By Dennis Abrams
Act Four: At his coronation, Richard suggests to Buckingham that it is time for the two Princes to die. When Buckingham has the temerity to hesitate, Richard turns on him and gets Tyrell to arrange the murders. Richard also plans the murder of his wife so that he can then marry his niece Elizabeth. Buckingham reminds Richard of his promise of high office, but Richard stalls and Buckingham, seeing the proverbial writing on the wall, flees. Queen Elizabeth (widow of Edward IV), and the Duchess of York (mother of Edward IV, Clarence, and Richard), meet with Queen Margaret (widow of Henry VI) and all three mourn the loss of their loved ones. Richard enters and is cursed out by his mother; he then asks Queen Elizabeth for help in wooing her daughter and she pretends to agree. As news arrives of Richmond’s invasion, Richard’s grasp on power begins to falter.
I have to say that I am really enjoying this play, far more than I thought I would actually. The fourth history play in a row (sorry guys), a play I thought I knew…but even if it’s not Shakespeare at his best, Richard is interesting enough (and brings us into the play enough) and the plot moves along interestingly enough that I found myself always interested.
And I found myself interested in more than just Richard. After reading Henry VI 1-3, I found myself fascinated by every entrance and appearance of Queen Margaret, some sort of avenging ghost of the past. Thus, I was surprised and a little dismayed when I read that Cibber’s version of the play (the one most performed for almost two hundred years) cut her out completely, as well as Harold Bloom’s description of her as “the ghastly Margaret, widow of Henry VI, for whom Shakespeare never could compose a decent line.” I couldn’t disagree more. I think she brings something to the play, with her curses and her grandeur and her…something I can’t quite define…that elevates it to greatness.
First, watch this scene from Peter Hall’s epic production of The Wars of The Roses, his reworking of Henry VI 1-3 with Richard III, starring the great Peggy Ashcroft as Margaret:
And now this from Garber:
“We have noticed that Richard attempts to manipulate his life and those of others around him, and at the beginning of the play he seemed entirely successful in his illusion-making. But playing against Richard’s assumption that he can control this world through his own will, his own language, and his own protean skill as an actor is another kind of plot, whose spokesperson in this play is old Queen Margaret.
Margaret is a figure who very much resembles old Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Although the Margaret of the Henry VI plays was a seductive Frenchwoman with a strong instinct for rule and a ruthless talent for managing the King, her hapless husband, in Richard III Margaret is reduced to, or transformed into, something like a living ghost, a revenant of things past. [MY NOTE: She was supposed to have been exiled to France yet there she is, flitting throughout the play, unstopped by anyone.] Like early modern stage ghosts, the Margaret we meet in this play takes her origins from the tradition of the revenge tragedy and from the plays of Seneca. Although she is not literally dead, she comes from the past and from banishment to deliver a message of unrelenting wrath, anger, and revenge. When the audience first sees her, Margaret is the hidden onstage observer of an argument between Richard and Queen Elizabeth. She is there and not there, a listener and then suddenly, shockingly, a participant, as if summoned into dramatic being by the circumstances that have brought these two Yorkists together, wrangling about the throne – a throne she feels should, in any case, be hers, as the widow of the dead King Henry VI, and the mother of the slain Edward, Prince of Wales. It is at this point that we hear Margaret’s curse, a curse that is to become the true plot of this play, despite the plural ‘plots,’ inductions, and stratagems so ingeniously devised by Richard:
Can curses pierce the clouds and enter heaven?
Why then, give way, dull clouts to my quick curses!
Though not by war, by surfeit die your king,
As ours by murder to make him a king.
[To Elizabeth] Edward thy son, that now is Prince of Wales,
For Edward my son, that was Prince of Wales,
Die in his youth by like untimely violence.
Thyself, a queen, for me that was a queen,
Outlive thy glory like my wretched self.
Long mayst thou live – to wail thy children’s death,
And see another, as I see thee now,
Decked in thy rights, as thou art ‘stalled in mine.
Long die thy happy days before thy death,
And after many lengthened hours of grief
Die, neither mother, wife, nor England’s queen. –
Rivers and Dorset, you were standers-by,
And so was thou, Lord Hastings, when my son
Was stabbed with bloody daggers. God I pray him
That none of you may live his natural age,
But by some unlooked accident cut off.
Have done thy charm, thou hateful, withered hag.
And leave out thee? Stay, dog, for thou shalt hear me.
If heaven have any grievous plague in store
Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee,
O let them keep it till thy sins be ripe,
And then hurl down their indignation
On thee, the troubler of the poor world’s peace.
The worm of conscience will begnaw thy soul.
Thy friends suspect for traitors whilst thou liv’st.
And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends.
No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be while some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils.
Margaret calls herself a prophetess, and she prophesies: that Edward, the young Prince of Wales, will die – and he does; that Elizabeth, now the queen, will lose husband, child, and crown – and she does; that Rivers, Dorset, and Hastings will all die – and they do. Richard, she predicts, will lose the ability to sleep, and sleeplessness is the sign throughout Shakespeare of an easy conscience. On the field at Bosworth we find Richard ‘guiltily awake,’ tortured by ‘a tormenting dream,’ just as she had foretold. Richard will, she says, take his friends for traitors, and he has Hastings murdered on that charge. She says he will take traitors for his friends, and one by one Buckingham, Stanley, and the Bishop of Ely all desert him to flee to the forces of Richmond. Margaret’s curse, in short, is nothing less than the plot of the play – until the coming of Richmond. And over and over again one or another of its victims will remember that curse, as Rivers and Gray do en route to their deaths:
Now Margaret’s curse is fall’n upon our heads.
Then cursed she Hastings; then cursed she Buckingham;
Then cursed she Richard. O remember, God,
To hear her prayer for them as now for us.
When Buckingham is captured and brought to the block, we hear his final words: ‘Thus Margaret’s curse falls heavy on my neck…Remember Margaret was a prophetess.’
The cadences of Margaret’s language deliberately recall the biblical rhythms of lex talionis, the law of retaliation, from Exodus (chapter 21) and Deuteronomy (chapter 25). The famous line from Exodus “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot’ was intended only for magistrates, not for individuals to take the law into their own hands. It aimed, in part, to limit punishment to a just equivalent of the crime (thus avoiding ‘a life for an eye,’ etc.), but it was, and is still, often misunderstood as a cry for private vengeance. Margaret’s sonorous demand,
Edward thy son, that now is Prince of Wales,
For Edward my son, that was Prince of Wales,
emphasizes the degree of similarity and repetition involved in this conflict between Lancaster and York. Hers is, importantly, the language of an older generation and also of an older drama, influenced by the balanced poetic lines of the Roman playwright Seneca, whose plays, newly translated and collected under the title Tenne Tragedies in 1581 and part of the school curriculum in Latin, had an enormous influence upon Tudor dramatists. Margaret shares this somewhat stilted balanced choric diction with the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother:
I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
I had a husband, till a Richard killed him.
Duchess of York:
I had a Richard too, and thou didst kill him;
I had a Rutland too, thou holpst to kill him.
This old-style language of prophecy, which carries with it so many biblical references, and underscores the quest for revenge that animates both Margaret and Richard, is also the language of the disempowered elders of this play, a generation that has the relics of magnificence and the memory of dominance but no political power. The language of this impotent generation, a generation of ghosts – a symbol of which is the corpse of the ‘key-cold’ Henry VI – stands in sharp contrast to the energetic, seductive, and volatile language of Richard, a language full of vivid, fresh imagery, of stopping and starting, of surprises in tone, voice, and character. The old generation, and the old generation of revenge plays, is as good as dead. Richard of Gloucester, Richard III, is in fact a new kind of character for Shakespeare, a character with a complex, fully developed, and internally contradictory ‘personality’ – in short, a character conceived in terms recognizable from the standpoint of modern psychology. This, of course, is one reason Freud found him fascinating. [MY NOTE: If you’re interested in Freud’s take, let me know and I’ll post it.] Richard is also ‘modern,’ or at least appealingly ‘early modern,’ in his interest in, and use of, the language of economics, profit and loss, and wager. He wants a ‘world…to bustle in,’ and his apparently throwaway line ‘My dukedom to a beggarly denier,’ after his successful wooing of Anne, anticipates the more famous and more desperate ‘bet’ in the final scenes, ‘My kingdom for a horse!’ In both cases, what is at stake is more than rhetoric. Richard is a master at parlaying much out of little, beginning over after apparent bankruptcy and defeat. And yet the medieval wheel continues to turn. It is suggestive perhaps to think of such a wheel, behind a scrim, inevitably making its full circle, as on the front stage Richard tries once again to be master of his own fate, his country, and a history that is already written.”
Maurice Charney has this to say:
“Margaret of Anjou dominates the lamentations as if she were some kind of Nemesis brought on from the past to torment Richard and to warn all those present about the fickleness of fortune and the sureness of vengeance. The scenes in which she appears are excessively long [MY NOTE: Are they?] but her keening creates an unforgettable tone and undercuts Richard’s homicidal optimism. We first see her in act 1, scene 3, where she speaks a series of bitter asides before she comes forward. She is like an old-fashioned memory chorus brought in to comment on the action without participating in it – a voice from the past tying together the four plays in the Minor Tetralogy. She speaks both against Richard and Queen Elizabeth, whom she considers a usurper on her prerogatives as queen, but her words are spoken as asides, and function as declarations never to be answered.
When Queen Margaret comes forward after almost fifty lines, she addresses Richard and Queen Elizabeth as ‘wrangling pirates, that fall out/In sharing that which you have pilled from me!’ Richard calls her ‘Foul wrinkled witch’ and wonders how although he turns away he remains fascinated by her hypnotic discourse [MY NOTE: As are we!] which seems to memorialize his baleful accomplishments. Margaret proceeds to curse all those present with elaborate fullness, especially Richard:
Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog!
Thou that was sealed in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell!
Richard doesn’t leave immediately but enjoys his wit combat with Margaret. He says only ‘Ha?’ quizzically, and speculates: ‘I did think/That thou hadst called me all these bitter names.’ He is a playful, sardonic villain…
The most concentrated scene of lamentation is act 4, scene 4, where Queen Margaret shares the stage with Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York. She begins alone, gloating over her growing vengeance:
Here in these confines slily have I lurked
To watch the waning of mine enemies.
She hopes for a ‘consequence’ that is ‘bitter, black, and tragical’, as if the joy of revenge provided her only reason for living. Margaret steps aside when the Duchess of York and Queen Elizabeth enter, both mourning for the murder of Elizabeth’s sons by Richard in the Tower. This is a ‘mother’s lamentation’ but the Duchess of York has equally a mother’s and a grandmother’s lamentation backed with curses for the heartless and psychopathic Richard.
They both sit down and Queen Margaret comes forward to be with them, as in the staging of act 1, scene 3 of Coriolanus: ‘They set them down on two low stools, and sew.’ It is a communal, choral scene of sorrow as Margaret invites the other ladies to join her: ‘Tell o’er your woes again by viewing mine.’ The action of the play seems to pause for a display of lamentation and cursing. Margaret’s indictment of Richard has the ritualistic, simplified quality of a threnody:
I had an Edward [her son], till a Richard killed him;
I had a husband [Henry VI], till a Richard killed him.
Thou [Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York] hadst an Edward
[son and grandson], till a Richard killed him;
Thou [Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York] hadst a Richard
[son and grandson], till a Richard killed him.
The Duchess of York reminds Margaret that she had a Richard too – her husband – before Margaret killed him and a sun Rutland that Margaret helped to kill. The Wars of the Roses are summarized in this baleful account.
Queen Margaret is a ghostlike figure, extremely old and tired, and from a past that has ceased to exist. She can only plead with the Duchess of York to bear with her: ‘I am hungry for revenge,/And I cloy me with beholding it.’ Cloying comes from excess, especially of food and drink which at first makes one queasy. Queen Margaret is fascinated by an excess of revenge that also cloys her in the sense that it is far more than she needs to satisfy herself. Her ubi sunt questions to Queen Elizabeth define the tragic atmosphere of this play:
Where is thy husband now? Where be thy brothers?
Where be thy two sons? Wherein doest thou joy?
Who sues and kneels and says, ‘God save the Queen’?
Elizabeth wants Margaret to stay awhile and ‘teach me how to curse mine enemies,’ but Margaret exits never to reappear. The Duchess of York’s question underscores the nature of this scene: ‘Why should calamity be full of words?’ It is because a sharp distinction exists in this play between those who can bring calamity by killing and those who can lament calamity only in words…”
So what do you think? Are Queen Margaret’s scenes easily dismissible, as Bloom and Cibber insisted, or…is she a vital and almost central part of the proceedings? Post your thoughts and let the group know what you think!
Our next reading: Richard III, Act Five
My next posting: Thursday evening/Friday morning.