as something to force the public to ponder and interpret like an art piece before coming to a new, enhanced view about teenagers’ problems. The web offers teenagers like William untold freedoms, and it is not surprising that people take advantage of such opportunities. What happens online is real but only in a liminal sense due to the ease with which people can disconnect from it. Simple as pushing a button, for some.

Walsh’s play addresses the ubiquitous nature of online communication; what attracts both bullies and potential victims to online chat forums; and the eventual maelstrom that sometimes leads to suicidal ideation. The internet is omnipresent in modern life so avoiding virtual communication is near impossible for most people. A hypothetical scenario where a person truly disconnects from the World Wide Web is fanciful given how enmeshed people’s lives are with intelligent technology. In practical terms, there is a discomfiting absence of choice, and this informs any discussion about Chatroom. Even in the 18th century, Goethe’s book could be banned but not all books could be banned, and certainly not everywhere. The smartphone is the modern book! Juan Moisés de la Serna explains that “Currently almost 100% of schoolchildren over 10 or 11 years old regularly use some kind of technological tool” (9). Despite the application of extensive child protections, the internet proves ever more difficult to police and children are inevitably exposed to inappropriate material and inappropriate people. Controlling mobile media is next to impossible since children and teenagers access information when far from the eyes of wary adults. Children are not equipped to assimilate the level and variance of information available on the web and therefore ‘realness’ becomes uncomfortably subjective.

The bully

What precisely attracts bullies or potential bullies to online forums? Moisés de la Serna explains that “more and more young people are becoming involved in cases of harassment via digital media, mainly because of its extensive usage, but also due to the anonymity provided by the network” (7). The anonymous nature of much online communication allows free reign to those who have a propensity to insult or demean others. In Chatroom, William cleverly imposes rules for the chat, for instance, not sharing real names. His explanation is – “We know we’re from the same area and that’s enough. Just leave out the details. It gives us more freedom” (Walsh 22). William interprets freedom as a tool to facilitate his as-yet-undisclosed, underhand intentions. An early warning sign that William is not sincere is when he plays the provocateur with Jack, testing if he will be gullible enough to show interest in “an assassination attempt on J.K. Rowling” (11). William may always dismiss the proposal as swagger and thereby hide the fact that it was meant as a test of Jack’s suggestibility and docility. One may easily propose such maniacal ideas from the secure position of anonymous untouchability. Eva should similarly be classified as a potential bully based on her vitriolic tirade about Britney Spears followed by her provocative suggestion that she and Emily talk about murder. This odd conversation topic suggestion comes immediately after Emily’s confirmation that Eva’s identity is secret – “It’s been very nice talking to you, whoever you are” (15). An anonymous bully may simply turn off their computer and thereby negate their responsibility since no trace of the real them remains.

James S. Chisholm and Brandie Trent looked at how bullies are perceived by others in a paper entitled, “Everything… Affects Everything’: Promoting Critical Perspectives toward Bullying with ‘Thirteen Reasons Why.’” These researchers sought feedback from tenth-grade students (15/16 years old) about how bullies are experienced and got the following results.

“Many students responded to the prompt about “People who bully others . . .” by identifying reasons why persons might engage in such behavior: “[they] think that they are more superior than others,” “[they] are probably bullied themselves or are going through a hard time,” and “[they] are people that think it’s cool to hurt people emotionally and physically.”

(Chisholm and Trent 76)

The three examples garnered from their questionnaire correspond to the portrayal of bullies in Chatroom. William and Eva do act in a superior, high-handed manner and this is shown by their unrelenting need to control the various narratives. They also erupt in anger from time to time, revealing that their own lives are possibly troubled. It is plausible that such angry behaviour is the result of bullying or difficult home circumstances. Personal disclosures also add to the picture, like when Eva refers to her “bitch-mother” (Walsh 15) and William describes himself as an “angry cynic” (27). When Laura challenges William, he is unable to defend or justify his actions, so he snaps and calls her “Bitch” (61) before subjecting her to an extended, personalised attack. Hurting people emotionally is a go-to tactic of cowards. The bullies have no real power, so they rely on the advantages of the cyberspace environment where aggressive dominance often wins the day.

There are other bullying tricks too. Moisés de la Serna explains that “Cyberbullying is a type of abuse and harassment among school children that is characterized by the use of communication via cyberspace to achieve the total exclusion of the victim from their school groups” (8). Once a victim is disempowered through isolation then a bully may proceed to hurt them more effectively.

“With cyberbullying, there is a direct confrontation between the victim and the abuser, while maintaining the anonymity of the latter, that is, the abuser wants the victim to know that he is suffering from harassment, and that he cannot do anything to prevent it, as a form of punishment; a form of power, that must be demonstrated by these actions.”

(Moisés de la Serna 12)

The bullying in Chatroom is even more sophisticated because Jim is deceived into believing that the bullies are helping him. William and Eva gain delight from tricking Jim and they endeavour to enlist Jack and Emily in the game too. William’s callousness is revealed when he tells Jack, “It will be a laugh. Right now, we’re all he [Jim] has … Let’s let him talk. Mess him up a bit. See how far he’ll go” (Walsh 42). In this case, it is not their intention to make the victim aware of his helplessness but instead to share a joke among themselves about how wickedly they can treat the unwitting Jim. William and Eva can purge their personal feelings of anger and helplessness through the annihilation of an online stranger.

“Cyberbullying is about power, usually with the intent of humiliation, blackmail and even harassment of the other person. All this with the “impunity” of knowing that they will not be found out, and that they will not receive any punishment, since for the cyberbully it is enough to switch off the computer and not reconnect with that victim.”

(Moisés de la Serna 15)

Walsh’s characters are conspicuous in that they all come from an affluent borough of London. Therefore, one would not readily associate them with schoolyard brawls or open shows of bullying since these transgressions would damage their school records. Middle-class teenagers are usually bound for university are therefore under constant pressure to achieve academically and maintain social conventions. In such circumstances, online activity may be a release valve for pent-up aggression. Moisés de la Serna looked at the profiles of cyberbullies and noted that “in cyberbullying there is a percentage of aggressors that only offend in cyberspace, that is, they do not do so in the traditional environment. It may be because they see there are more factors that facilitate online aggression (anonymity, simple-to-use digital tools, rapid diffusion…)” (19). If William and Eva bully exclusively online, then their nefarious conduct is indeed expertly hidden. The larger-than-life schoolyard bully of old is now concealed online.

Cyberbullies may hurt others to alleviate their own feelings of anger or helplessness, however the bullies in Chatroom have an important, additional motivation. Eva talks about how teenagers sleepwalk through life so “It would be so great to accomplish something important. To have a cause” (Walsh 28). William likewise expresses this wish as – “I want to make a big statement. Who doesn’t?!” (30). Jim unwittingly becomes their cause: someone who they may manipulate to create a fantastic, public scene when he commits suicide. William and Eva will relish this show of power, yet they will incur no negative repercussions since they are invisible puppet masters. Their level of effort will be minimal for the disproportionately large and grotesque payoff.

The victim.

Jim wants to communicate his teenage angst and chooses an online forum for the same reasons William is online, namely freedom and anonymity. It is odd how the boys’ needs are shown to converge at first but then one witnesses the drastic divergence. Jim initially visits a depression chatroom in an effort to measure the gravity of his low moods. He confides in Laura, saying, “Maybe I shouldn’t be even in this place. I don’t know whether it’s that serious yet” (16). Whether Jim is clinically depressed or not may only be fully assessed by a professional such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. However, Jim’s status as a potential victim of bullying, a quite separate issue, seems indubitable. Moisés de la Serna explains that “those who suffer most [from bullying] are those who show low levels of self-esteem, with overprotective parents, an intermediate socio-economic level and a low sense of coherence” (17). Jim’s low self-esteem becomes evident immediately when he repeatedly asks Laura if she’s fine with listening to his story – “But you’d say if you did mind? If it was too draining, too annoying, too boring maybe…?” (Walsh 16). His overly apologetic nature signals someone who cannot easily set personal boundaries or assert himself. At home, Jim is already being bullied and beaten by his brothers; his domineering mother drinks and takes Valium; his friend, Timmy Timmons, has died; and his father abandoned him as a child. There is no coherence in Jim’s life so he hopes that an online chatroom may hold the elusive answers he seeks. The chatroom is like a trap ready to snap shut after he enters because his vulnerability is apparent and appealing to bullies. Jim unquestionably has the freedom to divulge highly personal information online but in a perverse twist, anonymity does not protect him. Being nameless and untraceable favours those who leave a trail of destruction behind them, not those who absorb the resulting emotional damage.

In Jim, one finds a character who is unusually open to suggestion, and this makes him susceptible to manipulation and abuse. David P. Phillips quotes, “Cantril, Toch and Krapp [who] have claimed that anomic individuals are unusually suggestible, and many students of suicide have claimed that anomic individuals are prone to suicide” (341). Jim lacks purpose in life, is alienated, and suffers from malaise, so he unquestionably qualifies as anomic. Jim’s decision to join a depression chatroom signals an effort to find answers but it is covertly a search for likeminded teenagers too. The latter poses a significant risk for suggestible individuals.  

“Kreitman et al. (1969) noted that attempted suicides had an unusually large number of suicidal friends. This result might indicate that persons imitate their friends’ suicides, or that suicide-prone persons select each other as friends.”

(Phillips 341)

The danger is that Jim is susceptible enough to fall prey to “the Werther effect” (Phillips 341). The company of other melancholic teens could just as easily be detrimental as helpful. All that is required is a model to lead him astray. Walsh convincingly portrays how impressionable teenagers can be with the innocuous example of Eva’s belly button piercing (Walsh 13). This piercing is thanks to the influence of the pop goddess, Britney Spears, whom Eva ironically now hates. In short, teenagers are easily swayed and are equally fickle in their tastes. Jeffrey A. Bridge writes that, “Previous studies indicate that suicide contagion disproportionately affects those who strongly identify with the person who died by suicide (particularly celebrities)” (240). If Jim is convinced that he has no hope of changing or recovering, as William and Eva repeat, then a simple news story about a celebrity suicide or a TV show featuring suicide may convince him to act. Jim has already been primed to view suicide as a solution so a relatable example of death by suicide could decide his fate. Phillips writes of how “Studies of suggestion (reviewed in Lang and Lang, 1961:255-89) indicate that a model is more likely to be imitated if he is prestigious and if his circumstances are thought to be similar to those of the imitator” (352). Even though Jim confides that he is genuinely depressed, he evades an audience’s expectations when he dismisses the suggestion that he may be indulging his melancholy like a superficially depressed teen.

“JIM: I’m not one of these people who keeps an altar to Kurt Cobain or anything like that. I actually can’t stand Nirvana. I don’t need their music to feed my depression. I can happily do it all by myself…”

(Walsh 33)

This statement appears to disparage the notion that Jim will buckle to the influence of some media story by helplessly copying a suicide. Yet, this is to overlook what medium Jim is currently using to garner advice on what he should do – mobile media. It is true that he is not reading The Sorrows of the Young Werther or watching an emotive TV programme like 13 Reasons Why, or even listening to Nirvana while mulling over Kurt Cobain’s suicide. What Jim is doing is allowing information accessed through a new form of media to dominate his thinking about how to solve the problem of depression. Walsh ingeniously inserts modern media in the mix while simultaneously acknowledging the roles of more traditional media like pop songs and news stories about melancholic grunge stars, and depressing novels. The online chatroom is a dynamic new form of media which evades the normal safety nets that reliably flag issues with books and TV programmes. In short, the chatroom is no less potent a medium of influence when it comes to suicidal ideation, plus it has the added risk of falling below the radars of normal regulatory bodies. Jeffrey A. Bridge has written the following damning assessment concerning the shortfalls of the TV series 13 Reasons Why.

“Critics have argued that the series overlooked or ignored evidence and media guidelines suggesting that suicide contagion is fostered by stories that sensationalize or promote simplistic explanations of suicidal behavior, glorify or romanticize the decedent, present suicide as a means of accomplishing a goal such as community change or revenge, or offer potential prescriptions of “how to” die by suicide.”

(Bridge 236)

All the issues raised in relation to the recklessness of the TV portrayal of a suicide are equally applicable to Jim’s situation.

Descent into a depressive maelstrom.

When Jim first speaks to Laura, he is unsure of the severity of his problems. Laura has volunteered in the chatroom about depression so that other teenagers may have a safe space to express their feelings. Laura diligently eschews giving any advice. The environment must be safe because as Laura later explains – “In these rooms, words are power” (Walsh 61). The provision of ill-informed or malicious advice can prove deadly. The real-life case of Michelle Carter has shown the public how instrumental words alone can be in someone’s eventual suicide, even when those words appear only on a mobile phone or computer screen. What occurs in Chatroom is that Jim’s feelings of helplessness quickly calcify into an unchangeable state of doom as a direct result of William and Eva’s destructive, online narrative. The bullies’ influence threatens to set up the Werther effect and mobile media is simply a tool that facilitates an execution of the plan.

Jim is not holed up in his bedroom listening to Kurt Cobain songs. He’s listening instead to two sociopathic teenagers who are pretending to be his friends. As William exuberantly tells Jack – “We’re there for him [Jim] 24/7… it will be a blast!” (Walsh 42). The bullies’ advice is figuratively on tap and therefore always crafted to Jim’s real time moods and associated fears. One witnesses how detrimental this situation is when William and Eva dissect Jim’s life into a sequence of negative, derogatory statements until he is “(almost hyperventilating)” (44). Jack tries to break William and Eva’s hold over Jim when it becomes apparent that the online relationship has become unhealthy.

“JACK. Well, no offence, Jim… but we’re your age… shouldn’t you be taking advice

from a doctor maybe?

JIM. Well, I was actually thinking…

EVA. Christ, Jack, that’s so fucking cruel. Don’t you get it? He doesn’t have anyone. We’re it!”

(Walsh 39)

The territorial nature of Eva’s remarks signal that Jim is now seen as a possession rather than a person. Chisholm and Trent’s paper about bullying explains how, “Students’ responses to the prompt “People who are bullied by others . . .” could be characterized by the lack of agency that students ascribed to people who are bullied” (76). Bullies read the passivity apparent in some of their peers and subsequently grasp any opportunity to exert power over such individuals. Jack attempts to break this domination by telling Jim to focus on the positives in his life rather than the negatives. William instantly becomes highly defensive and formulates a lie to turn Jim against Jack. The bullies insist on isolating Jim from any potential source of help and their advice is nothing more than a diatribe of negativity.

Walsh’s portrayal of a confused, depressed teen is highly engaging since it highlights exactly why such teenagers are bad judges of character. The core issue is that a confused teen yearns for definitive advice. When Jim joins the depression chatroom, Laura tells him – “You just need to know that there’s someone listening to you. That’s enough, isn’t it” (Walsh 21). This would likely be sufficient if Jim had other supports in his life such as family or medical help. In contrast, Jim is lost and therefore instinctively gravitates towards people like William and Eva who are strongly opinionated and unafraid to push advice on him in an authoritative manner. The bullies wear devious facades of knowingness and pretend that Jim’s problems are blatantly obvious – just like the solution to such problems. Jim finally despairs of the whole situation when, after the barrage of negative advice he has received, he says – “You know I don’t think I can listen to any more talking” (63). The window of opportunity to help him seems ominously to have closed. The person who originally went online to unburden himself of inner turmoil has instead endured a character assassination. Jim’s meek voice is drowned out by the bullies until he regresses further into himself, and his situation seems even more insoluble.

Jim has become William and Eva’s cause, their project. They package Jim’s predicament in such a way that it appears to have a new and quite important significance. Jim is enticed into the narrative through various underhand techniques. First, Jim’s potential suicide is interpreted as an opportunity for revenge by William, who says, – “focus on your anger and channel it into something that will get all those people in your past back” (50). Jim volunteers the information that his mother could be the target of such revenge, so William adds – “She’d be crushed. The guilt would kill her” (51). After this, William provides two questions, both of which have a negative spin, which Jim should ask himself at night. Such questions have the goal of sending Jim into a downward spiral leading to a hopeless, depressive episode. The final challenge for William and Eva is to make Jim believe that he will achieve something quite special by committing suicide.

“WILLIAM – I was thinking that Jim’s depression allows him to see things clearer than us. He’s been neglected by his family and friends so that maybe his isolation represents perfectly the average teenager’s plight. It’s like he’s expressing important issues in a creative way. It’s poetry,”

(Walsh 58)

Instead of identifying with a dead celebrity like Monroe or Cobain, Jim is lured instead into identifying with the idea that his death will have a magnificent purpose. William has successfully formulated a plan that may entrap a depressed teenager, saying – “Imagine all those forgotten teenagers you’d be speaking for if you killed yourself publicly. You’d be a hero. A legend” (58). It is noteworthy that William additionally tries to put a political spin on the suicide as if it will strike a blow for teenagers against an older, callous generation. Regarding anomic persons like Jim, Phillips provides the insight that “A person who finds no meaning in life may kill himself; but, on the other hand, he may join a religious or political movement that provides him with meaning” (351). Since Jim’s death is now packaged as a political statement, it is not a choice between death or politics, but death as integral to politics. The potential lifeline for Jim of joining a cause becomes enmeshed with the death wish.

One may interpret William and Eva’s cruel plan as a piece of surrealist art. The twosome glamourize death for Jim but in truth, the plan is a script for a grotesque, public spectacle where a teenager will kill himself while live-streaming the event. Like the director of a snuff movie, William fashions a flimsy storyline around the death, feeds lines and ‘helpful’ motivations to the central actor, but cunningly never appears on screen himself. It is Laura who finally confronts William with the truth, saying – “The statement being made is yours. But what are you saying, William? That you’ve got power?” (Walsh 61). William is unmasked as a teenager frustrated by his impotence and irrelevance in the larger world and whose only goal is to manipulate Jim in order to create a grand gesture of power. Walsh inserts a twist at the end of the play so that the bullies do not win, at least not in the world fashioned by the playwright.

The denouement of Chatroom.

At the close of Chatroom, Jim appears to have reached a point of no return. He is tired of listening, tired of talking, and ominously says, “lets finish this” (63). Instead of a live broadcast on the internet, Jim invites the others to gather at the most public of places, a McDonald’s restaurant on the high street. For an audience watching the play, it appears as if the worst will happen. Jim’s arrival at this tragic point is the result of a snowball effect. At the outset, Jim was dealing with family problems but then William and Eva tilted his perspective towards death as a solution. If one had to pinpoint one misstep by Jim that inadvertently gave others an opportunity to hurt him then it was his naïve willingness to share information. It is a Catch-22 situation because without help he cannot resolve his depression, but desperate people often make bad friendship choices.

“Just as mothers used to say to their children “Don’t talk to strangers”, you must apply that to the Internet, it is not “bad” to talk to strangers, but it is dangerous to think that the “stranger” can be someone close to you with whom you can share intimacies.”

(Moisés de la Serna 36)

All the other characters maintain almost perfect anonymity and divulge mostly superficial personal information. When the play’s characters do reveal sensitive, personal information, for example, Emily’s anorexia or Laura’s suicide attempt, then they are mercilessly attacked and belittled by others.

For Jim, the problems all started when his father left. Phillips quotes suicide research regarding the death of a father – “Bunch and Barraclough (1971) found that suicides tend to kill themselves close to the anniversary of the death of their fathers” (347). Although Jim’s father has not died but has simply abandoned the family and then cut all contact, the pain Jim feels is similar to a bereavement. Jim surprises everyone when he takes ownership of this painful childhood memory and transforms this up-to-now weakness into an opportunity to recapture his carefree, happy, childhood nature. Instead of creating a horrific spectacle by publicly killing himself, Jim indulges a childhood love of cowboy costumes. The grand finale of the drama shows a teenage boy taking back his agency by simply playing. Play is the perfect antidote to depression since it is the shedding of self-conscious inhibitions and shame. From a psychological perspective, Jim is nurturing his inner child to heal a trauma that has too long affected his life. Additionally, Jim’s willingness to act in a silly and slightly immature manner for his age, but to do it without embarrassment, shows that he is less susceptible to bullies, less vulnerable to outside judgment and criticism. The tenseness of the close of the play is due to the fact that Jim’s decision could quite easily have gone the other way and he could have killed himself.


Walsh constructs and then elegantly dismantles the complot of the cyberbullies in Chatroom. This 2005 play was prescient given the many online bullying scandals that later appeared in the media. Mobile media take centre stage in the work and aid an understanding of the interlinked mechanics of modern bullying with how depressed teens find ever-evolving sources of inspiration when considering suicide.

The Werther effect, as it has traditionally been understood, has a limited scope. An increase in suicides is directly correlated with the media attention given to the suicidal death of a famous person. As explored in this essay, mobile media may serve equally well as a conveyor of intoxicating, depressive ideas that eventually lead vulnerable individuals to the same result, namely suicide. In all cases, the depressed person must embrace the model so to speak, meaning that he/she must strongly identify with the person/idea. Phillips argues that the Werther effect “is not necessarily produced by those who would have committed suicide anyway, even in the absence of a publicized suicide to imitate” (341). This is a crucial point for understanding Chatroom since Jim would potentially be an extra suicide i.e., an insidious example would have convinced him to commit suicide but without that influence he would be safe.

Moisés de la Serna comments that the media only show interest in cyberbullying “when the police catch a cyberbully or one of their victims commits suicide; only then is a certain visibility given to a problem” (9). What William and Eva almost successfully achieve is a perpetuation of a cycle of suicides. The bullies endeavour to take full control of another teen’s life by encouraging him to kill himself and if he does this in public or via live stream then the media will inevitably report it, resulting in additional suicides among young people. If Jim had killed himself in a McDonald’s, an icon of pop culture, then he would be transformed into a new model for hopeless youths. The result of tragic, online influence would make the headlines in traditional media and reach a huge audience.

A disturbing aspect of Chatroom is the degenerative depths to which the bullies will stoop. Without excusing the behaviour, one should assess the fundamental problem of perception, namely that teenagers who are active online often treat it as a sphere detached from any real-life consequences. There is a distinct absence of empathy which has become typical of online chat exchanges. William and Eva’s behaviour makes one consider if they are genuinely sociopathic or just chronically misguided. Moisés de la Serna describes the difference between cyberbullying and bullying – “the aggressor does not perceive the severity of the aggression (because he does not see the victim’s reaction)” (24). Laura’s challenge to William focuses on this precise aspect of online bullying. She says, “Because you can’t see him, it’s easier. It’s easier when you don’t have to see a dead boy and just imagine it like you read it in a book or something” (Walsh 61). It is ironic that at the opening of the play, William eviscerates children’s stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Harry Potter because they are not realistic representations of how the world works. However, William treats Jim in a way that would appear monstrous if it occurred in any relationship other than a cyber one. Like in William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies, one witnesses how teens let loose in a new terrain may quickly turn subhuman. The cyberspace terrain serves to highlight the very worst potentialities of what Sigmund Freud termed the id. William and Eva are the monsters that lurk within everyone and given the right environmental conditions, they suddenly appear.

Walsh shows how words alone may be the perfect hosts for malign behaviour. Messages and texts are shown to have the power to kill, a power confirmed by real-life cases. With the right words, things can go horribly wrong!

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed., Earl McPeek, 1999. 

Barron, Jesse. “The Girl from Plainville.” Esquire, 23rd Aug. 2017. 

Bridge, Jeffrey A., et al. “Association Between the Release of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why and Suicide Rates in the United States: An Interrupted Time Series Analysis.” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, vol. 59, no. 2, 2020, pp. 236-243. 

Chisholm, James S., and Brandie Trent. “‘Everything… Affects Everything’: Promoting Critical Perspectives toward Bullying with ‘Thirteen Reasons Why.’” The English Journal, vol. 101, no. 6, 2012, pp. 75–80. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Feb. 2023.

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. Faber and Faber, 2011.

Moisés de la Serna, Juan. Cyberbullying. Translated by Conchi Fuentes. Babelcube Books, 2019.

Phillips, David P. “The Influence of Suggestion on Suicide: Substantive and Theoretical Implications of the Werther Effect.” American Sociological Review, vol. 39, no. 3, 1974, pp. 340–54. JSTOR, Accessed 13 Feb. 2023. Walsh, Enda. Chatroom. Nick Hern Books, 2013.

Walsh, Enda. Chatroom. Nick Hern Books, 2013.

Closer to God

  • Title: Closer to God 
  • Author: Anna Jordan 
  • First performed: 2009 
  • Page count: 24 


A 79-year-old man and a young, single mother live in adjacent flats at the top of a UK tower block. This is the premise of Anna Jordan’s short play entitled Closer to God. Neither of the main characters is named, they are just opposing forces named “He” and “She.” They represent quite different conceptions of Britain: the old versus the new; the conservative pitted against the liberal; the nostalgic contrasting with the forward-looking. Jordan’s play appears to reference the backdrop of Brexit, but the play was actually written prior to the 2013 referendum announcement. Nonetheless, the play explores the changing face of modern life in the United Kingdom by addressing controversial topics such as foreigners and racism. Among the other themes highlighted in the work are social isolation, single parenting, memory, and interconnectedness.  

Ways to access the text: reading

Anna Jordan is a contemporary writer, and this short work is relatively new so you may well consider purchasing this play. However, there are some free online sources such as the website – or alternatively you may access the script via Scribd using the free trial period.  

Closer to God is quite reader-friendly and consists of a single extended dialogue.  

Why read Closer to God

“Up where the air is clear” (Sherman and Sherman).  

One cannot imagine Jordan’s characters being particularly interested in singing songs like “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins. In fact, even though they are quite literally up where the air is clear, they surprisingly complain that there is “no air up here” (Jordan 11). The play examines the intricacies of life at the top of a high-rise which include myriad overt and covert stressors. Examples of these are noises, smells, broken lifts, entrapment, loneliness, misunderstandings, and poverty. Kids of suburban families go fly kites in a park but up in the rarefied air of tower blocks, people are effectively cut off from the world and usually from each other too. This is a land of tinned foods and few opportunities for improvement. Jordan’s play is depressing and inspiring in equal parts.  

Post reading discussion/interpretation. 

“Man Against a Concrete Colossus.” 


Anna Jordan’s play, Closer to God, has two main characters named He and She. However, the high-rise tower exerts such influence over its residents that one may view it as a third character. The influence is not good. In an essay by Robert Gifford entitled “The Consequences of living in High-Rise Buildings,” he explains that – “Early studies and reviews concluded that high-rises are, on balance, not beneficial for residents” (2). Needless to say, high rise buildings are still being constructed all over the world each year so they evidently benefit someone. Maybe since tall building have a smaller urban footprint, they appease the gods of nature and also our environmental conscientiousness. Jordan’s play delves into the topics concerning life in a modern, multicultural Britain and how human nature resists the conditioning of a negative dwelling place like an aging, high-rise of council flats. Such buildings have long been the reserve of the poor, disenfranchised and forgotten. At the close of the play, the character He refers to a documentary named “Life After People” (Jordan 19) which predicts “how nature will eventually reclaim all the towns and cities” (20). Jordan acknowledges the problems of high-rise housing but promotes the view that human nature battles against the insidious influence of the concrete giants that are high-rises. The play explores the battle between human nature and architecture while Mother Nature looms ominously in the background.  

High-rise living.  

First, one may ask what are the problems of high rise living? Gifford explains that “High-rise residences evoke at least six fears” (2), which are: people falling or jumping; getting trapped during a fire; an earthquake; a terrorist attack on the building; strangers and crime; and the risk of communicable diseases (2). This list includes everything from the plausible to the somewhat paranoid. Of equal, or possibly more interest, is the fact that “High-rise buildings can be associated with negative outcomes without causing those outcomes” (3). Gifford outlines how these “Moderators are factors or variables that are associated with differences in outcomes, but not in a causal sense” (3). It is by reference to moderators that one can most easily distinguish between potentially happy or discontented living conditions. Gifford writes that “Four such moderating factors are residents’ economic status, the amount of choice among residences a resident has, the building’s location within the urban fabric, and population density” (3). In the cases of He and She, these moderating factors are greatly enlightening. First, residents in social housing have a low economic status as this is a requirement of admission. They would have had minimal or no choice in the location of their new homes. Social housing buildings are often in less desirable parts of a town or city and overcrowding is a frequent problem. An example of the last point is given when He complains of neighbours in his building – “six of them, living on top of each other in that tiny flat!” (Jordan 11). In essence, what unites unhappy high-rise dwellers is a stark lack of choice. There are consequently two distinct faces to high-rise living as Gifford describes below.

“Among high-rise residents, for example, presumably most wealthy denizens of tall expensive apartment buildings in desirable locations are quite pleased with their high rises, and we know that many residents are miserably unhappy with their broken-down ghetto high-rise dwellings.”

(Gifford 4)

Another important moderating factor highlighted by Gifford is “life-cycle stage” (3). ‘He’ is elderly and in poor health while Jayden is still just a baby. In a high-rise building, the elderly may become fearful of new and foreign tenants and subsequently isolate themselves just like He does when he adopts a bunker mentality and stocks up on tinned foods. As for Jayden, his prospects are not enhanced by his living environment either since “Numerous studies suggest that children have problems in high-rises; none suggest benefits for them” (10). If one delves into the specifics then one finds that children – “who lived in high-rises were significantly more likely to have severe behavior problems than children in other forms of housing” (8). Jayden’s social housing environment will prime him to evolve into an anti-social youth thus perpetuating the problems of such communities.  

There are both visible and invisible negatives to high rise living. Understanding the effects of the building is the starting point to assessing the residents’ behaviours. The play does not depict people crushed by their circumstances but instead shows a valiant, ongoing struggle to survive by people who are often unsure of their true enemies. 

From godsend to godforsaken place.  

The meaning of the title, Closer to God, works on several levels. ‘He’ explains that when the towers were first built, they were greeted with optimistic fanfare. He jokes of – “High-rise living, [being] that little bit closer to God” (Jordan 9). In a literal sense, the elevation above the rest of the city brings the man closer to the traditionally understood location of heaven in the sky. However, the title harbours more serious, negative connotations. First, the old man is reminiscing about when the towers were initially built but that is a past, now lost era of his younger days. Gone too are the lofty expectations of high-rise social housing. Neither the man’s life nor the buildings have been a remarkable success. Now, old and sick, He faces death after years of painful, social isolation. When once he may have considered himself blessed by God to attain a flat in a modern building – now, it is different, the flat (or a care home) will be his last grim residence before death. She wryly comments that his “leg [is] dead already. Waiting for the rest of him to join” (15). The feeling of being a little closer to God changes tone from a one-time gleefulness to an aching despondency because the slow-creeping necrosis that has already got his foot, will soon end him too.  

Building higher and higher into the sky has been a millennia-long fascination of man. Robert Gifford writes that, “If the minimal definition of a high-rise is a building taller than three storeys, then the history of high rises may be traced back to the pyramids of Egypt” (2). In practical terms, high rise buildings are an economical use of scarce and expensive land space but, more than anything else, they will always be interpreted as daring feats of architectural excellence. Tall buildings are symbolic of a modern, thriving world where cities are bursting with people and the wheels of industry spin endlessly. Jordan quietly delineates the type of buildings of which society is proud, and contrastingly the type of buildings she describes in the play which are the yesterday of progress and the today of ghettoization and deprivation. Such building are no longer symbols of success but icons of the anonymised poor who often lead dead-end lives. The dream of a ‘high life’ is gone when tower blocks are plagued by anti-social behaviour, poor upkeep, and divisions between tenants.  

Various problems emerge within the high-rise tower that serve to diminish the quality of life of old and new residents alike. One of the most unexpected wedges to come between tenants is the English language. In Gifford’s essay, there is a salient reference to towering buildings and the associated importance of a common language. 

“The Christian Bible briefly tells the story of the Tower of Babel. According to the account, before the tower was complete God decided that if humans could complete such a tower, they could accomplish anything. That was not acceptable, so God caused confusion among the people by cursing them with multiple languages (everyone had spoken the same language until then, and their tower-building success was attributed to this).”

(Gifford 2).

The Tower of Babel was constructed thanks to cooperation supported by a common language whereas the tower block of the play becomes a failure due to a breakdown of cooperation associated with an ‘uncommon’ language. In the old man’s view, the new tenants do not speak the same language as him. It is still English but not as he knows it. The strangely undulating accents of foreigners’ grate on his ears so much that he experiences them as alien.

“Made English sound like a foreign language. Didn’t recognise the sounds, the vowels. They’d stolen it. They’d stolen English!”

(Jordan 17)

‘He’ makes these comments about Jayden’s dad and the accompanying male friend. These people are not of his tribe, not like the original tenants in the building who had “Good English names. Round white faces” (8). Now it is “a sea of brown faces, foreign tongues. Assads and Mohameds and Osamas” (10). If one looks beyond the apparent racism of the comments then there is fear at the core of the old man’s concerns. When Jayden’s dad visits, he is under the influence of alcohol and cocaine (17) and there is a second man in tow. The old man describes how he hears this ex-partner “Hitting her. Kicking her, I think” (17) and this is soon followed by sounds of sex. These new people scare him. Long gone are the residents with familiar names and accents whom he felt safe approaching and conversing with. Long gone also is the level of cooperation that meant “each flat would take it in turns to clean the landing” (10). Complaining about language is just the old man’s way of othering them. Additionally, he displays reverse ageism through his disapproval of his female neighbour’s modern slang, her misuse of his language. He regards her vocabulary as coarse, saying she has a “potty mouth” (7) because of her habit of saying things like “‘F this,’ ‘F that,’ ‘Little F-ing C’” (6). The rift between him and the new tenants is predominantly a cultural one rather than a linguistic one. In a figurative sense, they do not speak his language and therefore cooperation breaks down.  

Behind the scenes, successive governments and local councils contribute to the problems by underfunding social housing and neglecting essential support for, and integration of foreign nationals. The results are not just tower blocks that end up as eyesores on the landscape but conditions within such blocks that lead to social unrest and burgeoning prejudices. Jordan’s play encapsulates many of the social ailments that were precursors to Brexit.  


Closer to God broaches the emotive topic of suicides, or what He calls “jumpers” (11). He recalls one couple he knew from the building – “Paul died of cancer and Sandra threw herself off” (11). The unavoidably public nature of such deaths by suicide means that they are regularly reported by newspapers. Gifford poses a crucial question in his essay – “do high-rise building contribute to suicide?” (7). He explains that “One school of thought (the substitution hypothesis) holds that individuals who wish to dispose of themselves will find a way, regardless of the possible means” (7). In other words, if one method is not available then the person will simply substitute with another way of killing themselves. On the other hand, “A different view, the availability hypothesis, holds that tall buildings, to some extent, encourage or facilitate suicides that would not have otherwise occurred” (7). Neither He nor She speak directly of suicide, but the oppressive atmosphere of their living conditions suggests depressive thoughts. For instance, when the lift is out of order which regularly happens then the residents at the top of the building feel “Trapped … In a shoebox in the sky” (Jordan 12). This description suggests a feeling of claustrophobia but it also connotes death. Small pets are often buried in shoe boxes by little children. The shoe box doubles as a coffin and thereby a pet may be buried inexpensively and without much commotion in a suburban garden. Are He and She living in cheap, cardboard coffins on the 19th floor? She articulates her dread as follows.

“If I sit around here for too long I start to get that feeling. That numb feeling? It’s like I’m sitting here and it starts at my feet, up to my knees then right through my body … I feel …dead. I feel that I’m dying slowly. Dying and rotting up here.”

(Jordan 12)

She reflexively contemplates the life led by the elderly man next door, and she fears that his forgotten existence presages her own future. The numb feeling starts at her feet and she may end up like him – “dragging that poor leg” (15). To ward off her fears, she puts on dance music at high volume, and as she says – “I dance and I sweat and then I know I’m alive” (12). In a dissimilar fashion but to the same end, the old man lets his TV on day and night. The “telly” (13) is his sole companion and it alleviates his feelings of loneliness and protects him against the same deathly silence and soul numbing that oppresses her. Given that these two individuals have almost nothing in common then the common denominator is the building and the influence it exerts over its inhabitants. Neither of the two may ever actively contemplate suicide but their existence in that atmosphere constitutes a slow, passive suicide. 

Rhythm of life.  

Despite the antisocial behaviour, the turds in the elevator, and the puke in the hallway – Jordan’s play is not a diary of the crestfallen. The playwright reveals an almost imperceptible force that endures and even combats the cold environment of the tower block, namely human nature.  

In a building with “walls paper thin” (11), the separate, contrasting rhythms of his and her lives result in a tremendous, interconnected effect. To return to the earlier topic of choice – neither of them asked for the neighbour they ended up with, so they are effectively launched into a symbiotic relationship. Their eventual connection is all the stranger given that they never even meet anymore.

“SHE. We don’t meet now, face to face.  

HE. Just the noises and sounds”

(Jordan 15)

She knows what TV programmes he watches, how often he bathes, that he lives on pies (evidence in rubbish), and even when he breaks wind! He knows her lack of routine, her singing, Jayden’s play noises, the “boom boom boom” (13) music, and the sound of her ex-boyfriend’s voice. It is ironic that they do not even know each other’s names, yet they exist in a strange union with one another daily. It is this semi-anonymous interconnectedness that Jordan mines for meaning in her play.  

The prickly relationship between the neighbours is a by-product of the building’s power. For example, even though he was “pleased at first” (7) about getting a new neighbour, his sustained experience of isolated living inadvertently led to a spoiled first impression. He had not had a visitor for years and therefore unthinkingly slammed the door in her face (14). She was insulted as her only intention had been to offer to do his shopping for him. Since all his former neighbours have left or died and he is now surrounded by unfamiliar, often foreign faces and strange accents, he has become withdrawn and fearful. The environment has brought out the worst in him, like his xenophobia. For her as a newbie, the monstrosity of concrete that is the high rise is complemented by the old man’s “flabby, grey face” (14). The building’s cold impression has successfully rubbed off on the old resident of some thirty years.  

But the connection between these two people still has value. She is annoyed by him and yet she feels sad knowing that he awakes from his dreams calling out the name “Evie” (16). She wonders if it’s his wife’s name. He considers her a small, spiky, “in-your-face” (14) type, yet when she is being beaten by her ex-partner, he grabs a baseball bat and very nearly confronts the man. Jordan depicts the thorny relationship between He and She which despite the aggravations, has a golden seam of goodness hidden within. What is shown is that they are acting against expectations since “Research is unanimous in finding that rates of helping others are lower in high-rise buildings” (Gifford 12). In the end, the force of human nature is stronger than the environmental ills.  

Another compelling aspect of the relationship between him and her is how each perceives the other. For her, he represents the awful prospect of a lonely, valueless, old age. She bristles when he bluntly asks what she has done so far in her life. She responds with – “I’m young. I’ve got time!” (13). He is an omen of things to come for her, should she never escape her current predicament. For him, it is quite different since he looks to the past for comfort, whereas her youth obliges her to look only forward. He finds in her a spark to fully ignite his memory of his daughter, Evie. It is not clear if he is estranged from his daughter or if she died. ‘She’ acts as a substitute for a missing loved one and her laugh is reminiscent of his daughter’s so the connection feels less false, less contrived. Without this lifeline, he has only his TV for a friend.  

Jordan does not depict any grand gestures or unprecedented character transformations. Instead, she shows how people may be driven quite crazy by their neighbours and nonetheless still grudgingly look out for them, empathise with them, keep them in mind. The play is a tale of a little triumph in a world that is unyielding and hard. However, to expose this little glimmer of hope, the play must also honestly expose the loneliness of urban living, the fears of old age, and the damaged prospects of a new generation.


It is fitting that the world inhabited by the residents of the top floor may only truthfully be reflected back to them by “stand[ing] at the window and look[ing] at the other tower” (19). These people are detached from the lives of the millions down at ground level. The sight of the lights going out in the adjacent building represents the child’s idea of stars blinking in the night’s sky. It never happens that all the lights go out. In the old man’s apartment, the lights also never go out, at least not the flickering, blue glow of the television screen in the living room. For him, the buzz of background noise is proof of persistent life, not yet re-consumed and devoured by Mother Nature like in the TV documentary he watched. Like in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “Ozymandias,” which speaks of an ancient statue now in ruins in the sand, the tower block’s “sneer of cold command” (line 5) will one day crumble too. However, left behind will be the world we still recognise where goodness grows in the most inhospitable of soil.  

Works Cited.

Gifford, Robert. “The Consequences of living in High-Rise Buildings.” Architectural Science Review, vol. 50, no.1, University of Sydney, 2007, pp. 1-16.  

Jordan, Anna. Closer to God. Nick Hern Books, 2018.  

Shelley, Percy Bysshe. “Ozymandias.” Poetry Foundation, Accessed 18 November 2022.  

Sherman, Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman. “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Mary Poppins: Original Cast Soundtrack, Walt Disney, 1964.  


  • Play title: Plasticine
  • Author: Vassily Sigarev
  • First performed: 2002
  • Page count: 87


Plasticine is a work by Siberian born playwright, screenwriter, and director, Vassily Sigarev. The setting for the play is an unnamed, provincial, Russian city and the historical period is just after the fall of communism. The central character is a teenage boy named Maksim. He lives with his grandmother because his mother has “flown away” (Vassily 76) and he has just one friend, a school buddy named Lyokha. Young Maksim must face a series of challenging episodes beginning with the death of a friend from childhood to an ambush set up by a girl that leads to male rape. An audience is presented with a bleak view of provincial, Russian life in the Ural region that is dominated by alcohol abuse, violence, poverty, and hopelessness. Maksim’s only psychological escape is when he models little plasticine figures in his bedroom at night. The play is part of Russian New Drama which evolved in the 1990’s. Important themes in the work include misogyny, sex, violence, creativity, adolescence, and death.

Ways to access the text: reading.    

The playscript is available for free via services such as Perlego and Scribd (free trial). Even though the play had success in Russia and the UK, it is still a relatively unknown work and therefore not widely available for free.  

Please note that Plasticine is not a particularly reader-friendly work since it contains 33 separate scenes which, even though arranged in chronological order, have a disorientating effect due to the constant, quick changes of scene and mood.  

Why read Plasticine

Russia after the fall of communism.  

The play offers a rare, theatrical representation of life in Russia just after 1991. The social environment that Sigarev depicts is reflective of the economic crisis of that era brought about by the unsteady transition of Russia to a market based economy. The grim, old, Soviet-era apartment buildings are crumbling, and the fabric of society is also in danger of disintegrating due to poverty, alcohol abuse, and wanton violence. Maksim is barely a teenager, yet he must make his way in a city of constant threats and treacherous characters. This world is alien to most western audiences and therefore a compelling theatrical experience.  

Plasticine man.  

In the play, one encounters a raw, unflinching realism which is only fleetingly counterbalanced by ephemeral moments of poetic beauty. Maksim is an artistic boy who moulds plasticine in his room at night as a way of processing the harshness of his daily experiences. Among other things, he moulds a quite literal representation of manhood in the form of a giant penis; he moulds masculinity as a fist; and he moulds little girl and boy figures too. Each shape speaks on behalf of an almost mute teenager whom life batters daily with insults and rejections. While Sigarev’s play is narrated in often foul language, the play still expresses a rare, hope-tinged beauty as experienced by Maksim in sporadic dream-like moments.  

Post reading discussion/interpretation. 

“The Plasticine Boy Speaks” 


In a Russian language interview, Vassily Sigarev explained to Yury Dud that the originally proposed title of Plasticine was “Fall from Innocence Two …[or] The Body.” This unused title more comprehensively reflects that the work is a tale of adolescent struggle and the associated loss of childhood innocence. Sigarev’s protagonist, Maksim, is much like the biblical Eve in the Garden of Eden because the loss of innocence simultaneously marks the awakening of body consciousness. The playwright wrote Plasticine when aged just 23 so his own teenage experiences were fresh in his mind and the result is a play genuinely reflective of a teenager’s perspective on Russian society at that time.  

Sigarev originally trained as a “chemistry and biology teacher” (vdud), but soon turned his back on the prospect of teaching to become a writer instead. In regard to education in Russia and education in general, Sigarev said that “they debase people everywhere – individuality means nothing there – you’re cattle – they turn you into cattle” (Vdud). He has stated that “degradation is the foundation of public life in Russia … [and that] People degraded each other in the 90’s” (vdud). In Plasticine, Maksim is a victim of an uncompromising educational system and the society into which the boy is cast, is even more merciless. The central theme of the play is degradation in so far as the work is about the annihilation of character and the slow metamorphosis of Maksim into someone less idealistic and cruel. For Maksim, victory is impossible, success is unlikely, and survival requires total submission to a crushing conformity. The only escape is death. However, the play is never nihilistic due to Maksim’s unwavering attempts to abide by his own moral compass, and he is aided by his love of art which becomes a vital means of self-expression that sustains him. Nevertheless, in the end, Sigarev’s protagonist is destroyed by his own society. This essay will address some of the academic responses to Plasticine in order to highlight how the work has been read and interpreted to date.  

Three broad headings under which one may productively analyse Plasticine are adolescence, stage props, and violence. Of these, stage props is the only heading that requires a cursory explanation but it simply refers to how Maksim’s use of plasticine informs an audience. Susanna Weygandt explains that “The plastic material in Plasticine expresses the emotions that Maksim’s words cannot” (125). Weygandt explores the significance of moulding clay as a means of expression in a play where the protagonist is neither an adult nor particularly verbally expressive. Regarding adolescence, Jenny Kaminer explores how creative imagination is central to an understanding of Maksim. She makes the observation that “Adolescent heroes have dotted the fictional landscape of Russian literature since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991” (190), and she explores why adolescence as a transitional stage is so important. Thirdly, in regard to violence, Birgit Beumers and Mark Lipovetsky propose that “the play is a metaphor for cynical violence as a universal language of social communication, or rather for everyday social terror, for the post-Soviet civil war where everybody fights each other” (246). Plasticine has not received adequate academic attention despite its prominence within the “In-Yer-Face” school of drama of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. For this reason, the essay will also briefly address some gaps in the literature, for example the themes of teenage sexuality and misogyny in Plasticine

Stage Props.  

Plasticine opens on an eerily silent scene. A young boy moulds plasticine “into a strange shape” (Vassily 8) and then casts this unspecified shape by using lead sourced from old, car batteries. The fumes from the work make his eyes water at first, but then he sobs with true emotion. The scene ends with the cracking of the bowl used to make the cast. This introductory scene highlights how a simple stage prop, namely plasticine, will be essential to an understanding of the lead character, Maksim.  

Susanna Weygandt addresses the role of stage props in her essay entitled, “The Structure of Plasticity: Resistance and Accommodation in Russian New Drama.” Weygandt makes the following argument which decidedly removes the spotlight from Plasticine’s central character.

“In most conventional plays, and in most Soviet plays, the hero is propelled through the play by the deeds that he or she performs; but in the New Drama, on the other hand, there is no deed that can define the protagonist – as a hero, a plot-bearing entity, or nearly as anything at all” (118).  

If one accepts such an interpretation then Maksim becomes a passive entity through which a message is delivered, rather than an active, autonomous agent of change. Such a proposal is jarring as it depletes Maksim’s significance and turns him into a shadow character. However, Weygandt’s essay is nuanced in its assertions and highly informative regarding how an audience may view the role of the stage props in Plasticine. For instance, the challenges of Maksim’s childhood are largely determined by his social environment, lending credence to Weygandt’s assertion that “In the postdramatic plays of New Drama, without the protagonist to drive them forward, the plays revert to the action propelled by the lived-in sites and objects” (119). In Plasticine, the site is a provincial city tainted by alcohol fuelled violence and as for the object, it is simply plasticine, the common play material of children.  

Maksim moulds plasticine into various shapes: an extra-large, limp penis; the figures of a girl and a boy; and a knuckle duster. Maksim’s grandmother tells the school that he “does lovely plasticine models” (Vassily 36), so one may deduce that he is quite prolific. Plasticine modelling replaces the boy’s infrequent words and thus one must look to the models for insights into his character. Weygandt makes the following point about how one may interpret stage props.

“Jiří Veltruský of the Prague School identified the contribution of props to performance in his 1940 essay “Man and Object in the Theatre.” Veltruský found that props can “act” because props, once placed onstage, carry with them a force “which provokes in us the expectation of a certain action” (1955:103).” 

(Weygandt 117)

One may cynically test this theory in regard to Plasticine. Particular attention needs to be paid to the timelines involved. For instance, Maksim fashions a knuckle duster in advance of his attempted revenge on the men who raped both him and Lyokha. Thus, the prop indeed sets up an expectation of future, vengeful action. On the other hand, Maksim moulds a girl out of clay before he unexpectedly receives an invite from Lyokha for a double date with Natasha and her mystery, female friend. In this case, the plasticine figure seems to materialize magically into life when Lyokha promises Maksim a date with a real girl. As for the oversized, plasticine penis, Maksim makes his plan known to Lyokha before moulding the appendage and later has reason to implement his revenge on Ludmila, the Russian teacher, when she once again insists on entering the boy’s toilets. In summation, the moulded figures either foreshadow an action, or alternatively, they imaginatively come to life. The latter is problematic as it affords the character great imaginative powers and therefore, covert agency.  

It seems paradoxical to state that an inanimate object acts independently of the actor on stage (ref Veltruský) because surely the main character is always the sole communicator and agent of change. Additionally, how can one credibly look to Maksim’s environment as a primary, agential power? In truth, the central character, his environment, and the stage props that surround him simultaneously communicate information and influence action. Even though Weygandt credits the central character with an imagination that finds expression in the surrounding objects, she still maintains that heroes of Russian New Drama are essentially “hollow” (118). For instance, she writes the following about props and environment. 

“With smaller, handheld objects the imagination of the actor is read by the way the objects on the stage appear. Agency exists in the environment and the dispossessed body of the actor becomes an active receiver of it. The actor receives and even becomes the shape that he takes hold of …” (123). 

This represents a solid argument when applied to Maksim’s use of the knuckle duster and the fake penis. These objects represent a teenage boy’s idealized view of masculinity. The knuckle duster substitutes for weak, young hands thus creating an imaginative, macho ideal that the boy cannot credibly realise. The oversized penis is likewise a boy’s threat of being a man. Maksim exposes the plasticine penis in the toilets so for verisimilitude, it is limp. However, the exaggerated size of the flaccid penis crucially communicates the potential of an even bigger, erect, sexual organ. Ludmila and Lyokha turn pale when they see the boy’s disproportionately sized appendage. Maksim did not purchase these props from a shop, but hand crafted them, so they are imbued with his imagination. The moulded objects are clear symbols of power yet they are false projections of a power which Maksim cannot rightfully wield due to his youth and weakness.  

Undoubtedly, there is hidden agency in Maksim’s environment which also influences him. For instance, he only moulds and casts a knuckle duster after two adult men rape him and his friend. There is a societal narrative of violence and Maksim’s ill-fated response to the attack he suffered is an attempt to join this toxic narrative. Therefore, he is not an empowered agent of change but only a misguided, reactive child. The fake penis prank is likewise determined by Maksim’s humiliation by an adult, female teacher who expected him to turn around in the boy’s toilets thereby exposing his prepubescent penis. His response is preordained since he must appropriately counter Ludmila’s expectations. A protagonist’s reactions which are wholly predictable have no true mark of individuality. Maksim is restricted to the playbook of reactions deemed appropriate by his environment and unfortunately, these are violence and counter-humiliation.  

Yet, to view Maksim as a puppet of society’s ills renders the character uninteresting to most audiences. One cannot readily empathise with or invest in such a portrayal. Weygandt expresses her own opinion on such characterizations as follows – “I term Russian New Drama heroes “hollow” subjects because they fail as literary figures to express information about themselves – through their speech or through their gestures. The empty hero emerges out of the disintegration of the Soviet Union” (118). One may agree with this on a dramaturgical level, but the question remains if Maksim may convincingly be labelled a ‘hollow’ subject? Is he just an after-effect of the failure of communism? Also of note is that Maksim is restricted by the limited agency typically available to children especially those who comes from broken homes. His demeanour is that of a typical teenager – sullen and uncommunicative. To brand a child character as hollow is to overestimate his potential for agency in the first place. Even if one concedes that Russian society of the early 90’s exerted a disproportionate force over this character, he still retains enough originality to deserve attention. Therefore, one needs to look at deeds that could be classified as heroic when enacted by a child.  

Sigarev based much of Maksim’s story on first-hand experiences from his hometown. For instance, in the interview with Yury Dud, Sigarev said that he had cast a pair of brass knuckles for himself aged just 13 years old. He was already getting into serious fights and needed to protect himself. Additionally, Sigarev’s teenage brother was jailed after murdering the man who raped his disabled, male friend. Such emotive background information discredits an interpretation of Maksim as a hollow subject. Weygandt also addresses this problem, if only obliquely, when writing of Plasticine that “The plastic objects act as protheses for the speaking, feeling, vulnerable, inner “I,” providing a screen on which the adolescent projects his anxieties” (125). The use of the term “hollow subject” is unhelpful outside of a dramaturgical discussion since an audience craves to understand a character’s inner personality. Either one may label the protagonist as reactive and empty, or alternatively, he is simply inhibited in his expressiveness and unable to act adequately but is nonetheless a full character – but he cannot be both ‘hollow’ and ‘full’ simultaneously.  

Weygandt convincingly bolsters her argument by referring to “plastika … a form of theatrical storytelling that wholly supports a narrative despite the central hollow hero” (119). She goes on to elaborate that “Plastika is a language of the body used in the place of words to narrate. Like physical theatre, plastika relies on the physical motion of the performers’ bodies to convey a story” (119). Accompanying this distinctive physical performance, “the silent subject in plastika is supplemented by empowered objects that speak without voice” (119). Therefore, along with an emphasis on the role of plasticine models in Sigarev’s play, one may also analyse Maksim’s physical performance.  

Even without the benefit of seeing a live performance of Plasticine, the playscript informs one of physical ailments such as headaches and blood noses that Maksim suffers and his resulting physical gestures. For instance, “It is night again. Once more it is dark and Maksim is lying in bed. He is holding his head as before and whimpering with his teeth clenched” (Vassily 41). The boy acts out his pain as a visceral experience while simultaneously expressing his fear in words – “Don’t . . . don’t . . . it hurts . . . it hurts, Jesus, it hurts. Don’t . . . don’t . . . I can’t take any more” (30). On these occasions, Maksim also experiences a series of disturbing visions and sensations, for example, visitations by the ghost of his old friend Spira (41) who committed suicide, and the claustrophobic sensation that his bedroom is transforming into a coffin (49). Each time that Maksim endures these nightmarish episodes, he resorts to moulding plasticine as a therapeutic escape. The boy achieves a sufficient level of emotional regulation through his rudimentary artistic endeavours. At the same time, an audience witnesses his trauma via his stylized bodily performance which includes the visible moulding of plasticine. As Weygandt explains, “In plastika and in the writing of the New Russian Drama, the props double as agents of the narrative” (119). One significant prop is the little, human-boy figure that Maksim shapes after his own rape. The plasticine figure takes on the role of an ominous symbol when “a drop of blood falls from his [Maksim’s] nose and lands on the figure’s forehead” (Vassily 71). Since Maksim is soon killed, we may infer that the plasticine man is indeed an agent of the narrative since it foretells the boy’s death.  

Weygandt’s overarching argument is that “In New Drama, the agency required to perform an epic deed is not present” (129). One need not agree with such a proposal, especially in the case of Maksim. He is restricted by his youth and family circumstances, and after all, what epic deeds can any child perform? The logic of this observation does not mean he is consequently rendered ‘hollow.’ One small but vitally important proof of Maksim’s inner character and resistance to the degradation around him is how he treats his elderly grandmother. She defends Maksim against the Russian teacher’s slanders by saying, – “Oh he’s not a de, er, linquent. He’s a good boy. Brings me bed pans and all such when I’m bedridden and takes them away again” (Vassily 36). Life batters Maksim and still, he remains caring and humane at home. An acknowledgement of this primary truth must precede an appreciation of the vital role of stage props in the play. Weygandt concedes that her argument is ambitious, as follows.

“The notion that a prop can narrate for the speaking subject is new. Most props typically have a single function as a symbol, such as the gun in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler or the shot seagull in Chekov’s The Seagull. But in the New Drama, the situation is quite the reverse. Instead of the subject reflecting herself upon the object, the object adjacent to her is telling the entire story. We only know the hero’s story and fate indirectly by studying the things that surround her” (124). 

This insight grants one permission to view stage props differently and thus appreciate their true expressive potential. Weygandt’s ambitious argument is partially a response to one’s reflex to look only to the central character and thereby miss all the other voices on the stage like props, physical performance, and the setting of the events. A challenge to stubborn, preconceived notions of how a stage play’s message is actually communicated can best be seen as a productive exercise.  


Adolescence is a second major theme in Plasticine. Maksim is jolted from his childlike innocence by frequent exposure to explicit sexual acts and physical violence. Jenny Kaminer addresses such issues in her essay entitled, “Imagining Adolescence in Selected Works of New Russian Drama.” For Kaminer, the cracked bowl of the opening scene holds great significance, She writes that “In Western art, a broken pitcher – usually in paintings featuring young girls – has often symbolized sexual violation, ‘becoming an icon for the loss of virginity’” (199). Kaminer unveils a link between the symbolism of the opening scene and Maksim’s tragic fate. As depicted in the play, Maksim dies soon after his sexual violation. The nature of the sexuality portrayed in Plasticine is obscene and Maksim excuses himself, unsurprisingly, from at least two proposals to engage in sexual acts by drunken, adult women. Nonetheless, he is relentlessly buffeted by the intense hormonal changes of adolescence which facilitate the change from a child’s to a man’s body. The way Maksim is introduced to the world of sex helps to degrade his expectations of human nature and foster misogyny.  

Kaminer explains that “The events that occur throughout Plasticine reinforce the connection between sexuality and menace conjured up in the opening scene” (199). Sigarev’s play is populated by sexual predators of both sexes, but they are predominantly female. The menace materializes in physical threats; in taboo knowledge; and in lewd propositions. Maksim’s youthful imagination is fired by these encounters. An early example is the old woman at Spira’s wake who tells an indecent story of a teenage boy who rubbed his erection against her on the bus (Vassily 10). The second old woman then whispers some obscenity in Maksim’s ear, causing him to turn pale “and run off down the stairs” (11). The formerly naïve boy now understands the power of sexuality and subsequently uses it to make Ludmila turn pale by exposing a giant penis to her. However, this exercise in revenge does not protect him from the other grotesque females he will encounter. These include the two actresses in the movie, Caligula, who urinate on a dead man (25); the blushing bride who tries to seduce Maksim and then gets her husband to punch the boy under false pretences (28); and the drunken woman at the stadium who pushes Maksim’s face down onto her exposed, semen-soiled crotch (49). Sex is indeed menacing and vulgar and the women are volatile and usually highly inebriated. As Kaminer observes – “Sexuality is severed, most obviously, from any intimacy, but also from any individuality” (200). It is to be expected that Maksim would eventually adopt a misogynistic stance.  

The dilemma for Maksim is that his childish ideal of women is still that of the maternal caregiver and homemaker. The new experiences with Medusa-like females catapult the boy into a world of explicit porn, promiscuity, and emotional booby-traps! Maksim is comfortable with his grandmother since her post-menopausal stage of life marks her as desexualised. On the other hand, the boy is greatly discomfited by normal shows of motherly affection by younger women like when a kindly woman offers him a biscuit at the town hall (Vassily 74). This woman later cares for him after he faints but he soon rejects her help, shouting – “You’re all getting to me, you bitches” (77). It is pertinent that she had just made reference to Maksim’s mother which probably sparked his fury. This rage against women is a consequence of the depraved female figures who constantly encroach on the boy’s physical and imaginative spaces. The link between such women and motherhood is best showcased by Spira’s mother who attends her child’s wake primarily for free liquor and who later enters the apartment of an unknown, bare-chested man with the goal of acquiring more alcohol (probably in exchange for sex). Maksim’s biological mother is most likely a drunkard too. Maksim’s imagination consequently struggles to process a single image of a woman who is both maternal and sexual in a healthy equilibrium. An expression of this comes when, through Maksim’s eyes, Spira’s drunken mother transforms into an angelic figure who “floats – all light, ethereal and otherworldly” (15). The same, or a similar, female figure appears again to Maksim just before his death and she is – “smiling and laughing noiselessly” (84). This feminine phantom is alternately monster and mother.  

A child’s behaviour is typically reflective of adult influences and Maksim’s sexuality is warped by the examples surrounding him. This affects and defines the complex friendship between Maksim and Lyokha. It is exploitative, one-sided, and sometimes sexual. Maksim abandons his self-respect in a desperate attempt to maintain the friendship. Since Maksim has witnessed sex being used as currency in exchange for attention, he adopts this tactic and acquiesces to masturbating Lyokha in the cinema (25). Lyokha then betrays Maksim, possibly due to internalized homophobia, and the result is that Maksim is labelled a “queer” (39) and viciously beaten up by the other schoolboys. Later, Lyokha blames Maksim for the rape too, even though Lyokha was the one tricked by Natasha and Maksim was merely an accommodating hanger-on. There is never a girl of Maksim’s own age and inexperience with whom he can form a healthy, romantic bond. Instead, Maksim undergoes distressing experiences and then utilizes the artistic side of his imagination to redeem himself. 

Kaminer focuses on the importance of adolescents’ imaginative expression. She analyses three plays from Russian New Drama which “feature adolescent characters who experience the process of maturation according to a notably similar pattern” (191). In contrast to Susanna Weygandt, Kaminer views the protagonists as actively endeavouring to constructively express their flourishing, inner identities. She outlines the process as follows: 

“As delineated by Klavdiev, Sigarev, and Pulinovich, this process entails, first, the adolescent’s immersion in the realm of fantasy, followed by an attempt to inscribe that fantasy into his or her everyday life. This process culminates in the adolescent protagonist definitively assuming either the role of victim or victimizer” (191).  

Maksim’s various fantasies of phantoms like Spira and “SHE” (Vassily 83) may be interpreted as imaginative daydreams although they appear in moments of angst, and not reverie. When the boy’s hands subsequently work the soft plasticine into various shapes then there is a cathartic effect. To explain this phenomenon, Kaminer refers to the famous Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotskii, who explained that teenage daydreaming is not whimsical, but complex and a means to a specific end. 

“Vygotskii distinguished between ‘dreaminess’ – characterized by isolation, withdrawal, and an ‘impotence of the will’ – and ‘creative imagination,’ which seeks embodiment in reality. According to Vygotskii, it is this ‘creative imagination,’ striving for concrete representation outside the realm of fantasy – namely, in activities such as writing – that facilitates the process of maturation” (197).  

For Maksim, it is not specifically writing but physical art that results from his creative imagination. In the scene where Maksim goes to the apartment rooftop, possibly contemplating suicide, he notes how the hordes of people mill around in the street below, but – “none of them look up into the air” (Vassily 77). He is disdainful of the revolting hollowness of everyday life and people’s evident lack of imagination. He purges himself of his anger by shouting, “Fuck the lot of you” (78) because he, unlike them, looks to the sky which is symbolic of imaginative freedom. Unfortunately, Maksim comes to realise just moments later that his grandmother has died. The intensity of his pain can only find expression in the crafting of a knuckle duster. Art metamorphoses into a tool of violence. There is no longer a catharsis or commendable sublimation of his internal turmoil, but rather, a materialization of unprocessed hatred. Kaminer reads the tragic end of Plasticine in the following manner.

“Maksim had wanted to overcome his victimization by enacting his ‘creative imagination,’ but his environment allowed him no role but that of unequivocal victim. Sigarev thus portrays the futility of fantasy, the impotence of the imagination to catalyse positive change in the life of an adolescent” (202).  

One may add that the boy’s imagination is rendered impotent and, as Weygandt argues, the central character’s story is ultimately defined by elements outside of himself, such as environment. Despite that, Kaminer highlights the boy’s heroic struggle and the prospect that had things been slightly different, Maksim may have succeeded.  


The violence in Plasticine is rarely just physical aggression. It is frequently accompanied by deliberate humiliation and sadism. Birgit Beumers and Mark Lipovetsky address these topics and others in their book, Performing Violence: Literary and Theatrical Experiments of New Russian Drama. They explain that “The teenager in Plasticine constantly and everywhere faces threats of violence. The play underscores that the habitus into which he tries to integrate does not leave him the choice of non-participation in this every-minute war” (246). The result is that Maksim must adopt the role of aggressor or victim, but bystander status is never an option. Keeping in mind that he is still a child in many respects, his fate is practically assured as a victim from the outset.  

In a typical conflict situation where one adult faces another then resorting to violence may be decisive in securing victory. However, the odds are stacked against a child who additionally lacks the normal protections offered by a father and mother. Therefore, Maksim paradoxically courts victimhood whether he responds passively or aggressively to the violence inflicted upon him. One may outline Maksim’s gradual degeneration by citing instances where he at first reacts passively or at most threatens violence until he finally adopts violence as the solution. The interaction at his school prior to his expulsion is a prime example of Maksim’s growing potential for violence.

Maksim to Ludmila – “Shut your mouth, you bitch! (He grabs a vase from the table). Or I’ll knock your brains out” (Vassily 38).  

Later, after Maksim has been raped by the men, he returns to their apartment in a quest for retribution. The knuckle duster – which was meant to bridge the gap between weakling teenager and adult man – gets stuck in Maksim’s pocket and he simply “lashes out with his bare hand” (81). The thug, Cadet, gravely injures the boy’s hand during a doorway struggle and when Maksim awakes after fainting, he is suddenly facing his death. The men conclude that they have injured Maksim to a degree that would cause him to go to the police so he must be murdered. It is the first time that Maksim engaged in violence and the situation suddenly spirals out of control, ironically because the men have injured a minor. Beumers and Lipovetsky explain that “The teenage hero becomes the ‘scapegoat’, and this structure is reminiscent of the basic principles of tragedy, but in no way does his death expiate the sins of society; on the contrary, it testifies to the incurable criminality of the social norm” (247). Maksim’s conscious decision to finally resort to outright violence brands him as a sacrificial lamb. He is killed, not for the common good, but instead for the maintenance of the common bad. 

The rape scene highlights the depraved underbelly of Russian society and is the most affecting scene of the play. The set-up begins with Natasha’s cynical ploy. She exploits Lyokha’s blind lust and he predictably fails to question why a 20 year old woman would seek sex with a barely pubescent boy. Lyokha only asks Maksim to join as a last resort since he needs a second person and other friends were unavailable. By this point, Maksim has already witnessed the depraved, drunken behaviour of several women where sex was on offer so he also fails to detect the imminent trap. Natasha is neither drunk nor desperate but acts as a honeytrap. The boys are lured to a derelict building and when they enter the apartment, two adult men meet them, both of whom are tattooed and therefore likely ex-prisoners. The sadistic game played by Natasha and the two men is a hideous display of power. Natasha taunts Lyokha who now shakes with fear, saying “Scared? Shitting yourself, eh?” (Vassily 57). Lyokha is humiliated by the men who ask him if he is still a “virgin” (63) and Maksim is referred to as a “tease” (59). The transformation of Lyokha from a confident teenager full of sexual bravado to a whimpering child is a confirmation of the horror of the situation. The men propose a game of cards which prolongs the torture since the boys already know what to expect. When the two boys are eventually raped by the men, Natasha watches while she “laughs hysterically and beats the windowsill with the palm of her hand” (69). The scene is dystopian which underlines Sigarev’s previously quoted view that degradation defined interpersonal relations in Russia in the 90’s.  

There is an informative connection between a dystopian scene and a carnival scene. Beumers and Lipovetsky propose that one consider Maksim’s “grotesquely huge phallus” (249) as a symbol of carnival – “But this carnival never promises ‘a new life’ – as in the semantics of traditional carnival, according to Bakhtin; on the contrary, it persistently and purposefully destroys and devastates everything alive” (250). Maksim unknowingly joins the carnival atmosphere by publicly brandishing the otherwise harmless prosthetic penis but eventually he descends into a hell full of devils where all normal, societal rules and restrictions evaporate during the ensuing violent, drunken melee.

Plasticine, maybe more clearly than any other play of New Drama, captures the moment when the carnival disorder – in many respects characteristic for the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet system with its symbolical and social order – turns into the norm of existence, when liminality becomes permanent, when all mechanisms of the social protection of identity disappear completely” (Beumers and Lipovetsky 252). 

If one considers the giant plasticine penis as symbolic of carnival then the corresponding prop would be a vagina dentata. Just before Maksim dies, he sees the phantom SHE who “sticks out her tongue at him and then lifts her skirt and strokes her legs. SHE runs her hand between her legs and over her breasts” (Vassily 84). The allure of the female genitalia is deadly in the context of the play. For instance, Spira commits suicide over a girl and Maksim has his own premonition of death when he imagines that his bedroom is transforming into a coffin immediately after the woman at the stadium “pushes his face in her torn knickers” (48). Like SHE, Natasha is another false woman and one who lures the boys to the most humiliating and emasculating experience of their lives. The boys expected to receive sexual favours but instead they become unwilling sexual favours for two adult men. Beumers and Lipovetsky conclude that “The erotic motifs and images in the play either transform into images of death and violence or are associated with it” (252). It is no surprise that the teenage boys who understandably struggle with testosterone surges and associated sexual fantasies, fall foul of their treacherous environment.  


Each of the essays and book discussed presents distinctive and compelling arguments about how one may interpret Plasticine. The reward for entertaining multiple views of the same play is that the overlaps and divergences of opinion become apparent and thereby enlighten a reader to otherwise hidden meanings. Weygandt and Kaminer take contrasting approaches to the topic of the protagonist’s level of agency and his adolescent imagination, but the ill-fitting amalgamation of these approaches offers a reader a more in depth insight into Maksim. Beumers and Lipovetsky highlight fascinating links between sexuality and violence in the play as well as the relevance of the backdrop of Russia in the 90’s. As a consequence of delving into the various aforementioned academic works, this essay has made forays into describing teenage sexuality and misogyny as depicted in the play.  

Whilst Plasticine confronts an audience with abrasive language and disturbing scenes, the humanity of the young protagonist shines through. Sigarev’s own childhood experiences are refracted through the character of Maksim which creates a central figure who is at once tragic and contradictorily hopeful. It is only the preponderance of negative experiences that overwhelms Maksim so one may not attribute the failure to any inherent weakness or failure of artistic endeavour on his behalf. It is true that the plasticine boy speaks volubly in this play but the shy, damaged teenager does too.  

Works Cited

Beumers, Birgit and Mark Lipovetsky. Performing Violence: Literary and Theatrical Experiments of New Russian Drama. Intellect ltd., 2009.  

Dud, Yury. “Сигарев – очень дерзкий режиссер – Sigarev – very daring director.” YouTube, uploaded by vdud, 4 February 2021,  

Jenny Kaminer. “Imagining Adolescence in Selected Works of New Russian Drama.” The Modern Language Review, vol. 113, no. 1, 2018, pp. 190–216. JSTOR, Accessed 20 October 2022.  

Sigarev, Vassily. Plasticine. Translated by Sasha Dugdale. Nick Hern Books, 2002.  

Weygandt, Susanna. “The Structure of Plasticity: Resistance and Accommodation in Russian New Drama.” TDR (1988-), vol. 60, no. 1, 2016, pp. 116–31. JSTOR, Accessed 12 October 2022.  


  • Play title: Bug.
  • Author: Tracy Letts
  • First performed: 1996 
  • Page count: 77


Tracy Letts’ play, Bug, explores the topic of paranoid delusions. To be specific, Letts gives a theatrical representation of an infectious, psychological disorder traditionally known as folie à deux which accounts for the spread of a delusion. There is the delusion, the manner by which it spreads, but always at the core of the story is the itch caused by a persistent bug!

The central characters in the play are Agnes White and Peter Evans. She is a lonely, middle-aged woman who lost her son and whose abusive ex-husband has just been released from prison. Evans is a mentally disturbed war veteran who appears to have no links with family or friends, he’s just a drifter who makes most people feel “uncomfortable” (Letts 20). Agnes and Peter meet by chance and then begins the progressive unravelling of both their states of sanity. Fuelled on alcohol and crack cocaine, the lovers begin to entertain the delusion that they are infected with government implanted, biological bugs. Their descent into utter madness and depravity is compelling and disturbing. Lett’s explores various themes like isolation, poverty, gullibility, mental illness, conspiracy theory, and murder.

Ways to access the text: reading/watching.

The text of Bug is free to read online via the Internet Archive. Existing members of Scribd will also be able to access the text. The playscript is reader-friendly but on account of the visual and auditory nature of many of the key scenes, a theatrical or cinematic viewing would be recommended.

There is a movie version of the play which is also entitled Bug and for which Tracy Letts wrote the screenplay. The movie was released in 2006 and was directed by William Friedkin. It stars Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon. Please note that the theatrical play and the film versions are not identical.

Why read/watch Bug?

Folie à deux.

In quite rare cases, it is possible for a deluded person to ‘infect’ someone close to them with a fixed delusion. This psychological phenomenon was first labelled as folie à deux in 1873 by Lasegue and Falret but is now more commonly known as induced delusional disorder or shared psychotic disorder. The common factors in such cases are that the individuals are usually biologically related or in a romantic relationship, are isolated from society, and the delusion in question relates to persecution or hypochondriacal issues. The ‘inducer’ is one of several terms used for the person, normally of higher intelligence, who infects the second person or ‘acceptor.’ In Bug, the aforementioned terms describe Peter and Agnes, respectively. The play is an imaginative space for an audience to explore this fascinating disease of the mind that spreads like a virus!

A love story.

It is with some trepidation that one would describe Bug as a love story, however the playwright himself described it as such. The obstacles to seeing the tale as romantic are obvious and numerous, such as drug abuse, paranoia, bereavement, manipulation, murder, and madness. Despite the fact that Agnes and Peter’s relationship is tainted by all of the aforementioned negatives, they still sustain a love that lasts until the end. Agnes is the more relatable of the two characters due to her everywoman status. She is initially sceptical of Peter’s stories but she ends up worshiping him and his ideas. Agnes has an undeniable, underlying loneliness which makes her vulnerable to con men and ‘nut cases’ but she can’t see the warning signs when Peter, an attractive younger man, shows an interest in her. Letts portrays a bereaved woman whose missing child is most likely dead and whose abusive ex-husband threatens to return, and then Agnes sees an opportunity for a new start.

Post reading discussion/interpretation.

“The Bugged-Out Folly of Two.”


Sometimes, just sometimes, naming something makes it easier to understand. Take for example, Peter’s attempts in Bug to accurately name the particular you-know-what that bit him. The bug is subjected to an exhaustive list of potential names during the discussion between Peter and Agnes. It’s a … bug/aphid/bedbug/louse/lice/termite/thrip/tick/flea! (Letts 35-36). Peter sticks with aphid and he’s almost sure too. Luckily for an audience, naming things is somewhat easier when you’re not smoking a rock of freebase from a pipe in a dingy motel room. The things that one needs to name in Bug are quite simple. First, there is the delusion, and then there is the manner by which it spreads. The particular delusion that affects Peter and then Agnes is called delusional parasitosis or Ekbom syndrome (you choose). Then there is the method by which the delusion is spread from Peter to Agnes and this has the name of folie à deux, or a long list of more modern, alternative names! Polyonymy is the word used to describe something that has many names – like Peter’s bug. What surprises one about Lett’s play is that the seemingly insane characters are not wholly adrift in an incomprehensible mind-space but, surprisingly, are relatively understandable through the use of just a few simple terms. What’s more – their madness is not without causation – the bugs only emerge when a series of key criteria are met and sustained. In this essay, the aim is to dissect the brand of ‘crazy’ depicted in Lett’s famous play. The play was written in the 1990’s but remains relevant in the context of contemporary society which grows increasingly concerned about spyware and the bugging of devices, the reliability of online information, and the motives of those at the top.

“It’s a fucking bug” (Letts 35).

The simple, one work name of the play encapsulates the entire problem. In Bug, Tracy Letts very effectively exploits one of the commonest human fears, the fear of creepy-crawlies. In a review of Bug for The New York Times, Ben Brantley asks – “have you ever been to a play that made you itch all over?” because this is how most audiences predictably reacted to the theatrical experience. From a more scientific perspective, Nancy Hinkle writes that “Humans have an atavistic fear of infestation and parasites, which signify uncleanness and shame; perhaps this deep-seated repugnance explains the uniformity of ES experience” (179). ES refers to Ekbom syndrome, a condition where an individual suffers from an infestation by an invisible bug! Invisible does not refer to some ingenious, bug camouflage but denotes that the insect is not real. Another name for the same condition is delusional parasitosis. Peter Evans suffers from this delusion and Agnes White soon shares it.  

The play’s effectiveness in unsettling an audience relies upon an audience’s misplaced, sympathetic bond with the onstage characters. In truth, “ES is not a phobia, as the individual is not afraid of insects but rather convinced that they are infesting his or her body” (Hinkle 178). Bewley et all. explain that the condition “is a true delusion, i.e., a fixed false belief, rather than a phobia (a persistent irrational fear)” (161). An audience member viewing a theatrical performance of Bug will be equally engrossed and grossed-out by the onstage spectacle. One will come to notice the slightest itch, maybe innocently caused by clothing but now attributed to a disgusting, hidden bug. All the while, the play is really representing madness and that little itch that anyone can experience is sometimes the first sign of one’s descent into a delusion. In short, one is hooked by the ingenious premise of the play and one is held in its grip until the tragic end arrives.

Ekbom syndrome/delusional parasitosis.

The only thing more engaging than watching someone scratch at an invisible bug is the prospect that you will soon catch it too. Hinkle writes that “One of the most unusual features of ES is folie à deux, in which another person … develops ES as well. This ‘psychological contagiousness’ develops in about one third of cases, with the second patient echoing the inducer’s behavior and conviction of infestation” (181). Bewley et al. make the observation that “In many cases the aetiology [of delusional parasitosis] is unknown. It may follow a real infestation, be associated with recreational drug use (especially alcohol, amphetamines, cannabis and cocaine), be a dementia-related psychosis in the elderly, and be associated with other organic disease” (161). Letts depicts Agnes and Peter as heavy drinkers and both of them regularly freebase cocaine in the motel room.

In addition to a high level of substance abuse which in itself will make individuals more susceptible to delusions, Hinkle notes three important commonalities of patients presenting with Ekbom syndrome, namely social isolation, paranoia, and a major life event. Patients have the instinct to self-isolate because they fear infecting others. It is ironic that Agnes lives in a motel room as she inadvertently mimics the actions of ES sufferers who often abandon their family homes and end up moving from hotel to hotel, but the bugs always follow them. In regard to the problem of paranoia – “patients’ explanations for their conditions are outlandish conspiracy theories, including that the government has released genetically modified organisms that are infecting them” (Hinkle 182). Peter earnestly believes that the US government has carried out experiments on its own citizens and that he is just one of many victims (Letts 58). The inclusion by Hinkle of major life events as a contributory factor to the onset of ES is quite enlightening – “Many patients recount a significant emotional experience just prior to development of their symptoms” (182). Peter was posted in Syria as part of the US army’s campaign against Iraq in the early 1990’s and he ended up in a mental hospital due to some form of breakdown. Agnes lost her six year old boy, Lloyd, and her ex-husband (Lloyd’s father) has just been released from prison and wishes to reunite with her thus stirring up old memories. Both Peter and Agnes have gone through major life events and are both experiencing emotional turmoil in the present moment and thereby are more susceptible to delusions. Nevertheless, what is confusing for an onlooker is how Agnes actually catches Peter’s madness.

Folie à deux

Through watching Bug, an audience encounters a rare psychological disorder known as folie à deux. David Enoch and Hadrian Ball are the authors of Uncommon Psychiatric Syndromes, in which they give the following definition of the disorder.

“The term folie à deux includes several syndromes in which mental symptoms, particularly paranoid delusions, are transmitted from one person to one or more others with whom the apparent instigator is in some way intimately associated, so that he, she or they also come to share the same delusional ideas” (179).

Among the many alternative terms for folie à deux are some catchier ones (excuse pun) like “contagious insanity” (180) or “communicated insanity” (180). Folie à deux is the traditional term which is widely known and to which Letts himself refers when describing the play. The psychological disorder is not contagious in the way one encounters a contagious disease, so it requires some explanation. For example, one may have numerous psychotic patients in a mental hospital who hold various delusions but their madnesses do not, in the main, spread to any other patients (195). No, it takes a very specific set of circumstances to facilitate the transfer of madness from one individual to another. In numerous case studies of the disorder listed by Enoch and Ball, the common factors are issues like social isolation, paranoid schizophrenia, and the sufferers’ delusions of being persecuted in some manner. Letts’ depiction of folie à deux is flawless in that he represents a set of circumstances and characters for whom this disorder would indeed quite likely affect.

Social isolation is a clinical feature of folie à deux that is well represented by Agnes and Peter.  For instance, they predictably exhibit the “shared delusions … [of] two or more persons who live in close proximity and who are usually relatively isolated from the outside world and its influences” (192). Agnes lives in a motel room on the edge of Oklahoma city and she has been so isolated of late that Ronnie accuses her of having “hermitized” (Letts 16) herself. Although Peter moves into Agnes’s abode, the room remains a strange, apart space which eventually doubles as a protective bunker. Goss highlights the couple’s odd detachment from the outside world by drawing attention to the absence of a TV in the room. He says, “How’re you supposed to know what’s goin’ on in the world? Jesus, we might get invaded by Martians or something. They could be evacuatin’ the whole dang city right now, ’n you and me’s sittin’ here with our thumbs up our butts” (44). For Peter, the scary, external threat is not aliens but an imagined complot led by government and army officials. Peter fears a ‘they’ who are not Martians but unethical people in power who will stop at nothing to maintain the “status quo” (67). Ironically, the maintenance of the status quo is itself a factor in the emergence of folie à deux in isolated communities and specifically in isolated families (Enoch and Ball, 191). Peter unwittingly reveals his own desire for dominance and control when he psychologically projects his motivations onto an external adversary. Only when Agnes is cut off from her former support network will she begin to adopt Peter’s paranoid philosophy without resistance. Isolation is of prime importance in cases of folie à deux since one person is always shown to have ultimate control of the environment.

To comprehend the dynamic of the relationship between Peter and Agnes, one also needs to address the theme of power as explored in Bug. Folie à deux is often classified into subgroups, one of which is folie imposée which is characterized by a dominant, more intelligent partner who is gripped by a delusion and then imposes this upon the more submissive, suggestible partner (Enoch and Ball, 193). This power play is subtle since the delusion cannot be forced upon the submissive partner but instead, they must be won over. In general, the delusions are “of a persecutory or hypochondriacal content” (192). Peter is doubly afflicted because he fears the ultimate persecutor – the man in control, plus the method of persecution is a bodily invader, a crawling bug that lives beneath the skin. This illness of the mind for which Peter is a carrier, must be successfully transmitted to Agnes so that he is not alone in his madness, but secure in a couple. One may assert that he is a paranoid schizophrenic on account of his symptoms and this is the third factor already mentioned as a keystone for the development of folie à deux.

Agnes’s mental infection.

A salient question is how Agnes gets enveloped in, and then intoxicated by, Peter’s delusions. If one accepts that the play’s female lead – a divorced woman who does bar work and lives in a hotel room – is representative of a large element of society, namely the working poor, then why does she succumb so easily to Peter’s crazy conspiracy theories? She represents the average Jane (or Joe) and because she works in a honky-tonk, one would expect her to be reasonably savvy. Understanding Agnes’s path from smart-mouthed sceptic to fawning devotee relies on an understanding of her broader life circumstances. The factors which are most pertinent are the loss of a child, the return of an abusive ex-husband, poverty, and loneliness. The clinical feature of folie a deux that correspond to these circumstances are depression, poverty and isolation.

Letts charts the degeneration of Agnes chiefly through her weakening will power. Peter, who has the air of an authority figure, bombards his partner with his strange narrative until she finally breaks, but this is a process rather than a single episode. Additionally, the timing of Peter’s arrival coincides with the most opportune stage of his delusion – the early stage. Enoch and Ball quote Coleman and Last (1939) who “laid down the fundamental aetiological pre-requisites for a case of folie à deux” (194). The first prerequisite is that “the inducer must be in the early stages of illness, that is, before he becomes completely withdrawn from reality, in order to be able to positively influence the induced” (194). Although Peter is in the early stages of his delusion, his manner and conversation are still odd enough to alert the average person to a problem.

At first, Agnes is understandably suspicious of the stranger who Ronnie has brought along to the motel room. Agnes protests that she doesn’t know him and that he could be some “maniac DEA ax murderer, Jehovah’s Witness֨” (Letts 14). She later accuses Peter of being a “con” (22,41) on several occasions. This happens first when he says he just wants a friend rather than sex, and again when he strenuously objects to her asking the hotel manager to spray the room for bugs. However, her suspicions quickly abate. A pivotal interaction between Agnes and Peter happens on the first night when he professes to have been bitten by a bug which he then shows her. Her successive responses regarding the visibility of the bug slide all too quickly towards appeasing her new lover – “I don’t see it … I’m not sure … I guess” (34-35). At a later stage, when Peter’s delusions have become more entrenched and worrying, he can no longer accept a sceptical response and therefore when the dermatologist’s damning assessment of Agnes’s skin problem is revealed, Peter forces her to either confirm or deny the existence of the bugs. She acquiesces to his demand and confirms the bugs exist, prompting Peter to affirm – “then your doctor is lying to you” (52). When Ronnie threatens to take Agnes away, thus removing her from Peter’s crazy influence then his reaction is to go into a sudden frenzy as if the bugs are devouring him. Peter’s extravagant scene, resembling an epileptic fit, forces Agnes to choose between her friend and her lover, and Peter wins. Peter’s tactics are doubtless unconscious and a result of his paranoid delusions yet they still represent highly manipulative steps to force his lover to choose him.

On the other hand, one gradually discerns what motivations Agnes has to accept Peter’s tall tales as the play progresses. For instance, there is the sexual allure of Peter who is younger than her and quite handsome. Ronnie teasingly tells Agnes – “Play your cards right, maybe you’ll get bred” (15) and she later describes Peter as “Johnny Depp” (19). Intimacy could act as an antidote to Agnes’s loneliness. She may also consider a relationship with Peter as a means of escaping her newly returned ex-husband, Jerry, who is both violent and dangerous. As highlighted by Enoch and Ball, isolation is a strong contributory factor to the emergence of folie à deux and Agnes is certainly isolated and lonely. Peter picks up on her loneliness (20) which Agnes may have mistakenly read as the mark of a sensitive man and she later confides in him that she gets scared at night-time (33). Agnes’s history with Jerry who was controlling and physically violent has groomed her to accept another controlling partner. Yet, despite these factors, it is still not readily understandable why she would tolerate Peter’s delusions and begin to share such delusions too.

The bond that Agnes establishes with Peter must contain a significant benefit for her that outweighs his apparent illness. However, such a proposition may induce one to conclude that Agnes is mentally deficient or insane. Interestingly, Peter tells Agnes – “I don’t think you’re just some simpleton I can take advantage of” (42) but the mere articulation of this thought exposes the possibility that he views her as inferior to him, at least intellectually. Peter secures his bond with Agnes by guiding her through two crucial tests. The first is the ultimatum previously discussed where Agnes chooses Peter’s version of events over the dermatologist’s and as a result she loses her only true friend, Ronnie. Enoch and Ball quote Pulver and Blunt (1961) to provide an example of how the relationship bond in folie à deux is typically cemented.

“The dominant partner provokes the submissive one into accepting his delusions rather than risk the deterioration of a close and gratifying relationship. Folie à deux thus keeps the pair united but increases their detachment from the world of reality” (197).

The dynamics of a folie à deux relationship as described above reflects the nature of the bond between Agnes and Peter. Even though Agnes may not be fully aware of her dilemma, she describes it perfectly when she tells Peter – “I don’t know why I love you so much … Seems like all we ever talk about is bugs. I guess I’d rather talk about bugs with you than talk about nothin’ with nobody” (57). Her existence has become so stripped of meaning that anything is better than her solitary existence and her “lousy life” (57).

Despite the fact that Agnes chooses Peter, she still retains some scepticism especially as his story becomes more indulgent in regard to the touted military conspiracy to infect him with bugs. With some trepidation, Agnes tells Peter – “maybe you’re just lookin’ for a connection to the army … so you’re more liable to see one” (59). Peter then lures Agnes to join him in his tumble down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories when he invites her to find meaning where no meaning actually exists. This is the second crucial test for Agnes, the first being the rejection of the dermatologist’s opinion. Peter simply poses the question – “What don’t you know?” (68) which is an invite for Agnes to construct a link between Peter’s delusion and the mayhem that is her own life. The link will allow Agnes to explain her misfortune. Persecutory delusions are at the core of folie à deux and Agnes begins with enthusiasm to implicate everyone of importance in her life as participants in a conspiracy to steal her child, Lloyd. In addition, she imagines that the same group of people allowed her to be unknowingly used as part of a medical experiment by the military.

Returning briefly to the aetiological pre-requisites for a case of folie à deux, one finds that – “sharing the induced delusion must be of some advantage to the induced person” (Enoch And Ball, 195). Agnes comes to willingly participate in Peter’s delusion when she realises that it serves as an amelioration of her own responsibility in her child’s disappearance. She left her child unattended in a public place (Letts 69) and she is later weighed down with guilt over his disappearance. Agnes now holds the delusion that she is the “super-mother” (Letts 71). She is transformed from someone whose life is in turmoil to the elevated status of god-like mother, even if only as parent to a parasite who refuses to abandon her. She is no longer one of life’s losers but a central character in a war of good versus evil.

This train of thought leads her and Peter to conclude that they need to kill the bugs so that mankind can be saved. While they never openly describe it as a suicide pact, their mutual self-destruction is necessary to exterminate the bugs. Even though suicide pacts are rare, “antisocial behaviour including theft, violence, murder and suicide pacts associated with folie à deux have been reported” (Enoch and Ball, 206). Peter escalates the situation by murdering Dr. Sweet, believing that the doctor is a machine created by the military. Peter and Agnes are also afraid of Goss who tries to force entry into their hotel room. They now feel trapped and in a moment of panic, Peter says – “We’ll fight them. To the end … To the death” (Letts 74). The scene concludes with Peter striking a match in the gasoline soaked room.

The shock effect of the final tragic scene depicted by Letts is intensified when one considers that the truth is always available to Agnes. Maybe it is for this reason that the playwright toys with tautology, for example Peter’s exhaustive list of names for the bug when he will just resort to calling it a bug anyway. Or the many names that a knowledgeable audience member will be able to sort through when identifying the type of paranoia Peter suffers (infectious parasitosis/Ekbom syndrome) or the means of infecting others (folie à deux/etc). Which word, if any, will serve as a key to unlock the madness?

The sceptical voice.

In Bug, one witnesses the sharply delineated lines between scepticism about, and emersion in, an idea. Letts lends credence to the belief that sanity and madness are as dichotomous as black and white and then he painstakingly dismantles that security of belief. The play depicts a scene of horror not simply because of what happens at the conclusion but more importantly, how easily someone can get drawn into the madness.

There are three obviously sceptical characters in Bug, namely R.C. (Ronnie), Jerry Goss, and Dr Sweet. Each of these characters quickly and effectively challenge Peter and thereby expose his madness. For example, Ronnie takes Agnes to a dermatologist whose professional opinion is that “her [Agnes’s] sores were ‘self-inflicted” (53) and R.C. then confronts Peter with the apparent truth of the situation – “She’s done this to herself, just like you” (53). Jerry, though a despicable character, nonetheless also sees right through Peter when he observers the young man doing bug experiments using “a kiddie chemistry set” (43) and subsequently remarks – “you’re pretty much just jackin’ off here, aint’cha?” (45). Jerry sarcastically says that he’s glad Peter is taking good care of Agnes and isn’t just some “weirdo freeloadin’ cokehead” (48). The description is wounding yet wholly accurate. The third individual, Dr. Sweet, is the most threatening to Peter since the doctor knows that Peter was in a mental hospital. If Peter’s illness is convincingly exposed by the doctor, then the entire story of military experiments will be exposed as the chaotic ramblings of a mentally ill man.

The sceptical voices expose the truth of the situation but Agnes is unable to hear the warnings due to her own investment in Peter, and by extension, her investment in his story. In short, the sceptical voices fail to protect Agnes, instead they force her into a series of consecutive flawed decisions. Only Dr. Sweet knows to appeal to Agnes’s unresolved trauma over losing Lloyd as a means of extracting her from the grip of a madman but the doctor is sacrificed before she can escape. Agnes get locked into a delusion like a prisoner behind a metal door and to understand why, one must look at the source of the delusion – Peter.

Peter’s delusions.

Peter Evans appears to be a fairly harmless guy, even if he is somewhat withdrawn and odd at first. However, he soon shows evidence of paranoia when he warns Agnes about the radioactive element called “americium-241” (Letts 24) used in smoke alarms. Peter is factually correct but only his paranoia can transform a household smoke alarm into a threatening object. One experiences an irritation because of the half-truths of Peter’s many otherwise outrageous claims. An audience is unsettled when a statement needs to be assessed rather than joyfully dismissed as madness. In other words, the seed of doubt is successfully sown. It is only much later that an audience learns from Dr Sweet that Peter has previously “been diagnosed as a delusional paranoid with schizophrenic tendencies” (61). The complication of Peter’s madness is that not everything he says is illogical or paranoid. Peter warns Agnes that “people can do things to you, things you don’t even know about” (31) and he blames this state of affairs on the nature of the modern world where personal safety is no longer possible due to “the technology, and the chemicals and the information” (31). Letts wrote the play in the 1990’s but Peter’s fears are more relevant than ever considering online media articles with titles like – “Smart Devices Are Spying on You Everywhere, And That’s a Problem” (Science Alert).  

The difficulty with Peter’s crazy talk is that he refers to real cases where the military and government attempted to control and also harm people. To support his own claim that the army has used him as a guinea pig for an experiment, Peter refers to two well-documented examples of official misconduct by arms of the state – “feeding LSD to enlisted men at Edgewood Arsenal … [and] watching those poor fuckers in Tuskegee die from syphilis” (58). Regarding Edgewood, it is on the public record that “For two decades during the Cold War, the United States Army tested chemical weapons on American soldiers at Edgewood Arsenal … they [the soldiers] were exposed to chemicals ranging from mustard gas and sarin to LSD and PCP” (The New Yorker). The second case that Peter references is “the ‘Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male,’ a secret experiment conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service to study the progression of the deadly venereal disease — without treatment” (Brown). This study ran for forty years until 1973 and even though penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis from the mid 1940’s, this antibiotic was deliberately withheld from the men participating in the experiment thereby guaranteeing that they would eventually die from/with syphilis. When one mixes such real life travesties with Peter’s own conspiracy theories then the truth becomes less black and white, less tangible for an audience.

All of Peter’s theories stem from his steadfast belief that the army has implanted a bug within his body, specifically beneath the filling of a tooth! Peter has already seen the bugs on his skin and he feels them too. One finds truth in Peter’s story but not in the expected way since, “Heavy repeated doses of cocaine have also been known to cause paranoia and organic psychosis; and habitual coke users, like speed freaks, have experienced the frightening hallucinations and sensations of bugs crawling beneath the skin” (Crittenden and Ruby). The play, Bug, opens on a scene where Agnes is “smoking a rock of freebase out of a pipe” (Letts 14) and she and Peter are subsequently shown to be habitual users. Kyle Ruggeri explains that “Powerful uppers such as cocaine and meth have many dangerous side effects, but one is just plain creepy. It’s called coke bugs. Other names are Meth Mites, Crack Bugs, and Amphetmites”. Ruggeri goes on to detail how addicts, “will cut themselves and itch themselves until they’re bleeding to get the bugs off”. For Peter, the bugs are frighteningly real and the perverse truth is that many drug users experience the same bugs. One cannot negate Peter’s visceral experience simply by asserting that the bugs are a manifestation of a drug-addled mind.

Peter manages to convince Agnes because he acts as an informed authority figure who manages to mix truth and falsehoods without recognising the differences himself. He alleviates Agnes’s loneliness, he convinces her that the bugs are real, and most importantly – he let her buy into the story in a way that takes away her pain over Lloyd.


The magnetic pull of Bug is thanks to a compelling mix of creepy-crawlies and madness. Letts creates a strange environment in the little motel room outside Oklahoma city where a seemingly normal woman is drawn into an amazing delusion which she later adopts as her own. If one identifies at any level with Agnes who initially sees Peter as an oddball character then the implication is that anyone could find themselves in this position of voluntarily submerging themselves in craziness to escape the hardships of an unhappy life. The potential lifelines of sceptical friends and even medical professionals are shown to be totally impotent in the face of a rabid delusion. The horror of the scene is the logical expectation that it will inevitably spiral out of control. There is no indication that anyone or anything can help and there is no magic word to unlock the spell. Letts presents his audience with a maleficent bug lodged in the mind and it’s the scariest thing of all.

Works Cited.

Bewley, A.P. et al. “Delusional Parasitosis: Time to Call It Delusional Infestation.” British Journal of Dermatology, vol. 163, no. 4, 2010, pp. 899-899 

Brown, DeNeen L. “You’ve got bad blood’: The horror of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment.” Washington Post, May 16, 2017.  

Crittenden, Ann and Michael Ruby. “Highs, horns and bugs crawling.” The New York Times, September 1, 1974. 

Enoch, M. David and Hadrian N. Ball. Uncommon Psychiatric Syndromes. 4th ed., Oxford University Press, 2001. 

Hinkle, N.C. “Ekbom Syndrome: A Delusional Condition of ‘Bugs in the Skin’”. Current Psychiatry Reports, vol 13, 2011, pp. 178-186.  

Letts, Tracy. Bug. Dramatists Play Service, Inc, 2005. 

Ruggeri, Kyle. “What Are Cocaine (Coke) Bugs or Crack Bugs?” Sober Dogs Recovery, Accessed 21 September 2022. 

“Secrets of Edgewood.” The New Yorker, December 21, 2012.  


Marriage chest (cassone). ca. 1480-95, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

  • Play title: Rope   
  • Author: Patrick Hamilton  
  • First performed: 1929   
  • Page count: 82 


Patrick Hamilton’s play, Rope, begins with a murder. A young man named Ronald has been killed by two of his fellow Oxford university students, Brandon and Granillo, and they have hidden his body in a chest. The murderers who share a house in Mayfair, have invited a selection of people for drinks and snacks the same evening. The guests include Ronald’s unsuspecting father, and a young poet named Rupert Cadell. Using the excuse that the room is cluttered with books, the killers have the buffet dinner served on top of the chest that contains the corpse. The purpose of Brandon and Granillo’s actions is to enhance the thrill of having committed the perfect murder! They plan to leave for Oxford once their guests have departed. The major themes of the play are murder, homosexuality, punishment, and the English class system.

Alfred Hitchcock famously brought the play to the big screen in the 1948 classic, Rope, which starred James Stewart. Hamilton’s other famous works include the play, Gaslight, and the novel, Hangover Square.

Ways to access the text: reading/listening/watching

The play is available via the Open Library, Internet Archive, and is also on Scribd for members. The text of Rope is quite reader friendly and may be enjoyed like a thriller.

Multiple audiobook versions of the play are available on YouTube.

One may watch the movie version of Rope directed by Hitchcock but please note that the text has been adapted for the screen.

Why read/watch/listen to Rope?

The perfect murder.

Brandon and Granillo believe that they have committed the perfect crime. Its perfection is explained by the clinically uncomplicated nature of the murder: passionless, motive-less, faultless, clueless, bloodless, and noiseless (Hamilton 10). The trail is apparently cold, even for the most persistent sleuth. Ronald Kentley has been killed only so his killers may experience the immense thrill of taking another’s life. The plan is that the body will never be found, guaranteeing the killers’ immunity from the British justice system. However, the killers’ plan is enormously ambitious to the point of hubris. Despite their best efforts, some faults have been made and Hamilton brings one on a familiar journey of clue detection in his elegantly constructed plot.

The relevance of real-life inspiration.

Patrick Hamilton is often credited with basing Rope on the famous, American case of Leopold and Loeb. Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were students at the University of Chicago when they kidnapped and killed a twelve-year-old boy in 1924. However, Hamilton dismissed speculation that his drama was based on the notorious, criminal couple. The denial, though probably sincere, makes the similarities between the two crimes no less fascinating. Leopold and Loeb, like Brandon and Granillo, had a penchant for the philosophy of Nietzsche, and believed that their intellectual superiority to the common man gave them a degree of natural immunity from society’s prosaic rules. Most interestingly, neither of the real-life killers was sentenced to death, but instead to life imprisonment. The ending of Rope presents the destiny of Brandon and Granillo (freedom/death) as a fait accompli, but the real-life example raises an important question mark over one’s confidence that things will play out as expected!

Post reading discussion/interpretation.

The Hidden Marriage Ritual in Hamilton’s Tale of Murder.


In the introduction to the first publication of Rope (1929), Patrick Hamilton wrote, “I have gone out to write a horror play and make your flesh creep” (viii-ix). Not only did the author succeed in creating a gripping, suspenseful work due to a finely crafted plot, but the subject matter is indeed so horrifically perverse as to be utterly unsettling. The central allure, as with many such works, is with the character of the murderer(s). Numerous writers before Hamilton had been fascinated by murderers and their handiwork. For example, in Intentions, Oscar Wilde wrote an essay entitled, “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” about Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, a suspected, English serial-killer who had “an extremely artistic temperament … being not merely a poet and a painter, an art-critic, an antiquarian, and a writer of prose, an amateur of beautiful things … but also a forger of no mean or ordinary capabilities, and as a subtle and secret poisoner almost without rival in this or any age” (32). Of even more renown in literary terms is Thomas De Quincey’s famous satirical essay, “Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” De Quincey comically positions himself as one who seeks to expose “The Society of Connoisseurs in Murder” (188) which is a group of “Murder-Fanciers [for whom] Every fresh atrocity of that class, which the police annals of Europe bring up, they meet and criticise as they would a picture, statue, or other work of art” (188). Wilde and De Quincey focus on murderers, both historical and imagined, whose crimes are considered to have great, artistic merit. Hamilton’s famous play is perfectly positioned amid such works because he creates fictional, dandyish murderers in the London of the late 1920’s, yet they bear an astonishing resemblance to the infamous, real-life Leopold and Loeb who were a couple of handsome, Chicago killers whose own exploits had dominated news headlines just a few years earlier in 1924. Since Rope straddles the realms of fiction and reality, one may assess the work without moralistic dourness, and enjoy it as Hamilton evidently intended.

In Rope, the protagonist, Wyndham Brandon, professes to have committed, “An immaculate murder. … I have killed for the sake of danger and for the sake of killing” (10-11). However, under some scrutiny, the murder of Ronald Kentley appears to hold a tangible motive after all, even if it is expertly secreted within the text. Much like the missing evidence in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” which was concealed, paradoxically, by being left in plain sight, Hamilton similarly hides a motive in the chest that is positioned centre stage in his play. An audience knows from the outset that the chest contains a corpse, so what else is there? In an essay about Ira Levin’s play, Deathtrap, Jordan Schildcrout gives a synopsis of that particular play which may enlighten one about Rope. He describes a “thriller about two men who must remain in the closet with two secrets: they are lovers – and murderers” (Schildcrout 44). Brandon and Granillo are self-confessed killers but are they lovers too? Or is this to overread Hamilton’s gay subtext and erroneously conflate the play with Leopold and Loeb’s story? The first major clue lies, quite literally, in the chest. In an essay by Brucia Witthoft, named “Marriage Rituals and Marriage Chests in Quattrocento Florence,” she explains that “The chests, or forzieri, were used to transport the material part of a bride’s dowry from her father’s house to her husband’s. Subsequently they became part of the bedroom furniture, serving as storage and seating” (43). The chest in which Ronald’s body is hidden is identified as a “cassone” (26) by Sir Johnstone Kentley. To clear up any possible confusion over different terms for the chest, one may refer to DuBon and Diskant who explain, “The Italian word “cassone” – from the Latin capsa – now accepted into the English language, is the name by which the Italian Renaissance chest is generally known … Other terms, known from contemporary inventories and documents, are forziere and cofano, sometimes used interchangeably with “cassone”’ (19). Therefore, the chest in Hamilton’s play is a marriage chest. In light of this information, can one assert that the body of Ronald now hidden in the cassone represents a marriage dowry? Just like Wilde and De Quincey, one must delve into the artistry of murder to discover the full significance of the chest. The thesis of this essay is that Hamilton indeed presents us with a marriage ritual at the centre of his horror play.

Since Rope is now nearing its centenary, it has been subjected to rigorous literary analysis many times. The current reading requires some considerable groundwork before the thesis may be proven. The killers must be established as queer (read homosexual), the significance of the chest must be outlined, the idea of a motiveless murder must be challenged, the dinner party (feast) must be scrutinised, Rupert as the sleuth must be critiqued, and finally, one may look at the denouement of the play.

Queer characters.

It is not possible to have a marriage ritual if the central characters are not first in love. If Brandon and Granillo are gay men and also in a relationship, then what evidence of this appears in the text? The gay subtext of Hamilton’s play has long been noted but what substantiates this observation?

One may begin rather superficially with Brandon’s and Granillo’s attire and manners – but by viewing these as marks of deception. In “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” Wilde explains that “A mask tells us more than a face” (34) and he then proceeds to describe the killer, Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, who “determined to startle the town as a dandy, … [with] his beautiful rings, his antique cameo breast-pin, and his pale lemon-coloured kid gloves” (34). One may compare this description with Hamilton’s stage directions which describe Granillo as “expensively and rather ornately dressed in a dark blue suit. He wears a diamond ring. He is enormously courteous” (15) and Brandon, who “is quietly and expensively dressed, with a double-breasted waistcoat … and perfectly creased trousers … [he has] and air of vague priggishness and self-approbation” (15). The men’s sophistication of dress and refined, even moralistic manners expertly hide the fact that they have just committed a gruesome crime by strangling a young man. The masks they wear hint at homosexuality while simultaneously hiding so much. Schildcrout points out that, “The exploitation of queer duplicity has a long and well-documented history in the theatrical thriller” (45). Hamilton presents his audience with two privileged, Oxford students who are hiding a horrible secret and their masks alert us to this potentiality. Schildcrout explains that “The sinister threat of the traditional thriller is based on the duplicity of the killer who deceptively tries to conceal her/his identity thereby creating a crisis of identity” (45). Establishing Brandon and Granillo as duplicitous characters because their polished, refined facades hide their true characters is the first step in labelling them as queer, if only in the sense that they are oddities due to the stark disjunction between impression and reality. Of course, Hamilton goes on to depict his characters in a way that allows one more assuredly to link this queerness directly to sexual practice which interconnects with the ‘queer duplicity’ to which Schildcrout refers.

The word queer is used by various characters, commencing with uses in the traditional sense of something being odd or strange, but progressing to uses that imply sexual identity and practice. For example, Leila politely challenges Brandon by observing that “this is a most mysterious and weird meal … Such a queer time, to begin with” (24). The not-quite-right feeling that the evening induces will lead Leila to suggest later, “I think they’ve committed murder, and it’s [the chest’s] simply chock-full of rotting bones” (33-34). Rupert is also attuned to the strange atmosphere of the evening and unexpectedly tells Brandon, “I have just thought of something rather queer” (43) and he reminds Brandon of his childhood obsession with telling stories which always ended with “a bloody chest containing corpses” (45). Rupert describes the coincidental overlap of Leila’s amusing hypothesis and Brandon’s childhood mania as “Oh, nothing. Just queer, that’s all. You were a morbid child” (45). However, the queerness of the stories threatens to taint Brandon’s very identity. The final step occurs when Rupert walks in on Brandon and Granillo arguing (over the Coliseum ticket). Brandon says, “You didn’t know that Granno and I behaved like that, did you, Rupert? But we often have outbursts, like this – and always about trifles … We do quarrel about queer things nowadays, don’t we, Granno?” (52; emphasis added). Brandon’s obfuscation of the real reason for the quarrel immediately and inadvertently reveals to Rupert the truth of the domestic situation of the two men. After all, Brandon and Granillo live together and have jointly hosted a dinner party, and here they are, in a moment of privacy from their guests, engaged in a blazing row, so it should not be shocking that they are indeed a romantic couple. The odd behaviour, the dramatic outburst over trifles, the queer things they fight over, are all coded references to the men’s homosexuality.

There are other incidental clues that emphasize the gay subtext of the play. For example, Sabot, who is the waiter occasionally hired by Brandon and Granillo is described as “not, perhaps, completely impersonal – his employers being in the habit of making occasional advances to him” (17). This may suggest sexual advances aka offers of work of a different nature, an argument bolstered by the fact that Rupert asks Sabot if he “had been getting into any trouble” (41) with his employers. Rupert asks due to the “hysterical noises” (41) he heard over the telephone, which incidentally are repeated later by Granillo when he “Gives a terrible, piercing, falsetto scream” (77). Even though the play is in the genre of horror/thriller, there are these elements of high camp as well as broad, sexual innuendo. Take for example, Brandon’s opening question to a distraught Granillo – “Feeling yourself, Granno? Feeling yourself again, Granno?” (10). In the context, the wording denotes the hoped for return of Granillo to a relaxed composure, but the phrase is also highly suggestive of masturbation. After all, the murder is committed for the ephemeral thrill it will induce and one should not discount a sexual element to this feeling. Also, of note here, Kenneth Raglan is later introduced as the boy who fagged for Brandon at school, and fagging refers to an English public schools’ tradition where younger boys acted as personal servants to older boys, which often led to sexual abuse. Therefore, when Rupert tells Granillo, “You look rather fagged out … What have you been doing with yourself?” (37), then the question echoes the initial question and holds the same sexual connotations, as if Granillo, as Brandon’s current servant, has been up to something that he ought not, like feeling himself! One only becomes alert to such double meanings when one is already alert to the presence of queer duplicity.

Of great importance to a reading of the play is the fact that Rupert is also a coded, gay character. There are quite subtle hints at first, for instance the fact that Brandon describes him as “fastidious” (14). In Hamilton’s stage directions one finds the following description of Rupert – “He is enormously affected in speech and carriage…His affectation almost verges on effeminacy, and can be very irritating” (27). Such a description is an old-style stereotype of the homosexual male. Confirmation of Rupert’s sexuality may be seen in his response to Brandon’s question, if he had broken the 7th commandment (You shall not commit adultery). Rupert responds, “Committed. Since infancy” (62). All forms of sexual activity done outside of marriage, including homosexuality, are seen as breaking the 7th commandment. Since homosexuality is not a choice but a sexual orientation from birth then Rupert’s response seems to confirm his homosexuality. However, the 7th commandment for Catholics is – Thou shalt not steal – and Rupert goes on, after an interesting pause, to refer to stealing property, yet it is far more likely the true reference is to the 7th commandment as observed by the Church of England, namely adultery. Hamilton’s sleight of hand here may be interpreted as further obfuscation. Rupert’s sexuality becomes a crucial factor in how he eventually deals with Brandon and Granillo.

The fact that Hamilton depicts three of his characters as homosexual does not of course automatically make them killers. On the other hand, as Schildcrout has outlined, queer duplicity is a popular motif in dramas, even if it is derogatory and prejudicial. The apparent link between the characters’ sexuality and the crime may be inferred from the case of Leopold and Loeb. One may compare the fictional Brandon to the real-life Leopold who Edward J. Larson describes – “Leopold was bookish, scholarly, easily offended and attracted to virile young men” (127). Ronald Kentley was an athlete and thereby matches the victim profile. Larson goes on to describe how the real-life killers were “Psychopathically dependent on each other, they had entered into a secret pact in which Leopold assisted Loeb to commit crimes in return for sexual favours” (141). While Brandon and Granillo are clearly not identical to Leopold and Loeb, the comparison allows one to begin to contemplate what motive, sexual or otherwise, may have been behind the murder of Ronald Kentley.

The marriage chest (cassone).

The chest that holds the corpse, situated at the centre of Hamilton’s play, is normally seen as a mere receptacle rather than a vital clue. This peculiar item of furniture is the focal point of the stage play and yet has received so little attention in critical terms. By choosing a marriage chest, surely Hamilton wanted to arouse our interest and impart some clever, hidden message. The chest is first identified by Sir Johnstone Kentley as follows:

“Sir Johnstone (peering at chest). That’s not a Cassone, is it?

Brandon. No, sir. It’s not genuine, it’s a reproduction. But it’s rather a nice piece. I got it in Italy.”

(Hamilton 26)

Brandon explains that it is not an original cassone, but an imitation. An imitation can be read as a sign that this is part of a mock marriage ritual or in other words, a gay marriage since homosexual practices were still illegal in Britain in 1929. Therefore, the fake nature of the item does not rob it of relevance but rather adds to its meaning. Since Brandon purchased the chest in Italy then it is far more likely he is aware of how the item was used traditionally.

Extracting meaning from the chest require some insights into how they were used in the marriage ritual. Witthoft explains that “Florentine Renaissance wedding chests were usually bought by the groom’s family” (43). As previously outlined, the chest would have held the new bride’s dowry. The macabre dowry now concealed in the chest is Ronald’s dead body and one may still interpret it as an offering from bride to groom, or in this case, groom to groom. Furthermore, there is a tantalizing hint that Brandon as the purchaser of the chest (groom’s side) receives the dead body as Granillo’s dowry which makes Granillo the true murder! This helps to explain Brandon’s almost perfect composure versus Granillo’s flustered, defensive state and subsequent over-reliance on alcohol to calm his nerves. Additionally, it shows that Granillo needs to bring an offering to secure the mock marriage, a proof of his merit.

The chests were usually quite elaborate, “Their shape (large, narrow, coffin-like boxes) was appropriate for keeping linens; their flat tops made them easy to sit on; but the iconography of their painted side panels was determined by the nature of the marriage procession” (43). The eerie, coffin-like shape of the chest makes Brandon’s words more arresting – “And here is a chest, from which we’re going to feed” (26), especially if one interprets the dinner buffet as a wedding feast. There is no indication that Brandon or Granillo held any prior grudge against Ronald Kentley so the feasting at his symbolic grave indicates a grievance by the couple against society in general. This hidden hatred, possibly the hatred of men whose lives are constantly restricted due to their sexuality, explains the drive required to commit such a heinous act.

There is also a link between the chest and Brandon and Granillo’s Nietzschean leanings. Witthoft writes that, “Marriage chests became classical in inspiration because they were chosen by men whose humanist education stressed ancient writings as moral guides” (54). Despite the fact that we receive no information on the chest’s decoration, the denigration of Ronald’s body as a party-piece reflects Brandon’s reading of Nietzsche because some gifted individuals are understood to be above the general masses and therefore not subject to the same laws. A modern text becomes the moral guide for killers to seal their mock marriage.

The planning of a perfect murder, as Brandon labels it, takes expert planning. The logistics of a marriage and murder are quite similar in this regard. When cassone were in use in Italy, “Examples drawn from ricordi and from published sources show that three to six months commonly elapse between the giuramento [legal agreement to marry] and the consummation of the marriage” (Witthoft 44). Leopold and Loeb put meticulous planning into their infamous murder and Brandon and Granillo evidently planned Ronald’s death well in advance given that they sent prior dinner invitations and have arranged to leave for Oxford on the night of the murder. There is nothing haphazard about the scene.

Dismantling a motiveless murder.

Brandon recounts the day’s events to Granillo, saying, “That is the complete story, and the perfection of criminality – the complete story of the perfect crime” (13). On the surface, Brandon and Granillo’s crime quite strangely lacks a motive. However, murder is generally motivated by some gnawing need or uncontrollable passion; it is rarely carried out in a dispassionate manner. Oscar Wilde once wrote that, “Crime in England is rarely the result of sin. It is nearly always the result of starvation” (47). Of these two options, Hamilton’s killers are clearly sinful rather than needy, and sin implies free will and therefore a conscious choice to do a certain thing. Due to their claim of perfection, the sin is not simply that of murder but of pride too (the seven deadly sins). The concept of perfection is equally suggestive of artistry, and De Quincey explains how, “People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed—a knife—a purse—and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature” (191). Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, who considered himself an artist and certainly no common criminal, murdered his wife’s mother, a Mrs. Abercrombie, but “Why he murdered Mrs. Abercrombie is not ascertained. It may have been for a caprice, or to quicken some hideous sense of power that was in him, or because she suspected something, or for no reason” (Wilde 44). The motivation for Brandon and Granillo’s killing of Ronald Kentley is similarly undetermined, explainable only as the pursuit of a thrilling sense of power and the result of excessive pride. However, is this answer sufficient for an audience? Pride usually comes before a fall. For example, is this a very human murder i.e., a flawed one? The real motive may become clear after the mirage of perfection has been removed.

The perfect crime does not exist. Brandon realises the couple’s weakness when he exclaims to Granillo – “Look at this! The boy’s Coliseum ticket. It was on the floor. We could hang on that!” (16). Similar to the Leopold and Loeb case, a simple error threatens to disqualify the murder from the claim that it is perfect. Larson recounts that, “The first major lead in the investigation came from the eyeglasses found near Franks’ [the victim’s] body” (126). These glasses belonged to Leopold and soon led the investigators directly to the murderous pair. In Rope, Rupert’s suspicion is aroused by the Coliseum ticket and Granillo’s generally defensive responses. While both couples were first time murderers and therefore mistakes would likely occur, their crimes still tentatively claim the title of perfection due to the disinterested manner in which the victims were chosen. We know from the trial of Leopold and Loeb that, “They had decided to murder someone, it did not matter who” (Larson 128). During their trial, a psychiatrist testified that, “It was a desire on the part of Richard Loeb to commit a perfect crime, a desire on [Leopold’s] part to do whatever Richard Loeb wanted him to do” (143). If one superimposes this scenario onto Brandon and Granillo’s case, then the murder is indeed a strengthening of the relationship bond between the men. The “motiveless murder” (63) is chiefly an “engrossing adventure” (63) that the men enter into to impress one another. Does this mean the motive is love?

The dark and macabre gift that lies inside the wedding chest is Ronald’s dead body. How can love be interpreted as a motivation for such an act? Rather than a random victim, Ronald was chosen as the victim for a specific reason. Brandon’s boastful claim that the murder is motiveless is a sham. In fact, the murder of Ronald is motivated by the marriage ritual. The first clue rests in Kenneth Raglan’s uncanny resemblance to Ronald Kentley. Brandon tells Kenneth, “he is the living image of yourself … Same age. Same height. Same colour. Same sweet and refreshing innocence” (21). At a later point in the evening, Sir Johnstone confirms the likeness, prompting Kenneth to say, “I’ve a double apparently” (31). The only significant difference is that Brandon tells Kenneth that he is “getting positively fat … Nothing like the little boy who used to fag for me at school” (21). This history between Brandon and Kenneth is important since fagging in school often led to sexual exploitation of a younger boy under the command of an older boy. There are definite hints of Kenneth’s old adoration and possible infatuation with Brandon when he remembers how he thought Brandon an “absolute hero in those days” (22). When Kenneth tremulously tries to get the key to the chest from Brandon on Leila’s request (59), one witnesses the sort of homoerotic, rough and tumble of boys’ games, but Brandon is still by far the stronger of the two men. The crux of the matter is that Kenneth Raglan is a classic doppelgänger of Ronald Kentley with even their initials reversing like in a mirror image (K.R – R.K). The killing of Ronald is symbolic because he is a substitute for the now chubby Kenneth, who was likely Brandon’s first sexual experience. The murder represents the sacrifice of a former love who is now stashed in a marriage chest, signalling the consecration of a new, homosexual relationship. The corpse becomes the dowry that Granillo presents to Brandon to prove his love, or vice versa.

Rupert also asserts that a motiveless murder does not exist. He says, “Vanity. it would be a murder of vanity … the criminal would be quite unable to keep from talking about it, or showing it off – in some fantastic way or another” (63). Rupert only partially recognises the killers’ motivation since he does not appreciate the true significance of the chest and the dinner.

The wedding feast.

Is the dinner party truly the wedding feast of a duplicitous, queer couple? One is tempted to accept Rupert’s claim that a murderer would wish to expose his horrible deed due to vanity. The truth is quite the contrary, because when Brandon explains that “the entire beauty and piquancy of the evening will reside in the party itself” (12-13), he is referring to the thrilling experience only he and Granillo will share. Yes, his guests will come “for regalement” (12) but the joke will be on them. For instance, Sir Johnstone Kentley who is a kindly, harmless old man is viewed quite differently by Brandon, who says – “It is he, as the father, who gives the entire macabre quality of the evening” (13). One understands why Kenneth has been invited since he is a doppelgänger. Additionally, on account of his awkward flirtations with Leila, Kenneth represents the silly, unintellectual world of heterosexuals! Rupert sarcastically refers to the pair as “Love’s Young Dream.” (68). The assorted guests are merely puppets in a twisted game created chiefly by Brandon.

The chest is both a coffin and a banquet table. Prompted by Leila’s fanciful suggestion that it is a murder chest, the following exchange occurs which is rich in dramatic irony.

“Sir Johnstone: But surely your murderer, having chopped up and concealed his victim in a chest – wouldn’t ask all his friends round to come and eat off it.

Rupert (slowly): Not unless he was a very stupid, and very conceited murderer.”  

(Hamilton 34)

It is correct to assume that Brandon and Granillo wish to keep the murder a secret, otherwise they will face the law. As intelligent men, they wish for a thrill but not to the point of risking their safety. What is more, the privilege of viewing the contents of the chest is solely the preserve of Brandon and Granillo. The chest holds many secrets because, as Witthoft explains, “About half of those chests surviving whole are decorated on the inside of the lid with a more intimate kind of marital symbolism” (52). This included male and female nudes and “The nuptial significance is meant to be concealed, and to show itself only to the betrothed pair. This contrasts with the public nature of the outside of the chests” (Witthoft 52). The corpse corresponds with the idea of intimate material for several reasons. First, Ronald is Kenneth’s double and therefore his body constitutes a taboo offering from one lover to another. Second, since Ronald died by strangulation, the corpse may display priapism and may also be naked, much like a traditional painting on the inside of a cassone. The eventual reopening of the chest will be done by the couple on their own and signifies the commencement of their marriage.

The couple plan to take the chest with them when they drive to Oxford that same night. Their beds have already been dismantled in the Mayfair house so there is nowhere to sleep (53). As the last act in their marriage ritual, they will leave to begin their mock honeymoon with a very symbolic and important piece of furniture that will likely adorn a new bedroom. The utter thrill of the evening was constituted by the fear of being exposed as murderers. Like a newly married couple on their wedding day, the men felt like the centre of attention except that the reason was quite secret. Granillo says of Rupert, “I thought he got on to it” (69) and Brandon responds, – “But that’s what gave piquancy to the evening” (69) followed by an assurance that they were safe. Rupert turns out to be a more competent investigator than Brandon expects.

The sleuth.

Rupert is the sleuth who will finally expose the killers’ secrets. Brandon describes his dinner guests in advance of their arrival, saying that Rupert is “intellect’s representative” (14) at the party and “is about the one man alive who might have seen this thing from our angle, that is, the artistic one” (14). The killers perceive an alliance with Rupert because they are socially bonded through their elite, educational backgrounds but also their homosexuality. The amateur detective will be forced to take a side when he challenges his friends. Hamilton constructs the plot so that one fully comprehends what dirty secrets Rupert is potentially going to expose. As per one’s expectations of a character with a superior intellect, Rupert says, “I’m coming to the conclusion that there’s some ulterior motive about this chest picnic” (33). However, Brandon’s meticulous planning means that the killers never perceive Rupert as a major threat. Brandon knows Rupert and having assessed his character, has decided not to include him in the murder because, “He could have invented and admired, but he could not have acted” (14). Rupert is evidently brilliant but impotent too. This calculation of Brandon’s comes fully to light at the close of the drama when he tells Rupert, “You can’t give us up. Two lives can’t recall one. It’d just be triple murder … You’re not a murderer, Rupert” (84). Hamilton exposes Brandon’s grievous miscalculation by making Rupert the hero who indeed acts against the two men and decisively so too.

There is a quite significant message of homophobia embedded in the justice achieved at the close of the play. As a gay man, Rupert is alert to the minefield of living a double life, the complications of living differently in public and private realms, façade versus truth. Therefore, when Brandon is threatened by Rupert’s persistent questioning, he cunningly attempts to side-line Rupert’s suspicions about murder by offering a proxy confession of homosexuality which was a crime in 1920’s England. Brandon is relying on the expectation that Rupert is unlikely to pursue the issue due to his own compromised position. Brandon appears to expose a major vulnerability to his friend, but it is little more than a Trojan horse to disarm Rupert. Brandon is playing on the stark reality that, “Marginalized minorities are more easily intimidated as long as they are stigmatized, ashamed, and afraid of public exposure – in short, in the closet” (Schildcrout 43). It is as though Brandon is letting a trusted friend in on a secret. Surprisingly, Rupert is not dissuaded by, nor sympathetic to Brandon’s pleas of a domestic issue, a “certain trouble” (77) between him and Granillo, which does not concern others.

“Rupert: No, Brandon, it may not be anything to do with me. But it may possibly be something to do with – with the public in general – and I’m its only representative in this room. Won’t you tell me?”

(Hamilton 78)

The confrontation is cleverly structured by the playwright so that the crimes of murder and homosexuality are totally conflated. It is true that Rupert suspects murder, but he has only a gut feeling and Brandon’s defensive tactics mean the secret could just be a homosexual relationship. Rupert is shown to reject either reason as a private matter. Rupert is suddenly depicted as a representative of proper masculinity with his swordstick (78) and a representative of moralistic society with the whistle he got from a police officer (79). Brandon persists in hinting that he and Granillo are a couple, telling Rupert, “I imagined you’d got on to the real truth – which’d have been devilish awkward” (80). When Rupert nonetheless insists on seeing inside the chest then it represents a revelation of the couple’s bedroom secrets, the piquant scene. The contents of the marriage chest are for the newlyweds alone, but Hamilton exposes it to a third party and Rupert is “contemptuous and horror-struck” (82). It may be viewed as poetic justice from conventional society’s point of view that the queer couple are betrayed by a fellow gay man. However, there is an unmistakable cost to Rupert too.  

As a fictional tale, one may appreciate the art of the scene with the red curtains and upholstery of the room (9), and an ornate marriage chest at the centre. The dead body is just one aspect of a much more complex, perfectly arranged plan which constitutes the killers’/lovers’ dark art. De Quincey writes about how, “Everything in this world has two handles. Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle, (as it generally is in the pulpit, and at the Old Bailey;) and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated æsthetically, as the Germans call it, that is, in relation to good taste” (192). Rupert grasps murder exclusively by the moral handle and even makes a distinction between “being brought to the Old Bailey … [and] being brought to justice” (60). The main reason that Brandon and Granillo are exposed, their Achilles heel, is the contrived ritual of the entire evening which is solely and secretly a means of solidifying their homosexual relationship. The marriage chest, the victim who resembles an old love, the feast; these make up the artistry of the murder. Rupert is the homosexual insider who rejects all this to cleanse himself of any possible association. The cost of his heroism is sexual repression. He becomes the somewhat soured, closet homosexual who sneers at heterosexual couples like Kenneth and Leila and holds equal condemnation for those like him.


Hamilton’s horror play is literally about murder, but implicitly a tale of gay marriage sealed with an elaborate, ritualistic killing. Just like in Levin’s Deathtrap, an audience is presented with a male couple with two key secrets. The action of the play, most notably Rupert’s moralistic stance against Brandon and Granillo, shows how conventional society will win out in the end. The gay subtext of the play then becomes an afterthought, even though it is central to one’s understanding of what motivated the murder. In the Chicago case of Leopold and Loeb, Larson explains that “Although the Hulbert-Bowman report detailed the sexual practices and preferences of both defendants, including their mutual masturbation and Leopold being exclusively attracted to men, at the time even writers with access to it did not mention these matters in their published articles and books” (147). Reminiscent of such censorship, Hamilton relies on an audience’s covert understanding that the men who commit the murder are also morally corrupt aka homosexual without ever saying it outright. It is now an outdated, dramatic tactic but had long been effective in associating crime with so-called sexual deviance.

The ending of Rope foresees a tragic, albeit just fate for Brandon and Granillo, yet, it remains unwritten, unconfirmed, a blank last page. The couple who sought the ultimate, depraved thrill now receive their just desserts since their fears mount anew on account of their undetermined punishment. Rupert states, “It is not what I am doing Brandon. It is what society is going to do. And what will happen to you at the hands of society” (85). De Quincey explains that in a case of murder, “old women, and the mob of newspaper readers … are pleased with anything, provided it is bloody enough” (222). The obscener the crime then the more draconian the court’s likely response. Rupert, as the voice of the masses, tells the two men – “You are going to hang, you swine! Hang! – both of you! – hang!” (86). The immense threat is that the two privileged, upper-class, secretly queer men will be exposed to mob justice, the crowd baying for blood. However, we never see the men hang. If one looks to Leopold and Loeb, the prosecutor trying their case, Mr. Crowe, boasted – “I have a hanging case and would be willing to submit it to a jury tomorrow” (128). Yet, neither man was hanged! As per Hamilton’s own protestations, this is not a biographical play, but a work of pure fiction and one may therefore admire the art of murderers just like Wilde and De Quincey. The revelation of a marriage ritual at the spotlighted centre of Hamilton’s play is as unexpected and thrilling addition to the traditional murder plot. One’s flesh creeps just a little to think that it may all have happened on account of love.  

Works Cited.

De Quincey, Thomas. The Collected Works of Thomas De Quincey. Pergamon Media, 2015.

DuBon, David, and Eda Diskant. “A Medici Cassone.” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, Vol. 73, No. 317, 1977, pp. 18–24.

Hamilton, Patrick. Rope. Constable and Company Ltd., 1957.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Fowler, Robert. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. c.1900.

  • Play title: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Author: William Shakespeare
  • First published: 1600 (quarto format)
  • Page count: 47


A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated comedies. The play has entertained audiences for centuries with its imaginative content and convoluted plot.

Theseus, who is the King of Athens is soon to marry Hippolyta, formerly Queen of the Amazons. Prior to their grand nuptials, a nobleman named Egeus calls on the king to enforce Athenian law and thereby compel his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius (whom she does not love) instead of Lysander (whom she does love). As a consequence, Hermia and Lysander flee to the wood of Athens as part of their romantic plan to elope. Helena, who is Hermia’s closest friend but also Demetrius’s former love, cynically tells him of the secret plan and soon all four young people are in the wood. The wood represents a parallel, magical world, inhabited as it is by Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the fairies, along with Robin Goodfellow (Puck). Due to a fairyland dispute, Oberon is unhappy with Titania. Therefore, Oberon plans to put “love juice” (3.2.39) on Titania’s eyes which will cause her to fall in love with the first thing she sees upon awakening, “Be it ounce, or cat, or bear, /Pard, or boar with bristled hair” (2.2.36-37), thereby precipitating an embarrassing situation for her! The Fairy King tasks Robin with placing the same concoction on the eyes of one of the young men but for the benevolent reason of fixing a broken love. Unfortunately, Robin chooses the wrong young man, thus changing the course of love and causing much consternation. Within the space of one eventful night, all the lovers find harmony anew and the play concludes with three, happy marriages. The major themes of this work are dreams, imagination, love, betrayal, and theatre.

Ways to access the text: reading/listening/watching

If you would like to read the play online, then The Folger Shakespeare website is an excellent option. The play is also available via Project Gutenberg and the Open Library.

There are several audiobook versions, for example a radio play from BBC Radio 3 entitled “A Midsummer Night’s Dream 1999” which is available on the Internet Archive. An alternative version from the same website is a Caedmon Records recording from 1964 starring Paul Scofield, simply entitled, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Film adaptations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream include the 1968 version starring Helen Mirren and directed by Peter Hall, and the 1999 version starring Michelle Pfeiffer, directed by Michael Hoffman. There is also a National Theatre Live production of the play from 2019 with a runtime of 3 hours. Directed by Nicholas Hytner and Ross MacGibbon, this version stars Gwendoline Christie.

Why read/watch/listen to A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Dominant or resistant reading.  

Shakespeare’s famous play with its tangled love affairs and meddling fairies may be read in quite contrasting ways. The play is a comedy in the traditional sense which means it ends with marriage and contains many light-hearted, humorous scenes. One may accordingly classify the play as undemanding, frivolous entertainment, albeit it of Shakespeare’s high standards. Alternatively, the events of the story, most especially the happenings in the wood of Athens may be interpreted as menacing and shadowy. In The Norton Shakespeare, Brett Gambo makes the observation that, “Productions face a challenge in exploring the play’s darker aspects, particularly the dissension and sexual aggression underlying its principal relationships, without destroying the comedy” (1047). In the written text, Shakespeare effortlessly combines the light and dark tones of the story but it is more difficult for a reader to find a correspondingly balanced interpretation so most people will fall into one of two reading approaches– reading the play as a magical tale of gossamer winged fairies and true love, or a more sinister tale of sordid happenings in a dark wood on a strange night. The second reading approach falls into the category of resistant reading since it diverges from Shakespeare’s comedic aims. An awareness of both possibilities makes the play more intriguing.


Shakespeare accomplishes an imaginative feat in his depiction of the Fairy Kingdom. One is presented with a tempestuous, royal couple and various fairy attendants. Then, adding to the fantastical scene is Robin Goodfellow who is not a fairy at all, but a trickster of English myth. Though all familiar figures, Shakespeare makes considerable alterations to the traditional folklore he is referencing. The fairies were formerly malevolent beings whom one would assiduously avoid, especially if met at night time, but Shakespeare transforms them into playful and kindly, supernatural imps. Even so, the transformation is somehow flawed and maybe deliberately so, since the fairies stubbornly retain the old aura of danger and continue to unsettle us at times. For example, Bottom who is a workman, loses his human head and is given an ass’s upon the Fairy King’s orders. One may surmise that the fairies are still up to considerable mischief!  

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

Correcting Love’s Sometimes Wayward Path.

“OBERON, [to Robin]

What hast thou done? Thou hast mistaken quite

And laid the love juice on some true-love’s sight.

Of thy misprision [mistake] must perforce ensue

Some true-love turned, and not a false turned true.”

(A Midsummer Night’s Dream 3.2.88-91)

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a self-proclaimed dream sequence. The theme of dreaming is initiated with Hippolyta’s words on her upcoming nuptials, “Four nights will quickly dream away the time” (1.1.8) and concludes with Robin Goodfellow’s suggestion that the audience have indeed slumbered and that all was merely “An idle theme, no more yielding but a dream” (5.1.413). Due to the fantastical nature of the events depicted, it is plausible that all events which take place in the wood may be categorized as dream material. King Theseus certainly gives no credence to the young lovers’ stories after they emerge from the wood, saying, “More strange than true. I never may believe / These antique fables nor these fairy toys. /Lovers and madmen have such seething brains” (5.1.2-4). Framing the events in the wood as dream, or even reverie, allows for a broader, looser interpretation of the work.

The opening quote is King Oberon’s chastisement of Robin regarding the latter’s misapplication of the fairies’ magical concoction of “love juice” (3.2.39). Demetrius and Lysander are evidently so alike as to make little difference to the feckless Robin. Oberon is upset because he wished to reignite Demetrius’s old love for Helena having seen the couple squabbling in the wood. Had Robin performed the task correctly then it would also have solved the associated problem of Hermia’s enforced marriage to Demetrius now demanded by her father. The Fairy King’s reference to ‘some true love turned’ suggests that the fairies and their ‘love juice,’ like Cupid and his arrow, have total agency over the lovers’ romantic choices. Under the cover of darkness in a strange wood, the lovers first lose but then miraculously rediscover their fated partners, all as in a dream and all in one night. The fairies are credited with the happy resolution. This essay will delve into what lies behind the veil of magic that Shakespeare weaves in the wood of Athens. The playwright’s success rests not solely with his depiction of the Fairy Kingdom and its magical powers but also in how he presents us with a complex web of dream material.

When an audience is watching a play then a suspension of disbelief is a normal reaction since it facilitates unhindered enjoyment of the performance. Therefore, one does not pick holes in an outrageous plot, one becomes fully invested in the story. Midsummer Night (abbrev.) presents us with a fantastical and engrossing tale but there are additional reasons, beyond a desire for entertainment, which trick us into our easy acceptance and subsequent transportation into the dramatic dreamscape. For instance, the Bard incorporated both English folklore and Ovidian mythology into this celebrated comedy. Mary Ellen Lamb quotes folklore specialist Ruth Bottigheimer who described fairy tales as having, “the deepest and most enduring childhood impressions” (304). These impressions are subsequently woven into our own dreams whose textures are thereby enriched with familiar figures and latent meanings. When presented with a story rich in fairy tale, folklore, or mythological associations then we connect more intuitively with the experience. In the case of Midsummer Night, one quickly appreciates that there is much hidden within the dream. Sigmund Freud mused over the raw material of dreams and concluded that, “dream interpretation must seek a closer union with the rich material of poetry, myth, and popular idiom” (2). The central mystery of Shakespeare’s play, shrouded by a night of dreams, is how the four young lovers return to their fated loves. The answer rests in the overlapping dreams of the young lovers which constitute the main action of the play. Though one is loath to disrupt something as ephemeral as a dream, it is the only manner by which to extract the dream’s secrets.

Freud wrote that the people of ancient times “took it for granted that dreams were related to the world of the supernatural beings in whom they believed, and that they brought inspirations from the gods and demons” (1). This concept of guidance/knowledge/influence being cloaked in a dream is tacitly explored in Midsummer Night. For example, Queen Titania claims her tempestuous row with Oberon has brought a “progeny of evils” (2.1.115) into the mortal world. This intrusion of influence from the land of the fairies may broadly be explained in the words of Ronald F. Miller who proposes, “It is not so much the fairies per se as the mystery of the fairies – the very aura of evanescence and ambiguity surrounding their life on stage – that points to a mysteriousness in our own existence, and specifically in such ambivalent earthly matters as love, luck, imagination, and even fate” (255). In the context of the play, we need not doubt that Titania’s Kingdom has more than metaphysical power given that the lovers’ lives transform in the wood and remain altered even when normal life resumes. While Miller presents an analogy between the mystery of the fairies and the mysteries of life, Freud allows one to see the figures in one’s dreams as actual messengers and this proves more fruitful for an analysis of Midsummer Night. When one focuses on the workings of dreams then the influences of mythology and folklore may be detected behind the projected dream images and therefore linked to the salient messages for the young lovers.

Dreams are such an unforgiving medium to intruders because dreams are often peculiar, haunting, broken rather than free-flowing, and frequently illogical. A method of translation is required because dreams rarely carry their meaning at the easily understandable, surface level. There is also an intrinsic complication, a safety-mechanism so to speak, which Freud explained when he wrote that we should, “assume that in every human being there exist, as the primary cause of dream-formation, two psychic forces (tendencies or systems), one of which forms the wish expressed by the dream, while the other exercises a censorship over this dream-wish, thereby enforcing on it a distortion” (51). To reverse the distortion and discover the hidden meanings of the young lovers’ dreams, one needs to delve into and interrogate several different aspects of the play. As architect of the dreamscape, Shakespeare litters the scene with clues. The setting is an appropriate starting point, given that the wood of Athens represents a parallel world, the ‘green world,’ where problems fortuitously evaporate like a mist in the morning sun.

The young lovers’ daring move from city to woodland is quite symbolic. Theseus’s total dominance in Athens communicates a society of traditions, conventions, and restrictions, firmly held in place by the rule of law. Hermia seeks the freedom to marry her true love and therefore she needs to escape from her authoritarian father Egeus who just secured the support of Theseus. In eloping to the wood of Athens, the lovers’ tale mirrors that of Pyramus and Thisbe who are the rebellious and tragic young lovers in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This tale holds great prominence in Midsummer Night. Robin speaks of how the “rude mechanical” (3.2.9) aka unsophisticated, amateur actors will perform the story of Pyramus and Thisbe for Theseus’s wedding. However, the play within a play is allocated no particular significance beyond its unintentionally comedic presentation, thanks to the unskilled acting. One may recognize this as the first ‘distortion’ (to use Freud’s term) of dream content. Pyramus and Thisbe’s story is dark and emotive. As seems fitting, Shakespeare never depicts the wood of Athens as a safe refuge, instead, the forest setting at night is a visually distorted world of shadows and wild beasts. This is similar to the scene Ovid portrays when Thisbe encounters, “a lioness, fresh from the kill, her slavering jaws dripping with the blood of her victims” (96). The wood of Athens holds the promise of freedom, yet it is undeniably a place of danger too. Once the youths tread into the wilderness, beyond the safety of the city, what is real is sometimes undecipherable from the unreal on account of the youths’ fired-up imaginations. Theseus insightfully remarks, “How easy is a bush supposed a bear” (5.1.22). Nevertheless, a real bear may still lurk nearby! One senses a fine line in the play between the humour of the woodland scenes and hints at darker happenings. To seek love in the way these various lovers do, is simultaneously to court danger. The remote, wooded setting and reference to Pyramus and Thisbe alert one to physical danger and also the dangers of unstable meanings. An understanding that the setting doubles as a dreamscape renders the intense experiences and confused messages more accessible.

The forest is also the realm of Oberon and Titania, the “fairies, that do run / By the triple Hecate’s team / From the presence of the sun, / Following darkness like a dream” (5.1.400-403). It is here that the fairies dance in circles, while their queen sleeps with a mortal man. It is apparent that the rules of convention have faded away upon entering the forest. When Oberon and Titania argue then there are revelations of numerous torrid, loves affairs. It is in this new atmosphere of freedom that the burgeoning, sexual appetites of the young men are alluded to in several exchanges, for example when Helena tests Demetrius’s patience and he retaliates by threatening, “I shall do thee mischief in the wood” (2.1.237). Lysander is similarly prompted by the opportunity the forest offers, suggesting to Hermia, “One heart, one bed, two bosoms, and one troth” (2.2.42). All concerned begin to undergo metamorphoses, their imaginations now reshaped by potential freedoms, which their good names and sense of duty would deny in Athens. These licentious thoughts may be detected in the dreams of the young lovers, yet much remains censored and therefore appears opaque. Sex may be interpreted as the chief danger in the wood. Oberon’s spell is the promised, final seal that will safely lock away the wicked dreams and events of the night – “When they next awake, all this derision, shall seem a dream and fruitless vision” (3.2.370). The Fairy Kingdom allows the young lovers to unfasten the moral bonds of society but only for a brief space of time.  

In an interesting move, Shakespeare transformed the fairies of English folklore from malevolent, fear-inspiring spirits who reputedly stole babies, to benevolent, eloquent beings. In the reverse of a funhouse mirror’s effect, the playwright prettifies the supernatural entities thus creating an eerie subtext that holds much meaning. Mary Ellen Lamb quotes Latham when addressing this point, she writes, “Shakespeare’s fairies bore little resemblance to traditional fairies, who were “tyrannical and dangerous beings, even in their jokes”’ (308). This break with tradition fails to hide old associations. In fact, the fairies’ original connotations help to unravel significant clues in the play. Lamb explains how, “Fairies and Robin Goodfellow import some of their subversive potential into the play as A Midsummer Night’s Dream literalizes the ongoing use of fairy practices in order to allude to understandings, especially sexual understandings, shared within a discursive community” (280). She continues by stating that in Shakespeare’s time, “the euphemism ‘going to see the fairies’ to indicate illicit sexual activities may have been widespread enough to be readily understood by a contemporary audience” (286). The alteration of the fairies is especially conspicuous in a dream setting since their distinctive aura, and all associated with them, are lost in a kind of character sanitation. In revealing the true nature of the fairies, one exposes a more honest account of the lovers’ intentions during their excursion to the woods. There is certainly hidden meaning in the meeting point suggested by Lysander to Hermia for their elopement, he suggests, “In the wood … where I did meet thee once with Helena, to do observance to a morn in May” (1.1.165). When Theseus finds the lovers after their eventful night, he suspects they had indeed come to observe the rite of May. The ancient, Pagan rituals of May Day are also alluded to in Hermia’s humorous slander of Helena, referring to her as, “Thou painted maypole” (3.2.296). Helena becomes the centre of attention for two men who literally circle her as youths would a real maypole in olden times. The original, Pagan practices of May Day would have included carousing and licentiousness. Do Shakespeare’s youths plan marriage, or mischief under the cover of the woods?

The residents of the Fairy Kingdom supply ample allusions to fertility and babies. This interlinks with why Robin Goodfellow, not usually associated with the fairies, is likely depicted as the Fairy King’s helper. Mary Ellen Lamb elaborates on the folk history of Robin Goodfellow, writing that Robin’s mother was reputedly visited at night by a “hee Fairy who ‘forced’ her to dance with him, resulting in her pregnancy” (286). However, it is Queen Titania who first broaches the topics of illegitimate children and changelings (mortal children replaced by fairies). The “changeling” (2.1.23) child now in Titania’s care is “A lovely boy stolen from an Indian King” (2.1.22) whose mother was formerly a “vot’ress” (2.1.127) of Titania’s order. The child’s mother died in childbirth, prompting Titania to seize it. Titania is shown to celebrate fertility when recalling how she and this friend, “laughed to see the sails conceive, and grow big-bellied with the wanton wind” (2.1.128). In a sharp break with the conventions of Shakespeare’s time, the dream world offers a caring, loving home for the children of illicit sexual trysts, and shrouds former shame in proclamations of sisterly love. Robin falls into this category of children and it may explain his reliance on the fairies. The mortal child stolen by Titania would have been replaced by a fairy (a changeling), showing that the fairies retain their old, sinister proclivities. Mary Ellen Lamb quotes Susan Schoon Eberly when describing the barbaric practices regarding children associated with the fairies in the English early modern period.  

“It was popularly believed that if parents treated their changelings cruelly then the fairies would take the changelings back and return the mortal infants. Traditional methods – such a bathing them in foxglove (an herbal form of digitalis), starving them on a dunghill, or throwing them onto hot coals – were “little more than socially countenanced forms of infanticide.”

(Lamb 292)

The harshness of the mortal world is inverted by Titania’s apparent love for her changeling child. When the overall scene is understood as a dreamscape where the youths have ‘gone to see the fairies’ then one may detect an underlying fear of Hermia’s and Helena’s that one of them could fall pregnant in the current situation. Such fears are conveniently offset when the queen of the realm is shown to profusely shower love over a changeling. This represents another distortion in the dreamscape, allowing for true fears to be hidden. The sense of detachment from the quotidian world is both obvious and conspicuous.

The play opens with two authoritarian males wishing to force Hermia into a loveless marriage. The groom-to-be, Demetrius, is covertly promised the prize of Hermia’s virginity, the one thing she is deemed unworthy to control. Hermia’s maidenhead is referenced repeatedly in the discussions between her and her father and King Theseus. In Athens, Theseus says she must marry Demetrius as per her father’s demands and failing that her stark choices are “Either to die the death or to abjure / Forever the society of men” (1.1.65). Theseus’s foresees Hermia’s life in the nunnery as one where the rose “Withering on the virgin thorn / Grows, lives, and dies in single blessedness” (1.1.77-78). Hermia seizes her opportunity to flee such oppressive power, simultaneously seizing power over her sexual agency, however, there are obvious risks to her reputation and future due to her current location and company. By diligently safeguarding her virginal status, Hermia would ironically remain a prisoner of her father and king’s power, despite her newfound freedom. This potential undercurrent of sexual rebellion must be acknowledged in Hermia’s character and dreams. Intricately linked with a fear of pregnancy is Hermia and Helena’s shared fear that the men will prove false and abandon them.

At the opening of the play, Egeus thunders that Lysander, “Hath bewitched the bosom of my child … [and] Stolen the impression of her fantasy” (1.1.27,33). Influenced no doubt by her father’s protests, Hermia’s insecurity surfaces in her promise to meet Lysander in the forest when she swears by, among other things, “That fire that burned the Carthage Queen” (1.1.173). Dido, the Carthage Queen, was abandoned by Aeneas and then, “on the pretext of making a sacrifice, she built a pyre, and there fell on a sword, deceiving all in her intention, as she had been herself deceived” (Ovid 313). The Ovidian image of the abandoned woman sacrificing herself belies Hermia’s faith in her lover. One may also be struck by the fact that Thisbe ends her life by falling on a sword, just like Dido. It is as though, even before Hermia enters the dreamland, the subconscious warnings visible in her references link to myth and folklore. The young woman speaks of “all the vows that ever men have broke / (In number more than ever women spoke)” (1.1.175-176) and this is a fear not easily overcome.

In the wood, Hermia’s fears will come to pass. Having slept for a time in the wild, she awakes from a nightmare, saying, “Methought a serpent ate my heart away / And you [Lysander] sat smiling at his cruel prey” (3.1.149-150). This occurs after she had denied Lysander permission to sleep with her and she awakes alone having had a premonition of the worst. Lamb explains the scene as follows, “The fairy ointment Puck rubs on Lysander’s eyelids alludes to what need not be directly stated; that his love for Hermia cooled as she denied him the illicit sexual pleasure he desired” (303). The eating of her heart, a grotesque and arresting image, is a dream within a dream since it is an actual dream within a dreamscape. The image of the serpent, a classic symbol of deceit, reappears when Lysander is believed to have been murdered and Hermia accuses Demetrius, saying, “With doubler tongue than thine, thou serpent, never adder stung” (3.2.71). As an emblem of Satan and forbidden knowledge, the serpent is highly suggestive in the context. The two men are like the serpent in that they hold in their power the knowledge of sex which they may share with the women but are also untrustworthy due to their serpentine worded proclamations of love. Unsurprisingly, there is constant doubt as to the true events of the night. Disturbing dreams seem to obscure as much as they reveal and certainly appear far from dreams denoting wish fulfilment.

However, Freud wrote of how, “disagreeable content serves only to disguise the thing wished for” (51). The disturbing dreamland experiences of Hermia and Helena are the richest in the imagery of myth and fable and therefore deserve further analysis. Hermia’s central fear is that Lysander is false, in which we hear echoes of her father’s appraisal of him. She is afraid he will abandon her after sexual relations, yet she presumably desires such relations too. When refusing him her bed, she protests at his cunning words, saying, “Lysander riddles very prettily” (2.2.53). The subsequent events in the forest are a crystallization of her worst fears.

Hermia’s greatest fear is betrayal by Lysander. Having denied Lysander’s request that they sleep together, she expresses her wish that, “Thy [Lysander’s] love ne’er alter till thy sweet life end!” (2.2.66-67). As the couple sleep separately, Robin makes his first error by applying the love juice to Lysander’s eyes instead of Demetrius.’ Upon waking, Hermia finds Lysander gone and soon she accuses Demetrius of murdering her love, saying, “Being o’er shoes in blood, plunge in the deep, and kill me too” (3.2.48). Like Thisbe, she imagines her own death as the solution to the loss of her only love. However, this wished-for death, worthy of a tragic maiden, is not her fate. Upon seeing Lysander again, Hermia questions, “What love could press Lysander from my side?” (3.2.189). Her last words to him had envisaged that their love would last unto death to which he had replied, “Amen, amen” to that fair prayer, say I, /And then end life when I end loyalty!” (2.2.68-69). However, the Lysander who now stands before Hermia is in love with Helena, and callously asks his former love, “Why seek’st thou me? Could not this make thee know /The hate I bear thee made me leave thee so?” (3.2.193-195). The ‘disagreeable content’ of Hermia’s dream is that Lysander has proven himself to be spectacularly false. She rejected Lysander’s sexual advance and he has abandoned her as a consequence. Yet, what is the thing wished for that the disagreeable content hides?

Herma’s wish fulfilment is both to know the true Lysander and to somehow retain his love. Prior to sleeping in the wood again, after which she will awake to find Lysander loves her anew, she exhaustedly says, “Bedabbled with the dew and torn with briars, I can no further crawl no further go” (3.2.443). This seemingly innocent description is reminiscent of Lamb’s story of a blueberry picker in 1930’s Newfoundland who said she had been lured away by the fairies when she was found in a dishevelled state the following day (288). Lamb writes, “One Mary Charles, … who strayed while picking berries, was found the next day “only in her bloomers,” her ribs broken, and terrified, claiming “the fairies had beckoned to her”’ (288). Though not harmed like Mary, Hermia’s condition as a result of getting lost in the woods, amid the fairies, raises questions. Lysander hates her – only to wholeheartedly love her again upon awakening the following day. Is the wish fulfilment that Lysander and Hermia have sexual relations? Does the dishevelled appearance of Hermia communicate illicit acts, and instead of Robin’s love juice, she is bedabbled with sweat or other bodily fluids? The potential loss of Lysander, which is the manifestation of her worst nightmare is ironically an approval for actions which would normally be denied to her, namely premarital sex. Hermia’s father and king both profess to be in control of her sex life, and therefore sex becomes not just tantalizingly taboo but also the pinnacle of freedom. One may also consider how abandoned and unloved Hermia feels on account of her father’s callous actions, so losing Lysander’s love holds more significance now than ever. In the dream one sees both the disagreeable result of denying Lysander, and the less explainable method by which his love is secured again. The young lovers sleep intermittently throughout the night, and much like in a dream the true sequence of events is not entirely reliable. When Lysander awakes in the morning, he says, “I cannot truly say how I came here” (4.1.154). The details are shrouded in secrecy.

In Helena’s case, the events that occur in the forest miraculously invert a situation that she abhors, namely her unrequited love. Demetrius had once been in love with Helena but now rejects her. Yet, she cannot hide her love for him and thereby exposes herself to continued humiliation by pursuing an uninterested man. She gives expression to the unedifying spectacle using a reference to Ovid’s tales where she reverses the original scene, “Apollo flies and Daphne holds the chase” (2.1.231). In this myth, Cupid uses two different arrows for Daphne and Apollo – “the one puts love to flight, the other kindles it” (Ovid 41). Thus, Apollo chases Daphne (original order) until she pleads to her father, Peneus, to “work some transformation, and destroy this beauty which makes me please all too well!” (Ovid 43). Daphne is turned into a tree to save her to save her from Apollo’s lust. Interestingly, Helena’s story resembles Daphne’s but is then inverted. For example, when Demetrius is initially scornful of Helena, she says, “I am as ugly as a bear, / For beasts that meet me run away for fear. / Therefore no marvel though Demetrius / Do as a monster, fly my presence thus” (2.2.94-97). However, Robin’s successive errors in the application of love juice result in both Demetrius and Lysander falling in love with Helena and abandoning Hermia. Helena’s previously professed desire to be “translated” (1.1.195) into Hermia’s image comes true now, as in a dream, in so far as she takes Hermia’s prized place as the object of affection of both men. Daphne turned from a beauty into a tree while Helena turns from a ‘beast’ into a beautiful maiden. Helena is now in a position of power and consequently may express her long-held doubts about the validity of both men loving one woman which arose when the woman concerned was Hermia! Her dream allows her to reject such a scenario as unrealistic. For instance, Helena denigrates Demetrius for being unmanly and inconsistent in his love, “Demetrius, who even but now did spurn me with his foot, to call be goddess, nymph, divine” (3.2.225). The disagreeable content of the dream is that she perceives that she is being mocked by the men who both cannot possibly love her, but this doubles as a confirmation that Demetrius’s prior transfer of his love from her to Hermia was also false. Helena may purge her old feelings of humiliation by rejecting both suitors so that the story is corrected and Apollo pursues Daphne in vain. Upon waking, Helena finds that Demetrius has indeed returned to her, and he explains his former disloyalty as “like a sickness” (4.1.180).

In an essay by Michael Taylor on Midsummer Night, he writes, “in comedy the ‘happy ending’ is inevitable” (3). Rather than destroying the effect of the play, dream analysis allows one to see a clear connection between imagination coloured by myth and folklore, and the related processing of fears and wishes. The vulnerabilities of the female characters are revealed in their dreams. With some prying, it is possible to decode hidden meanings. The ‘correction’ of love as promised by Oberon, involves the characters facing uncomfortable scenarios in dreamland to better understand the waking day. The happiness of the conclusion comes with the genre of comedy but one may still appreciate the working out of repressed thoughts which glimmer in the characters’ dreams.

In performing a resistant reading on a classic text, one will always encounter obstacles. The text cooperates with a reader who easily suspends disbelief whereas a dark reading of a comedy will inevitably appear fragmented and that is why one must adopt less stringent standards. On the other hand, it is telling that the Queen of Fairyland is sung to sleep by her fairy attendants who call on Philomel for aid, “Philomel, with melody / Sing in our sweet lullaby” (2.2.12-13). Philomel is one of the most wronged women in Ovid’s tales, a tragic figure who is raped and later has her tongue cut out to ensure her silence. For such a figure to sing a fairy lullaby, advancing a sleepy queen into dreamland is proof enough that dreams are loomed over by figures from myth and folklore in Shakespeare’s creation.

Works Cited.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Translated by A. A. Brill, Wordsworth Editions, 1997.

Lamb, Mary Ellen. “Taken by the Fairies: Fairy Practices and the Production of Popular Culture in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 51, no. 3, 2000, pp. 277–312.

Miller, Ronald F., “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: The Fairies, Bottom, and the Mystery of Things.” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3, 1975, pp. 254-268

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by Mary M. Innes, Penguin Books, 1973

Shakespeare, William. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katherine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan. W.W Norton, 2016, pp. 1037-1095.

Taylor, Michael. “The Darker Purpose of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1969, pp. 259-273.

No Exit

Torture rack.

  • Play title: No Exit (Huis Clos)
  • Author: Jean-Paul Sartre 
  • First performed: 1944  
  • Page count: 27


Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit, is a philosophical drama of just one act in length. The setting is a drawing-room that is decorated in Second Empire style. There are a total of four characters: Garcin, Estelle, Inez, and an unnamed valet. The valet ushers each character in turn into the mysterious room. We learn that each of the named characters are already dead, and the room represents what they themselves come to refer to as Hell. Garcin was a journalist in life, Inez a post-office worker, and Estelle had no career but married into an elite social circle. As the story progresses, each person slowly reveals more and more information about their past including their own perceived faults and weaknesses. Even though ‘Hell’ is not as they had previously imagined, they soon come to realise what form of torture exists in their new environment.

Ways to access the text: reading/listening.

There are several copies of No Exit available to read online via the Open Library. One may also access a copy of the text through the Vanderbilt University website.

If you would prefer an audiobook version then there are at least two free, online options. Go to YouTube and search for the title “No Exit – Jean-Paul Sartre” and you will find a version with a running time of 1hr and 26mins. Alternatively, the Internet Archive has a different audiobook version entitled, “No Exit (Huis Clos) by Jean Paul Sartre” and the duration is 1hr and1min.

Please note that there are multiple English translations of No Exit, but they differ significantly in some sections of the dialogue. I have used the Stuart Gilbert translation, but you may choose one of the other well-known ones, for example the translation by Margery Gerbain and Joan Swinstead, or Paul Bowles’ version.

Why read/listen to No Exit?

“Hell is – other people” (Sartre 26).

Jonathan Webber describes the above quote as follows, “This miserable-sounding soundbite, the moment of revelation in Jean-Paul Sartre’s shortest play, must be the most quoted line of twentieth century philosophy” (45). The trickiness of the quote is that it is too easy to misinterpret, and decidedly difficult to interpret fully given the weight of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy that lies behind it. What is clear is that the meaning goes far beyond the everyday irritations one experiences as a result of often unavoidable clashes with difficult people or even just people with an opposing opinion. Garcin’s words need to be appreciated in the context of his unique environment where, for example, there are no mirrors so Inez and Estelle act as his mirrors. Additionally, there seems to be no way of exiting the room so the atmosphere becomes quite oppressive and therefore intensely claustrophobic. Finally, the three characters are dead so when each is assessing their former lives then their retrospective views are subject to critique by the other two inhabitants of the room. Overall, the artificial environment of this room situated in the afterlife is Sartre’s device to open up a philosophical discussion for his audience. Other people are …

This life, not the afterlife.

Jean-Paul Sartre was an avowed atheist. Therefore, it is ironic that he places his characters in Hell where they proceed to obsess neurotically about their past lives, hoping to find meaning and/or redemption. Of course, the characters just presume that it is Hell since there is no actual confirmation, not even from the mysterious valet. Sartre’s philosophy entails no such life-review from the perspective of an afterlife since he is focused on how one lives one’s life in the here and now, among the living. Religious belief was for Sartre an example of what he called ‘bad faith’ which means that a person fails to be authentic and grasps instead toward beliefs that help ameliorate/explain life’s frequently cruel vicissitudes. No Exit may be seen as a guide to avoid the mental tortures that his characters experience as a result of their individual failures to lead worthy lives (not to be confused with moral lives). The play, while set in some form of afterlife, is assuredly about the living.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

Looking at Hell Through a Living Mirror.


Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit is a relatively well-known yet rarely read play. Part of the problem is that an intimidating tome, no less than Sartre’s 1943 philosophical work, Being and Nothingness, underpins the ideas held in the theatrical play. However, readers do not need to do arduous, philosophical homework before reading or watching No Exit since the play is self-contained. Furthermore, despite the age of the work, it remains a thought provoking and enlightening piece of theatre mainly due to how it explores our relationships with others. In this essay, some of the existing critical views on Sartre’s play will be outlined, including explanations of his key philosophical terms, but the main focus will be on the theme of antagonism. There is instant and palpable friction between the three lead characters in Sartre’s play and this warrants an investigation that draws upon, yet also adds to, much of the existing critiques of the work. The aim here is to inform a first-time reader about the standard readings of Sartre’s work while also delving into a specific aspect of the play that promises to make it even more accessible and comprehensible.

Even though Being and Nothingness is not prerequisite reading for No Exit, it is nonetheless important to understand the basic connection between the two works. As Gary Cox writes, “The main aim of Sartre’s fictional writing is, after all, to give real substance to his abstract philosophical ideas, to explore, develop and explain those ideas in real-life, existential situations” (11). This generally accepted analysis of the link is echoed by Sister M. Blitgen who explains that “In any Sartrean play, the character and plot are sublimated to the thought. The characters are important only is so far as they project Sartre’s thought” (59). The genre of philosophical thought in question is of course existentialism. Robert C. Solomon asserts that “Sartre’s philosophy is generally taken as the paradigm of existentialist philosophy” (761) which involves the “Sartrean themes [of] —extreme individualism, an emphasis on freedom and responsibility, and the insistence that we and not the world give meaning to our lives” (761). Focusing specifically on the play, Konstantin Kolenda summaries the main topic of No Exit as follows – “Sartre’s play demonstrates that human predicaments arise from the two faces of freedom: its radical independence of any external forces and its awareness of the equal freedom of others” (263). In this essay, the terminology of Sartre’s philosophical work will be explained as it applies to No Exit so that one can appreciate the link, but the aim will never be to explicate Sartre’s philosophical ideas in full. After all, Sartre deliberately wrote a play that would be accessible to a much wider audience than his more academic works.

Now that the play has been situated in relation to Sartre’s philosophy, one may also place it historically. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht writes, “Huis clos—a drama by thirty-eight-year-old Jean-Paul Sartre first produced in occupied Paris at Le Vieux Colombier in May 1944, only a few days before the Allies landed in Normandy—staged the impossibility of leaving a particular space and a basic existential situation” (41). Jonathan Webber addresses the politics of the play along with its initial reception, writing, “The play opened in 1944, shortly before the liberation of Paris, under the title Les Autres (The Others), … Its mixed reception may partly have been due to its claustrophobic atmosphere under the perpetual gaze of ‘the others’ being taken as an allegory of the occupation. Sartre does seem to have intended the play to have this political dimension as well as illustrating his ethical theory” (48). The events of WWII certainly help to inform one’s reading of No Exit especially on the topic of antagonism, whether it be state-led antagonism or that of private individuals like in the play. The fact that the play was written against the backdrop of war is something that one should hold in mind since it undoubtedly sets the tone of the piece.

A final obstacle to be overcome is that many believe No Exit is just too sombre a play to incite broad public interest. Gary Cox writes that No Exit “is Sartre’s best-known and most iconic play. Simple in structure (one act, once scene) and intellectually accessible, it epitomizes the absurdity, anxiety and hopelessness that are synonymous with existentialism in the popular consciousness” (132). Apart from the promise of intellectual accessibility, Cox hardly sells the play to a general audience. Sister M. Blitgen is also uninclined to add sugar to the medicine when she states, “Generally the Sartrean hero feels challenged to heroic existence; man can be saved if he strives with all his heart, if he represents an affirmation to the world, if his human consciousness reveals its essence which is being. But heroic existence for Garcin, Estelle and Florence is impossible. They are frozen in a posture by death” (61). If the characters are doomed to eternal stasis, then one finds little incentive to engage with the piece. However, Cox tackles the topic of existentialism and highlights a core redeeming factor – “Sartre is often characterized in shallow, flippant accounts as a nihilist, as a man advocating despair in face of a cruel and meaningless universe. Although he certainly explores this attitude, particularly in his 1938 novel, Nausea, his philosophy is in fact ultimately positive and constructive” (12). There are two approaches to No Exit that offer an incentive for a prospective reader, one is to view it as a classic, cautionary tale based on Sartre’s philosophy of life, and second, one may read the characters as actually progressing and growing by the end of the story, albeit in a tortuous environment! With a focus on such plus points, the play may be avidly tackled.

Critiques of No Exit.

One cannot unequivocally state that there is one dominant interpretation of No Exit. However, most critics do tend to merge their understanding of Sartre’s brand of existentialism with an analysis of the characters’ actions to come to a final reading. The interpretative conclusions of many such critics are remarkably similar. Jonathan Webber provides a summation of how the play is usually read. He writes as follows:

Discussions of the play … generally describe each of the three main characters as frustrated by their inability to control the thoughts and actions of the other two, especially where these threaten their preferred images of themselves. They usually point out that the characters have died and so are incapable of adding to their life stories. From which they generally conclude that Sartre’s message is simply that we should not be too concerned with the views others have of us at the moment, but should concentrate on developing ourselves through our future actions. We are not dead yet” (47).

In truth, such a reading is not a bad basis for understanding the play. There are certainly key points that most critics adhere to, before adding their own interpretative twists. In Webber’s own essay, he does not believe that the dead characters are ‘incapable of adding to their stories’ but this is certainly how Sister M. Blitgen reads the play and therefore she falls into the category of predictable reader/critic. Her insights are as follows:

“In uttering such a definitive phrase as ‘Hell is – other people,’ Garcin, the journalist-deserter, opens up to the reader of No Exit the potential to understand or to completely misunderstand Sartre’s conception of hell. Before one is in hell, one must die. What is death for Sartre? Paradoxically, it is just this: that alive man is not, and dead, he is. ‘Death changes life into destiny’ says Malraux in his novel Espoir. ‘One always dies too soon or too late,’ is the cry of Inez” (60).

For Blitgen, the power of others is intensified by one’s death because, “As soon as man dies he is frozen, posed, petrified. His being is no longer his but is left in the hands of others; death gives the final victory to the point of other people” (61). To avoid such a horrid end, she proposes a religiously tinted cry of carpe diem because – “Hell is the failure to recognize the value of free personal choice and to live those choices out, day by day” (63). This clearly matches Webber’s observation that many critics see Sartre’s message as pedagogical – concentrate on self-development while you are still living.

But what if we try to dismantle the core assumption present in most readings of No Exit? Gary Cox dares to rattle one’s faith by questioning, “is it really true that hell is other people? … In that place [the room] hell is not only other people, hell is no windows, no mirrors, no darkness, no sleep, no books, no tears, no exit. An eternity in one miserable room with a handful of people and no distractions would be hell, but would it not be the circumstances rather than the company that made it so?” (138).

An adequate response to Cox’s query would be to state that the physical environment is an intensifier of the unease the characters feel due to their combative interactions, but the room is never the true focal point of our attention, nor should it be. In contrast, Sister M. Blitgen allocates the room a larger role, namely as part of the punishment, when she writes, “Because Sartre abhorred their lack of authenticity and their failure to commit themselves to life, he placed his characters in a stuffy, realistic drawing room of the Second Empire which reads hell” (59). If the room itself symbolizes Hell, then maybe we need to consider the characters as devils! As should be apparent by now, even though many critics focus on the same issues in the play, namely Sartre’s philosophy of life and his characters’ actions, the resulting readings are often quite nuanced, even at variance.

Most readers hope to reach a conclusive reading. Jonathan Webber helpfully gives an account of Sartre’s own view on No Exit’s famous line about other people being hell, followed by an intriguing rebuttal of the author’s stance. Webber writes as follows:

“The standard reception of the slogan misunderstands it. Which is indeed something Sartre pointed out some twenty years after the play was first published. ‘It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned,’ he said ‘But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell.’ But this standard reading does not seem to fit with Sartre’s philosophy or with what he said about the play. For it is central to Sartrean existentialism that we cannot help but see ourselves through the eyes of other people.” (46-47)

Webber gets to the crux of the matter because one does indeed have to evaluate what role ‘other people’ play in No Exit. Other people are either a ubiquitous problem, or the problem is solely with difficult other people. The friction that Webber exposes is the friction between a stand-alone play when one sets it against the philosophical writings of Sartre. Should these two entities align perfectly? Since this essay will go on to focus on the theme of antagonism, it should correspond with Sartre’s own view but in fact, the findings are complex. However, before launching into a detailed new reading, one may familiarize oneself with Sartre’s main philosophical terms since they are the tools one requires to grasp the relevance of the character’s relationships in the play.

Sartre’s terminology.

Sartre’s No Exit is an excellent, dramatic work in its own right and should not be considered an accompaniment to his philosophical writings. To read No Exit without any reference to Sartre’s existentialist ideas just means that one would appreciate the play in a different way. However, the consequent disadvantage for anyone studying the text is that one is constantly faced with unfamiliar terms in the existing criticism. Beyond this niche readership, and with a general reader in mind, a basic understanding of Sartre’s ideas as they relate to the play simply enhance one’s appreciation of the complexity of the work. If the terminology is required or not depends on one’s reading aims. The vital Sartrean terms covered here are ‘being-in-itself’ and ‘being-for-itself,’ along with ‘bad faith,’ and Sartre’s ideas on consciousness.

Sartre’s depiction of conscious characters in the afterlife is both an artificial and thought-provoking scenario. For one, Sartre himself had no expectation that such a place as Hell existed. The hot, stuffy room in which the characters find themselves is simply a device employed by the playwright to expose the inner workings of their minds. How should one react in such extreme circumstances, especially when one’s companions are prickly, selfish individuals? The answer lies in Sartre’s ideas on the power of the human mind. Robert C. Solomon explains that “as a Cartesian, he [Sartre] never deviated from Descartes’s classical portrait of human consciousness as free and sharply distinct from the physical universe it inhabited. One is never free of one’s “situation,” Sartre tells us, but one is always free to “negate” that situation and to try to change it” (763). Therefore, we can assert that the momentous challenge for Garcin, Estelle, and Inez, is to transcend the ever-nettling company of each other, and the oppressiveness of the room too. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht sums up the situation quite succinctly – “What makes the space a hell for them is the fact that they must live forever in the presence of others and their gazes” (41). Through an understanding of Sartre’s Cartesian standpoint along with his implicit expectations of how each character may find mental relief, one gains huge insight into his characters.

The difference between ‘being-in-itself’ and ‘being-for-itself’ is essential knowledge when discussing works by Sartre. In The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, the following definition is supplied.

“Being in-itself/for-itself.

A contrast heralded in the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger, and central to Sartre’s work Being and Nothingness. Being for-itself (pour-soi) is the mode of existence of consciousness, consisting in its own activity and purposive nature; being in-itself (en-soi) is the self-sufficient, lumpy, contingent being of ordinary things. The contrast bears some affinity to Kant’s distinction between the perspective of agency or freedom and that of awareness of the ordinary phenomenal world.”

While the above definition is certainly helpful, one may also refer to definitions which are more easily applied to the situation depicted in No Exit. For example, Solomon writes, “Sartre defines his existentialist ontology of freedom in terms of the opposition of “being-in-itself” and “being-for-itself,” which in us as individuals is manifested in the tension between the fact that we always find ourselves in a particular situation defined by a body of facts that we may not have chosen—our “facticity”—and our ability to transcend that facticity, imagine, and choose—our transcendence” (763). For even more insight, one may seek to understand these terms as they relate to time. Gary Cox explains how, “Being-for-itself is always not what it is (past) and what it is not (future). We all know what this means if we think about it because we all live this paradox all the time. I am my past which is no longer, and all my actions in a world which is the result of the past aim at a future which is not yet. As for the present, there is no such moment as the present, for when being-for-itself reaches the future at which it aims that future does not become the present but rather immediately becomes the past” (16). Cox goes on to link one of the philosophical ideas with everyday terms more familiar to readers, he writes, “being-for-itself refers to the essential nature or way of being of consciousness or personhood. Every consciousness or person is essentially a being-for-itself. So, in many contexts, the terms ‘consciousness,’ ‘person’ and ‘being-for-itself’ can be used interchangeably” (15). Armed with such comprehensive explanations, a reader may feel more secure in addressing these issues in Sartre’s play.

The last essential term to be addressed here is ‘bad faith.’ Solomon explains this term, writing that “When we try to pretend that we are identical to our roles or the captive of our situations, however, we are in “bad faith.” It is bad faith to see ourselves as something fixed and settled, defined by a job or by “human nature”’ (764). It is evident that Garcin is in bad faith since he sees himself as identical to his role as a journalist, just as Inez sees herself as fixed in her belligerence as if this aspect of her personality is utterly unalterable. Cox makes an interesting observation on bad faith as it applies to an afterlife – “The person in bad faith may act as though he is immortal, believing that he will always be as he is now or that he will live on in an afterlife cleansed of all inconveniences and acrimony” (12). Sartre robs his characters of the illusion of a peaceful afterlife, forcing them to confront what they patently failed to face in life.

Building on current criticism.            

There are surely innovative approaches to Sartre’s play, yet the hellish room and hellish characters are always obligatory focal points for any comprehensive appraisal of the work. Sartre contemplates the impossibility of existing with other people, making solitude appear heavenly by comparison. The question, already touched upon, is if this discomfort arises only from broken relationships or from the unavoidable nature of human interaction? Solomon explains a term not yet addressed which helps to frame human relationships.

“Sartre also defines a third ontological category, which he calls “being-for-others.” Our knowledge of others is not inferred, for example, by some argument by analogy, from the behavior of others. Our experience of other people is first of all the experience of being looked at, not spectatorship or curiosity. Someone “catches us in the act,” and we define ourselves in their terms, identifying ourselves with the way we appear “for others.” We “pin down” one another in the judgments we make, and these judgments become an inescapable ingredient in our sense of ourselves” (Solomon 764).

The idea that others act as the mirrors to our hidden selves, revealing our core identities, is certainly disconcerting. Gary Cox explains further that “In being subject to the judgement of the Other, a person is at the mercy of the freedom of the Other, he is, as Sartre puts it, ‘enslaved’ (BN, p. 291) by the freedom of the Other. The freedom of the Other transcends his freedom, transcends his transcendence, reducing him to what he is for the Other” (137). The question that No Exit prompts readers to pose is whether this torment is ever escapable, because if not then existentialism delivers quite a nihilistic message.

Critics are divided on this question, and like all unresolved questions, it signals a gap for a new reading of the play. Konstantin Kolenda argues that “It is evident from Sartre’s play that not everybody’s thoughts matter to us; we are interested only in opinions of people whose judgement we respect” (264). Jonathan Webber makes a somewhat similar claim, writing that, “The problem is not our reliance on other people, but the combination of this with our relationships being ‘poisoned’” (47). While such interpretations echo Sartre’s own comments on the play, they still clash with existentialist theory when one considers the nature of being-for-others. A new answer may rest in an analysis of interpersonal antagonism as depicted in Sartre’s play.


Antagonism is a personality trait not shared equally among all individuals, and some people express hardly any antagonism. To interpret the scenario depicted in No Exit as solely due to interpersonal antagonism would therefore be incomplete. However, there is a second and complementary reading of antagonism which does not refer to the personality trait but instead to a perceived attack one feels when assessed through the eyes of another, what Sartre refers to as ‘being-for-others.’ A reading of No Exit which focuses on the theme of antagonism in these two formats is a reader-friendly way of deciphering the play. It is salient to state that antagonism is on the opposite end of the scale from agreeableness. In The Handbook of Antagonism, edited by Joshua D. Miller and Donald R. Lynam, one reads that “Antagonism/Agreeableness appears in all major models of personality. It has its most explicit representation in the Five-Factor Model of personality (FFM)” (42). The full list of key personality traits in this model are extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. In short, one may be classified as a particular personality type based on the presence/absence of such traits. When one looks at the antagonistic individuals in Sartre’s play then one sees people almost completely devoid of a highly determinant personality trait, agreeableness, and this allows one to predict and analyse their behaviour in an academic as opposed to informal manner. What one can expect from someone high in antagonism, like Inez for example, is as follows.

“Antagonism, defined here as the low pole of trait Agreeableness, references traits related to immorality, combativeness, grandiosity, callousness, and distrustfulness. It is a robust correlate of externalizing behaviors such as antisocial behavior, aggression, and substance use; in many cases, it is by far the strongest correlate of these behaviors among the traits that make up the five-factor model of personality” (Miller & Lyman 38).

The second aspect of antagonism relates to how others may oppress us with their judgments. How does this link, if at all, with Sartre’s decision to use the setting of Hell for the play? Sister M. Blitgen finds Sartre’s tactic quite perplexing, and writes, “For one who makes the denial of God the very essence of his system and who asserts that God is merely a projection of the psyche, it is paradoxical that Sartre must employ Christian values and a Christian ethical system in presenting his thought. Even his use of the term ‘hell’ is a referent to the Christian tradition” (60-61). Yes, the word ‘Hell’ has great significance in many major religions and obvious connotations for a reader: eternity, punishment/torture, afterlife, sin, devils, and fire! By activating such thoughts, Sartre also alerts us to the manner in which the ‘Other’ becomes one’s personal hell since they prick our conscience, expose our inner truth, excite shame, and evoke despondency, and furthermore nothing ever changes in Hell, it is eternal stagnation in sin. Jonathan Webber draws attention to the fact that Inez first names the location – “Describing their situation as hell is useful for getting the other two to focus on their sins” (52). The two readings of antagonism merge seamlessly here when one understands that Inez would like the others to unburden themselves of their sins because these personal divulgences of past indiscretions and sins are a veritable invite for an antagonist like Inez to mercilessly punish the sinners. Sartre constructs a perfect storm of emotional turmoil, and antagonism of various sorts is what powers this storm.

In simple terms, Sartre depicts the stark contrast between people working with, or against one another. Miller and Lyman cite how, “Antagonistic individuals place less value on interpersonal harmony, being more likely to sacrifice interpersonal harmony for other goals. Agreeable individuals, on the other hand, are likely to be motivated to maintain harmonious relations across many interpersonal contexts, whether it be with a romantic partner or an acquaintance” (40). Even though none of the characters is high in agreeableness, Garcin does endeavour to find agreement given the characters’ joint predicament. First, he proposes silence, “the solution’s easy enough; each of us stays put in his or her corner and takes no notice of the others … And that way we – we’ll work out our salvation. Looking into ourselves, never raising our heads” (10). The intention is to avoid Inez’s predicted nightmare scenario where each character morphs into the other’s personal torturer! Keeping with the religious tone set by the word salvation, Garcin goes on to explain why, failing silence, each character should make a full confession. He says, “I want to know whom I have to deal with …so long as each of us hasn’t made a clean breast of it – why they’ve damned him or her – we know nothing … if we bring our specters into the open, it may save us from disaster” (14). Garcin fixates on his presumption that there is an external enemy of as yet unseen devils who are their prison guards and who will eventually enact a punishment. As readers, we understand that the enemy is already in the room. The styles of interpersonal behaviour exhibited by Inez and Garcin may be formally classified as agency and communion. Miller and Lynam explain these terms, writing, “Agency is primarily concerned with becoming individuated and involves behaviors/traits such as dominance, status, control, and power (Gurtman, 2009). Communion is concerned with connecting with others and involves behaviors/traits such as love, friendliness, and affiliation” (47). An understanding of the characters’ traits helps one appreciate the dynamic of their ongoing and seemingly irresolvable conflict.

The hell that Sartre presents to his audience is missing one key figure – a devil. Webber singles out the character of Inez as having privileged levels of knowledge and therefore she is conspicuously unlike her companions. He writes, “Focusing on Inez in this way brings out the possibility that she is not in the same position as the other two and that perhaps she is a demon in disguise. If this is right, then she genuinely is, as she herself says, cruel right to the core, and her role is simply to torture the other two” (51). Webber’s reading is quite convincing, up to a point. For instance, Inez seems disingenuous when she first identifies Garcin as “the torturer” (5) because she counterintuitively bases this on her perception that he is frightened. She then proceeds to be very curt with him and this is not a tactic one would risk with a real torturer. It is also suspicious how quickly Inez foresees their dilemma, grasping the fact that “each of us will act as torturer of the two others” (10). As an aside, one may imagine that Inez is grooming a fellow demoness when she tells Estelle that her reapplied lipstick is “far better. Crueler … quite diabolical” (12). Webber’s assessment of Inez as the cruel torturer aka demon, seems fully assured when Inez states – “I’m rather cruel, really … I mean I can’t get on without making people suffer” (15). She even recruits Garcin’s help in persecuting Estelle when they both chant – “He shot himself because of you” (16) in reference to Estelle’s lover. However, to characterize Inez as a demon is eventually shown to be erroneous because she suffers her own torture inflicted by Estelle, the object of her affection. When Inez prohibits Garcin and Estelle from making love by her incessant insults, Estelle correctly identifies Inez’s weak point, telling Garcin to “Revenge yourself … Kiss me, darling – Then you’ll hear her squeal” (25). Just as Inez was disgusted by the heterosexual couple making love in her old bed, she is equally upset by her loss of Estelle as a potential partner especially when it is to a male rival. Even if Inez is no literal devil, no consort of Satan in this strange hell, she does underline how the ‘other’ is always the unseen enemy, displacing Garcin’s idea of devils lurking outside the room. Estelle initially ponders the mix of people in the room, saying, “Really I can’t imagine why they put us three together. It doesn’t make sense” (8). However, the precise mix of personalities is crucial to excite the worst antagonism and therefore the worst torture.

Garcin contemplates the exact nature of the tortures on several occasions. At first, he sums up the situation to the valet, saying, “Shall I tell you what it feels like? A man’s drowning, choking, sinking by inches, till only his eyes are just above water” (3), and finally he is mocked by the sight of a Barbedienne sculpture in the room. The room is formally furnished and decorated with sofas and art, so the innocuous conventionality mocks the horrors Garcin expects to suffer. Garcin contemplates the enduring, unbroken nature of the upcoming torture since one can never sleep, but the true punishment will be psychological – “How shall I endure my own company? … I’m used to teasing myself. Plaguing myself” (5). Garcin’s distress caused by his habit of bombarding himself with negative thoughts makes him more liable to seek comfort from others, the salve of another’s kind words. As an antagonist, Inez would wholeheartedly welcome such revelations and indeed she pre-empts Garcin’s later suggestion when she suggests that each person confess the true reason for their damnation, saying, “If only each of us had the guts to tell” (9). The call to courage seems specifically directed to Garcin’s weakness and he and Estelle do give sanitized accounts of their lives. Inez promptly eviscerates her companions, calling Estelle “my little plaster saint” (10) and Garcin is mocked as “the noble pacifist” (10). Inez’s deceitful nature and inclination to contrariness is quickly revealed when she denigrates what was originally her own suggestion, saying tauntingly – “Well, Mr. Garcin, now you have us in the nude all right. Do you understand things any better for that?” (17). The nudity referenced is emotional vulnerability and it is not a desired state in the presence of someone like Inez who says, “I’m a pitfall” (18). The characters begin to view each other like physical traps which may be triggered by a mere look. By the end of the play, Garcin is no longer preoccupied by the rankling of his own thoughts, but by the thoughts generated through his contact with his horrible companions whom he must endure for eternity. He would welcome any physical torture rather than his allocated fate, and says, “Anything, anything would be better than this agony of mind, this creeping pain that gnaws and fumbles and caresses one and never hurts quite enough” (24).

It is virtually impossible to untangle the effects of ‘being-for-others’ from the effects of high levels of antagonism. Nonetheless, characters high in agreeableness would interact differently, but would fall prey occasionally to the discomfort caused by other’s judgements. Antagonism is undoubtedly an accelerant to the fiery Hell Sartre depicts, lending credence to the reading where hell is only especially difficult people, like Inez. Be that as it may, No Exit does not relinquish its secrets quite so easily.

Mirroring in No Exit.

Garcin’s predicament is identical to that of his fellow prisoners in the room. Sartre shows how each character has the potential to wear down the other psychologically. In such circumstances, they must pay attention to the personalities and personality traits of each character. Miller and Lyman explain how the set of “antagonism traits include manipulation and arrogance – both representing strategies for deceiving and dominating others. Antagonistic manipulation involves a duplicitous interpersonal style that utilizes flattery or deception to control others” (218). This is an apt explanation of the interplay between the characters, especially between Inez and her companions. Much of the interpersonal dynamic seen in the play is linked to traits of antagonism and Sartre communicates many interactions with direct and oblique references to mirroring.

First, one may consider the significance of mirroring. In a book entitled Mirroring People, Marco Iacoboni explains how mirror neurons function to activate certain responses in the brain, and he gives the everyday example of watching a movie. He writes, “because mirror neurons in our brains recreate for us the distress we see on the screen. We have empathy for the fictional characters – we know how they’re feeling – because we literally experience the same feelings ourselves” (9). In No Exit, the three people have no access to mirrors or even a basic, reflective surface, and consequently each becomes the other’s mirror. If one uses the analogy of watching a movie, then the scene is tortuous because the characters have no eyelids and therefore, they are effectively forced to continuously watch and react to each other. For instance, Garcin immediately feels great discomfort when he notices how piercing the valet’s look is – “there’s something so beastly, so damn bad-mannered, in the way you stare at me” (3). The irritation that Garcin feels is not generated solely by the valet’s stare, but also by his inability to shut his own eyes, to short-circuit his response. Garcin’s distress is visible and therefore the valet’s nonchalance exaggerates the discomfort, communicating that they have quite separate fates. Iacoboni explains that “By helping us recognize the actions of other people, mirror neurons also help us to recognize and understand the deepest motives behind those actions, the intentions of other individuals” (11). In light of such an explanation, one conceives how Sartre’s strange room in the afterlife may become a haven of empathic interconnectedness, or conversely a savage arena where individuals will suffer mental disintegration. The major deciding factor is the personality types involved. Iacoboni ponders our existential condition when he writes that mirror neurons, “show that we are not alone, but are biologically wired and evolutionarily designed to be deeply interconnected with one another” (284). Sartre portrays how this can become the stuff of nightmares.

There are many examples of characters mirroring and thereby ‘reading’ one another in No Exit. One example occurs quite early when Inez perceives that Garcin is frightened and tells him so. Garcin scoffs but Inez explains, “I know what I’m talking about. I’ve often watched my face in the glass” (5). Inez soon capitalizes on the room’s lack of mirrors, obviously understanding the potential power they hold, when she says to Estelle, “suppose I try to be your glass” (10). Though this game starts with Inez honestly fulfilling the role of reflecting back what she sees, namely Garcin’s fearful facial expression and the accuracy of Estelle’s reapplication of lipstick, it soon devolves into a mind-game where the ‘mirror’ becomes unreliable. Estelle confides in her new, human mirror – “You scare me rather. My reflection in the glass never did that” (12). Estelle rejects Inez’s help which results in Inez’s quick retaliation, “Suppose the mirror started telling lies?” (12). Whoever performs the role of mirror wields great power and this threat is first exposed by Inez. Miller and Lynam provide information that allows one to understand the role of personality in the situation just explained, they write “Antagonistic people are competitive and they often view others as tools to be used for their own ends” (341). Inez is the most antagonistic of the three and therefore this tendency to manipulate others is most obvious in her. Her competence to act as a dispassionate mirror is impossible due to her overtly antagonistic personality.

Inez employs a game of divide and conquer based on prior, successful experience. Mirroring plays a role here since Inez has already detected a particular vulnerability in Garcin (3). When she tells her story of the “affair with Florence. A dead men’s tale. With three corpses to it” (15) then Garcin understands the covert threat as it applies to the current ménage à trois. Inez poisoned Florence’s mind against a male lover so that she could win (in the romantic sense) and control Florence – “I crept inside her skin, she saw the world through my eyes” (15). Interestingly, all three characters were involved in love triangles of various sorts when they were alive. Inez makes a direct threat to Garcin, saying, “I’ll catch her [Estelle], she’ll see you through my eyes, as Florence saw that other man” (18). This confrontation occurs due to Inez’s reading of the situation as a win/lose scenario, which also explains her refusal to cooperate with Garcin. True to Sartre’s calculated mix of personalities, Inez is fated to fail with Estelle. At first, Inez predictably tries to manipulate and deceive Estelle, hoping to replace Peter who was an admirer and dance partner – “Come to me, Estelle. You shall be whatever you like: a glancing stream, a muddy stream. And deep down in my eyes you’ll see yourself just as you want to be” (20). Estelle is a narcissist and relies upon the good opinions of others to sustain her own fragile self-approval. There is a clever allusion to the myth of Narcissus in the reference to the ‘glancing stream’ since Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection and eventually died when he could not turn away from it. Inez dreams of being just such a malignant mirror. However, Inez has lost her potential dupe because previously she recklessly encouraged the revelation of sordid secrets from each of them. Consequently, Inez’s approval is worthless because, as Estelle says, “You know too much about me, you know I’m rotten through and through” (19). True to her dogged competitiveness, Inez persists and is also quite open about her sexual desire until Estelle finally spits in her face to make her desist! We witness how the hellish game is programmed to continually restart, allowing no player a lasting advantage.

Estelle’s narcissism is not just an impediment to Inez’s plan, but also affects Garcin. At an early point in the play, Estelle remarks, “There are some faces that tell me everything at once. Yours [Garcin’s and Inez’s] don’t convey anything” (9). Estelle’s inability to read faces results from her own self-obsession and tendency to see others only when they are useful to her. The traits of antagonism, including deceiving and dominating others, have many commonalities with “the interpersonal manipulation seen in psychopathy, narcissism, and borderline personality disorder” (Miller & Lynam 218). In short, Estelle is comparably manipulative to Inez but as a consequence of narcissism. Garcin is also narcissistic and thus inwardly insecure, so he needs approval to validate his views. Estelle wishes to take Garcin as her lover, but she fails to act as the kind of mirror he desperately requires, a flattering one. Estelle flippantly says, “Coward or hero, it’s all one—provided he kisses well” (22). This disgusts Garcin who says, “You’re [Estelle] even fouler than she [Inez]. I won’t let myself get bogged in your eyes. You’re soft and slimy. Ugh!” (24). Once again, the focus is on how the opinion of others has such a tremendous effect on one’s morale. The human mirror is nightmarish because one may sink into those eyes, or as Inez did with Florence, one may end up seeing the world through another’s eyes.

The relevance of mirroring goes beyond the already touched upon topic of mirror neurons in the brain which are responsible for empathy and ‘reading’ others. In an essay called “The Uncanny Mirror” by Philippe Rochat and Dan Zahavi, the issue of mirroring is explored with reference to the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. A key point from the essay that assists our understanding of Sartre’s play is as follows, “one can only become self-conscious (in the sense of becoming an object to oneself) in an indirect manner, namely by adopting the attitudes of others on oneself, and this is something that can only happen within a social environment” (3). This explains why Garcin longs for a trustworthy assessment of him by one of the women in the room because that would constitute an objective view. Garcin’s own view of himself is always insufficient since he cannot trust its objectivity, he needs other people. The significance of the mirror/other may be traced back to early childhood development – “the mirror permits the child to see itself as it is seen by others, and might also bring about the explicit realization that it is given to others with the same visual appearance that it is being confronted with in the mirror” (Rochat & Zahavi 6). Estelle gives an example of this occurring in adulthood when she says “I watched myself talking. And somehow it kept me alert, seeing myself [in the mirror] as the others saw me” (11). The interchangeability of a mirror with a person acting as a mirror is quite fascinating.

Garcin will later decline the opportunity to escape the room because he needs someone to mirror him. He singles out Inez as his only hope since she shares his characteristic of cowardliness, he says, “SO it’s you whom I have to convince; you are of my kind” (25). Garcin is in a perverse situation since he must rely on someone who will clearly relish the power it affords her, yet without her, he remains in crisis. Inez sums up her complete dominion over Garcin as follows.

“Now then! Don’t lose heart. It shouldn’t be so hard, convincing me. Pull yourself together, man, rake up some arguments. [GARCIN shrugs his shoulders.] Ah, wasn’t I. right when I said you were vulnerable? Now you’re going to pay the price, and what a price! You’re a coward, Garcin, because I wish it. I wish it—do you hear? —I wish it. And yet, just look at me, see how weak I am, a mere breath on the air, a gaze observing you, a formless thought that thinks you. [He walks towards her, opening his hands.] Ah, they’re open now, those big hands, those coarse, man’s hands! But what do you hope to do? You can’t throttle thoughts with hands. So you’ve no choice, you must convince me, and you’re at my mercy” (25).

Sartre exhibits a perfect understanding of a trait we all share, the need for another’s approval. This is something that is first in evidence in childhood, as already noted, and the following quote additionally explains the root link to self-consciousness.

“In his essay, Merleau-Ponty remarks that the other’s look starts to be felt as an annoyance when the child reaches the age of around 3, and that the reason for this is that the other’s look displaces the child’s attention from whatever tasks it is concerned and preoccupied with to a concern for the way in which it is presented to others” (Rochat & Zahavi 6).

Mirroring is foundational to how we function in the world, from the mirror neurons firing in our brains to the responses we learn as part of our normal, psychological developments. An appreciation of how personality traits influence these normal brain functions and psychological responses brings one closer to understanding the fantastic environment constructed in No Exit. So far, we have looked at characters who are seemingly defined by their past lives. The unspoken premise is that the characters have no prospect of redoing, correcting, or erasing, so acceptance is the final option. As a consequence, the opinion of the other person holds more sway now than ever before given the unusual circumstances. However, Sartre’s philosophy is broader and still requires one to look at other aspects of the play.

Hell and ‘bad faith.’

In the traditional, Christian interpretation of Hell, one is damned for all eternity. This contrasts with the idea of Purgatory where sinners may do penance and gain eventual salvation i.e., the soul is cleansed. This is a line of thought which Webber pursues, writing that “Part of the reason why the characters are often assumed to be in hell might be the common view that there is no change, no progression, no quest or discovery during the play” (49). Webber challenges this view. As a reader, one also needs to decide if the characters have any potential to progress and thereby resolve their past faults. Sartre depicts Garcin as someone who attempts to find unanimous agreement on how to thwart the unseen devils whom he imagines are his real enemies. This means he has hope, something normally impossible for someone in Hell. The potential of the characters to progress lies solely in their hands but we must be alert to what may obstruct them. The primary obstruction to personal progress in Sartre’s philosophy is ‘bad faith.’ This interlinks with personality type in several interesting ways.

Are Sartre’s three main characters in bad faith? Webber explains that “Although we always need the eyes of other people in order to see ourselves, bad faith condemns us to be being reliant on seeing ourselves as this or that and therefore reliant on other people in a way we would not otherwise be” (54). The inflexibility of one’s self-image is the core flaw and as previously quoted from Solomon, but worth repeating here, – “It is bad faith to see ourselves as something fixed and settled, defined by a job or by “human nature”’ (764). Whitaker provides insightful classifications of each character’s personality type, writing that, “Estelle, a narcissist … depends on the mirroring gaze of others to make her seem a valued object. Inez, a self-declared sadist, needs the suffering of others in order to maintain that of herself … And Garcin, who is narcissist and sadist by turns, a confused idealist with a self-deceiving will to self-sufficiency, finally sees that one who identifies consciousness with any role or ideal must submit to the unpredictable validating judgement of others” (170-171).

To begin with Garcin, it is true that he has a firm sense of self-identity. For example, he rather pompously asks the valet, “Do you know who I was?” (2), and later introduces himself to Inez as, “I’m Joseph Garcin, journalist and man of letters by profession” (5). The problem for Garcin is that he cannot relinquish the idealized image of himself as a journalist who was guided by his ethical convictions. When Inez labels him a deserter, he defensively replies – “Let that be. It’s only a side-issue. I’m here because I treated my wife abominably” (14). For Garcin, it is the ultimate blow for another to taint his professional life with the slur of deserter, a journalist who ran away rather than stick to his convictions. On the other hand, his wife never concerned him much and still does not. Identifying her as the reason for his current punishment is merely a deflection. He clings to an image of himself that is fragile and maintained only via self-deception and as a consequence, the image of heroic journalist is especially vulnerable to others’ comments. In contrast, Inez takes no particular pride in her old job as a post-office clerk, but instead sees her personality as fixed and unchangeable. Her identity doubles as a defence mechanism, she says, “I was what some people down there called “a damned bitch”’ (15), and she goes on to define herself using a negative, saying, “I’m rotten to the core” (17). Like Garcin, Inez holds to her image as if it were set in stone, saying, “My life’s in perfect order. It tidied itself up nicely of its own accord. So I needn’t bother about it now” (8). Estelle is also trapped in the past, and as a narcissist she forever relies on the good opinion of others. The revelation that she is a “baby-killer” (26) irrevocably shatters her pristine self-image, leaving her as a “hollow dummy” (20). Rather than reform, she desperately searches for a new source of flattery.

Bad faith is clearly what makes each character vulnerable, so why don’t they choose to abandon what hinders their potential progress? The answer is power, but more specifically it relates to cachet for Garcin and Estelle, and simply the dark side of cachet for Inez, namely being hated and feared. Each character has connected their personal worth with a fixed idea of self which they fear losing. Antagonism interrelates with bad faith. For instance, one learns from Miller and Lyman that, “Broadly, in romantic relationships, antagonistic individuals are more likely to behave in ways that are hurtful and upsetting to their partner” (605) and “antagonistic individuals are more likely to be unfaithful to their romantic partner” (609). All three characters behave abominably to their romantic partners and though they would vehemently deny it, each ultimately fears the consequences. Although Garcin denigrates his wife and her “martyred look” (8), he must accept that if his perfect self-deception of being a great journalist should finally crumble then he is indeed left as just a worthless man, a cad who mistreated his wife before being shot as a deserter. Inez deceived and dominated her lover Florence, true to the traits of an antagonist, but Florence disempowered Inez when she gassed them both. A sleeping Inez is rendered impotent when her life is ended by the lover she treated as a puppet, yet Florence turns out to be the real puppeteer. Inez fails to accept this truth, and the evidence is her continued affectation of dominance now with her fellow prisoners. Estelle, who is manipulative and selfish as a consequence of her narcissism, murders the child she conceived with her lover but shows no concern for his feelings. Yet, she pays the price when her latest admirer Peter learns of the horrid tale. Estelle initially gloats about “how he was terribly in love with me” (18) but soon begins to squirm when Olga tarnishes her formerly, perfect image. Estelle pleads from afar – “no, no. Don’t tell him. Please, please don’t tell him” (19). As Miller and Lyman write, “Some patterns of antagonistic behavior in romantic relationships are more likely when certain conditions are met” (605) and these conditions are quite simple – “low agreeable people engaged in transgressions because they thought they would get away with it, not because it was the right thing to do” (605). Sartre constructs a scene where each of his characters clings to a specific self-image, but their individual sins of antagonism serve to undermine those perfect images. The personal, iconographic images for the respective characters are great journalist, bitch, and flawless beauty. Should these iconic images shatter then what is left except horrible, deceitful, antagonists?

Inez and Estelle do not abandon, nor do they demonstrably seek to escape their respective self-images as established in life. They remain steadfastly in bad faith. Garcin is different and thus he presents a considerable problem for readers since he simultaneously gestures towards two opposing goals. First, one may reasonably read him as being in bad faith like the others. One may confidently assert this because he is offered an opportunity to escape the room but chooses to remain, and his reason for remaining is the hope that he will eventually convince Inez that he is the courageous journalist and manly man he professes to be, and no coward. Inez, true to her old self, says, “So you’ve no choice, you must convince me, and you’re at my mercy” (25). To digress briefly, this reconfirms her unwillingness to change, and Inez in turn exposes Estelle’s bad faith when she correctly interprets Estelle’s romantic interest in Garcin, saying, “She’d assure you you were God Almighty if she thought it would give you pleasure” (23). In this first reading, Garcin is a prisoner to the idea of himself as a heroic journalist and that alone holds him prisoner in the room.

The contrasting second reading sees Garcin as capable of real progress. This requires one to look at Garcin temporally and to comprehend his desire for a specific goal in the current predicament. At the beginning of the play, Garcin tells the valet about the horror of the situation, but he quickly adds, “I won’t make a scene, I shan’t be sorry for myself, I’ll face the situation, as I said just now. Face it fairly and squarely” (3). Despite his antagonistic traits, he does exactly as promised and tries repeatedly to form a peaceful alliance with Inez and Estelle in the hope of thwarting an external enemy. One is struck by how different this Garcin is from the man who fled to Mexico, the man who had an embarrassing “physical lapse” (22) when standing before the firing squad. It is also significant that he resigns himself to the fact that his earthly reputation is ruined since his fellow newspaper men think, “Garcin’s a coward” (22). Yet, Garcin clearly backtracks when he transfers his hopes from his old colleagues to Estelle as follows:

“If there’s someone, just one person, to say quite positively I did not run away, that I’m not the sort who runs away, that I’m brave and decent and the rest of it—well, that one person’s faith would save me. Will you have that faith in me? Then I shall love you and cherish you forever. Estelle—will you?” (23).

When Estelle proves to be a false hope, Garcin turns to Inez seeking the precise same validation. In this respect, he continues to be in bad faith. The counter-reading relies on an appreciation of the continuous effort Garcin makes to forge a better future for all three of them. When Inez tells Garcin that he has been defined by his life, she also says, “It’s what one does, and nothing else, that shows the stuff one’s made of” (25). What Garcin does in the room is seek solutions, solidify bonds, instil hope and all of these are signs that he has abandoned his former self. Miller and Lyman explain that “Agreeable individuals [unlike antagonists] are likely to be motivated to maintain harmonious relations across many interpersonal contexts, whether it be with a romantic partner or an acquaintance” (40). Garcin has arguably evolved from the antagonistic man who allowed his wife serve morning coffee to him and his mistress (14). His decision to stay in the room rather than accept his freedom is explained by his perceived need for Inez’s approval, but it is also an act of courage. At the close of the scene, the characters burst into laughter due to their acknowledgement that hell is forever, and Garcin has the last words – “Well, well, let’s get on with it. . ..” (27). Webber asserts that Garcin’s line is significant since, “the play then ends with his expressing an unambiguously courageous attitude to their situation” (50). Is Garcin courageous despite his doubts, does he really need someone to confirm his courage, isn’t courage reliant on doing rather than thinking? Garcin faces the current moment with resolve knowing that Inez may never accede to his wishes. Are his false mirrors making him believe that he is still trapped in his past when in fact he has evolved into a different man? While Inez holds significant power in the trio of characters, the power is always negative. Garcin may transcend his doubts if he only continues on his present course. He is the only character of the three who may be read as breaking away from the habit of bad faith. This represents the only true freedom.


Sartre’s No Exit presents an engaging story while additionally raising serious, philosophical questions. In this essay, I have endeavoured to present a new reading of the play by focusing on the personality trait of antagonism while also addressing long standing interpretative battles about this work. A few key observations and questions have been raised herein which may be more fully addressed now. First, one may reread an important quote from the play and in light of the information from this essay, show how philosophically weighted it now appears.

Garcin eloquently surmises the predicament that he shares with Inez and Estelle:

“They’ve laid their snare damned cunningly—like a cobweb. If you make any movement, if you raise your hand to fan yourself, Estelle and I feel a little tug. Alone, none of us can save himself or herself; we’re linked together inextricably. So you can take your choice” (Sartre 17).

Garcin imagines the snare has been set by devils, but the trap is really just elements of human nature and human psychology with which we all must contend. For instance, the ‘little tug’ that is referenced is an apt metaphor for the workings of one’s mirror neurons. As previously outlined, these brain neurons allow us to understand at an empathic level the motivations behind the actions of others. The ‘cobweb’ is a wonderful image but there is no satanic spider at the center, it is just a series of almost invisible human connections. The reference to being ‘linked together inextricably’ is arguably an encapsulation of Sartre’s idea of being-for-others. Of note is how Garcin envisages no way of succeeding alone so there is no true escape from others, except involving an even greater sacrifice to oneself, for example, social isolation. The ‘choice’ to be made refers to failing alone or succeeding together, but at a more philosophical level it communicates the necessity to abandon ‘bad faith’ so that one may indeed work in conjunction with others, without intolerable friction. This new reading is only possible when one has a basic grasp of Sartre’s philosophy.

The pressing question that exercises most people is how one should interpret the line, ‘hell is other people,’ which is taken to be the thesis statement of the play. The exploration of the theme of antagonism offers a nuance on existing readings. Like most nuanced readings, it requires some explanation. In No Exit, one views a distinctive space that Sartre carefully designed and constructed. Regarding the physical set, it is a brutal environment of bright light and excessive heat, and there is no way of exiting the room. The characters have also been designed, proven by their not-quite-normal features such as the absence of eyelids. Maybe Sartre was being ironic when he decided that his small cast of the talking-dead also needed no sleep. Garcin, Estelle, and Inez have long been classified by various critics as an assortment of two narcissists and one sadist. It is insufficient to call such people difficult because, in truth, they suffer from recognizable personality disorders. In addition to this mix of elements, the playwright depicts his characters as expressing high levels of antagonism which is a key personality trait from which we can reliably predict various outcomes. The overall effect of such a theatrical presentation on an audience is best described as an alienation effect. M H Abrams quotes the playwright Bertolt Brecht when providing an explanation of the aim of employing an alienation effect. He writes as follows:

“This effect, Brecht said, is used to make familiar aspects of the present social reality seem strange, so as to prevent the emotional identification or involvement of the audience with the characters and their actions in a play. His aim was instead to evoke a critical distance and attitude in the spectators, in order to arouse them to take action against, rather than simply to accept, the state of society and behavior represented on the stage.” (5)

Sartre employs an alienation effect because it facilitates his pedagogical aims. His play is essentially a cautionary tale, and the core message is that each of us needs to avoid ‘bad faith.’ The characters are monstrous enough for us to stop and think. An analysis of the theme of antagonism in the work has shown why the series of interpersonal interactions always turn sour. The participants are simply too high in the personality trait of antagonism. In this light, Sartre has deliberately fixed the game so that the characters will return again and again to an excruciating state of deadlock. It may be called Hell because it is a conspicuously, unnatural scene and meant to be so. Therefore, Sartre’s assertion that Hell is only other people when one’s relationship with such people has already been vitiated, is entirely correct in the context of the work. If the characters were high in the trait of agreeableness, then the scene would play out quite differently. Sartre employs an extreme example so that he may more effectively communicate the essence of his philosophical ideas. There is no contradiction between Sartre’s concept of being-for-others and the above reading since he also teaches that one is not vulnerable to the other when one abandons the state of bad faith. He proclaims the ever-present facility of one’s mind to transcend any current predicament.

Dante finally emerges from Hell in the famous work of literature, Inferno, but Sartre’s Garcin only gets to the exit before it becomes apparent that he has not done sufficient work to merit escape. Hell is only other people when one is a prisoner to a fixed, false idea of oneself, an idea that makes one eternally vulnerable to the gaze of the other. Antagonism simply debars Sartre’s characters from making any progress because they are also already in bad faith. It turns out that through an exploration of the theme of antagonism in No Exit, one comes to a far better understanding of the ingenious mechanics of Sartre’s Hell.

Cited Works.


Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th Edition, Heinle & Heinle, 1999.

“Being in-itself/for-itself.” The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd ed. 2008.

Blitgen, Sister M. “No Exit: The Sartrean Idea of Hell.” Renascence, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1967, pp. 59-63.

Cox, Gary. Sartre and Fiction. Continuum, 2009.

Gumbrecht, Hans Ulrich. “Chapter 3. No Exit and No Entry.” After 1945, Stanford University Press, 2013.

Iacoboni, Marco. Mirroring People. Picador, 2009.

Kolenda, Konstantin. “The Impasse of No Exit.” Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1984, pp. 261-265.

Miller, Joshua D., and Donald R. Lynam, editors. The Handbook of Antagonism. Academic Press, 2019.

Rochat, Philippe, and Dan Zahavi. “The Uncanny Mirror: A Re-framing of Mirror Self-experience.” Consciousness and Cognition, 2010, pp. 1-10.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit and Three Other Plays, Vintage Books, 1955.

Solomon, Robert C. “Existentialism.” New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, edited by Maryanne Cline Horowitz, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005, pp. 761-765.

Webber, Jonathan. “There is something about Inez.” Think, Vol 10, No. 27, 201i, pp. 45-56.

Whitaker, Thomas R. “Playing Hell.” The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 9, 1979, pp. 167-187.

Macbeth, Othello, Edward III

  • Play titles: Macbeth, Othello, Richard III (comparative study).
  • Author: William Shakespeare
  • Respective publication dates: 1623 (First Folio), 1622 Quarto, 1597 Quarto edition.
  • Respective page counts: 52, 74, 81


The Tragedy of Macbeth depicts the ruthless pursuit of power, and the consequential price to be paid. All commences when Macbeth, who is a loyal subject of Scotland’s King Duncan, meets a band of witches who prophesize his ascension to greatness. Buoyed up by this good omen, Lady Macbeth endeavours to transform the mumblings of these three, weird sisters into a golden-crowned reality for her husband. Only King Duncan stands in the way, so he is bloodily dispatched in his sleep while lodging with his treacherous hosts. However, the evil deed will haunt Macbeth and his wife and lead to their separate dooms. Having begun the quest, this husband and wife soon realise that they have set in motion a horrible cascade of bloodshed. Macbeth, fearing even his closest allies, orders the execution of his friend Banquo, and of Banquo’s young son too. Lady Macbeth begins to imagine that her hands are still wet with blood, and she descends into madness prior to her suspected suicide. The play is one of Shakespeare’s shorter works, but it proves an intense theatrical experience due to the mix of political treachery and supernatural influences. Key themes in this work are ambition, conscience, the supernatural, and fate.

The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is about a Black, military hero who lives in the Venetian Republic of the Middle Ages. Othello’s adoptive city desperately needs his leadership skills when the Turks invade Cyprus, which at that time was an outpost of Venetian territory. By virtue of Othello’s military service and fine standing in the community, he gains the hand of the beautiful Desdemona who is the daughter of Brabanzio, a nobleman. However, Othello’s racial background is constantly viewed as an impediment to his full acceptance by the Venetian community. It is Othello’s friend Iago, either prompted by suspicions of his own wife’s unfaithfulness or possibly due to Othello’s recent military promotion, who seeks to utterly destroy Othello. In fact, there is never a clearly stated motivation for the cruel acts performed by Iago. The play charts how Iago sets doubts in the mind of Othello about Desdemona’s faithfulness, hinting that she may be having an affair with Cassio. These suspicions grow and churn in Othello’s mind until finally, in a fit of rage, he murders his wife and then kills himself out of guilt. Shakespeare has Iago, the villain of the story, expertly expose and contribute to a world of racial prejudice, sexual jealousy, and career competitiveness. A malign rumour poisons the mind of an otherwise great man and tragedy ensues. Core themes of this play include sexuality, friendship, jealousy, revenge, and race.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Third tells the tale of one of Shakespeare’s vilest characters, the physically deformed and menacing Richard III. In the wake of the War of the Roses, Richard’s brother Edward has been anointed king, but Richard covets the crown for himself. First, Richard plots so that his other brother George is imprisoned in the Tower of London on false charges and later executed, and this precipitates the death of Edward who was already in poor health. The way is now fortuitously clear for Richard to rule, except for Edward’s young sons and heirs, Prince Edward and Richard, Duke of York. On Richard’s command, a man named James Tyrrel is given the gruesome task of executing the children. In the meantime, Richard ‘romances’ Lady Anne whom he soon marries, but hastily has her killed when he sets his sights elsewhere. Edward then tries to woo his cousin, Princess Elizabeth, in his final push to solidify his power. However, Henry Earl of Richmond raises an army in France and returns to England to challenge Richard who has become highly unpopular with the people of the kingdom. At the battle of Bosworth Field, Richard is finally killed. This play is a fascinating study of the psychology of a true villain, made more engrossing with supernatural elements like the ghosts of Richard’s many victims as well as the potent curses of old Queen Margaret. Themes central to the play are physical deformity, Machiavellianism, the supernatural, ambition, and power.

Ways to access the texts: reading/listening/watching.

If you would like to read multiple Shakespearean text on one creditable website, then The Folger Shakespeare is an excellent choice. Needless to say, these texts can be sourced via countless other websites.

Audiobook versions of the plays are also widely available. For example, there are professional audiobook versions of all three plays available on the Internet Archive.

If you find Shakespearean English a trudge, as many modern readers do, and you prefer films then luckily there are good options. For example, the 1971 film version of Macbeth, also named Macbeth, directed by Roman Polanski, and starring Jon Finch and Francesca Annis is an excellent adaptation. There have been at least two other major films of the play in recent years. The selection and quality of film versions of the other two plays are not quite as stellar. Laurence Olivier directed and starred in the 1955 movie named Richard III and it is a competent, loyal portrayal. Lastly, Othello directed by Oliver Parker and starring Laurence Fishburne is one of the best-known, cinematic versions of that play.

Why read/watch/listen to the plays?

Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III are all fine examples of Shakespeare’s dramatic skills. A one-line summation of each play is provided here in order to differentiate the works for as yet undecided readers.

Macbeth – A young, blood-thirsty, power couple achieve their wildest dreams by seizing the throne of Scotland only to find that victory quickly sours when gained by false means.

Othello – A dark-skinned hero wins the love of a fair beauty but falls prey to the machinations of his best friend who is finally unmasked as the worst of foes.

Richard III – A deformed, bitter, megalomaniac, sets about butchering anyone who stands between him and the English Crown, only to be rattled by ghostly visitations the night before he dies in dishonour on the battlefield.

However, since this post is not the usual single-play analysis but a comparative study, one should look to the interesting links between the plays. The essay which follows is on the subject of Shakespeare’s use of metaphor and how even the same metaphor may be used to different effect in all three works.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

Shared Metaphors in Shakespeare’s Richard III, Othello, and Macbeth.

Through the use of metaphor, Shakespeare largely designed his characters both physically and psychologically. In defence of such a bold statement, one may assert that a plain literal description often lacks nuance and depth whereas figurative language offers a complex set of connotations. M. H. Abrams writes that figurative language “is a conspicuous departure from what users of a language apprehend as the standard meaning of words, or else the standard order of words, in order to achieve some special meaning or effect” (96). Indeed, Shakespeare manages to enfeeble or empower characters in unexpected ways through descriptive techniques. The physical bodies and the complex minds of the central characters in a play are often the keys to one’s understanding of why the stories unfold as they do. The use of figurative language, especially metaphor, allows attention to the guided onto specific aspects of characters. In this essay, I will look at some shared metaphors in three of Shakespeare’s well known plays, namely Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III. By analysing the same metaphor in different contexts, one gains insight into Shakespeare’s genius but also the core role of figurative language in bringing a character to life. A standard definition of metaphor is provided by Abrams – “In a metaphor, a word or expression that in literal usage denotes one kind of thing is applied to a distinctly different kind of thing, without asserting a comparison” (97). For the dramatic personas of Lady Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III, Shakespeare highlights through metaphor the respective issues of the female body, deformity, and skin colour. Furthermore, we learn a great deal of the mental workings of these powerful, fictional figures from the descriptions they incur from Shakespeare’s pen.

In his famous 1955 essay entitled “Metaphor”, Max Black gives a comprehensive explanation of how, in his view, metaphor works. He asserts that metaphor is not merely artistic decoration, but that it is a case of creative interaction between two ideas. This breaks with several traditional schools of thought, for example, Black writes that “Any view which holds that a metaphorical expression is used in place of some equivalent literal expression, I shall call a substitution view of metaphor” (279). He goes on to state that “If a writer holds that a metaphor consists in the presentation of the underlying analogy or similarity, he will be taking what I shall call a comparison view of metaphor” (283). He wholly rejects both of these theories of metaphor. Instead, Black follows the ideas of I. A. Richards whom he quotes as follows, “In the simplest formulation, when we use a metaphor we have two thoughts of different things active together and supported by a single word, or phrase, whose meaning is a resultant of their interaction” (285). However, Black did not simply reuse the ideas from Richards’ The Philosophy of Rhetoric, but as Abrams writes, “the philosopher Max Black refined and greatly expanded Richard’s treatment [of metaphor]” (155). If one applies Black’s theory of metaphor to Shakespeare’s characters, where the exact same metaphorical terms are often repeated, one begins to understand why they nonetheless remain impressively creative.

It is helpful to cover the mechanics of Black’s ideas on metaphor since, as already stated, there are different theories of this particular trope. For example, if one makes up a metaphor like ‘that little boy is a monkey” then it is possible to classify the most important parts of the sentence. Abrams gives us the typically accepted language, like “the name tenor for the subject” (97) which is the ‘little boy’ from my example, and “the name vehicle for the metaphorical term itself” (97) which is ‘monkey’ here. Black alters these terms since he calls the metaphorical term/vehicle the “subsidiary subject” (287) and that which is being described as the “principal subject” (286), rather than the tenor. Black writes that, “we can say that the principal subject is ‘seen through’ the metaphorical expression” (288). Furthermore, Black argues that the interaction between the principal subject and the subsidiary subject is a two-way street so both are changed in the concoction rather than the traditional view of the metaphor being applied unilaterally to something.

Three quite distinct Shakespearean characters, Richard III, Othello, and Lady Macbeth wield great power through their aesthetic presentations. The metaphorical language used to describe them overlaps in many respects, yet without diluting the force of their individual portrayals. To use the words of Max Black, “the metaphor selects, emphasizes, suppresses and organizes features of the principal subject by implying statements about it that normally apply to the subsidiary subject” (292). It is important to reiterate that the interaction of the subsidiary subject (the metaphorical term) with the principal subject is what creates the distinctive meaning. For example, the made to measure, almost organic potential of metaphorical description can be witnessed in Shakespeare’s application of the word ‘devil’ to these three characters. The ‘principal subject’ in each of the following cases will be the character, while the subsidiary subject is the devil, who brings certain connotations to bear on the character, dependent largely on the context. The results, despite one’s normal expectations, are never commonplace.

First, let us take the shocking scene depicting Richard the Third’s interaction with Lady Anne as he begins to woo her – over the body of her dead husband. Anne immediately protests, saying, “foul devil, for God’s sake, hence, and trouble us not” (1.2.50) and in the context we understand that Richard’s identity as the dead man’s murderer makes his presence as unholy as the devil’s. Anne further chastises Richard as “thou lump of foul deformity” (1.2.55) making clear that he is also as ugly and misshapen as any devil from Hell. Now, in order to appreciate the flexibility of this single metaphor, one may contrast the above scene with the words of the maid Emilia to Othello on her mistress’s death, “oh, the more angel she, and you the blacker devil” (5.2.128). The maid’s words express not only the evident mismatch of the lovers in life, but the prospective separate dwellings of each in the afterlife. The emphasis is not so much on Desdemona’s murder but the sense that Othello is even more the black devil than Emilia already believed him to be. Emilia is establishing a link between race and inevitable evil deeds by using the black devil as the encapsulating metaphor. In yet another formulation, Lady Macbeth calls on evil spirits to, “fill me from the crown to the toe top-full / of direst cruelty!” (1.5.40-41). She retains her own outwardly serene, feminine appearance but implores the forces of darkness to make her as cruel as the devil himself on the inside. Lady Macbeth’s transformation is complete when Macbeth says that he will boldly look upon that, “which might appall the devil!” (3.4.61), however, he grows pale at the sight of Banquo’s ghost but he notes that his wife can, “keep the natural ruby of your cheeks” (3.4.117). Her transformation to devil is already complete in her husband’s eyes. This is the most complex of the three examples since Shakespeare never directly calls Lady Macbeth a devil but more interestingly allows her to be seen as such by the man who loves her. It is Macbeth’s own overwhelming guilt that reveals to him his wife’s horrible metamorphose to devil. In each instance the metaphor foregrounds specific devilish traits, acting as a form of filter upon the full panoply of possible, devilish connotations. Lady Macbeth remains fair of face, but she adopts a metallic brashness and is revealed as foul of soul, Richard the Third’s deformity and matching unholy character is foregrounded, and Othello’s colour is emphasized as a mark of ever-potential evil and a sign of his proper abode in death. What’s more, the devil that one used to imagine as the standard, evil one, is altered by the comparisons too!

On the other hand, one may protest that the final meaning of each metaphorical use of devil is quite arbitrary. For example, my reading of the devilish characteristics highlighted by the metaphor may be challenged by another reader. To decipher this, one first needs to look at how metaphors’ meanings are selected. Black writes that “Imagine some layman required to say, without taking special thought, those things he held to be true about wolves; the set of statements resulting would approximate to what I am here calling the system of commonplaces associated with the word ‘wolf’” (287). We are dealing with the metaphor of ‘devil’ rather than ‘wolf’ but the same idea applies. Black writes that “the important thing for the metaphor’s effectiveness is not that the commonplaces shall be true, but that they should be readily and freely evoked” (287). So, when we see the word devil used as a metaphor, there are immediate devilish characteristics to choose from (the system of commonplaces) and we each apply those deemed appropriate to the subject. In the given examples, Lady Macbeth is unlikely to be considered as ugly as the devil, nor Othello as cut-throat as the devil, nor Richard as subtle as the devil. The reader’s role is clearly pivotal in the final selection and correctly so, but the devilish attributes also need to fit, like puzzle pieces. However, an author may certainly influence our choices, as Black relates below.

“Reference to “associated commonplaces” will fit the commonest cases where the author simply plays upon the stock of common knowledge (and common misinformation) presumably shared by the reader and himself. But in a poem, or a piece of sustained prose, the writer can establish a novel pattern of implications for the literal uses of the key expressions, prior to using them as vehicles for his metaphors.” (290).

An author can, in effect, prime a reader to choose certain associated commonplaces for a particular metaphor. The metaphor of devil is indeed used by Shakespeare multiple times in each of the plays being discussed, and crucially prior to the examples already discussed. For example, the first time Lady Anne refers to Richard as a devil is as follows – “mortal eyes cannot endure the devil. — / Avaunt, thou dreadful minister of hell” (1.2.46-47). The focus is on Richard’s ugliness which offends the eyes and as a ‘minister of hell’ he is seen as a member of Hell’s government who is on a diplomatic mission, away from his natural, horrid abode. This indeed establishes our thoughts, and guides how we interpret Anne’s later uses of devil as a metaphor. In Othello, Iago tells Brabanzio – “an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise! / … Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you” (1.1.97-100). The prurient emphasis here is on the copulation of the dark-skinned Othello with the fair Desdemona and the presumed evil thereby initiated. Emilia’s later use of the devil metaphor acts as a confirmation that all warnings were correct. In Macbeth, when Banquo realises that the witches’ prophecy is coming to pass, he says “What, can the devil speak true?” (1.3.108). This example needs to be understood tangentially, since one has to first appreciate the close alignment of Lady Macbeth with the sexless witches whose grotesque depictions embody their moral ugliness, something that Lady Macbeth hides. Banquo’s focus is on the devil’s deceptive nature, the father of all lies, and this is also how one needs to understand Lady Macbeth when she graciously welcomes King Duncan to her home because she already knows that she plans to murder him. In each case, the multiple uses of the same metaphor in the same play does indeed strongly influences how we interpret that metaphor and thereby we fall upon a sustained meaning.

While the devil metaphor is fascinating in its malleability, there is also a distinctive richness and allure to the other figurative descriptions of each character. Richard III is variously labelled a “foul toad,” “bottled spider,” “hell-hound,” and “bloody boar.” Othello’s monikers are predominantly linked to his colour, race, and supposed nature, such as “thick lips” “old black ram,” “Barbary horse,” and “sooty bosom.” Lady Macbeth’s deceitful, feminine façade is communicated in the “innocent flower …serpent” metaphor. One could reasonably argue that these various descriptions also influence the devil metaphor. When Shakespeare uses terms like hell-hound, old black ram, and serpent, then he is consciously using terms which all have satanic connotations, but this is more of an interesting aside than a core focus here. Of central interest is that the resulting physical imagery of each character has an inherent power. It is helpful to consider some academic writings interpreting how the imagery operates within the aforementioned plays since such analyses also shed additional light on Shakespeare’s metaphors.

Joel Elliot Slotkin asserts that in Richard III, there is the use of “sinister aesthetics” (5) which he describes as the valorising of “the dark and hideous as admirable poetic subjects” (5). Slotkin explores our attraction to evil depictions and especially the allure of Richard’s “narcissistic pride in his ugliness” (5). When Richard has won the hand of Lady Anne in marriage, he admits his own powers to have been little more than, “the plain devil and dissembling looks” (1.2.223). The importance of Richard’s depiction is summarized in the statement “his ugliness is an aesthetic attribute that symbolizes his evil, but at the same time, Richard artfully crafts false appearances of goodness” (Slotkin 10). Richard’s character remains tantalizingly seductive because his aesthetic qualities, mostly achieved through metaphor, extract an admiring reaction from the reader that sharply contradicts a proper moralistic reaction. The artistry of his physical representation brings pleasure, and this is heightened by witnessing how the character uses his physicality as part of his diabolical power.

In Othello’s case, his skin colour proves to be a distraction from his qualities, and therefore a loss of power. Phyllis Natalie Braxton writes about the typical Elizabethan’s idea of a Black African or Moor, stating that contemporary “pernicious notions about blacks were assigned to Iago’s character in the play. This is evident in Iago’s skill to prey on underlying fears, like when he tells Desdemona’s father, “an old black ram is tupping your white ewe.”’ While Braxton contemplates the idea that Shakespeare is highlighting the problems of a Black man in white society, or the plight of the ‘Other’, she ultimately rejects that either of these is a core message of the play. As Othello achieves both high office and the respect of many of his peers, it seems to Braxton that such an interpretation is ultimately not supportable. She focuses instead on the metaphor of Othello becoming a fly in Iago’s web. While intricate in its justification, Braxton’s essay discounts much textual proof of the constant suppositions about Othello’s character which are based chiefly on his race and colour. It is doubtless that the depiction of Othello preys on and manipulates ideas about the Black man, revealing him to be powerless to the constant attrition of prejudice enacted by Iago.

Lady Macbeth, though she receives hardly any physical description, maintains our imaginative attention through a few key metaphors. Stephanie Chamberlain writes about the importance of patrilineage and the power of maternal agency in Macbeth. She homes in on the imagery of Lady Macbeth nursing and also the theme of infanticide. Chamberlain asserts that Lady Macbeth “attempts to seize a masculine power to further Macbeth’s political goals” (72). The author also quotes Dympna Callaghan who wrote, “in Macbeth, the Kingdom of Darkness is unequivocally female, unequivocally matriarchal” (79). Lady Macbeth would hypothetically sacrifice her own child, ending Macbeth’s possibility of patrilineage, to expediently seize an obviously temporary power that was at hand. The predominant and obviously distorted image of motherhood is provided when Lady Macbeth says, “come to my woman’s breasts, / and take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers” (1.5.45-46). This is very much in keeping with the image of the devil we take her to be in reality.

It is evident that Shakespeare uses a diverse system of metaphor to reflect the true characters of his key players. As Max Black writes of the contrast between plain literal description and metaphor, “the literal paraphrase inevitably says too much – and with the wrong emphasis” (293). Metaphor works differently because the ultimate meaning is reliant on the guidance of the text, and the mind of the reader. According to Black, “Metaphorical statement is not a substitute for a formal comparison or any other kind of literal statement, but has its own distinctive capacities and achievements” (284) and he ventures to assert that “It would be more illuminating in some of these cases to say that the metaphor creates the similarity than to say that it formulates some similarity antecedently existing” (284-285). This latter statement is not appropriate for the devil metaphor since Richard III and Lady Macbeth are easily associated with evil and Othello’s skin colour means that he easily falls prey to prejudicial comparisons to a devil. However, the following metaphors can indeed be seen to ‘create the similarity’ as Black phrases it.

The second intriguing metaphor that Shakespeare uses is that of flowers. Probably the most striking and memorable example is Lady Macbeth’s use of such a metaphor when giving Machiavellian advice to her husband – “look like th’innocent flower, / but be the serpent under’t” (1.6.63-64). The advice forms a character portrait of Lady Macbeth herself thereby exposing her duplicitous nature. When King Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle he says, “fair and noble hostess, / we are your guests tonight” (1.6.23-24). It is under the cover of darkness, when the nocturnal serpent awakens, that Duncan’s assessment of his fair and noble hostess is shattered. Lady Macbeth’s famous quote incorporates simile (look like) and metaphor (but be) in a way that highlights the contrast between mere comparison versus the power of metaphor which is figurative language that transforms. Richard the Third’s own use of a floral metaphor is in keeping with the constant reshaping of his image through rhetoric. He snidely remarks to his nephew, “small herbs have grace, great weeds grow apace” (2.4.13) which is an ironic compliment to his own stunted stature. One should note that this is “an implicit metaphor, [because] the tenor is not itself specified, but only implied” (Abrams 97). Richard’s mother, The Duchess of York interjects with a pointed remark, saying, “if this were a true rule, then he should be gracious” (2.4.20). Richard employs a flattering, floral metaphor to shape how he is perceived by others in spite of the reality of his ugliness, whereas Lady Macbeth relies on her fair appearance to hide her hellish motives and sums this up in potent advice. In each instance, the natural physical attributes of the character are worked superbly to their advantage. In Othello’s case, his dark skin is considered by others a partial negation of his good qualities. It is his race and supposed temperament that are hinted at by the use of figurative language consisting of fruit and flowers. For example, the handkerchief embroidered with strawberries which Othello gives to Desdemona, is seemingly enchanted. Othello explains, “there’s magic in the web of it” (3.4.66) because a sibyl sewed it, and as a consequence, it is purported to have the power to preserve love. It is this air of the mysterious and the sensual that is played upon by Iago who suggests, “the food that to him [Othello] now is as luscious as locusts shall be to him shortly as bitter as coloquintida” (1.3.336). The coloquintida is a family of flower used as a purgative and therefore suggests that Othello will become bored with Desdemona as soon as his sexual appetite is satiated. In this case, the fruit of the handkerchief communicates Othello’s exoticism and his necessity to charm love on account of his perceived racial impediment, whereas the purgative flowers communicate his supposed sexual temperament.

In considering the body’s power, it is helpful to delve into the preoccupation of Shakespearean characters, or those around them, with creating and protecting a hereditary line. It is through their progeny that these characters may create new images of themselves who will inherit a crown or title. In the context of the chosen plays, progeny and motherhood take on an increased relevance. Once again, metaphorical descriptions give tremendous insight into the characters and their families.  

Othello is depicted as a fine and noble warrior, yet his colour detracts from his value in the eyes of his adopted community. It is both the Moor’s supposed sexual appetite along with traditional connotations of mohammedanism and slavery that inform his reception. Iago preys on the visceral fears of Brabanzio, when he shouts from the street, “you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse; you’ll have your nephews neigh to you” (1.1.108). The metaphor of Barbary horse suggests Berber/Barbarian along with the crude reduction of Othello’s love to an animalistic instinct to copulate. Iago is seeking to sabotage Othello’s marriage and therefore any chance of him gaining a secure foothold in Venetian society. The power of Othello materializes in other peoples’ fears of his mixed-race children. Iago reveals a potent taboo with a tactless but effective metaphor. In the end, the family line of Othello ends tragically with Othello!

Richard III’s mother, the Duchess of York, rejects her son by describing the result of her childbirth with Richard as an abomination. She says, “O my accursed womb, the bed of death, a Cockatrice hast thou hatched to the world” (4.1.48). Similar to how Iago imagines Othello’s future children as tainted and animalistic, Richard’s mother employs a metaphor that transforms her child to a cockatrice – a beast of legend that is both snake and cock. It is therefore unsurprising that the duchess sees nothing of herself in her murderous offspring, proven by her disparaging comparison of Richard with her two lost sons, “And I for comfort have but one false glass” (2.2.52). The natural delight of a mother in her child is distorted, undermined, and turned into a grotesque parody. The metaphor of a womb being the ‘bed of death’ is repeated in Richard’s perverse attempts to court Elizabeth’s daughter, having already killed her other children. He says, “but in your daughter’s womb I bury them, where in the nest of spicery, they shall breed selves of themselves to your recomforture” (4.4.340). Richard is offering Elizabeth and her daughter a chance to live, rather than die by refusing him! This strategic marriage will further secure Richard’s position as king and lead to a potential heir to the throne. The diabolical terms in which he phrases this marriage proposal can only be matched by Lady Macbeth’s depiction of parenthood and its subservience to political ambition.

Lady Macbeth is rarely associated with motherhood, yet her status as a mother seems most likely given her utterance, “I have given suck and know / How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me” (1.7.54-55). One may assume that the child died and thereby died Macbeth’s only heir. In the absence of any living progeny, Lady Macbeth is willing to resort to the basest tactics to secure whatever power is within reach. In an inversion of stereotypical gender roles, Lady Macbeth worries about her husband’s lack of steely ambition – “Yet do I fear thy nature; / It is too full o’th’ milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way” (1.5.14-16). She suffers from no such compunction and shatters any illusion that she has compassion or physical warmth when she professes that, rather than go back on a promise to seize power, a promise her husband indeed made to her, she would have preferred to murder her own child.

“I would, while it was smiling in my face,

 Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums  

And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you

Have done to this” (1.7.56-58).

Lady Macbeth evokes the body of a nursing mother only to transform it into a nightmarish image of infanticide. There is a strange but effective clash of the maternal body with monstrosity in the selected quotes. Most readers would consider ‘the milk of human kindness’ to be as dead a metaphor as ‘the leg of a table’, however, Lady Macbeth’s emphasis on breast milk revives the metaphorical phrase. The boy who died (his boneless gums) signals the end of Macbeth’s hopes of patrilineage and this prompts his wife to dispense with moralistic concerns given the apparent lack of a succeeding generation. The death of the real child, most likely from natural causes, may be linked to the warped immorality of Lady Macbeth’s later, wild ambitions.

In this exploration of the contemplation of progeny through metaphor, one witnesses the wide scope of connotation possible. Shakespeare’s depiction of bodies informs the reader in numerous ways about the key traits of his characters. Max Black states that “Aristotle ascribes the use of metaphor to delight in learning” (281). The metaphor not only draws our attention to a particular aspect of the character, but one gains enjoyment in creating the meaning from the stock of connotations/system of associations that the metaphorical term can bring to the principal subject. Richard the Third’s deformed body is a source of power and he is presented in such grotesque yet poetic terms that one cannot doubt but that he wields this power. Othello is doomed by his skin colour, with Iago acting as the two-faced figure who orchestrates his downfall. However, Othello’s body delivers such a potent message of male sexuality that one cannot ignore it for a moment. Lady Macbeth seizes a power which is ultimately beyond her control, as if her departure from the accepted norms of womanhood is too much of an aberration and so she must pay a price. But it is only through the power of metaphor that we learn to appreciate the depth of these characters.

To conclude this exploration of metaphors from a selection of Shakespeare’s plays, one needs to pose and then answer just a few questions. First, what is the relevance, if any, of a shared metaphor in multiple plays? The answer is primarily creativity, namely how Shakespeare brings different shades of meaning to precisely the same metaphorical word or phrase in different contexts. This is the ultimate proof that backs up the key points of Black, and I. A. Richards before him. The devil is not just the king of Hell, but becomes something quite different when Lady Macbeth, Othello, and Richard III, all respectively try on his mask. Additionally, not only does the metaphor illuminate the characters portrayal but we never really think of the devil in the same way again since he is now tainted by murderous mothers, racism, and physical deformity. Black’s interpretation goes as follows; “I take Richards to be saying that for the metaphor to work the reader must remain aware of the extension of meaning – must attend to both the old and the new meanings together” (286). In short, metaphor creates something uniquely meaningful in most situations. Of course, repeated metaphors are a special case where comparisons are somewhat easier, but one-off metaphors are also invaluable. Shakespeare uses a specific type of figurative language, namely metaphor, to express things that cannot be expressed in other ways or at least not in such a concentrated manner.

This brings one naturally to a second question – isn’t metaphorical language just a florid alternative to plain, literal description? Black gives a defence against such a view, writing that “Metaphor plugs the gaps in the literal vocabulary (or, at least, supplies the want of convenient abbreviations). So viewed, metaphor is a species of catachresis … the use of a word in some new sense in order to remedy a gap in the vocabulary” (280). He then sums up the general view (which he disagrees with) as – “Except in cases where a metaphor is a catachresis that remedies some temporary imperfection of literal language, the purpose of metaphor is to entertain and divert” (282). This harks back to the similarity view of metaphor where “a metaphor serves mainly to enhance the rhetorical force and stylistic vividness and pleasantness of a discourse” (Abrams 155). Black mostly rejects any consideration of a reader’s response, most especially any attention to eliciting pleasure from really ‘getting’ a metaphor. This, I believe is a mistake, since the pleasure of deciphering metaphors is indeed like “unravelling a riddle” (Black 280). Shakespeare’s plays are finely constructed, especially the metaphorical language, and one’s joy in listening to that language is what helps bring each character and story to life. In this essay I have attempted to scrutinize a few of the metaphors used by Shakespeare under the lens of Black’s ‘interaction view’ simply to show how special metaphor is, and how one may savour Shakespeare’s use of it.

Works Cited.

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed., Heinle & Heinle, 1999. 

Black, Max. “Metaphor.” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol. 55, 1955, pp. 273-294. 

Braxton, Phyllis Natalie. “The Moor and the Metaphor.” South Atlantic Review, Vol. 55, No. 4, 1990, pp.1-17. 

Chamberlain, Stephanie. “Fantasizing Infanticide: Lady Macbeth and the Murdering Mother in Early Modern England.” College Literature, Vol. 32, No.3, 2005, pp.72-91. 

Slotkin, Joel Elliot. “Honeyed Toads: Sinister Aesthetics in Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III.’” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2007, pp. 5-32. 

Shakespeare, William. “Macbeth.” The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katherine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan. W.W Norton, 2016, pp. 2721-2773. 

Shakespeare, William. “Othello.” The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katherine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan. W.W Norton, 2016, pp. 2084-2158.

Shakespeare, William. “Richard the Third.” The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katherine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan. W.W Norton, 2016, pp.566-647.

Richard II

Hamilton, William. The Landing of Richard II at Milford Haven. circa 1793-1800.

  • Play title: The Life and Death of King Richard the Second.
  • Author: William Shakespeare 
  • Published: 1597 (quarto edition)  
  • Page count: 61


The play tells the story of England’s King Richard II who succeeded to the throne aged just ten years old and who was deposed in 1399. Histrionic, effeminate, extravagant, and Christ-like are just a few of the familiar descriptions of Shakespeare’s King Richard and the king’s depiction is certainly vivid and poetic. Much of Shakespeare’s historical information comes from Raphael Holinshed’s book named Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. However, the Bard deviates somewhat from the historical facts. Shakespeare’s Richard is half historical, half invented, and wholly engaging.

The play opens on a dispute between Thomas Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke (later King Henry IV). The source of the dispute is the murder of the Duke of Gloucester for which Bolingbroke holds Mowbray responsible (and by extension, Richard II). The king chooses to exile both men to France to avoid civil unrest. Then, to help fund a war in Ireland, Richard seizes the lands of Bolingbroke’s recently deceased father (John of Gaunt) and this leads to unrest and eventually Henry’s return, accompanied by an army, to claim his rightful inheritance. Bolingbroke seizes not just his father’s former lands but all of England when Richard quickly understands his weak position and abdicates.

Ways to access the text: reading/watching/listening

The text of Richard II is freely available online, for example, one may go to The Folger Shakespeare website to read the full text. Alternatively, Project Gutenberg or The Open Library also carry the text.

If you choose to watch a film version, then there is The Hollow Crown (2012) TV series with the first episode covering Richard II’s story. This version stars Ben Wishaw and is directed by Rupert Goold. It has a running time of 2hrs 22mins.

Audio versions of the play are available via YouTube, for instance, “Richard II by William Shakespeare – Starring John Gielgud – 1960” which has a running time of 2hrs 33mins.

Why read/watch/listen to Richard II?

The role of advisors

The downfall of King Richard II is often attributed to Bushy, Baggot, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire, who were the king’s advisors. As Northumberland says, “The King is not himself, but basely led, / By flatterers” (2.1.241-242). When Henry Bolingbroke later sentences Bushy and Greene to death, he justifies the sentence by saying “You have misled a Prince, a royal King” (3.1.8). However, Shakespeare does not supply any evidence of the king being misled, indeed, there is nothing in the text to substantiate the claims of Richard’s enemies. The king’s flawed decisions may be either solely his own work, or like Bolingbroke and others contend, they may be the fault of his advisors. It is historically true that Richard led an extravagant and expensive lifestyle and that the was implicated in the murder of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester – ample reasons for many to hate him. However, the play presents us with an interpretative choice about who is really at fault and why exactly Richard fails as king and is forced to abdicate.

The queer king

Richard II is often read as a queer character. This will be unsurprising to many readers since, as Charles R. Forker notes, “Among twentieth-century actors, … the tradition of playing Richard as homosexual has steadily evolved” (16). In a similar vein but less flattering, Madhavi Menon writes of how “Laurence Olivier allegedly identified King Richard ‘as an out-and-out pussy queer, with mincing gestures to match’” (667). It is true that Shakespeare depicts Richard as theatrical and verbose, but how the character is played on stage often enhances the queer dimension. While Richard is queer in several respects from his effeminacy to his histrionics, he still evades an easy classification when it comes specifically to sexual orientation. The king’s sexuality remains a contentious subject for academics. To identify one of Shakespeare’s leading characters as queer, and to pinpoint the exact elements of queerness he exhibits is certainly thought provoking, and this adds to the pleasure of the play.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

King Richard II and cousin Aumerle.


Richard II is not the best known of Shakespeare’s plays but has nonetheless received considerable critical attention. There are myriad interpretative approaches to this work. For example, Madhavi Menon writes that “Richard II is usually read either as a metaphor for kingship, Christianity, poetry, and the like – or else through its metaphors of garden, mirror, and clock, among others” (653). Menon delves into the interlinked topics of rhetoric and sexuality as they apply to the play and his emphasis is on metonymy. Another popular approach to the play is to look at the historical aspect since Richard is not just a play character but an historical one too. Jeremy Lopez summarizes Shakespeare’s approach to the historical story, writing that, “The plot of Richard II in no way depends upon the, or any, historical record, though the playwright’s assessment of the importance of the historical record was certainly instrumental in the play’s conception” (222). Sylvia Federico also looks to history and how the story of Richard has solidified as somewhat one-sided over the centuries, writing,  “For those authors charged with explaining the Lancastrian usurpation of the throne in 1399, Richard II deserved to be deposed. He was said by these writers to be tyrannical, extravagant, mercurial, foppish, and alternatingly wilful or spineless – characteristics that have largely persisted in the historical and popular imagination ever since” (25). Since the play contains many fine and poetic speeches as well as interesting characterizations, there are a slew of fine essays on the work with sometimes complementary and sometimes contrasting interpretations.

Richard II is a tragedy (in all but name), and many academics focus on the king’s coterie of advisors when allocating blame for his fall. This is a well-established approach to the play. The king’s chief advisors are named Bushy, Bagot, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire. Paul Gaudet writes of how historical records, which were often biased as Federico has already noted above, would have shaped Shakespeare’s play. Gaudet explains that “Bolingbroke’s harsh and summary justice is certainly vindicated by the historical judgment that Shakespeare inherited. Shakespeare’s written sources consistently associate Richard’s downfall with the injustices and prodigality urged upon him by his lubricious favorites” (142). In a similar vein, Stanley R. Maveety writes that, “In Richard II flattery and bad advice are cited as a principal cause of Richard’s failure, and his favorites, Bushy, Bagot, and Green, who are responsible for that bad advice, are often characterized by serpent imagery” (185). These various essays on Richard II are well grounded and often scintillating, however, they rarely engage with the figure of Aumerle, Richard’s cousin and also a close advisor. It is arguable that Aumerle holds the most sway over the king and therefore he is more deserving of close analysis than the advisors previously mentioned. In this essay, I will establish an argument for Aumerle’s primacy as the king’s advisor, an argument that requires one to critique the more accepted, traditional stance that Bushy, Bagot, Greene and the Earl of Wiltshire lie behind the king’s downfall.

Before gauging the persuasive strength of any individual advisor to King Richard, it is first necessary to look to the text to discover how amenable the king was to advice in general, be it good or bad. The fact that Richard is politically astute and skeptical of sugared words is apparent from the opening lines of the play. When Bolingbroke and Mowbray are brought before the king to settle their dispute, both men express their good wishes to the monarch to which he replies – “We thank you both – yet one but flatters us” (1.1.25). Flattery is exposed immediately as a potential lie. Much later, Richard is at Flint Castle and in a defeatist mood having just heard that York has sided with Bolingbroke. Aumerle attempts to soothe Richard but, once again, the response shows the king’s alertness to untruths wrapped in flattery – “He does me double wrong / That wounds me with the flatteries of his tongue” (3.2.209-210). At this point in the play, the king has expressed the command that his followers be discharged from their duties and he intends, it seems, to abdicate. The resoluteness of the king is clear from his words, “Let no man speak again / To alter this, for counsel is but vain” (3.2.206-207). This character does not correspond with the easily-swayed dupe that his enemies frequently portray in the text. With this insight in mind, plus the lack of any proof of detrimental advice being provided to the king, one is forced to look more closely at why the king would react favourably to particular advice, or to a particular advisor.

As will be discussed, the king’s advisors prove to be excellent, political scapegoats but only because they lead to the king’s downfall at the hands of his enemies. When Northumberland speaks with his comrades, Willoughby and Ross, he makes the initial claim that, “The King is not himself, but basely led, / By flatterers” (2.1.241-242). Such words frighten Northumberland’s comrades since malign advisors are dangerous. When Bolingbroke finally sentences Bushy and Greene to death, he vindicates the sentence with the allegation – “You have misled a prince, a royal king (3.1.8). There is, however, no straightforward evidence of bad advice in the play. What is apparent is that the decisions Richard makes have detrimental consequences. York notes on two occasions that the king will reap what he has sown. Firstly, York comprehends the gross error of the king in seizing Bolingbroke’s rightful inheritance, saying, “You pluck a thousand dangers on your head; You lose a thousand well-disposed hearts” (2.1.205-206). When Bolingbroke does predictably return to England to claim his estate, York makes the following ominous remark about Richard, “Now comes the sick hour that his surfeit made; Now shall he try his friends that flattered him” (2.2.83-84). Richard’s chief mistake is clearly his seizure of John of Gaunt’s lands since this precipitates the circumstances of his own downfall. Did someone convince Richard to take this crucial decision? What is evident from Shakespeare’s text is that the king is a strong and cautions character not easily led into decisions he has not first amply considered. This leaves the question of Aumerle’s influence as one of many flatterers and advisors surrounding the monarch. If the king is not susceptible to sycophantic, self-interested minions then what is distinctive about Aumerle’s friendship and advice that sustains a reading of this character as eminently important? We shall endeavor to understand in this essay but to do so, one must first dissect the older argument about who is to blame for Richard’s downfall.

The advisors/flatterers.

There is a dichotomy between viewpoints on the king’s advisors – Bushy, Bagot, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire. They are considered either chiefly responsible for the king’s downfall, or they are absolved of all blame. These four characters, normally grouped together,  have received much attention in academic writings and a reader is amply supplied with interpretative angles. For instance, Madhavi Menon looks at the metaphor of weeds in the play, writing, “Both Bullingbrook and the gardener spell out their metaphorical intent and tell us, in no uncertain terms, the identity of the caterpillars and weeds. Bushy, Bagot, Green, and the Earl of Wiltshire” (665). Menon interprets the advisors as significantly influential, maybe even sexual partners of Richard’s, and thereby lays much blame on them. Derrick Higginbotham also focuses on the garden scene and writes, “Wiltshire, Bushy and Green are among those who consume the king, eating him insofar as he represents the kingdom as the whole. From this angle, these favourites of the king instigate the dissolution of the kingdom, just as much as Richard’s own desires do” (63). Sylvia Federico summarizes the role of the advisors as follows, “Rejecting the older, wiser men who were said to constitute the inner circle of Edward III, Richard II instead — according to the major chroniclers — surrounded himself with young and frivolous men. These advisers were considered dangerous to the king and to the realm, and were discussed with language that underscored the particularly sexual type of danger that they represented” (28). There are other academics who have given an opposing view of the advisors, for instance Paul Gaudet, who writes, “There is a conspicuous lack of any action or speech by the favorites that might depict their guilt and substantiate the charges leveled against them” (144). In fact, Gaudet believes that Shakespeare meant us to interpret the advisors as minor figures – “By dramatizing the favorites as passive attendants to the King, Shakespeare isolates Richard’s willfulness: he listens to no counsel, good or bad” (145). Charles R. Forker tackles a common interpretive approach to the advisors, writing “Although no tendency to sexual misconduct is ever staged in the play (Richard is portrayed throughout as passionately devoted and faithful to his consort), supporters of the homosexual interpretation have seized upon Bolingbroke’s charge, when he condemns them to death, that Bushy and Greene have been erotically involved with the king” (16-17). Forker goes on to explain that “In context, this allegation [sexual misconduct] must be taken as an act of political scapegoating on Bolingbroke’s part, a device introduced to turn audience sympathy away from the usurper” (17). These various interpretations highlight how much of a focal point the advisors hold in the play when seeking the root cause of Richard’s downfall. Unfortunately, critics rarely look further than the classic options of blaming either the king alone or his flattering advisors, so no third way of viewing the dynamic is presented. If Aumerle holds a stronger position of influence over Richard than the four men mentioned then recognizing a differentiating factor between the advisors, namely between Aumerle and the four, is salient.

The favourites versus Aumerle.

Shakespeare portrays a conspicuous split between Bagot and Aumerle. This split emerges quite dramatically when Bagot is brought before Bolingbroke to answer the new king’s interrogations. Bagot is the equivalent of a modern day ‘star witness’ who will provide vital information to Bolingbroke who needs to solidify his regal position. The mystery to be solved is still Gloucester’s death and this is the same crime that opened the drama and which Richard is suspected of commanding. In the following quote, Bolingbroke uses the phrase ‘wrought it’ which in modern English means persuaded/collaborated with:

Bolingbroke: “Now, Bagot, freely speak thy mind

What thou dost know of noble Gloucester’s death 

Who wrought it with the king, and who performed

The bloody office of this timeless end”

Bagot: “Then set before my face the Lord Aumerle” (4.1.2-6)

In Bagot’s subsequent speech, he makes not one but two major charges against Aumerle. The first is the accusation that Aumerle is behind the death of Gloucester – “I heard you [Aumerle] say ‘Is not my arm of length, / That reacheth from the restful English Court /As far as Calais, to mine uncle’s head?’ ” (4.1.11-13). The second charge relates to the new king, Bagot says – “I heard you [Aumerle] say that you had rather refuse / The offer of an hundred thousand crowns / Than Bolingbroke’s return to England” (4.1.15-17). Fitzwater and others support Bagot’s claim relating to Gloucester’s death but Surrey defends Aumerle and therefore Aumerle suffers no immediate punishment since the disagreement will be settled later by man to man combat. Bolingbroke states that “Your differences shall all rest under gage / Till we assign you to your days of trial” (4.1.10-111). The significance of these accusations is that Aumerle is revealed to be behind the biggest decision of King Richard’s, namely the execution of Gloucester, a death that ultimately costs Richard his crown. It was Bolingbroke’s charge against Mowbray concerning the same murder that first implicated the king, led to Bolingbroke’s banishment, and finally to the clash between Bolingbroke and Richard. Additionally, one learns that Bolingbroke is anathema to Aumerle. From the split that emerges between the different camps of advisors, thought previously to be one unified group, one discovers the primary source of Richard’s advice and it is Aumerle.

In addition to Bagot heaping blame upon Aumerle, the confession also illuminates the fact that Bolingbroke’s earlier charges against Bushy, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire (all executed now) represents contradictory information. On that occasion, Bolingbroke’s charge against them was that they “did make him [King Richard] misinterpret me” (3.1.18) which he explains as the cause of his banishment and the loss of his rightful inheritance. Yet, Bagot has just revealed that Aumerle is Bolingbroke’s true enemy and therefore more deserving of responsibility for Bolingbroke’s fall from grace than the lesser nobles who were executed. Aumerle has the ear of the king and Bagot’s revelations unveil the power the king’s cousin wields.

The above reading which lays all blame at Aumerle’s feet is not the conventional approach to the play. Some critics, lacking evidence of Bushy, Bagot, Greene, and the Earl of Wiltshire’s influence, focus instead on Richard’s dramatic response to their deaths as tangential evidence of their power. The particular scene is in Act 3,Scene 2 when Richard returns from Ireland and Salisbury advises him that his return is one day too late and he has lost the support of twelve thousand men because of a rumour of his death. Richard enquires after his advisors and pessimistically considers – “I warrant they have made peace with Bolingbroke” (3.2.122). Scroop’s response leads Richard to misinterpret the situation, believing the men have indeed betrayed him, leading to the following, memorable outburst.

“O villains, vipers, damned without redemption!

Dogs easily won to fawn on any man;

Snakes in my heart blood warmed, that sting my heart;

Three Judases, each one thrice worse than Judas –

Would they make peace? Terrible hell make war

Upon their spotted souls for this offense! (3.2.124-129).

Scroop, realizing that the king has misinterpreted his response, adds the following:

“Sweet love, I see, changing his property,

Turns to the sourest and most deadly hate.

Again uncurse their souls. Their peace is made

With heads and not with hands. (

It is not unusual for readers to attach great significance to Scroop’s use of the term ‘sweet love’ to denote the king’s affection for the men. The basic analysis of Scroop’s words is that only great love can undergo the reverse alchemical change to pure hate. The king immediately proceeds to give his famous ‘hollow crown’ speech which is quite melancholy and forebodes his final defeat. Madhavi Menon reads the scene as follows , “As in Holinshed, the death of King Richard’s friends is the straw that breaks the camel’s back; Scroop aptly describes King Richard’s condition when he says: ‘Sweet love, I see, changing his property, / Turns to the sourest and most deadly hate.’ The extremities of King Richard’s emotions are reserved for Bushy, Bagot, Green, and the Earl of Wiltshire” (669). However, an alternative viewpoint is that Richard has little faith in the men to begin with, presuming all too quickly that they betrayed him, like fawning  dogs with a new owner. This corroborates the idea that Richard is always cautious of flattery and understands the fickle nature of advisors. If one looks to the actual content of the ‘hollow crown’ soliloquy then it does not concern the dead men but focuses instead on Richard’s own imminent death – “Our lands, our lives, and all are Bolingbroke’s, / And nothing can we call our own but death” (3.2.156-157). This is not the speech of a man lamenting the loss of his royal advisors but a king fearing the loss of his own throne and life. The responsibility of the advisors’ rests upon demonstrable bad advice and the king’s love, but these twin pillars crumble when one looks closely for evidence. Only Richard’s enemies heap blame on the advisors, and we have little beyond these accusations to support the claim.


Aumerle, the king’s cousin, generally receives little attention and yet is a figure of great power and influence. The play’s character Aumerle also echoes the real-life historical figure. In Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, we learn who were the influential advisors to the king – “cheefe of his councell, were estéemed of the commons to be the woorst creatures that might be, as the dukes of Aumarle, Norfolke and Excester, the earle of Wiltshire, sir Iohn Bushie, sir William Bagot, and sir Thomas Gréene” (844). Whereas these seven characters may not have been deemed wholesome in the eyes of their peers, it is salient to know which of them wielded the greatest power. Holinshed informs us that “The king had little trust in any of the nobilitie, except in his brother the earle of Huntington, and the earle of Rutland sonne to the duke of Yorke, and in the earle of Salisburie: in these onelie he reposed a confidence, and not in any other, except in certeine knights and gentlemen of his priuie chamber” (839). The Rutland spoken of here is the Aumerle of Shakespeare’s play who is referred to as Rutland at the end of the play due to his changed circumstances. The historical record which Shakespeare relied upon for the foundation of his play and the resulting fictional characterization of Aumerle, both indicate a power figure in the royal household. Having established Aumerle’s influence, one must still ask how his role differs significantly, if at all, from the other royal advisors? One important difference is that Aumerle’s continuous loyalty to the king costs him dearly, indicating that he is not simply one who proffers empty, flattering words. We learn of the change in Aumerle’s circumstances when the Duchess of York addresses her son by his old title and York corrects her as follows – “Aumerle that was; / But that is lost for being Richard’s friend, / And, madam, you must call him Rutland now” (5.2.41-43). Not only does Aumerle pay a considerable price for his loyalty to Richard II, namely a title and lands, but he professes to not care. This is revealed when his mother questions him on who the new group of favourites are, now that Bolingbroke is in power –

Duchess: “Welcome, my son. Who are

the violets now

That strew the green lap of the new-come spring?

Aumerle: Madam, I know not, nor I greatly care not.

God knows I had as lief be none as one” (5.2.46-49).

Aumerle’s rejection of the role of favourite displays the depth of character he possesses. There is additional evidence to support this reading since Aumerle is the man who urges the plan to unseat Bolingbroke who is Richard’s illegitimate successor. One first witnesses this when Aumerle, upon hearing of Bolingbroke’s plans for a coronation, addresses the Abbot of Westminster, saying – “You holy clergymen, is there no plot / To rid the realm of this pernicious blot?” (4.1.317-318). The plot that emerges comes almost to fruition but Aumerle’s father, York, intercepts his son’s machinations and denounces his offspring as follows – “Treason, foul treason! Villain! traitor! slave!” (5.2.72). York informs his wife, and later Bolingbroke, that Aumerle and the other plotters, “set down their hands [signed a treasonous plan] / To kill the King at Oxford” (5.2.98-99). York’s plea for the new king to be cautious encapsulates the risks of political life – “Forget to pity him, lest thy pity prove / A serpent that will sting thee to the heart” (5.3.57-58). This plea is not remiss if one looks back to Aumerle’s covertly ruthless advice to King Richard to dispatch with his enemy, saying, “Bolingbroke, through our security, / Grows strong and great in substance and in power” (2.1). The king’s cousin, Aumerle, is a key power-broker. Even though he rejects the role of favourite, he offers the most germane advice in the play, namely for the king to rid himself of the threat of Bolingbroke. When this advice is not followed and Bolingbroke comes to power, it is Aumerle who again comes to the king’s aid with a plan to murder Bolingbroke.

It is difficult for an audience to appreciate the full scope of the role that Aumerle plays since his influence is obscured by two key decisions by Bolingbroke. Firstly, he does not suffer an immediate punishment for his alleged role in Gloucester’s death and secondly, despite his treachery, he is fully pardoned by Henry IV (Bolingbroke). It is therefore too easy to read Aumerle as a cunning survivor aka a shallow flatterer when one should recognise instead a loyal subject of Richard’s. We have pinpointed Aumerle’s influence on the major decisions of Richard’s late reign, along with an argument to de-prioritize the traditional flatters (Bushy &co), but one is left with the question – why does this single figure hold such influence? To answer this, one must look to the only other significant relationship in Richard’s life, with his wife, and compare it with his relationship with Aumerle.

The fictional queen.

Shakespeare’s Queen Isabella, Richard’s wife, is not a figure whom historians would immediately recognize. She is partly a fabrication. As Robyn Bolam writes, “The historical Richard married his second queen when she was seven years old … Yet, like Samuel Daniel, Shakespeare gave her the voice of an adult woman” (154). Richard II had two wives but neither bore him an heir to the throne. He first married Anne of Bohemia and they were married for twelve years before she died of suspected plague, after which the king married Isabella of Valois. His second queen was not only a child when they married but was still a child at the time of Richard’s death a few years later. By transforming Isabella into an adult in the play, Shakespeare creates a consort who could advise her husband, support him, and importantly, join him in the marriage bed. The absence of such a character in real life meant that Richard would have relied on those closest to him, often men, for support, advice, and comfort. With this information in mind, one may look to two quite remarkably similar scenes in the play where Richard’s interacts with his cousin Aumerle, a true historical figure, and later with his wife, a fabricated figure. What is in question here is the precise nature of the relationship the King has with each character. The fictional queen occupies a phantom space since no such figure existed, and thereby she detracts our attention from the king’s reliance on his closest advisors in real life. One may reject this reading as an imposition of historical fact into a largely fictional play but the characterizations of Aumerle and Isabella also shed light on how Shakespeare intended us to read these figures.

The first scene for analysis is from Act 3, Scene 3, when Richard and Aumerle converse at Flint Castle, North Wales. The second scene is from Act 5, Scene 1, when Richard is a prisoner being brought to the Tower of London and he meets his queen en route. The key points of both conversations touch on subjects like future expectations, advice, death, and love.

Good advice is a key theme of the play and may be assessed in Richard’s interactions with those closest to him. For example, Richard is ashamed of having capitulated so quickly to Bolingbroke’s demands at Flint Castle and asks Aumerle if it would be better to – “send defiance to the traitor, and so die?” (3.3.129-130) to which his friend replies, “No, good my Lord. Let’s fight with gentle words till time lend friends, and friends their helpful swords” (3.3.131-132). There is a marked difference between Aumerle’s strategic advice and the queen’s advice in the later scene when a similarly despondent Richard is scolded when she says, “The lion dying, thrusteth forth his paw / And wounds the earth , if nothing else, with rage” (5.1.29-30). The contrast is that Aumerle is comforting and non-judgmental, while remaining politically savvy in his advice, whereas the queen is primarily concerned with Richard’s unmasculine response to defeat. As Higginbotham writes, “From the start, the play delineates a manhood proper to noblemen and that manhood includes violence as revenge” (65). Isabella spurs Richard to action that would meet one’s stereotypical expectations of a courageous king but Aumerle responds sensitively to the earlier, analogous situation and manages still to offer hope of future victory. Knowing Richard’s nature, both the queen and Aumerle would have come to expect dramatic, solipsistic speeches yet only one of them knows how to respond appropriately. Richard tells Aumerle, “I talk but idly [foolishly], and you mock at me” (3.3.171). In other words, Aumerle does not take the king’s words as meaning defeat but simply as a typical soliloquy from a verbose monarch. The king’s situation has deteriorated significantly between the two scenes and Isabella’s expectation is that her husband should die with honour at this late point rather than accept defeat by Bolingbroke. In contrast, Aumerle is shown to attempt to save Richard right to the end with a new treacherous plan to kill Bolingbroke. In this light, the queen becomes a conventional mouthpiece, voicing standard expectations of warrior-like masculinity, while Aumerle is shown to be a more astute, resourceful, and altogether a more loyal figure.

Richard’s melancholic thoughts on a tragic end shed light on his separate relationships with the queen and Aumerle. When the king contemplates his uncertain future in Aumerle’s presence, he imagines that he will become a poor clergyman whose life will finally be recorded in “a little, little grave, an obscure grave” (3.3.154) or, more sombre, that he will take his own life as suggested by “Or I’ll be buried in the king’s highway” (3.3.155). Suicides were traditionally buried at crossroads. In the second scene, when Richard and his queen must separate, he imagines a religious life for her in the future, “Hie thee to France / And cloister thee in some religious house” (5.1.22-23). Yet, the foreseen inevitability of his separation from the tearful Isabella contrasts with how Richard responds to Aumerle’s tears. The king’s words about his own downfall provide a projection of both men’s joint doom.

“Aumerle, thou weep’st, my tender-hearted cousin.

We’ll make foul weather with despised tears;

Our sighs and they shall lodge the summer corn

And make a dearth in this revolting land.

Or shall we play the wantons with our woes

And make some pretty match with shedding tears,

As thus, to drop them still upon one place

Till they have fretted us a pair of graves

Within the earth; and therein laid, there lies

Two kinsmen digged their graves with weeping eyes?

Would not this ill do well? (3.3.160-170).

It is clear that Aumerle’s emotional response to the king’s plight is met with a reciprocal, loving response. Unlike Richard’s response to Isabella – “We make woe wanton with this fond delay. Once more, adieu; the rest let sorrow say” (5.2.101-102), Richard does not envision being separated from Aumerle but, instead, of “play[ing] the wantons with our woes” and of being encased in the earth side by side in death. Derrick Higginbotham comments on this scene, writing that, “Within this image of Richard sharing woes with Aumerle, the king portrays them as unruly and unchaste since they “play the wantons” together, with “wanton” redolent of sexual disorder. Combined with the suggestiveness of Bolingbroke’s accusations against Richard’s favourites, this moment in the text enables a reading of the signs of male friendship as possibly sodomitical, as queer” (68-69). One may reject this reading by referring to Richard’s affecting parting from his queen when he says, “One kiss shall stop our mouths, and dumbly part; / Thus give I mine, and thus take I thy heart” (5.2.95-96). Nevertheless, Isabella remains an anachronistic construction since the historical figure was a mere child at the time of Richard’s downfall. More importantly, Richard envisages sharing his doom with Aumerle but his queen plays no such role. Thus, one learns to appreciate the bond between Aumerle and Richard and the dark, homoerotic tones to Richard’s speech as outlined by Higginbotham.

Emotion is a marker of love, and worthy of attention in the play. All those closest to Richard shed tears at his downfall. For instance, the queen on seeing Richard being led through the streets as a prisoner, says the following words to herself.

“That you in pity may dissolve to dew

And wash him fresh again with true-love tears.

Ah, thou, the model where old Troy did stand,

Thou map of honour, thou King Richard’s tomb,

And not King Richard.” (5.1.9-13).

Richard’s response to the tears of others reveals much. One key example is when Richard says to his uncle, York, “nay – dry your eyes. Tears show their love but want their remedies” (3.3.201-202) meaning that they do no good. York sheds his tears just before Richard admits defeat and tells Bolingbroke, “What you will have, I’ll give, and willing, too” (3.3.205). Much like the words of Isabella, it is the downfall of a king that chiefly prompts such a show of emotion by York. It is only with Aumerle that Richard shares his tears, so to speak, because he is glad to indulge his sorrow in the company of his friend. There is a subtle but noticeable difference between these scenes but the tears of those like York and the queen are tainted by royal expectations. One comes slowly to appreciate that the bond between Richard II and Aumerle is the reason that the latter holds such enormous sway over the former in regard to advice.


Is Richard’s relationship with Aumerle therefore more than just King and cousin? The nature of the relationship remains shrouded since the text gives hints but no evidence of a homosexual bond. Joseph Pequigney summarizes the generally cautious attitude to using the term homosexuality when referring to figures from early modern times – “The concept is inapplicable because considered anachronistic, not only for its origin in nineteenth-century medical and social science, but also for always denoting historically distorted sexual orientation or identity” (124). However, he quickly dismantles this argument by showing that many of the terms we use, even heterosexual, date from a much later period than the early modern one (126). It is not my wish to open Pandora’s box by trying to label Aumerle as gay but rather to tentatively fly the kite on this topic merely to underline the depth of feeling between the men that allowed total trust. It is probably more appropriate to label their relationship as same-sex love which may be platonic, or indeed romantic. Since an adult Queen Isabella is a distortion of the historical story then one is freer to speculate on the king’s romantic partners, as many critics have done. The goal of this essay is to determine who is Richard’s most influential advisor and why, and the essay has provided sufficient grounds to move away from the traditional reliance on Bushy and Co. as the scapegoats for Richard’s fall and to focus instead on Aumerle. The main contrast is that Aumerle is not a liability to the king.

Reading Aumerle as the one who provides Richard with various key stratagems totally changes the meaning of the play. Aumerle survives and thrives, even under the new rule of Bolingbroke,  and therefore he can be read as a classic, Machiavellian figure. In the traditional interpretations, the advisors are fickle, flawed figures who are responsible for the King’s demise and who pay for their greed and bad advice with their own lives. In contrast, to read Aumerle as the power figure is to see the king on the cusp of victory – had he only listened to Aumerle’s advice to eradicate the threat of Bolingbroke. It is the brand of expedience that Aumerle promotes that would have altered everything for the king. Menon similarly ponders if “King Richard’s shortcoming is that he did not have Bullingbrook killed, an act of mercy that has now come back to haunt the king” (664) but he dismisses this idea given the list of executions that Richard had already commanded. However, it is the correct line of thought. Richard need no longer be seen as a dupe of bad advice but as one who did not overreach enough, did not push his power to its very limit. This reading also bolsters one’s view of the king’s intuition in regard to advice since he was within reach of victory. Aumerle is the perfect shadow figure behind the crown who watches as lesser advisors are executed, while he continues to silently scheme to save Richard. His longevity in the cut-throat political sphere of the times exhibits a man of substance, a lynchpin in Shakespeare’s tale.

Works Cited.

Bolam, Robyn. “Richard II: Shakespeare and the Languages of the Stage.” The Cambridge  Companion  to  Shakespeare’s  History  Plays,  edited  by  Michael  Hattaway, Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp.141-157.

Federico, Sylvia. “Queer Times: Richard II in the Poems and Chronicles of Late Fourteenth-Century England.” Medium Ævum, Vol. 79, No. 1, 2010, pp. 25-46.

Forker, Charles R. “Unstable Identity in Shakespeare’s Richard II.” Renascence, Vol. 54, No. 1, 2001, pp. 3-22.

Gaudet, Paul. “The ‘Parasitical’ Counselors in Shakespeare’s Richard II: A Problem in Dramatic Interpretation.” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2, 1982, pp. 142-154.

Higginbotham, Derrick. “The Construction of a King: Waste, Effeminacy, and Queerness in Shakespeare’s Richard II.” Shakespeare in Southern Africa, Vol. 26, 2014, pp. 59-73.

Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland – Vol. II of VI; Part 12 of 12; Richard II. Project Gutenberg, 2016.

Lopez, Jeremy. “Eating Richard II.” Shakespeare Studies, Vol. 36, 2008, pp. 207-228.

Maveety, Stanley R. “A Second Fall of Cursed Man: The Bold Metaphor in ‘Richard II.’” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 72, No. 2, 1973, pp. 175-193.

Menon, Madhavi. “Richard II and the Taint of Metonymy.” ELH, Vol. 70, No. 3, 2003, pp. 653-675.

Pequigney, Joseph. “The (In)significance: ‘What the age might call sodomy’ and Homosexuality in Certain Studies of Shakespeare’s Plays.” Intertexts, Vol. 8, No. 2, 2004, pp. 117-134.

Shakespeare, William. “The Life and Death of King Richard the Second.” The Norton Shakespeare. 3rd ed. Eds. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katherine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan. W.W Norton, 2016. Pp.896-956.