Tricky Dicky, Part 8: Margaret on the Escalator


In Richard III, the deposed former queen, Margaret, widow of Henry VI, though notionally banished, continues to haunt the new Yorkist regime of Edward IV.  She has no role anymore, no status.  (In most theatre productions she literally has no role - she is cut from the play for time reasons).  She is a defeated enemy.  An enemy, moreover, who is directly responsible for the death of the new Yorkist king’s father.  Even so, the Yorkists are content to let this relic of the defeated Lancastrians carry on perambulating around the court, snarling at them, cursing them, and wailing of her unjust plight at their hands.  They occasionally grumble that she should be gotten rid of, but nobody does anything about it.  Not even openly taunting and cursing the new queen, her replacement, can earn Margaret more than a verbal rebuke.  Margaret haunts the outskirts of the play like a bad conscience, the bad conscience of all the other characters.  That’s certainly how she thinks of herself: as a living rebuke to those whose triumph is also her desolation.  And it’s hard not to think that they see her that way too, despite the fact that she has plenty to have a bad conscience about herself, as they remind her. 

Margaret is one of the largest and important roles in all of Shakespeare, and is also one of the most neglected.  (She is undergoing rediscovery these days, partly thanks to Sophie Okenado's portrayal of her on TV in the second series of The Hollow Crown.)  She is clearly one of the most crucial characters in the entire First Tetralogy.  She is a major character in the middle two plays, an important minor character in the first, and an absolutely vital thematic presence haunting the last - the one from which she is usually excised!  Through the cycle she goes from being the young (virtually kidnapped and bartered) foreign bride of the English king, to being the fiercest warleader of the Lancastrians in their battle against the house of York, to being Lancaster’s defeated and bereaved last remnant.  She is capable of extreme cruelty, ruthlessness, and spite, but also sympathetic as a woman essentially fending for herself against the entire tide of history as it smashes her world to pieces.  She is one of young Shakespeare’s major triumphs as a dramatist, and (these days) clearly one of the great theatre roles for women.  She is both victim and villain, winner and loser, young and old, powerful and helpless.  And yet she is virtually forgotten.  In a perverse way, this is apt, since she is, to her core, a paradoxical, contradictory, liminal presence.  And she is a tragic heroine.  Fintan O’Toole, in a wonderful book called Shakespeare is Hard, But So Is Life, says that Othello is as much Iago’s tragedy as it is Othello’s.  There is no requirement that a tragic hero be morally perfect, or even good on balance.  Look at Macbeth.  Like him, Margaret is deeply ambiguous.  Like Iago, she can be evil.  Despite living in plays named after men (for reasons as depressing as they are obvious), Margaret is clearly the heroine of her own story.  In many ways, these are her plays.  That is certainly how she would see it, even if nobody else does. 

As with the ambiguities of all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes and heroines, Margaret’s ambiguity links directly to Shakespeare’s ambivalence about the fall of the old world and the rise of the new, the loss of the medieval and the arrival of the modern.  (See Part 3 of this series.)  This fall is symbolised in the First Tetralogy by the mutual and self-invited destruction of the Houses of York and Lancaster which resulted from the Wars of the Roses, and the final act of which Richard III dramatises.   The dialectic of York and Lancaster is a hermetic continuum of claims and counterclaims, victories and defeats, loyalties and treacheries.   This vicious dialectic is eventually solved by the bursting apart of the Plantagenet continuum by Richmond, a force from without - or rather the invading personification of historical forces from within -  which, for all his claims to represent continuity with York and Lancaster, is actually the negation of both.  In more than textual terms, he is the first Tudor, and is the political expression of the dawning negation of the entire old feudal world.  

Looked at this way, Margaret is the crucial figure in the text.  She is the paradox at the heart of them.  She is part of what triggers the destabilisation of the old political system (her marriage to Henry VI weakens his hold on France, which in turn weakens his hold over his nobles) and is also its staunchest defender against its own chaos.  She is the bitterest enemy of the house of York, and cheers the coming of Richmond to destroy their last king, yet she is firmly part of the same old world as the Yorks.  She hates Richard with a passion, yet is his closest mirror in the plays, and is bound to him forever.  This is the secret reason why she is allowed to haunt the Yorks almost up to their final destruction.  She is bound to them, to Richard.  Everything she and they do to pull apart from each other only chains them together more closely, as their struggle is what brings about their mutual ruination.

Her paradoxical position is expressed throughout the plays in many ways.  She is perceived as paradoxical by her fellow characters.  The most common form this perception takes is, of course, in the paradox of her being a woman who leads an army… or who, before this, bullies her husband the king.  It is expressed, of course, in terms of doubts about the integrity, value, and normality of her womanhood.  Characters both friendly and unfriendly are obsessed with this all the way through her plays.  (It has its flipside in the ways in which her husband, King Henry, a natural peacemaker who consequently makes a poor warrior, is spoken of contemptuously in feminized terms.)  Perceptions of her physical attractiveness vary wildly, with some (Suffolk, Henry) being blown away by her beauty while others (generally her enemies) describe her as ugly.  Richard in particular seems obsessed with her appearance, and goes to great lengths to insult her for her supposed failures in all the proper womanly virtues.  She’s hard-faced, a shrew, etc.  She is subjected to gendered insults.  But then Margaret is equally obsessed with Richard’s appearance, singling him out for special abuse during parlays between the competing sides before battle (which generally degenerate instantly into competitive boasting and goading sessions).  She goes right for the jugular, focusing in on his status as a ‘crookback’... which is, of course, an attack on his manliness, his ability to fight (not that he ever shows any reluctance or inability), etc.  After her final defeat, Richard advocates murdering her with the question “Why should she live, to fill the world with words?”

A. J. Honigmann notices that words are Margaret’s signature.  But her nature as a verbal animal is incrementally socially constructed, by others and by herself in response.  Beginning as one entrapped with words and promises and schemes, she finds herself in the English court where words are political blades.  There are verbal axes, swords, rapiers, stilettos, razors and, of course, daggers.  She refashions herself as the consummate wielder of such words, using them to destroy at least some of her enemies, to turn Henry’s nobles against him and his policy of appeasing the Yorks (thus paradoxically weakening her own position even as she tries to shore it up), to break treaties, to raise armies, to taunt the Yorks themselves, to woo away their ally Warwick, to reinvigorate her tired and defeated soldiers to suicidal battle (yet another paradox), to curse her victorious foes, and eventually to foretell the future.  And yet, as I've just suggested, as coruscatingly brilliant a verbal dueller as she is, there is something oddly self-defeating about all her talking.  

She has a speech in Henry VI, Part 3, just before the battle of Tewkesbury, the decisive battle of the wars, in which she launches a laboured maritime metaphor, comparing the fate of the Lancastrian armies to that of sailors in a deadly tempest.  Every aspect of their predicament finds its seafaring analogue in the speech as she tries to name and downplay their misfortunes one by one.  (The metaphor was already hackneyed in Shakespeare's time, and perhaps was even intended to connote desperation.)  The speech spirals downward into gloom despite her belligerently stubborn and hectoring tone, as she unwittingly emphasizes the hopelessness of their situation.  The speech has that same paradoxical nature common to so much of Margaret, with the track of its effect running opposite to the track of its speaker’s affect.  At the end of the speech, waiting for her, lurk the three figures of doom, the sons of York:


   ...what is Edward but a ruthless sea?
What Clarence but a quicksand of deceit?
And Richard but a ragged fatal rock?
All these the enemies to our poor bark [ship].


The appearance of the York boys in the speech, especially Richard who is named last and who seems most fatal, makes her turn the final corner into explicit despair:


Say you can swim; alas, 'tis but a while!
Tread on the sand; why, there you quickly sink:
Bestride the rock; the tide will wash you off,
Or else you famish; that's a threefold death.


Recovering herself, she then has to spin her own words:


This speak I, lords, to let you understand,
If case some one of you would fly from us,
That there's no hoped-for mercy with the brothers
More than with ruthless waves, with sands and rocks.
Why, courage then! what cannot be avoided
'Twere childish weakness to lament or fear.


The final irony is, of course, that by making this speech she spurs her army to one last effort, which leads to their final decimation at the hands of the Yorks, her son's murder by the three York boys, and her own total disempowerment.

I find this a deeply moving speech.  As vile a human being as she often is, she has found herself fighting for her life and future, and for the life and future of her son, with precious little help from her husband, against incredible odds and through countless defeats. The defiance of fate and reality is stirring.  The defiance of imposed role too, despite her class privilege.  And, much as we see the Yorks from their own side too, it’s impossible not to feel that she has the measure of them, that they are a matrix of cold seas, sucking sands, bone-breaking rocks, the unforgiving edge of the encroaching glacier of history, against which all waves can break with only the slightest effect.

And yet Margaret is herself a force of history.  She knows this and feels this herself, and even revels in it - when she’s on top.  Like all the kings and queens in Shakespeare, she considers history a product of her choices and desires, until it turns against her.  But when she is History, she is the glacier, the sea, the quicksand, the rocks. (I feel perfectly entitled to mix metaphors like crazy when talking about Shakespeare.) 

Richard, Duke of York (father of Edward, Clarence, and Richard) sees this side of her when he is captured by her men.  In an ecstasy of sadistic triumph, she has him set on a molehill, taunts him with a paper crown, and bids him wipe his tears away with a handkerchief stained in the blood of his youngest son Rutland.  He has his own verbal duels with her, and this is his last.  His killer punch is that, broken as he is by her taunts, he finds manly dignity in his defeat, dignity that is closed to her not so much because of her personality but because of her gender position.  

She bids him rage and cry so she can enjoy her revenge:


I prithee, grieve, to make me merry, York


...but again her words, as ferocious as they are, seem ineffectual, even self-defeating:


Why art thou patient, man? thou shouldst be mad


The Duke takes the opportunity to criticise Margaret in the strongest terms imaginable in the thoughtworld of the time, her transgression of the roles of her gender:


How ill-beseeming is it in thy sex
To triumph, like an Amazonian trull,
Upon their woes whom fortune captivates!

O tiger's heart wrapt in a woman's hide!
How couldst thou drain the life-blood of the child,
To bid the father wipe his eyes withal,
And yet be seen to bear a woman's face?
Women are soft, mild, pitiful and flexible;
Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless.


(It's worth noting in passing that these words resonated so deeply with Shakespeare's contemporaries that they soon became famous.  Indeed, it seems to have been possible for bitter wits to identify him as their target by parodying them.) 

When York eventually obliges Margaret by breaking down, it robs her of words and nearly turns her men against her.  One of them, an implacable enemy of York, cries with the distraught duke. 

It’s tempting to see betrayal built into any loyalty she might accrue, defeat an inevitability despite her many victories, simply because she is a woman in a man’s world, fighting men, and fighting moreover to restore the equilibrium of a patriarchal system.  Her words fail her not because there’s anything much wrong with their efficacy, but because they drop into a world fundamentally not set up to receive them, and - crucially - she herself has no real goal to change that world.  She wants to be heard so that she can advocate for a status quo that refuses to listen to her, except when it absolutely has no choice.  She literally never seems to crave political power for herself, beyond shoring up the tottering rule of her male family members.  She wants her husband to be strong, not to replace him because he is weak.  She definitely places her class privilege above her gendered oppression.  She embraces this constitutive contradiction of her social position even as she defies it.

It’s also worth noting that the very terms used by York (and others elsewhere) to criticise her would be employed to praise a male warrior.  In his way, York is lauding Margaret.  She, in turn, is clearly more admiring of York, despite her hatred of him and the threat he represents to her power and family, than she is of her thoughtful, weak-willed, intellectual, pious husband.  She is never quite the same after she and her allies kill York.  She is diminished by his loss at least as much as she is by the loss of her lover Suffolk, and we never even see her reaction to the news of her husband’s murder at the hands of Richard.  Only the loss of her son diminishes her more than the loss of York. 

In the 1966 BBC production of these plays by Peter Hall and John Barton, Peggy Ashcroft plays Margaret weeping silently as York berates her.  This is a particularly brilliant choice, I think.  It would be easy to see this in terms that are too simple.  Undoubtedly, her own empathy with York’s suffering emerges here, despite her hatred of him, simply because she can relate to the very pain she has inflicted upon him.  (What is it Hannibal says about acts of extreme cruelty requiring high levels of empathy?)  Ashcroft adds the tears herself, but the very rhythm of Margaret’s speeches in the scene give them authorial warrant.  She falls silent for a long time, allowing York to rave, and she then rallies herself, as if from paralysis.  (John Barton, one of the directors of this production, always said that Shakespeare himself directs actors from within the dialogue.)  This runs the risk of sentimentalising Margaret along sexist lines, as a woman tortured by the need to repress her feminine nurturing instincts, etc.  Of course, a woman raised in a patriarchal culture would likely be socialised to feel such things, or to expect to or want to feel such things, and might well react with pain to their necessary subversion and repression.  And of course, the writer is himself a product of the same culture.  But I find it interesting to think about how and why she is thus trapped.  It is not the direct statement being made about the supposed inherent traits of women, and the ostensible horror of their subversion, which resonates most deeply.  To me, Margaret’s tears are pricked by the awesome terror of history itself, and her tragic entrapment within it.  I personally see Margaret, for all her crimes, as essentially a hostage to fortune.  Her words, though sometimes terrifying and hateful, are a constant attempt to bargain with fortune, persuade fortune, threaten fortune - i.e. history - into releasing her from its chainmail grip. 

But with every male death, including that of York, history simply tightens its grip.  The ultimate gender contrarian - a female war-leader in a male and patriarchal warrior culture - she nevertheless still lives through the men, allies and foes alike.  To the extent that she can, or is required to, she lives for herself in her role as a war-leader, but gradually she is chipped away into fragments of her former self, and it is the disappearance of the men in whose world she lives that does it.  It is her good fortune to be living in extraordinary times that allows her freedoms and opportunities normally denied to women, even women of her class and position.  (The war thus mirrors again social changes going on in Shakespeare's time, which offered such new opportunities to some women.)  It is her simultaneous and paradoxical bad fortune that the same times entail a fight to the death which gradually destroys all the men who need her, or need to fight her.  It is through these men, and in the struggle between them, that she finds the logic of her own liberation.  So her liberation is also a dialectic of self-destruction.   

Yet, again, the grip has its points.  It is the wartorn, fractured, punishing historical moment in which she finds herself which permits her a limited freedom to express herself, her drive, her ambition, her ruthlessness, her dynamism, her immense and admirable fortitude.  She is thus liberated and condemned by two contradictory historical logics overlaid upon each other...  the essence of Shakespearean tragedy, and of the predicament of the Shakespearean tragic character. 

Pulled in so many directions at once, anyone would weep. 

But it could not be otherwise.  This is not an ironic juxtaposition brought on by happenchance.  This is the only way it could be, because if it were not that way, it would not be at all.  It’s an inevitable by-product of the mixed-up logic of a historical moment which scrambles culture and psyche in the wake of its irruptions and eruptions.  We’re talking of Shakespeare’s time, of course, which uses the Wars of the Roses, a spectre of its past and its birth, as the avatar of its own chaos and insecurity and devastation.  It is an expression of the historical moment in which Shakespeare was writing, in which some of the earliest stirrings of capitalism and modern empire are being overseen by a woman running a (relatively) newly centralised, bureaucratised, aggressive nation state which is beginning to spread feelers into global voyaging, defining itself in national and patriotic terms, etc.  It is entirely insufficient to look at the internal family politics of bloodline, and accidents of birth, and call that reason enough for a woman to be ruling in England at this time.  Those very same politics of bloodline and birth are a by-product of the need to preserve the new rising modernity from the zombie conflicts of the old world, from a resurgence of the dynastic wars.  They are also a by-product of the religious conflict wracking Europe, the Reformation, which is itself an expression of a vast clash of interests between rising and falling classes, rising and falling systems.  This is the same context which allows Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn, to whisper radical politics into the king’s ear via Tyndale, a man Henry VIII otherwise persecuted.  The rise of modernity is a warzone, and a battle to stop the resurgence of older wars and older crises, which offers strange and tragic opportunities for some.  Anne Boleyn, like Margaret in the plays, is complicit in arranging her own eventual downfall through helping to engineer her own rise.  The same dynastic politics of secure succession, all in the service of consolidating the new modern state without hazard, cause both her rise and fall.  People in Shakespeare’s time remembered Anne Boleyn, and they saw that their queen was old and childless.  Nobody knew quite what would happen when she died.  The issue of contested succession is constant in the literature, pamphleteering, and plays of the time… constant yet covert and encoded, as overt discussion of such things was all but forbidden.  (But we’ll get back to that another time.)

Though the gender dynamics are different, something similar happens for the character who will become the titular Richard III.  This may be why he, almost alone, hears Margaret in a way that the rest of the male characters do not.  He is, at least to some degree, an outsider too.  The kind of son who would normally be hidden from sight, the war is the dialectic of his liberation and ascendancy.  It liberates him, and unleashes him upon a world which marginalised him.  In calling upon his services, this world doesn’t realise what it is bringing down upon itself: nothing less than the emergent property of historical thanatos, or divine vengeance.  It is true of both Margaret and Richard: they are the war, the chaos, the crisis.  But this is not simply because they have made it happen.  Shakespeare's view of history is superficially that of the ‘great men’ or the ‘king list’, but actually he tends to see the dialectical interactions between structure and agency quite clearly.  He does not stumble upon historical materialism avant la lettre, and does not see the class struggle in the way I’d want, but he does see that we make our own lives in circumstances not of our own choosing.  And he does see that even as we make history, what we make sometimes slips our control and takes on the contours of a great impersonal machine… a machine which can catch its own builders in its mighty gears, and grind them to mincemeat.  His rulers and their satellites generally consider themselves, their passions, their flaws, their mistakes, their choices, their successes, to be the source of history.  And yet almost all of them find, sooner or later, that they are flies in amber, trapped in situations not of their own making, unable to find any way out which makes sense to them, unable to win without also losing, catalysing unintended negative consequences even in their victories.  One of the ways in which this trappedness of the prime movers is expressed is in terms of prophecy.  (But we’ll get back to that another time as well, hopefully quite soon if my plan comes together…)

Margaret’s trappedness is exponentially exacerbated by her built-in ambiguities, which stem from her position as both insider and outsider, occupier of both apex and bottom rung.  Both English and French; woman and warrior, ugly and beautiful, heartless yet full of the heart of a tyger, personification of the old and presager of the new.  And, as noted, she is liminal, on the cusp of history, balancing on its razors edge.   As the last meaningful revenant of Lancaster she is the enemy of York, but is also inescapably part of the dialectical system that is York/Lancaster.  As such she has strangely more in common with Richard than she has with Richmond, the Tudor pretender coming to displace and kill him, despite her support of Richmond and her yearning for Richard’s death.  But then, as I’ve hinted all the way along, though Richard’s enemy she is clearly the character most like him, and with whom he has most in common.  Their antagonism is palpable and merciless, and yet they never actually destroy each other.  How could they?  She has no part in his downfall beyond foreseeing it (not that this is as simple as it seems...)  His imprecations aside, he never actually rubs her out, despite her involvement in the deaths of his little brother and his father - and he certainly cares about these things in the earlier plays, before he makes his ‘choice’ to embrace villainy.  They just snap and bite and scratch at each other with words, words, words.  Richard is, of course, as much a creature of words as Margaret.  They both derive their power from their words, and their respective downfalls come from the same place, albeit in different ways.  Being a woman in a patriarchy, her words never quite work the way she intends; his words eventually fail him as he progressively makes his multiplying roles harder to play, and more contradictory.  This mutual basis in the verbal is a literal dialectic, and is a key mechanism by which they are drawn to each other… but, as is always the case with like poles, they repel each other. 

We know from rom-coms what all this means, going right back to Shakespeare’s comedies themselves.  The war of the sexes, with courtship as a battle for supremacy which ends with one side happy to be vanquished, is a repetitive trope of patriarchal culture.  (And that's without even going into Richard's deep, deep mummy issues.)  Richard and Margaret look like a twisted version of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, always seeking each other out for battles of wit and words, professing endless mutual hatred, and yet locked together in a spiralling descent pattern of mutual attraction.  (Yes, they are both repelled and attracted.  As is always the case, opposite poles attract.  The contradictions are constitutive.  That's how dialectics works.)  Richard and Margaret, of course, don’t get Beatrice and Benedick’s happy ending, for various reasons - not the least of which being that they’re in Shakespearean histories rather than comedies, and Shakespeare’s histories are, as Jan Kott put it, like escalators which pull a never-ending procession of kings and queens up the staircase of time before toppling them over the edge into oblivion.

This is the deeper reason why Richard and Margaret are so inextricably bound to each other, so alike.  Their verbal gender war is more than the perennial patriarchal joke mentioned above.  Their antagonistic sparring throughout the plays frequently involves insults that could be used by each of them interchangeably against the other, often literally. They insult each other by unwittingly emphasizing their similarities, or the similarities in how they are seen by the great club of which neither of them can ever quite be full members.  Their verbal duels are as much perverse courtship and solidarity as anything else.  And their sparring in Richard III itself actually involves Richard quickly substituting her own name for his at the end of a long curse she is trying to draw down upon him.  They are so alike that you can literally take Margaret’s words against Richard, change the name, and make it Margaret’s curse upon herself.  And Richard does just this.  And yet it doesn't work.  But then how could it?  They're so similar, so essentially doubled and unified, that the substitution can do nothing to deflect the curse.  (As we will see, this is far more than just a chance detail.  Prophecy is a serious business.) 

The BBC production from 1982 sees the twisted kinship between her and Richard so clearly that, in the very last sequence, the sequence which closes their entire production of the First Tetralogy, she is shown embracing his lifeless body atop a pile of bloody corpses, the dead of the wars which made and destroyed them both, of which they were both personifications, laughing maniacally at the great cosmic joke only she and him really get.

The joke is the paradox, and is also her inescapable curse.  She stays eternally chained to the corpse of the system she tried to save, to the iteration of it which tried to destroy her, to the man she hates, and through whom she had to live.  Her final victory over him is the final destruction of the world they both called home. 

They topple off the top of the escalator together, into the void, locked in each other’s embrace. 




Daibhid Ceannaideach 4 years, 3 months ago

(It's worth noting in passing that these words resonated so deeply with Shakespeare's contemporaries that they soon became famous. Indeed, it seems to have been possible for bitter wits to identify him as their target by parodying them.)

I have vague recollections of a radio programme that had a theory that Shakespeare - who as a young actor would probably have been playing female roles - wasn't just identified with the role of Margaret by Greene because he wrote it, but that it was his role.

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Jack Graham 4 years, 3 months ago

That's plausible, given that one of Greene's snarks is that Shakespeare is a self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades, an actor whon fancies himself as good a writer as the 'University Wits'.

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Mike 4 years, 3 months ago

Man, I really you've caught up on the Hollow Crown because the final moments of that series eerily predicts/echoes what you've said here...

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Jack Graham 4 years, 3 months ago

It's sat on my shelf, still waiting to be watched. But really looking forward to seeing Sophie Okenado's performance.

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Tom Marshall 4 years, 3 months ago

"Fintan O’Toole, in a wonderful book called Shakespeare is Hard, But So Is Life, says that Othello is as much Iago’s tragedy as it is Othello’s."

(Just briefly commenting on this bit for now, though looking forward to returning to read the whole article);

this is so, so true. I sometimes think "Othello" forms the final act of a greater tragedy called "Iago" where we saw the man he was before, too...

Have you seen "The Threepenny Opera" that's on at the moment, Jack? One of my favourite Brecht productions, and my god it's hard to do Brecht well.

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Anglocat 4 years, 3 months ago

Jack, I think this is the single best post I've read from you, and the best exploration of these characters I've seen. Outstanding post, and many thanks for it.

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Jack Graham 4 years, 3 months ago

Thanks; glad you enjoyed it.

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