Shakespeare’s Richard III is one of his more famous historical plays and one that is most often performed as a stage production. Richard’s troubled and complex psychology, his keen intelligence, and undeniable cruelty are a field day for directors and actors alike. They relish the deep dive into the unsettling and violent story of a notorious rise and fall from power. So much emphasis is put on the dominant male characters in the play, as they connive, fight, and die for power, that the female characters can often be overlooked. While audiences and scholars may be tempted to view the women of Richard III as secondary characters taking a passive role in their own fates, a challenging point of view is that they are in fact extremely outspoken and active in doing as much as they can within their given circumstances of the time. The view of women in the late fifteenth century, when the play is set, as property or pawns of the men in power continually paints them into vulnerable corners, boxing them into unpleasant and downright heartbreaking circumstances. Despite the uphill battle they inherently face, these female characters have a profound impact on how the story unfolds and how the audience comes to perceive Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Each woman, from Anne to Queen Margaret to Queen Elizabeth, fights back with her words, shining a glaring spotlight on Richard’s true actions and never letting the audience sink too far into his seductive sweet-talking deception. They may not have the power of the time, which Shakespeare makes quite obvious, but they still push against the boundaries of how a woman is expected to act. Refusing to go down without a fight, these women attempt in numerous ways, through deliberate action, to thwart his plans. At first glance, contemporary audiences might cringe at some of their choices, but however their stories are framed, passive and secondary these women are not.
Anne is the first woman Shakespeare introduces in the play and seemingly the hardest female character with whom to sympathize. Why and how in God’s name does she end up marrying Richard, who has freshly murdered both her husband and her father in law? On the surface, her marriage to Richard could be perceived as weak or submissive. It could seem as though she was simply a tool for Shakespeare to show us how sadistic the Duke of Gloucester is capable of being. Nevertheless, a further delving into Anne’s circumstances is needed. She has recently lost her husband and her father in law, which means effectively that she no longer has any protection. Her life is literally in danger. She is also in mourning and in a state of acute stress having so recently put her husband in the ground. Even with all of that, within a few moments of seeing Richard she is telling him that he is so foul that he should kill himself. “Fouler than heart can think thee, though canst make/ No excuse current but to hang thyself.”1 Following an onslaught of vicious insults where she is in no way holding her tongue, she spits at him. Far from passive, that action of spitting is a strong statement—a daring move for a woman who no longer has any male protection. She then does what the women do throughout the play so beautifully; she names his crimes. She takes it one step further and forces Richard, in his own words, to admit to his crimes. “Nay, do not pause, for I did kill King Henry/ But ’twas thy beauty that provoked me./ Nay now dispatch; ’twas I that stabbed young Edward.”2 Here, because of Anne, the audience is in no doubt as to who is responsible for the killing of King Henry and Prince Edward. Following Richard’s admission, she does seem to fall prey to his sweet-talking psychological manipulation, yet it is never fully clear why she agrees to this marriage. She may have married Richard to save her life and garner protection. She may have done it to remain in some kind of power position, to thwart him later on. Or she may have, in her emotional and frightened state, wanted to believe what he said was true. In any case, her decision to marry Richard is not the submissive or weak act it may appear, but rather a complex choice between two equally difficult alternatives.“Their aunt I am in law, in love their mother;/ Then bring me to their sights. I’ll bare thy blame/ And take thy office from thee on my peril.”3 In this moment, Anne proves again that she will take action as she tries to use her position, despite the consequences, to see the young Princes. While there is no arguing the cringe worthiness of marrying the man who murdered your husband, worse things have gone down within the court. Through it all and to the end, Anne navigates her way through the play with a dignity that cannot be deemed docile.
Queen Margaret is the most outspoken of the women in Richard III. Like Anne, she has lost the protection of the men in her life. Adding insult to injury, she has fallen from the highest position a woman can hold in her time, queen, to the lowest, a raving madwoman. Despite her complete lack of power, she is not passive, but comes out of the gate with fists swinging—fists, in the form of words: “As little joy enjoys the queen thereof,/ For I am she, and altogether joyless./ I can no longer hold me patient.”4 Margaret challenges the status quo by showing us an unleashed anger that was certainly not considered appropriate or ladylike. A lady was supposed to be patient. A lady accepts her fate with a gracious smile. A lady is to be chaste, silent, and obedient. A lady Queen Margaret is not. With nothing left to lose, she is strong and ruthless as her insults cut through Act I. Her action is to speak, and her words are to curse. “Stay, dog, for thou shalt hear me./ If heaven have any grievous plague in store/ Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee [. . .] Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou liv’st,/And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends.”5 Her curse becomes its own character, as it slowly turns out to be true, claiming the lives of each of its victims. This curse is often construed as superstitious magic. However, it is more likely that Shakespeare is shedding light on the fact that Margaret has been down this path already and can simply foresee how it will inevitably unfold. In her anger, she calls a spade a spade. In her rage, she repeatedly reminds the audience of the treachery that Richard has committed:
I had an Edward till a Richard killed him;
I had a husband till a Richard killed him.
Thou hadst an Edward till a Richard killed him;
Thou hadst a Richard till a Richard killed him.6
Her power becomes so prominent that the other women beg her to teach them how to curse. She advises, “Compare dead happiness with living woe;/ Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were/ And he that slew them fouler than he is.”7 She stands in stark contrast to what is expected. She tells them not to suppress their pain, not to forget their sorrow, not to do what women have been conditioned to do, which is to forgive the injustice. At first, overlooked and laughed at, Queen Margaret proves to be a formidable force.
The third example of why the women in Richard III are anything but passive, comes alive in Queen Elizabeth’s final scene with Richard. Arguably this is one of the more captivating scenes in the play. Here we see Queen Elizabeth’s intelligence and wit rival Richard’s, as they square off in a wordplay match. At this moment she has every reason to be broken and defeated. She has lost her husband, lost her title and the power she had as Queen, and she has lost her two young sons to Richard’s cold-blooded murder command. Now, in a further horrifying moment, he informs her that he would like to marry her daughter. She fights back; not with grief or desperation, but with the quick wit and dignity befitting of a queen:
What were I best to say? Her father’s brother
Would be her lord? Or shall I say her uncle?
Or he that slew her brothers and her uncles?
Under what title shall I woo for thee[…]?”8
With her masterful command of the language, she manages to take Richard’s requests and respond with a vicious and sober honesty that makes him look utterly foolish.
Send her a letter of thy noble deeds
Tell her thou mad’st away her uncle Clarence
Her uncles Rivers, ay and for her sake,
Mad’st quick conveyance with her good aunt Anne.9
Simultaneously shining the light on his crimes, calling him out and reminding the audience of the murderers that he has committed. She reminds them, in a less than subtle way, of the atrocities he has committed in his climb to being king. “The children live whose fathers thou hast slaughtered, Ungoverned youth, to wail it in their age; The parents live whose children thou hast butchered/ Old barren plants, to wail it with their age.”10 Queen Elizabeth’s strength in this scene exceeds words. She leaves the audience wondering whether or not she will give in to his request. “Shall I forget myself to be myself?”; “Shall I go win my daughter to thy will?”11 Will she give up herself or her sense of right or wrong in the name of self-preservation? Will she do it to save her daughter? She leaves Richard in this same ambiguous state as the audience. However, in his arrogance, he believes he has won her over. This allows her to make the ultimate revenge action of securing her daughter’s hand in marriage to Richard’s foe, Richmond. In many ways, this seals the coffin on Richard’s demise. At the same time, she is in a brazen way, heeding Queen Margaret’s advice and through action, she is answering the questions she has posed to herself and to Richard. Her answer is no, she will not forget herself, her husband, her boys or Richards crimes. She will instead embrace her courage and her anger to protect her daughter and thwart Richard in any small way that she still has available to her—the very antithesis of acquiescent.
In conclusion, if the play is to be understood through the dominant male characters, the female characters may appear secondary; however, such a reading is grossly mistaken. An audience member may watch and think that because the women are helpless in stopping so many of their loved ones from being murdered, that translates to them being passive. Yet, on closer analysis, it becomes obvious that they are anything but compliant. Shakespeare magnificently captures the essence of the time, the misogynistic views, and the precarious position that women of the court continually faced. They may not have always made the best choices from the outside, who in life does? Nevertheless, these women, through Shakespeare’s words (and in real life) go down swinging and spitting. They harness their intelligence, wit, and anger and never, not for a moment, let the audience forget who the villain is and what crimes he has committed.
- William Shakespeare, Richard III (Penguin Classics: The Pelican Shakespeare, 2017), 1.1.83-84.
- Shakespeare, Richard III, 1.2.179-181.
- Shakespeare, Richard III, 4.1.23-25.
- Shakespeare, Richard III, 1.3.155- 157.
- Shakespeare, Richard III, 1.3.216-219; 223-224.
- Shakespeare, Richard III, 4.4.40-43.
- Shakespeare, Richard III, 4.4.119-121.
- Shakespeare, Richard III, 4.4.337-340.
- Shakespeare, Richard III, 4.4. 280-284.
- Shakespeare, Richard III, 4.4.391-394.
- Shakespeare, Richard III, 4.4.420; 426.