A Favourite Shakespeare Play: Richard III

I enjoy many of Shakespeare’s plays, but I do have a few particular favourites. 

At the top of that list would be Richard III. one of the history plays and part of the series that explores the conflict between the Lancaster and York branches of the Plantagenet family tree which we call The Wars of the Roses. 

Shakespeare’s characterisation of Richard as the ultimate villain is so masterful that it shaped how Richard was viewed for centuries afterward. The fact that the history was severely distorted and, at times, entirely fabricated, and that Shakespeare’s representation of Richard was hardly realistic, has nothing to do with it. Shakespeare was a playwright, not a historian, after all, and therefore not inclined  to let the truth get in the way of a great story. 

Of course, it was in his interests to cast Richard in a less than positive light. Shakespeare was very conscious of the fact that his Queen, Elizabeth I, was the granddaughter of Henry Tudor who defeated Richard in battle at Bosworth to become Henry VII. Making Richard less worth of the crown further legitimised Henry’s claim to it, and therefore reinforced her own. In a time when conspiracies and plots against Elizabeth were numerous, the validation of her place on the throne of England was essential for any playwright hoping for royal approval, and patronage from among the upper classes. 

Thus, Shakespeare’s Richard is a man who not only recognises his evil nature but delights in it and determines to see how much he can achieve with it. 

Richard’s choice to pursue evil rather than good from the very start sets the tone of the whole play, and the audience knows they are in for one hell of a ride. His soliloquies deliver profound insights into the evil mind of a villain. They are absolutely fascinating, crafted with intrigue and malice that horrify and enthrall the audience at the same time. It’s riveting stuff. And as Richard puts his schemes into action and celebrates his own cleverness and cunning when they succeed, the audience is acutely aware that they are watching an evil genius in action. 

My favourite character, though, is Margaret, the former queen of Henry VI. She is strong, she is angry, and she is hell-bent on justice. Margaret speaks vitriol and hurls insults and curses so effectively that Cecily, Richard’s own mother, asks Margaret to teach her how it’s done. She attains a level of Shakespearean Insult proficiency that nobody else ever quite managed, not even Richard himself.

The language of the play is magnificent. From the insult competitions to the curses that burn with the brimstone of hell itself, there is not a word wasted in this play. The imagery is incredibly powerful, and the emotive language is so clever and subtle that while the audience may recognise that the characters on stage are being deceived, they don’t realise until after the fact that that they, too, have been positioned and manipulated by a master of the art. 

It is only at the end of the play, when one realises they feel a little sorry for the villainous Richard, that the audience understands how the language and drama of the play have seduced them.   

To take a man from the pages of history, craft him into something hateful, and have the audience still feel something other than hatred for him— albeit, while most likely feeling hatred for him at the same time— is testimony to Shakespeare’s genius as a wordsmith and playwright. 

Women in History: Margaret of Anjou

In my ‘Women in History’ post about Anne Neville, I commented that she was one of the women of history most grievously misrepresented by Shakespeare. There is a good argument for Margaret of Anjou being another. 

Margaret was the wife of Henry IV and the mother of Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales, who married Anne Neville.

Shakespeare paints Margaret as a bitter and twisted old woman who hung around the castle and served everyone with a vitriolic curse or two before breakfast every morning. Of course, Shakespeare was not one to let the truth get in the way of a good story or a really effective dramatic device. He was all about the entertainment— and on sucking up to Elizabeth I by portraying her grandfather as the king who brought peace to England after the Wars of the Roses.

It’s understandable, really. Not only was he working from accounts of history written by Tudor-friendly historians, he also understood how foolhardy it would be to offend the reigning monarch and risk his head. Thus, his play casts the first Tudor king, Henry VII in a very godly light, and delivers messages to the masses about how only evil people try to take the throne from the rightful ruler. 

It is a matter of course, then, that both the Yorks and the Lancasters are shown to be fractious, grasping and hateful people. 

What, then, is the real story of Margaret of Anjou?

Margaret was born in 1430 to the Duke of Naples, Rene of Anjou, and his wife Isabella, Duchess Of Lorraine. As the niece of the queen of France, the arranged marriage of Margaret to the young Lancastrian king in 1445, and solidified a truce between France and England that brought an end to the Hundred Years’ War.

Margaret took an active role in supporting Henry IV in his rule, but when his mental health declined, Richard, Duke of York, who held significant position and power at court was appointed as Lord Protector. Margaret and York distrusted one another’s pride and ambition, she because she feared he would claim the throne that rightfully belonged to her husband and son, and he because he deeply disliked the self-assured and proud young French queen. 

Enmity blew out into full conflict in 1455, and the two factions met on battle at St Albans. Henry VI’s forces were defeated, and Richard took the reigns of government.  Henry VI’s mental and physical health had deteriorated to the point where he was unable to govern, so Margaret, determined to maintain hold on the throne for her husband and son, worked relentlessly to remove York from his position, finally regaining control of the throne in 1456. 

By 1459, the situation had degraded so badly that Margaret outlawed York and his key supporters, and armed conflict could no longer be avoided. Henry VI was captured at Northampton in 1460 and, when offered a compromise that would see York declared to be Henry’s heir instead of her son, she steadfastly refused, maintaining that her son was the only rightful heir to the throne of England. 

Margaret’s soldiers killed York near  the Yorkshire town of Wakefield in the December of 1460 and won Henry’s release from Yorkist captivity at the second Battle of St. Albans in February of 1461. 

This was not the end of the conflict, however. York’s sons and supporters continued to fight, and his eldest son Edward of York laid claim to the throne as Edward IV on March 4. His army met and crushed Margaret’s forces at the Battle of Towton on March 29, causing Margaret and Henry to flee to Scotland with their son.

By 1470, Warwick the Kingmaker had become disillusioned with Edward IV as king and commenced machinations to lead a coup against Edward and return Henry IV to the throne. Although there had been strong enmity between them, Warwick and Margaret negotiated a reconciliation arrangement by which Henry was restored as king in October of 1470, and his son Edward was married to Warwick’s daughter Anne Neville to seal the deal. 

It was only a matter of months before Edward’s soldiers killed Warwick in the Battle of Barnet on the on the 14th of April— the same day that Margaret, Edward and Anne returned to England from France. 

The two armies met again at Tewksbury on May 4th, 1471, with Margaret leading the Lancastrian forces in the absence of Henry, whose health had once again deteriorated. Edward dealt Margaret a crushing defeat and her son was killed. 

Shortly after that,  Henry VI was put to death in the Tower of London. This final blow put an end to Margaret’s hopes to reclaim the kingdom, and she was taken into custody where she was held in various places including the Tower of London. She appealed to her father for help, but he refused, so she remained imprisoned until 1475 when the French king Louis XI negotiated her release and paid the ransom that enabled her to return to France.Margaret died in poverty in 1482.

While I have no doubt that she did indeed weep and that she most passionately hated the Yorks, she certainly didn’t get a chance to lurk behind pillars in their castles and curse them face to face. She never saw Richard take the throne of England, nor was she a witness to the death of his wife Anne, her own former daughter-in-law. Both of those things happened in the year after her death.