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.


  • Play title: Cock 
  • Author: Mike Bartlett 
  • Published: 2009 
  • Page count: 75


Cock is a comedy by Mike Bartlett. The play was first performed in London in 2009 and starred Ben Whishaw with Andrew Scott. There are a total of four characters in the work: three men and one woman. The only character who is named is John. At first, he is in a long-term relationship with a man but later begins a relationship with a woman. Bartlett focuses on the theme of identity, specifically how one defines their sexuality. The three main characters who are interlinked romantically (M, John, W) are all in their late twenties/early thirties. The playwright depicts the problems of a demographic on the tail end of Generation X and the beginning of the era of Millennials. Sexuality is depicted as a battleground because the idea of choice morphs into an obligation to choose – only then can others comfortably label John’s identity. However, the play is also comedic and has many farcical elements like the dinner party where John’s differently gendered partners fight over him. John displays an inability to define himself to the satisfaction of others, which causes their unending frustration. The play’s dialogues are naturalistic and also peppered with expletives and crude terms. Cock is a modern play and yet seems dated in light of the constant changes to the landscape of sexual politics and terminology.

Ways to access the text: reading/listening.

It is relatively simple to find an online source of Cock by Mike Bartlett. However, reading the play is not wholly rewarding because most of the dialogue is written as free-flowing, natural conversation with repetitions and an overall lack of punctuation.

I would recommend an audio version. Luckily, there is currently a full audio version of the play on YouTube entitled “Cock by Mike Bartlett”. The running time is 1hr and 23 minutes. The play is voiced by the original London cast.

Why read/listen to Cock?

The male appendage.

The play is entitled ‘cock’ for a reason! Bartlett presents an amusingly reductive approach to sexuality, i.e., one really likes cock or one doesn’t. If you’re a man then liking means gay, and for women, it means heterosexual. The play is not especially concerned with gender performance, it simply looks at sex as being like a Lego set where certain pieces fit with other pieces. What is subsequently constructed is a sexual identity but the liking/disliking of cock is the primary test. The central character, John, hasn’t yet decided what he likes (the most). The playwright satirizes society’s obsessive need to neatly categorize people like John. Bartlett’s play will resonate with an in-between generation of people who span the divide between the old, heteronormative world and the new, label-free world where queerness defies definition, categorization, or restriction.


Bartlett depicts characters and situations which are all archetypes. For example, John’s male partner, simply referred to as “M”, is a stereotype of the controlling, bitchy, camp, gay man. On the other hand, John represents the typical, indecisive ‘bisexual’ male who will take advantage of all sexual opportunities regardless of the gender of the partner. At least this is how M sees John, whom he berates with the line “nice little bit of skirt you picked up you fucking lad” (248). “F” who is M’s father, represents an older generation of men who tolerate modern society but hold vivid memories of how things used to be in the olden days. “W” is John’s girlfriend and she stands for normality in the form of marriage and children and ‘natural’ sexual desires. Regarding situations, the playwright swaps the age-old tale of two men fighting over a woman, to the more modern tale of a man being fought over by his male and female partners. When presented with such archetypal characters and situations then we are gently prompted to dismantle them and find the truth of the situation.

Post-reading discussion/interpretation.

‘The quite reluctant, almost invisible bisexual’


On first reading Bartlett’s 2009 play, I thought it was dated. Like a newspaper whose inky pages are barely dry before the message is obsolete, Cock also appears to be old news. The reasons for such an opinion take different forms. Part of the problem is context because we live in an era where sexual and gender identities are topics in a constantly evolving debate, most recently it has been on transgender people. Yet, Bartlett presents us, by and large, with simple reversals of normal expectations in regard to a character’s sexuality and such meagre crumbs are used to garner our attention. The chief points of interest in the play are that a gay man realizes he likes sex with a woman, then he comes out as … (fill in the blank), and finally, we are shown how a man and woman fight over (drumroll) a man. A cursory reading of the play suggests that John is simply bisexual but this is hardly the great taboo that the play’s dramatic presentation suggests. Others have also called the play outdated but for different reasons, like Caleb Triscari writing for Beat who took issue with the “misogyny and transphobia present in the dialogue.” Since Cock is a comedy, Bartlett probably deserves some leeway in regard to provocative dialogue but Triscari’s article nonetheless highlights a valid issue for readers. The question remains – is this play dated and mildly offensive or does it actually offer something interesting to a current audience? Is Bartlett merely confronting a very tired and old sexual issue, namely bisexuality, but hiding the staleness of his topic with flashy, comedic fireworks? Like Peggy Lee once drolly sang, “Is that all there is?”.  

One may certainly read John as being a bisexual, however, this is surprisingly not the author’s intention. This single, obstinate fact changes the significance of the play. When Bartlett was questioned on his own sexuality during an interview with the Guardian newspaper, he was apparently evasive. Bartlett went on to say that “The play [Cock] is all about those categorisations. So watch the play and then make a conclusion. But by the end you’ll hopefully go ‘that’s not the point’”. The fact that Bartlett avoids sexual categorization in real life ties in neatly with the message of the play, because as John says, “it’s about who the person is. Not man or woman but What they’re like” (297). This viewpoint corresponds with the familiar saying of “person not parts” (Swan 49) which is quoted in a book entitled Bisexuality that is edited by D. Joye Swan and Shani Habibi. The saying “points to the idea that bisexuality may be more about a refusal to exclude a gender rather than simply the inclusion of males and females in one’s field of possible attractions” (49). However, Bartlett is not using John’s motto to slyly refer to bisexual preference, not at all! When the playwright spoke to the Evening Standard newspaper and was asked– “which [play] brought you the most joy”, then he responded, “My play Cock, about fluid sexuality, seemed to chime with a lot of people and speak about their experiences”. Fluid sexuality suggests a label like queer rather than the more traditional labels of gay or bisexual. In the book, Bisexuality, the authors pose the salient question – “Is bisexuality a fluid process or a stable identity?” (Elia, Eliason, Beemyn 6) and the answer is, “There appears to be tension between work that proposes that bisexuality is a stable identity and that which proposes a more dynamic, fluid sexuality” (6). Therefore, there is not an outright contradiction between bisexual and fluid sexuality but there is certainly a notable discrepancy. If one looks specifically at sexual fluidity then as Swan writes, “Fluidity, as it is commonly conceptualized, is either the ability to bend one’s sexual orientation in certain, specific, or compelling situations or a change in one’s sexual identity all together” (51). Is this how Bartlett wishes us to see John’s sexuality and does it simplify the situation, even a little? The complexity of the terminology and the manner in which different terms have partially overlapping definitions show that Bartlett’s play enters a quite debated field. Rather than presenting old news or simply reversing sexual stereotypes, Bartlett drags his readers into the mire of poorly defined or outright contested sexualities. In this light, Cock is still exciting and new (excuse the deliberate double entendre).

To fully understand Bartlett’s play, one must arguably read it in opposition to the author’s intentions with John as a bisexual man. The argument is simple. At the end of the play, John continues to self-identify as gay but in a quite unhappy manner since he only does it out of fear of a crumbling identity, exasperation, and for relationship security. This is hardly a healthy situation. John takes protection under a label, but it’s clearly the wrong one, which proves how important labels can be! Bartlett tries to escape labels as does his play’s protagonist yet a label is shown ultimately to be unavoidable, not just for family, friends, and lovers but most importantly for the person themselves too. John never identifies as sexually fluid or pansexual so bisexual is a safe compromise. One may classify him as a queer character but that leads to separate problems. Arnold M. Zwicky explains that “some have seized on queer as an umbrella label for the ‘sexual minorities,’ taking in not only homosexuals and bisexuals but also transgender and transsexual people, tranvestites, leatherfolk [etc.] … others protest that this extension bleaches any useful meaning from the term” (23). One founders on a term like queer since it covers almost all sexualities and therefore does justice to none. To consider John as sexually fluid in accordance with Bartlett’s views is similarly to open Pandora’s box as will be explored in this essay. By reading John as a bisexual man, namely going against the grain of the play, then one gets to appreciate the depth of Bartlett’s complex presentation. Yes, the message of the play is that John is utterly confused and the labels that his two lovers and father-in-law (ish) insist he adopt are perceived by him as utterly oppressive. However, bisexual is the only logical fit for his situation but we will discover why he cannot adopt the label as his own. The explanation reveals Bartlett’s play to hold some distinction among modern plays because it tackles a blatantly obvious but usually overlooked topic.   

Sexual attraction.

An apt starting point for a discussion is the title of Bartlett’s play which is provocative, funny, and clever too. The basic premise for the title is the idea that one’s sexual orientation is clearly indicated by sexual attraction. In crude terms, the cock is a man’s barometer to whom he desires. It is a strong argument. D. Joye Swan comments on the practice of “Using sexual behavior to define bisexuality” (46), writing that “As many behavioral psychologists would argue, if you want to know about a person, measure their behavior. And, indeed, besides self-identity, sexual behavior is the most common measure used to define bisexuality” (46). In the play, we know that John is sexually attracted to M, confirmed by his X-rated revelations such as “I still whack off to you [M] every night” (244) and “you [M] give me a really big dick metaphorically or actually sometimes looking at you” (248). Okay, so no doubt as to John being sexually attracted to M and they have a full relationship because as John puts succinctly, “we fuck and chat and cook” (240). The complication arises when John meets W. When initially considering her offer of sex, he confesses that he has “never found women attractive” (260). Yet, John’s body responds to W and he admits – “I certainly have biological feelings, things are happening without going into details when I look at you there’s definitely something going on” (261). In time, John and W embark on a full sexual relationship. John declares his newly found heterosexual vigour with statements such as “her vagina is amazing” (296) and tells M that “sex with her is … better you have to, to know that I enjoy it more” (296). In short, Bartlett has defined John as bisexual if behaviour is the guideline.

Why then is John not named as bisexual in the play? Some answers come from the shortfalls of using behaviour as a test for sexual orientation. Swan writes as follows:

“Despite its empirical strengths, solely using behavior as a definition has serious limitations that call into question its validity as the defining measure of bisexuality. First, it imposes upon people a definition with which they may or may not identify; in a sense, a counter-problem to solely using self-identity. Second, many sexual behavior measures impose a timeline as part of the definition”.

(Swan 46)

It is clear that John has only ever self-defined himself as gay. The timeline that Swan references simply means that a same-sex/other-sex partner may be from the past or a bisexual person may not yet have had sexual experiences with both sexes. How one self-identifies and sexual experience are crucially intertwined. At first John is embarrassed by his own lack of self-knowledge. For instance, W thinks he is straight and therefore he worries that, “she’ll embarrass me if I I don’t know [my sexuality]” (249). John remains unable to use the term bisexual because, as he explains, “I mean there’s never been any other women so” (293). The relative newness of his sexual experiences with a woman means that redefining himself with a different, sexual orientation label is too difficult, for now.

This brings us to Bartlett’s purpose in satirizing the old adage that all men are led by their, well, let’s just say it … cocks. He mocks such sayings since they are totally reductive of human sexuality. Swan explains the limitations of narrowly defining bisexuality:

“The final criticism of using behavior to define bisexuality is that it does not take into account the emotional aspects of intimate partner choice. In other words, it is a genital-focused definition whose ‘unitary lust conceptualization of sexual orientation’ (van Anders, 2015, p.  1178) does not take into account all the nonsexual aspects of sexuality”.

(Swan 47)

Bartlett’s one-word, play title is the most genital-focused title possible. However, it is not a shallow ploy to sell theatre seats (though it probably achieved that too). Instead, the play’s title is a horribly clever ruse to drag us all into a debate on sexuality! When M is totally perplexed by John’s new sexual desire for women, he states that “sexual feelings just don’t work like that” (251), then John responds, “Maybe it’s all more complicated than anyone …” (252). Bisexuality indeed becomes far more difficult to quantify if one must depart from a mere catalogue of sexual experiences and enter instead the realm of messy emotions and self-identification. Both M and W refer to John as “the one” (243, 269) in the traditional, romantic sense and he reciprocates by expressing his love for both of them (247, 261). Thus, we have John’s sexual behaviour and emotional attachments as two of the three noted qualifications of bisexual identity. But he doesn’t identify as bi. Like it or not, words still help to mark the accepted boundaries of sexual preference. John says he’s gay, then has sex with a woman, cannot call himself bi, and what does fluid mean again?

Identity labels.

When one enters the arena of identity politics then words are immensely important. The act of defining oneself with a label is more complex when one’s sexuality is, well, complex! The editors of the book, Queerly Phrased, refer to the work of philosopher Judith Butler when they write that “self-determination does not necessarily result from self-naming, since the names themselves have their own historicity, which precedes our use of them” (Livia, Hall 12). Labels carry baggage and much of it is unhelpful but to understand this we must look to history. For example, “The term bisexuality was not used to describe attraction to and/or sexual contact with members of both sexes until about 1915” (Elia, Eliason, Beemyn 3). Sigmund Freud made the term problematic (from a modern viewpoint) when he “proclaim[ed] that all individuals had bisexual predispositions but that at some point they would become heterosexual or homosexual through a psychological developmental process” (3). In effect, the word bisexual has a history that means it connotes a transitional phase which leads to an eventual decision. Even in modern times, “some studies find a subset of men who experience a transitional phase of calling themselves bisexual before adopting a stable identity as gay” (6). Bartlett turns this example on its head by beginning with an out, gay man and suggesting he is now turning straight. All these examples are underpinned by a fundamentally flawed understanding of bisexuality. Bartlett’s example is just very tongue in cheek.

The immense power of labelling a person is underlined by the theories of someone like Michel Foucault, because as Livia and Hall write, “For him [Foucault] it is the act of naming homosexuality as such that brings it into being” (8). This is an example of linguistic determinism and entails “the idea that categorizing creates or constitutes that which it refers to” (Livia, Hall 8). Against such a backdrop, it is no surprise that Bartlett’s protagonist John is reluctant to label himself or allow others to do so. Like a magic incantation, a simple word transforms everything. We may say that words like homosexual or heterosexual are largely well defined today but other terms are not. Arnold M. Zwicky writes that “In modern English, for example, there are an enormous number of lexical choices in the domain of sexual orientation. Virtually everyone is publicly contested” (22). This means that many labels evade a consensus on what they mean, and bisexual is one of the most contested terms of all. The yoke of an inadequate, ill-defined, or inappropriate label will only do Bartlett’s protagonist more harm. M. Lynne Murphy quotes Hutchins and Kaahumanu when she writes that “a bisexual in the gay and lesbian community is ‘a queer among queers’” (46).

John has a muddled sense of self and this shows in his inability to label his sexuality. The problem arises after John has sex with W. In light of the revelation, M newly defines John’s sexuality, saying “you are in fact yes yes not gay not that not gay” (48). John responds, saying “I’m not straight” (48), which he asserts on account of his continuing relationship with M. Since John is neither gay nor straight then bisexual would be a reasonable assumption. However, when M’s father confronts John with this solution, “You’re telling us you’re bisexual” (293) then John responds “no” (293). The only sexuality label that John ever uses is gay (266), for example when he’s breaking up with W and a declaration of homosexuality conveniently replaces any other explanation. But gay, the single label that John seemed to feel at home with, doesn’t fit either. John reveals this when speaking of how it felt to come out at university.

“John: I was part of a scene, even walking differently I think and everyone said the real me was emerging, that I’d been repressed, and so I thought I must’ve done the right thing then, but it didn’t feel like that to me. I had to make more of an effort than before, and yes I fancied men, a lot a lot but I never got why that changed anything other than who I wanted to fuck. What did it matter? Gay straight, words from the sixties made by our parents, sound so old, only invented to get rights, and we’ve got rights now so”.

(Bartlett 297)

One can appreciate why John feels uncomfortable with a label that does not fully represent him. The gay label was oppressive since he had ‘to make more of an effort.’ Yet, there are inherent benefits for someone to ally themselves with a solidly defined sexual grouping. For one, John would no longer endure a barrage of questions on his orientation, and secondly, he would have membership of a clearly delineated community (‘part of a scene’).

Years later, John is asked to choose a new sexuality label so that his lovers may feel more secure in their respective relationships with him. W advises John that by making a decision to continue his relationship with her, the result will be – “Then you’ll know exactly who you are” (281) . This returns one to the contentious definition of sexuality being based on sexual object choice. It is crucial to note that “relationship status makes bisexual individuals look, at times, heterosexual, gay, or lesbian. However, when their relationship status changes, we would recognize that their sexual orientation did not change, it had always included the possibility of either same-sex or cross-sex partnerings” (Swan 52). In effect, W and M are asking John to wear a temporary mask (straight/gay) which foremost comforts them but hides John’s full sexual identity. If John identifies as bisexual in this environment, then, if anything, it sparks the competition between his lovers which he is trying to avoid. John unsurprisingly fails to define himself but his decision to stay with M is less of a choice than a capitulation. John admits, “This isn’t what I want. I just. I think this is easier” (301).  

Bisexuality & its problems.

We have established a few valid reasons why John cannot identify as bisexual. From his subjective point of view, identifying as bisexual carries no obvious benefits. However, Bartlett’s play expertly shows the immense pressure John endures when he defies an easy definition. Society with a big S and also the people around John seek clarity and apparently John needs, really needs, to make a decision! He could declare himself as being sexually fluid but this brings us full-circle back to the same problem of him making a choice. Interestingly, when John compares M’s reaction to the car accident to his own predicated reaction, he says, “I’d be liquid you’d have to freeze me, solidify me before I could do or say anything you know” (240). This idea of freezing something into an identifiable, useful shape is comparable to using a universally understood label (like bisexual) to define a scatterbrained protagonist like John. Also, if John said he was sexually fluid then others would also need to solidify this into a meaning that would complement/contradict certain relationships possibilities. All the shaping, moulding, tampering, and questioning inevitably comes from external sources. It is worth considering these forces.

Disbelief in John’s sexual choices is a recognizable aspect of bi-negativity. The harshest critic is John’s gay partner M who uses insults to invalidate him. For instance, M tells John, you’re a “different person” (246), “you don’t add up” (253) and even questions the tale of heterosexual sex – “is this a lie?” (251). W is equally dismissive, saying of John’s return to M – “you went back but you’re pretending” (266). Such attitudes reflect that, “monosexual individuals (i.e., heterosexual, gay, and lesbian individuals) often do not express a belief in the veracity of bisexuality as a legitimate orientation category” (Swan 41). Also, there is the idea that John’s preference is somehow temporary, like when his mother thought he was going through “a phase” (254) or later when F bluntly tell him, “I think you need to work out what you are” (288). These criticisms concur with the belief that “bisexual individuals are either confused about their sexual orientation, temporarily experimenting, or in denial about their true gay or lesbian identity” (Dyar, Feinstein 96).

In Cock, a strict essentialist understanding of sexuality is the norm, meaning that “sexual object-choice orientation is innate and sexual identity derives from sexual object-choice” (Murphy 37). John eventually and passively submits to this view, saying, “Maybe they’re right, it’s what I’m born with, my genes, my my my nature, just men, just gay, clear” (298). He becomes a reluctant prisoner to the label of gay. John had previously been presented with a dilemma of picking men or women and this precipitated his final, dramatic non-decision. In Queerly Phrased, M. Lynne Murphy writes “the default situation is to view bisexuals as having ‘mixed’ sexuality. This is reflected in epithets (AC/DC, switch-hitter, fence-sitter) and assumed in most scalar views of sexuality” (38). We witness John’s response to such a categorization – “I don’t know, I don’t – maybe it’s not a switch, one way or the other, maybe it’s more like a stew, complicated things bubbling up” (291). There is an inherent flaw in the word bisexual because “the word “bi” would seem to imply a 50/50 split or an equal desire for people of either sex … However, most research finds this simply is not the reality of those we label or who identify as bisexual” (52). John proves this by providing quite different reasons for why he loves M and W. John cannot feel comfortable with the label of bisexual because foremost it suggests an unrealistic, binary choice. To say that bisexuals always need to choose is effectively to negate bisexuality, to make it invisible. Alfred Kinsey created the now familiar Heterosexual/Homosexual Rating Scale with ratings from 0 (exclusively heterosexual) to 6 (exclusively homosexual). This was an important advance, but “While some believe that individuals identifying as 1–5 on Kinsey’s scale are bisexuals, the most fascinating point is that bisexuality per se is never marked on the rating scale” (Elia, Eliason, Beemyn 4). In spite of our best efforts, the following quote sums up the problem of how we think about sexuality.

“In most Western societies, sexuality is constructed as a simple binary—a belief that there are “two kinds of people in the world: homosexuals and heterosexuals” (McIntosh, 1996, p. 33). These binary positions sexual identities as mutually exclusive and infers that if a person does not identify as heterosexual—the normative position—then they can naturally be assumed to be the opposite—homosexual. It also reinforces the idea that there are only two sexual identity categories to choose from. This construction erases and silences bisexuality in public and academic discourses on sexuality, as well as in wider society”.

(Mclean 78)

Bartlett depicts John as making concurrent, relationship commitments to both his partners, M and W. The overlap emphasises his inability to choose so both are promised love. Yet, the centre ground is too ill defined and unstable to sustain an identity and John says, “I’m two different people with the two of you when you’re separate and now I’m in the middle and no one” (281). This somewhat odd sense of losing one’s identity is recognised in academia – “Hartman-Linck (2014) argues that while bisexual people “lose” their identity in relationships, this appropriation does not happen to gay, lesbian, or heterosexual individuals whose identities remains stable” (McLean 85). If John chooses, not matter what the choice, he denies a large element of himself.

John exists in a no man’s land because he does not fully satisfy either side of the usual dichotomy of gay/straight. M. Lynne Murphy describes bisexual as “a nonpolar label” (44) and goes on to elaborate that “In identifying with a label, one develops an identity based on contrast with another group, but to contrast oneself with more than one group simultaneously is not easy, since different criteria for comparison usually exist” (44). There is a label that does contrast with bisexual and that is monosexual which as Murphy writes, “denotes both exclusively-same-sex and exclusively-other-sex orientation. Thus, the criterion for differentiation of the groups is not sexual-object orientation but the rigidity of that orientation” (44). Homosexuals, heterosexuals, and lesbians would all fall under the heading of monosexuals. Unfortunately, this label is virtually unknown. If one labels oneself as bisexual or sexually fluid then there is really nothing to define oneself against and this causes a problem. As Murphy writes, “Choice seems to be a core concept to bisexual identity, not just in terms of choice of sexual partner, but in terms of identity, community, and lifestyle” (53). Bartlett throws a caustic glance at the idea of bisexual choice because what is often seen as unbridled sexual freedom only reveals a prison door.


Bartlett evades using the term bisexual to label John and for good reason. It’s a toxic label because it hangs a giant question mark over the head of anyone who self-identifies with it. The person’s sexuality becomes a lifelong, excruciating demand from others to choose, pick, decide! Furthermore, the term lacks the kind of assured definition, for example, as enjoyed by those who identify as heterosexuals or homosexuals which allow them to feel secure in their identities. Swan writes that “If there is one thing that sexuality researchers agree on, it is that producing a definitive definition of bisexuality is like trying to nail Jello to a wall” (37). Bartlett’s comfort with using the term fluid sexuality for his protagonist interestingly matches what sexologists were already saying in Victorian times. Swan writes that “over 150 years ago Krafft-Ebing (1886) asserted that feelings, not behavior, were the key to defining sexual orientation” (48). Such a view recognises someone’s right to fall in love with different people over time, even if those people are of different sexes. The bleak scenario that appears in Cock is the opposite of such tolerance.

“M: You’ve made a decision now.

You can’t go back.

John: I KNOW.

I’m your fucking trophy.”

(Bartlett 302)

Even though fluid sexuality has the disadvantage of being without clear definition borders, this is equally its value and strength. We appreciate that a label like fluid is indeed to open Pandora’s box but only after having first understood that older, apparently simpler labels are still wholly unresolved. John may be bisexual but it’s irrelevant since the label offers him nothing but a headache and he sinks into despair, or as W says, “down down … quicksand” (295). Similar to using the word queer to self-identity, there is the same air of belligerence to self-identifying as fluid. It’s like the Goth that John admires because “what he was wearing was like fuck you to the world you know?” (257). Bartlett’s protagonist fails to ever make such a bold statement. Instead, John is shown to implode under the pressure he suffers and it’s all because he won’t conform to a neat, tidy category. In the end, he almost pleads, “I just want to be happy” (298). Bartlett’s play offers a stimulating contemplation of how society and individuals become beholden to labels. Additionally, if we the general public cannot handle the label of bisexual then what real, true gravitas do newer labels carry in society, for example, pansexual or cis or trans. Cock, though it appears a dated work at first, turns into quite a challenge to our ideas about being modern, open-minded individuals.

Works Cited.

Bartlett, Mike. Plays:1.  Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2009.  

Hoby, Hermione. “Most theatre is still really bad.” The Guardian, 8th November 2009.  

Livia, Anna, and Kira Hall, editors. Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. Oxford University Press, 1997.  

Livia, Anna, and Kira Hall. “‘It’s a Girl!’: Bringing Performativity Back to Linguistics.” Livia and Hall, pp. 3-20.

Murphy, M. Lynne. “The Elusive Bisexual: Social Categorization and Lexico-Semantic Change.” Livia and Hall, pp. 35-57.

Zwicky, Arnold M. “Two Lavender Issues for Linguists.” Livia and Hall, pp. 21-34.

Swan, D. Joye, and Shani Habibi. Bisexuality: Theories, Research, and Recommendations for the Invisible Sexuality. Springer International Publishing, 2018.  

Elia, John P., Mickey Eliason, and Genny Beemy. “Mapping Bisexual Studies: Past and Present, and Implications for the Future.” Swan and Habibi, pp. 1-18.

Swan, D. Joye. “Models and Measures of Sexual Orientation.” Swan and Habibi, pp. 19-36.

Swan, D. Joye. “Defining Bisexuality: Challenges and Importance of and Toward a Unifying Definition.” Swan and Habibi, pp. 37-60.

McLean, Kirsten. “Bisexuality in Society.” Swan and Habibi, pp. 77-94.

Dyar, Christina and Brian A. Feinstein. “Binegativity: Attitudes Toward and Stereotypes About Bisexual Individuals.” Swan and Habibi, pp. 95-112.

Lee, Peggy. “Is That All There Is.” Capitol Records, 1969.

Thompson, Jessie. “Mike Bartlett: ‘If any art form should reflect all of society, it’s theatre.’” Evening Standard, 25 May 2018.  

Triscari, Caleb. “REVIEW: Mike Bartlett’s ‘Cock’ is theatrically strong, but its themes are outdated.” Beat, 4th February 2019.