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.