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The Representation an Problem of Female Characters in the Play

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And lived with looking on his images;

But now two mirrors of his princely semblance

Are cracked in pieces by malignant death,

And I for comfort have but one false glass

That grieves me when I see my shame in him.

Thus does the Duchess of York lament the birth of her own son, Richard III, perhaps Shakespeare’s most evil creation. A machiavellian who delights in governing with fear and force, his evil is only offset by his ready and cunning wit. As his talents lead others to self-destruction, the audience too succumbs to Richard’s wit and egoism until finally his cruelty appears repulsive and destructive. Yet Shakespeare does provide a counterpoint, a sharp contrast, to Richard’s villainy. The women of Richard III function as voices of protest and morality. They often see through Richard’s intrigues and predict the dire consequences of his acts. Shakespeare uses the women to point out moral truths and emphasize general principles of the Elizabethan worldview of “moral and political order” (Tillyard 108). Whereas Shakespeare’s Richard III pursues his malevolent intentions wielding a disarming wit and a bloody, conscience-less sword, the women of the play derive what power they have from sincere verbal poison and from raw, unbridled sentiment. Lady Anne, the Duchess of York, Margaret and Elizabeth, subverted in their roles as queens, mothers and wives, each contribute to the furthering of Shakespeare’s moral themes in several ways—through their roles as victims as expressed in their intense lamentations, in their cries for revenge through divine retribution, and in “alluding to a higher moral order that transcends the actions of the men” (Tillyard 107). In each of these ways, the women of Richard III help illustrate how destruction comes about when order, both political and moral, is violated, either by the weakness of a reigning king, or through the machinations of those who cause civil war by wanting to take the king’s place. Such instability and chaos devastates the individual, the family, and the nation, resulting in moral decay, treachery, anarchy and a profound level of human suffering.

“The world that Shakespeare portrays in Richard III is a man’s world” (Asimov 313). The women are presented as sideline characters that function only to grieve, complain, or bury the dead. Richard himself views women as tools, as shown by his various asides to the audience when he announces his plots, in which the marrying of Anne or Elizabeth are only moves in his elaborate games of intrigue and power. Shakespeare further emphasizes the woman’s inferior role as Richard invariably “allocates his own guilt along sexual lines so that women are the root his evil” (Tillyard 111). He declares to his condemned brother Clarence that “this it is when men are ruled by women,” implying that it was Queen Elizabeth who “tempted” her husband into the “harsh extremity” of executing his own brother, thereby deflecting blame from himself, the true perpetrator of the plot. “Simply, plain Clarence,” laughs Richard. I do love thee so that I will shortly send thy soul to heaven.”

Overwhelmingly, the women are victims of such political machinations, and though their vulnerability allows their manipulation, the eloquent expressions of their grief shows not only that Richard’s schemes are played out on people whose agony of body and spirit can be intensely real, but also shows that the state of civil turmoil, disorder, and treachery that has prevailed since the War of the Roses began leaves no one untouched by suffering.

Anne, the first woman we are introduced to, is grief stricken by the deaths of her husband Edward and his father King Henry VI, both slain by the hand of Richard. “Poor key-cold figure of a holy king, / Pale ashes of the house of Lancaster,” she cries. “Be it lawful that I invocate thy ghost / To hear the lamentations of poor Anne.” In portraying this genuine heartbreak, Shakespeare gives the audience its first taste of the despair wrought by his villain-hero’s handiwork. At the same time, the “allocation of guilt” is further evident. When Anne charges him with the bloody murders of her loved ones, Richard initially scrambles for a surrogate, blaming Edward IV and Margaret) before hitting upon a far more effective line, accusing Anne as the primary “causer” of the deaths (Tillyard 111). “Your beauty was the cause of that effect! / Your beauty that did haunt me in my sleep! / To undertake the death of all the world, / So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom. Shakespeare expands scope of the grief in the second scene of Act II, in which both Elizabeth and the Duchess lament and enumerate similar losses of loved ones. The Duchess cries in agony, “Was never mother had so dear a loss. / Alas! I am the mother of these griefs! / …Alas! You three on me, threefold distressed, / Pour all your tears! I am your sorrow’s nurse, / and I will pamper it with lamentation.” The Duchess here laments that Richard, her “false glass” of comfort, “has plucked my two crutches from my feeble hands,” the crutches being her sons Clarence and Edward. She calls for the former Queen Margaret, who has lost her husband and son, for the Queen Elizabeth who has lost her husband, and for the orphaned children of Clarence, to pour their collective grief onto her, for she is the mother of the fiend that wrought this avalanche of distress.

Act IV contains some of the play’s most poignant lines when Elizabeth looks back on the Tower, suspecting she may never see her imprisoned sons again. “Ah my, poor princes! / If yet your gentle souls fly in the air, hover about me with your airy wings / And hear your mother’s lamentation.” It is in this moment, as Richard condemns the young and innocent princes to die, that the audience finally finds Richard’s cruelty to be repulsive, and thus turn their sympathy toward the victim’s of his villainy. In the same scene, the Duchess sums up the state of despair all the women find themselves in when she says, “I to my grave, where peace and rest lie with me! / Eighty odd years of sorrow have I seen, and each hour’s joy wracked with a week of teen.” Though one can call the Duchess and the former Queen Margaret monotones of complaint, the point is made that this individual devastation is the result of the disaster that has befallen the nation as a whole. Everyone is tainted–even the women are not entirely guiltless in the struggle between the warring houses. Through their passive acceptance, as in Anne’s acceptance of Richard’s proposal, to Margaret’s very active part as a soldier in the battlefield, the blood and barbarities of civil strife have reduced everyone, but especially the women, to helpless creatures who can only recite psalms of grief, guilt, and sorrow.

Finally, in the fourth scene of Act IV, “the wailing queens” Margaret, the Duchess, and Elizabeth unite in their mournings. Again, Shakespeare uses the women to emphasize the woeful state of the nation. Elizabeth asks Margaret to teach her how to curse, cursing being the only outlet for these women, powerful in title but impotent in reality, incapable of stemming the tide of sorrow and suffering the disorder of the times has wrought. “Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days / Compare dead happiness with living woe… / Bett’ring thy loss makes the bad causer worse; / Revolving this will teach thee how to curse,” replies Margaret to Elizabeth’s plea. As the women lament their loss, the audience is once again made aware of how destructive Richard’s vengeful crimes against the world have been. Shakespeare uses their sorrow to finally illuminate Richard as the villain that he is.

In considerations of the way women employs women as scapegoats and currency, younger females have received the most attention (Succio 51). However, when we consider how Richard uses women as ciphers, three older women—Queen Elizabeth, Margaret and the Duchess of York—step reluctantly into the foreground. All of these women suffer, on one level, a loss of definition at the hand of Richard. “Not only does Richard subvert the role of queen, he also undermines the roles of mother and wife” (Tillyard 117). For example while the death of Edward robs Elizabeth of a husband, it robs the Duchess of York of a son. Her “stock” now depleted by two-thirds, the Duchess turns to Elizabeth commenting that unlike her, “Thou art a widow, yet thou art a mother / And hast the comfort of thy children left. In addressing Elizabeth’s yet current claim to motherhood, the Duchess appears to abjure her own; it is as if she no longer wants to assume the title of mother if Richard is the son who grants her this right; accepting “motherhood” means accepting responsibility for “all these griefs,” for the losses sustained by Elizabeth and by Clarence’s Children. It is not enough for one mother to abandon her claim to the title of mother; Richard pursues a course of action that eventually forces Elizabeth to relinquish her claim also. As this process is set in motion, the “Protector” refuses to grant Elizabeth her status as mother, refusing to admit her to the Tower to see her children. Elizabeth cries in protest, “Hath he set bounds between their love and me? / I am their mother; who shall bar me from them?” Yet after the deaths of young Edward and Richard, Elizabeth is forced to perform an about-face in order to protect her remaining child. Because of Richard’s manipulations, a “mother’s name is ominous to children”; hence, she must deny her title of mother in order to express her genuine identity a mother concerned for her children’s welfare. She dispatches her son Dorset to France—“O Dorset, speak not to me, get thee gone!”—and expresses her willingness to deny the legitimacy of young Elizabeth’s birth to save her marriage from Richard. “I’ll corrupt her manners, stain her beauty, / Slander myself as false to Edward’s bed …/ I will confess she was not Edward’s daughter.” It is the love of a mother for her daughter, which prompts Elizabeth’s offer; she willingly renounces her titles of both wife and legitimate mother (Tillyard 118). In these examples, Richard’s general course of action is such to encourage women to abandon traditional titles, to de-identify themselves. Both the womens’ resistance and passivity to this desire endures them to the audience as victims undeserving of Richard’s seemingly interminable malice.

When the women are not grieving, they are often venting their hate. The expressions of Margaret’s thirst for revenge are her curses, and she levels them generously on all who contributed to her personal losses: while she also evokes the mechanical aspect of justice when she prophesizes their destruction. “Can curses pierce clouds, and enter heaven?” she cries. “Why then, give way, dull clouds, to my quick curses.” After foretelling the fates of all the “lords, ladies, queens, princes and kings” that she feels have perpetrated her downfall, she turns her wrath on Richard (Succio42). “On thee, the troubler of the poor world’s peace! / The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul! / Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou livest, / And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends! / No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine, / Unless it be while some tormenting dream.” Here the audience first glimpses the scope of the destruction that vengeful hate will cause. The already damned former queen will watch with only a tempered satisfaction as all of her curses are fulfilled with startling clarity. Each of the women join Margaret in cursing Richard, the most concentrated representation of the evil and illness that pervades the country, but it is interesting to note how often the curse reverses on the curser. Anne acknowledges this, thus admitting to her own duplicity in the mess everyone finds themselves in. As she stands before the corpse of her murdered father-in-law, she condemns herself unknowingly. “If he ever have a wife, let her be made / More miserable by the death of him / Than I am made by my young lord and thee!” Of course, as she succumbs to the sweetened words of Richard and accepts his offer of marriage, the curse she has made falls upon her. “Within so small a time, my woman’s ear / Grossly grew captive to his honeyed words / And proved the subject of mine own soul’s curse.” Richard loses any shred of sympathy or support when his own mother curses herself for hatching a “cockatrice” whose “unavoided eye is murderous.” Thus, Shakespeare once again demonstrates that even to the perpetrator, revenge is ultimately destructive in its very nature. This theme is constantly apparent, as by the end of the play, the description “alive—but neither mother, wife nor England’s queen” applies to Margaret, Elizabeth and the Duchess. All the scenes of female lamentation are riddled with curses, “calling for justice when all are guilty” (Succio 45). Shakespeare uses the women to illustrate how England itself is under a curse of “civil dissension and moral ill” (Tillyard 113). The ring of curses and the cries for justice directly reflect how deep the morass of blood, treachery, and disorder has become, and how urgently rightful order needs to be restored.

But does vengeance belong to man or God? Shakespeare uses the tension created by Margaret’s curses and cries for personal revenge to answer this question in the person of Richmond. Throughout the play a “moral order that transcends men’s actions” is eluded to but never given full expression until the last act. It is to this moral order, this “immutable form of divine justice,” that all the women are appealing when they cry to the heavens for their wrongs to be righted, especially poignant in the “wailing queens'” scene (Tillyard 113). In this scene, Margaret points out to Elizabeth how temporal life is: “For happy wife, a most distressed widow;; / For joyful mother, one that wails the name; …/ Thus hath the course of justice whirled about / And left thee but a very prey to time.”

However, though Margaret uses this allusion to temporality to emphasize the maxim “what goes around comes around,” she confuses the fulfillment of her wishes with divine justice. “Her curses come true because they should have, not because she wants them to” (Succio 45). She, like the other women, tend to be morally myopic in their cries for justice, unable, or unwilling, to recognize their own guilt. Shakespeare makes Margaret the incarnation of the wrong sort of justice, derived from the Old Testament style of retributive justice, but he contrasts her with Richmond who submits himself to a higher order and incorporates forgiveness into his idea of justice (Succio 48). “In God’s name, cheerly on, courageous friends,” Richmond humbly says to his army. “Reap the harvest of perpetual peace, / By this one trial of bloody war.” Here it is clear that Richmond is not fighting a war for the sake of personal gain. He is fighting in order to rid England of Richard, that “wretched, bloody, usurping boar.” The fact that Shakespeare portrays Richmond as the nation’s savior, not bringing him into the play until the last scene and making plain that Richmond alone is untainted by the treachery that has gone before, endorses the fact that Shakespeare himself felt that vengeance belonged to God, made plain when Richmond submits himself to this higher order (Tillyard 141).

In the last scene when Richard and Richmond present their soliloquies, the contrast between submission to order and extreme individualism is very clearly the contrast between good and evil. Here Shakespeare makes it clear that “there is an existence beyond the realm of men that nevertheless has a profound effect on human life and experience” (Succio 51). Margaret and the other women of the play serve to bring about this realization, through their lamentations and cries for revenge, that something over and above the world of men is needed to right the state of the country. They cry to this higher order and bring the need for its intervention to our attention, and this is their greatest contribution. Only their own participation in furthering the state of disorder prevents them from benefiting significantly from order’s restoration in the form of Richmond’s victory.

Cicero once said, “Justice is the essential virtue and moral right is the basis of action.” In Richard III, Shakespeare shows how the existing order of England has been violated and presents the conflict and turmoil that results on both the individual and national levels. Order is restored only by the eradication of the forces that originally violated it and Shakespeare shows that these forces were essentially immoral in nature. The female characters are the major vehicles of this view, by voicing the sorrow that results from the disruption of moral order, through their cries for retributive justice, and through their appeals for this justice from a divine realm. They are the essential contrast to Richard’s evil, and through their struggles against his dominance they serve not only to illustrate the necessity of the restoration of order, but also to bring about that restoration. In moral terms, the women of the play thus serve to mitigate the natural destructiveness inherent in a male dominated world.

Works Cited

Asimov, Isaac. Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. New York: Avenel Books, 1958.

Succio, Peter. “Manipulations of Curses in Richard III.” Meanings of Shakespeare. Ed. Richard S. Sylvester. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968. 39-48.

Shakespeare, William. Richard III. New York: Washington Square Press, 1960.

Tillyard, E.M.W. “The Personal Dramas of Richard III” William Shakespeare: The Histories. London: Greenhaven Press, 1971.

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