• Play title: Breath
  • Author: Samuel Beckett
  • First performed: 1969
  • Page count: 1


Breath is a play by Samuel Beckett. No actors are required for a performance. The scene is a stage strewn with assorted rubbish. The sound effects employed are recordings of a child’s cry (vagitus) and a person inhaling and then exhaling. Stage lighting is brought up to ample brightness and then reversed to dim lighting. Beckett’s stage directions indicate precisely how each of the previously mentioned elements is to be calibrated and sequenced. The duration of a performance of this play is less than one minute: in fact, closer to about thirty seconds.

Ways to access the text: reading/watching

Samuel Beckett: The Collected Shorter Plays published by Grove Press is freely available online and contains the text of Breath. There are multiple other online sources from which to choose.

There are several different interpretations of Breath available to watch on YouTube. One of the more famous examples is a piece directed by Damien Hirst. It is worth mentioning that none of the videos of Beckett’s play correctly adhere to the stage directions laid out in the text.

Why read/watch Breath?

It is a strange experience to view a play in which no word is spoken. Breath is a meticulously calculated mix of imagery, sounds, light, temporal space, and silence. The significance of this theatre piece is the sum total of what one can decipher from it and/or project onto it. Breath may have a bland, obvious meaning or it could be exceptionally erudite and ground-breaking. Watching the play is certainly not an egregious drain on one’s time so there is little excuse to ignore it especially after having learned of the existence of this little-known work. The effect of the play on an observer is normally a quick pop of understanding and this is a worthwhile experience.

Post reading discussion/interpretation

[Almost] No Comment

It seems foolhardy, absurd and even comical to comment on Beckett’s play-ette, Breath. After all, the playwright manages to compact a complete theatrical scene, which appears to represent a human life, into the shortest imaginable timeframe. This is surely a dire warning against superfluous comment. A life is just a cry, a wheeze and an expiration! It is all over before one has time to even think about it. The litter-strewn stage may be interpreted as a wry commentary on the impact of the average person’s life achievements with the short timeframe an indication of how relatively insignificant a lifespan is when compared to eons of human history or to the even more imponderable history of the planet. One could accuse Beckett of being pretentious for assuming that he could credibly tackle such a weighty subject as human existence despite using only the most basic props and a timeframe that it little more than a few good sneezes in length. This accusation, however, would require one to ignore his Nobel Prize for literature, and the significant and influential body of work he produced prior to Breath. On the other hand, maybe we could all be accused of having egotistical pretensions: believing that our lives are so tremendously significant when, in fact, they are not. Then again, who knows for sure if Beckett’s playlet is a metaphor for a human life. This is a verbose way of saying that no comment is possibly the shrewdest commentary on Breath. In this way, one avoids looking like an affected pedant. It seems utterly incongruous for a minimalist play that communicates its message in less than a minute to result in reams of explanatory text.

Having said that, a few accomplished academics have interpreted Breath and produced worthwhile results. Three examples follow which will whet the intellectual appetites of those who require additional cerebral stimulation.

In an essay entitled “‘BREATH’ AS ‘VANITAS’: Beckett’s Debt to a Baroque Genre,” Claire Lozier provides an interesting and convincing interpretation of the play. The term Vanitas will not be familiar to everyone, but the style of painting described is immediately recognisable.

“The kind of painting known as Vanitas, is also described as “Still life with skull,” which expresses visually the saying in Ecclesiastes “Vanitas, vanitatum et omnia vanitas” (1.2) along with the Christian moral ideas of contemptus mundi (contempt of the world) and memento mori (remember thy end).”

(Lozier 241)

van Utrecht, Adriaen, Vanitas still life with a bouquet and a skull. 1643 – Picasso, Pablo. Nature morte aux oursins. circa 1960.

Lozier was initially prompted to make a connection between Beckett’s short play and this style of painting due to information from Beckett’s diaries and an interview he gave in the 1970’s. The interview was with Charles Juliet in 1973 when Beckett specifically referenced how certain works of Dutch art acted as memento mori (Lozier 241). In an old diary entry from the 1930s, Beckett recounted seeing and admiring Vanitas paintings that were on display in art galleries in Germany. In addition to the above information, Lozier underlines the relevance of the re-emergence of the Vanitas style in the second half of the twentieth century, in the wake of WWII (Lozier 241). Thus, the style was not dead but rather reinterpreted and reinvigorated for a contemporary audience. Lozier also supports her argument by making the astute observation that “The very fact that this play is meant to be a single, motionless image also suggests a kind of postmodern painting” (243). It is indeed easy to forget that, apart from lighting and sound effects, an audience is presented with a wholly static scene on the stage during a performance of Breath. Upon these somewhat embryonic links, Lozier proceeds to build a full argument.

The crucial link between the Vanitas genre and Breath is that they essentially depict the same things and thereby communicate the same theme: “Vanitas, vanitatum et omnia vanitas,” or vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Lozier explains that, even though “there is no skull or hourglass [in Beckett’s play], miscellaneous rubbish is perfectly fitted to signify time passing, decay and death, the inanity of life and the vanity of pleasures and possessions” (244). Beckett is referencing a style of art, but without necessarily paying homage to it. It is Lozier’s opinion that, “Beckett himself invites us to adopt a satirical reading in describing Breath as a “farce in five acts” (244). M. H. Abrams gives a broad definition of farce as “a type of comedy designed to provoke the audience to simple, hearty laughter – “belly laughs,” in the parlance of the theatre (39). Is life a joke: an all too brief farce? Beckett’s response seems to be yes. Lozier explains that “The allegorical dimension of the play is in fact so obvious that it destroys the allegorical effects and realises, instead, a tragic-comic caricature of the Vanitas” (245). Beckett is reworking an old genre of painting by placing it in a theatre setting and manipulating it so that the effect on the audience is quite different; a laugh replaces melancholic musings.  

One may still be left pondering the significant difference between a Vanitas painting and Beckett’s play, which accounts for the first being serious while the second is comedic. The answer lies primarily in a non-religious interpretation of Breath. Lozier summaries the action of Beckett’s play to have the following meaning. Note the importance of the word nothingness.

“Inspiration as a movement of opening betokens ‘life,’ expiration as closure, ‘death’ – to expire is here indeed to die. The silence that is held twice for “about five seconds” suggests the nothingness from which life emerges and to which it returns.”

(Lozier 246)

It is the apparent absence of an afterlife that distinguishes a style of art inspired by an anti-materialist message in a book of the Bible (Ecclesiastes) from a play that shows the accumulated rubbish in our lives as the sole thing that remains after we are gone! Lozier sums up her interpretation of Beckett’s play as follows – “Far more than a mere play or a game with the codes of a certain kind of painting, Breath is above all to be read as a poetical text offering a tragic-comic view of the postmodern condition” (249). Beckett’s play is very much situated in the modern world; it just owes a debt to an old genre.

Dror Harari endeavours to find a comprehensive meaning for Breath by looking at the influences of the artistic world upon Beckett. Unlike Lozier, who cites 17th-century-art, Harari seeks to understand the play by examining the significant interplay between the emerging artistic trends of 1960’s France and Beckett’s dramatic output. This does, notably, include the contemporary paintings of that era. According to Harari, “Given their minimalist aesthetics, Samuel Beckett’s shorter plays tend to be read in light of the reductive tendencies operating in modernist literature, or as self-contained and independent objects that incorporate their own explanatory code” (423). As already highlighted by Lozier, the allegorical meaning of Breath is almost too obvious and that in itself becomes ironically frustrating. Harari explains a consequence of this fact by writing of how “The critical tendency responds not only to Beckett’s growing use of condensational techniques, but also to his consistent abstention from interpreting his own writing, which challenges his researchers to find more in less” (423). Harai accepts the challenge. For instance, he writes “Even if a reading which suggests that this play is a metaphor for ephemeral existence is self-evident …. Why rubbish (“miscellaneous rubbish,” to be more precise)?” (425). For context, Armand Fernandez (Arman) was a French artist who created an exhibit in 1960 entitled Le Plein which consisted of a whole gallery stuffed full of trash (image below). For Harari, it is not so much the message of Beckett’s play but how that message is communicated and the influences underlying the choice of style.

Harai gives an erudite overview of the cultural and artistic influences at play in 1960’s France and their likely impact on Beckett’s work and he lays most emphasis on the resulting form of Breath. He writes, “It is not unreasonable to perceive Breath as an instance of innovative theatre in the tradition of twentieth-century experimental modernism” (424). Harai makes his definition even more specific by labelling Breath as an example of performance art. The play is a painting of detritus that comes to life: a performance sans actors told in real time and possessing a clear symbolic meaning. The argument is that Beckett produced a piece of New Realist art. Harai explains that the young artists of the “French School of New Realism” (426) were “invent[ing] new creative methods and modes of representation, in direct reaction to a growing materialistic culture that was obsessively engaged in over-production, over-consumption, and the mythologising of capitalist abundance” (426). In the abstract of Harari’s essay, he writes that Breath will be “consider[ed] as a manifestation of “new theatre,” which blurs the line between theatre and the plastic arts” (424). One cannot fault the author on the resulting essay since it accomplishes its goal.

The third critical response to Breath is by William Hutchings in his essay entitled, “Abated Drama: Samuel Beckett’s Unabated ‘Breath.’” Hutchings opens his essay by comparing the message of Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure with Beckett’s Breath. In both works, the human breath is employed as a most powerful metaphor for life. Hutchings explains that “Whatever else Beckett’s characters lack — limbs, mobility, sight, memory, or even life itself—They “are” breath; that is, their existence is confirmed by (and their subsistence consists of) breath shaped into words” (85). For Hutchings, “Breath — the most succinct of Beckett’s “dramaticules” — offers the ultimate distillation of his inimitable world-view” (86).

Much like Lozier and Harari, Hutchings does not approach Breath as a play of hidden or obscure meanings – “The theme of Breath is the most comprehensive in all of literature: the human condition and the state of the world in which this life is passed” (87). However, while Lozier focuses on the satirical tone of Breath and Harari looks to the cultural milieu that helped birth the play, Hutchings provides a somewhat wildcard reading of the end of the play.

“Considered in the context of Beckett’s other works, the final cry seems especially disheartening, even though it is a cry of (re-) birth and not a “death rattle” as a number of critics (including Ruby Cohn in the passage cited above) have claimed.”

(Hutchings 88)

It is Hutchings’ contention that the second vagitus is “an indicator of entry into an unknown post-mortem realm” (88). This clashes with Lozier’s solid interpretation that Beckett’s play is indeed a farce due to the lack of an afterlife: the lack of the religious certitudes that made the Vanitas paintings of old so replete with cautionary meaning. Hutching’s does not say that it is a specifically Christian afterlife. He just provides an intriguing interpretation of the second cry and then confidently states that “The precise nature of the other-worldly existence in Breath remains unknowable” (89). It is something rather than nothing and may even be a form of eternal obscurity and abandonment. However, it is an interpretation that jolts one into a reassessment of a seemingly simple play. Hutchings closes his essay by praising Beckett for what he achieved with such a slight piece of theatre work.

“To have proffered an image of the human condition and the state of the world in a mere thirty seconds, in an “act of theatre” without characters, during a performance without the presence of actors, in a scene without dialogue, through a Shakespearean metaphor expressed without language, in a “dramaticule” without plot, is, indeed, Samuel Beckett’s Breath-taking achievement.”

(Hutchings 94)

The problem with Breath is that it is almost too concise. The examples of the various readings by Lozier, Harari and Hutchings prove this point. Academics feel that the piece, which on the one hand has a message too obvious to require any explanation, needs to be padded with contextual explanations, artistic progenitors or protective praise. The written text of the play fits on a single page and yet no one, especially theatre directors, seems to be content to stage the work as the playwright originally intended. There is an insatiable desire to tweak something. For example, there is the infamous example of Kenneth Tynan who received permission from Beckett to stage Breath (along with some other playwrights’ short plays) before performances of his own record-breaking revue called Oh! Calcutta! Tynan decided to have naked actors on stage amid the rubbish which infuriated Beckett. S. E. Gontarski explains that after the Beckett-Tynan debacle, Beckett “wrote to agent Jenny Sheridan on 27 April 1972: “I have come to the conclusion it is almost impossible to do Breath correctly in the theatre so I must ask you to decline this request and all future ones for the play” (147). Beckett was notoriously demanding when it came to strict adherence to his stage directions, but it would have been infuriating for anyone to deal with deviations from the instructions for a play that takes only half a minute to perform.

Breath is a stand-alone piece, but it somehow attracts attention that is alternately aggrandizing or deprecating. Defending the play and thus falling into the former camp, Hutchings wrote, “the longest word in the OED — floccinaucinihilipilification — accurately describes the prevailing critical assessment of Breath: the act of estimating something as worthless because it is small or slight” (90-91). Probably the sincerest approach to Breath is to read it, imagine the scene in one’s mind’s eye and interpret it instinctually. Admittedly, academic interpretations of Breath are captivating, but they inescapably pull one away from the simple, impactful message that Beckett crafted. In short, it is best to refrain from commenting on Breath since comment is largely superfluous and I include this essay in that criticism. The below quote outlines how Breath was originally conceived and written, and this will surely pierce any stubborn bubble of pretentiousness that remains. The play says quite enough and maybe our communal discomfort with the simple message, so much so that we long to obscure it, reflects its primal power.

“When Ruby Cohn asked Beckett in the summer of 1968 whether or not he had a new play in the offing, ‘He answered, almost angrily, ‘New? What could be new? Man is born – vagitus. Then he breathes for a few seconds, before the death rattle intervenes’ (qtd. in Knowlson and Knowlson, 129). He then wrote out the entire play called Breath for Cohn on the paper table cover of a café.”

(Gontarski 139)

Works cited.

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms: Seventh Edition. Boston: Thomson Learning, Inc. 1999.

Beckett, Samuel. The Collected Shorter Plays. Grove Press, 1984. 

Gontarski, S.E. “Reinventing Beckett.” Reading Modern Drama, edited by Alan Ackerman, University of Toronto Press, 2012, pp. 135-156.

Harari, Dror. “‘BREATH’ AND THE TRADITION OF 1960’s NEW REALISM: Between Theatre and Art.” Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui, vol. 22, 2010, pp. 423–33. JSTOR, Accessed 13 March 2023.

Hutchings, William. “Abated Drama: Samuel Beckett’s Unabated ‘Breath.’” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, vol. 17, no. 1, 1986, pp. 85-94.

Lozier, Claire. “‘BREATH’ AS ‘VANITAS’: Beckett’s Debt to a Baroque Genre.” Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd’hui, vol. 22, 2010, pp. 241–51. JSTOR, Accessed 13 March 2023.

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.

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.