Bit of an unplanned diversion for the Tricky Dicky series, this. Normal service to be resumed soon. (This series was always intended as a free-associating ramble.) We’re going to Shakespeare, albeit not in the way originally planned, so Spoiler Warning… um, for a play first performed about 423 years ago. Oh, and Trigger Warning, for discussion of recent violent acts, and some hardcore misogyny.
Apparently, the guy who recently murdered nine innocent people at Umpqua Community College in Oregon – let his name go unmentioned and unspoken, and be forgotten, for he is unimportant as an individual; and he made himself so – had the audacity to leave behind lots of written complaints at the site of his killing spree. They were mostly about not having a girlfriend, and about feeling that everybody else was crazy.
Oh, boo hoo. Join the fucking club, you fucking asshole. Most people have gone through the same or similar things at one time or another. A lot of people have gone through a lot worse. What gives you the right to express your displeasure at a routine and banal human experience by violating other people’s right to live?
Thing is… this is basically the opening of Richard III by William Shakespeare. (And by that I in no way intend to glamourize or dignify the murders.)
Richard opens the play by addressing the audience and telling them (us) his plans, much like one of these real-life murderers posting a manifesto (on paper, online, on YouTube, whatever) before embarking on his killing spree. (Because that’s basically what Richard does: go on a killing spree, albeit a rather more structured one.) Having whinged about how all the jocks are going around having fun and behaving like idiots now that peace has broken out, and about how ugly he thinks he is, and how he can’t dance and fuck and have girlfriends, Richard declares:
since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Almost immediately after this, Richard begins his campaign of sowing discord and blaming absolutely everything wrong with the world (which, to him and everyone he speaks to, means the court) on a woman, the Queen and her family – whom he asserts are all her tools.
Remember last time we talked about the ambitious, arriviste Woodville family who married into the Yorkist monarchy? The Queen in the play is the former Elizabeth Woodville, later Lady Grey (widowed), now Queen Consort Elizabeth, wife of Edward IV – Richard’s eldest brother. The play depicts her and her family as essentially innocent and good, which is historically doubtful but serves to underline Richard’s villainy, especially when he badmouths them and, at length, engineers the deaths of many of them. Lots of people will tell you that Shakespeare had to depict her positively as she was the great-grandmother of Elizabeth I (it’s complicated) but the play is actually very far from simply being Tudor ‘propaganda’, and Shakespeare depicts Edward IV (Elizabeth I’s great-grandfather) in decidedly mixed terms in the three plays in which he appears as a character.
Anyway, Richard (at this point still the Duke of Gloucester) expends a great deal of time, energy and wordage in the first part of the play abusing the queen, insulting her (both to her face and behind her back), engineering her downfall and blaming her for everything that goes wrong with the newly-established Yorkist monarchy. He plays upon the prejudices of his fellow (male) aristocrats in depicting her as tyrannically dominating the kingdom, unjustly elevating her relations, and victimizing anyone she doesn’t like, via her ascendancy over her henpecked husband. Even as he (Richard) engineers the arrest of his brother George (Duke of Clarence), Richard commiserates with Clarence about how it’s all the queen’s fault, promises to try to circumvent her plans, etc. He bandies around his contention that she is to blame for all of it to Clarence and other nobles. He’s like a modern MRA, obsessively promulgating the myth that society is dominated by women, and that men are the victims of misandry, and the illuminati one-world feminist overlords or whatever. “We are the queen’s abjects and must obey,” he says.
After seeing Clarence snared by the trap he laid, Richard goes on to undertake one of the most famous ‘seduction’ scenes in all drama, the wooing of Lady Anne. He murdered her husband, the Lancastrian Prince Edward, and her father-in-law, Henry VI, and he forces his attentions upon her as she leads her dead father-in-law’s body to burial. Nevertheless, in the face of her spitting rage and vehement hatred, he manages to chat her up. The meeting becomes a “keen encounter of [their] wits”, which he wins by forcing her onto the defensive and countering her at every turn, eventually backing her into a corner with the power of his rhetoric, creating a persona which invokes all the force of the language of courtly love and weaponizing it against her. He wins by being better at being in the play… which, going beyond what is always said about Richard being a kind of actor or dramatist, strikes me as a perfect metaphor for the way men both control and benefit from the way language and social intercourse is rigged in their favour in patriarchal social relations. He scolds her for lacking charity when she condemns him for his crimes, then blames her for the same crimes by implying that he did them for love of her. What was she wearing? Had she had a drink? Send the girls home from school because their clothes distract the boys. This is blaming the victim. It’s also pick-up artistry, complete with negging. (Sadly, in the play, it works.) His subsequent treatment of Anne makes it clear that he thinks of her as worthless, even after they marry.
Richard also makes great play of the fact that Lord Hastings and the King (bezzie mates) share a mistress, Mistress Shore. His main gripe – be it sincere or performative – is that the fate of the kingdom is in the hands of two women: the queen and Mistress Shore. His resentment at the way the Alpha jerks get all the girls, while the poor Betas (i.e. him) go without, is palpable; as is his rage at the ‘hypergamy’ implicit in the comparatively low-born Elizabeth (he makes the point by slyly referring to her as ‘Lady Grey’) marrying the king, and Mistress Shore having no less than two powerful boyfriends. The term ‘hypergamy’, which basically just means ‘marrying up’ (i.e. in terms of social position) has now been adapted by the assorted malignant fuckwits of the ‘Manosphere’ to mean the alleged (illusory) social process whereby women cynically flock to mate with handsome, wealthy ‘Alpha males’, leaving the vast majority of ‘Betas’ starved for partners. (The term ‘Beta’ is related, in the jargon of this bunch, to the term ‘incel’ for ‘involuntarily celibate’… aww, diddums).
The mouth-breathing bottom-feeders and fapping edgelords of 4Chan, where the Umpqua shooter appears to have announced his plans in advance, have been celebrating the ‘Beta revolution’ they think is coming, and threatening more shootings. This revolution will apparently take the form of inadequate misogynists with guns killing as many ‘normalfags’ (i.e. people they imagine oppress them simply by seeming less insular and butthurt by the world than they are) as possible, thus wreaking revenge on a cruel society that has rejected them by not giving them the respect they haven’t earned (sob). ‘Beta’ has stopped meaning ‘one of those friendly Daleks the Second Doctor created’ and, in the sadder corners of the internet, started being a kind of reverse badge of honour for self-pitying, self-loathing narcissists (and no, that isn’t a contradiction – see below) with more chips on their shoulders than a carpenter running amok with an axe in a wooden potato chip factory while wearing epaulettes made of glue. There’s a substantial overlap, at least in implicit worldview, between people like this and the assorted rectums of the Manosphere, and they tend to frame their descriptions of ‘hypergamy’ (or whatever they call it) in highly economic terminology, claiming that the collapse of traditional marriage (where that comes from I don’t know, given that they deny the existence of patriarchy) has created a woman-shortage for most men. This, of course, shows that they think of women (or the kinds of conventionally attractive women they think are the only ones worth considering) as a commodity, or rather a resource to which they are being denied their rightful access. We end up, of course, with the old paradoxes and dichotomies. Women are unpeople once they top 36 (at the latest), and whores when they’re young and have lots of sex (with people who aren’t me). I don’t know if the Umpqua College murderer was affiliated with MRAs or any of that rabble of reactionary, woman-hating dickbags, but if he wasn’t he certainly looks like their kind of material. Just as the “perfect gentleman” who killed loads of people in Isla Vista last year (it’s not that I’m neglecting my research again; I’m deliberately not naming any of these little shits in order to make a point) wasn’t actually an MRA or PUA but regurgitated loads of their talking points all the same. The only substantial difference between him and them being that he actually did something (albeit something vile), which is not true of most MRAs, who prefer to spend most of their activism time whingeing and bullying people on the internet.
These really are old paradoxes and dichotomies, by the way. Richard’s riffing on the problem of Mistress Shore makes use of highly gendered language, as does his abuse of the Queen. Mistress Shore is described in terms of being a sexual wanton, and the Queen is denigrated in terms of her age, etc. Later in the play, Richard uses Mistress Shore as a way of engineering the fall of Hastings by accusing her (in collusion with the Queen) of witchcraft (an obviously highly gendered crime; easy to smear her with because of her sexual reputation) and damning Hastings by association. His denunciation of her is as a “strumpet”.
Arguably, all Richard’s key encounters in the play are with women. He overcomes male opposition with relative ease until the end, but the women give him a much harder time of it, and you sense that the verbal duels with women are far more important to him. After winning Anne, he says that he is “crept in favour with myself” because of her good opinion. This is nonsense, of course, as Richard is the consummate narcissist, and doesn’t need any encouragement from Anne to want to stare at himself in a mirror or watch his own shadow. But it shows that his vanity feeds on the feelings of women. Not on their good opinion but rather on his ability to dominate and or humiliate them. Familiar much?
He has another such verbal duel with Margaret, the deposed former wife of Henry VI (whom Richard murdered) and mother of Prince Edward (whom Richard also murdered, albeit alongside his brothers). She is, understandably, none too fond of him. She can curse with the best of them, but he waits until she is about to name the victim of all her curses and then simply interjects with “Margaret” (apt enough, given that she has been guilty of almost every crime she lays at his door in her time). Margaret and Richard, for all that they hate each other, seem the most alike of all the squabbling nobles, though Richard sees his own villainy while Margaret stubbornly holds onto her self-righteousness.
Late in the play, after he is crowned, Richard attempts to curry favour with former queen Elizabeth, his brother’s widow. He’s been plotting against, scapegoating and abusing all the way through the play; he’s more-or-less murdered the rest of her family, including her two sons (those princes in the tower). He wants her to persuade her daughter (his niece) to marry him, thus solidifying his claim to the throne. The attempt is outrageous, but he assumes he can do it because… well, because every other outrageous thing he’s attempted to far has come off. The scene plays out as direct reiteration of the wooing of Lady Anne. Shakespeare invented the two scenes (they are not drawn from any sources) in order to create a symmetry in the action between Richard’s rise and his fall. His attempted persuasion of Elizabeth is as much a wooing of her as it is a proposal to woo her daughter. The scene mirrors the seduction of Lady Anne in that it resembles it in reverse. Richard is forced onto the rhetorical defensive, and Elizabeth comes off better in the quickfire debate. His skill as a manipulator (actor, performer, writer, enjoyer of patriarchal privilege) is now waning. He is outmanoeuvred by one of the people he previously thought of as characters in a drama that he was writing; by a woman. Elizabeth’s final winning move is to play to his vanity by letting him think he has swayed her. More, she plays to his sense of entitlement by making think he has been given that to which he considers himself entitled. (The text actually is ambiguous as to her true feelings, yet if she is taken in, it doesn’t last long, and she is soon plotting against him again.) He goes away confident, spuriously triumphant, radiating yet more contempt for women (”shallow changing woman”) who are foolish enough to be taken in by him, which indicates not only misogyny but misogyny rooted in insecurity and inadequacy (not, as I say, contradictory with his narcissism, since narcissism is a defensive reaction to deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. If you stare in the mirror all day thinking “you’re ugly, everybody hates you” you’ve still spent all day staring into the mirror).
Richard’s essential self-adoration is revealed by the fact that, aside from bumping off his wife out of convenience, he chooses not to act upon his supposed desire for women. Like any good ‘man going his own way’, he is morbidly obsessed with women. But he is certainly uninterested in them sexually. I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with that – please don’t interpret this as some kind of heteronormative or cis-sexist statement. I’m saying that between his statements and his actions falls a shadow. Anne, once married to him, says she is kept awake in his bed only by his “timorous dreams”. For all his talk of sexual frustration, the truth is that he doesn’t really want to “strut before a wanton ambling nymph”. This is not a guy who has to live without love or sex if he doesn’t want to. His spiel at the start is self-justification, after-the-fact rationalisation of his narcissism, misanthropy and misogyny… just like the complaints of Nice Guy Syndromers and the blarney of MRAs and PUAs. You will hear a lot from pockets in this milieu about their own shortcomings (which women are, of course, shallow bitches for not overlooking… while also being outrageously selfish for getting old, putting on weight or acquiring stretch marks after pregnancy). The sense of inadequacy in the face of other men, richer and/or more conventionally good-looking men, is very pronounced. And yet this kind of ‘Beta’ self-disparagement is pure vanity and narcissism, as noted. It is self-obsession. As with Richard, the sense of aggrieved entitlement gives it away. Why didn’t nature/society/luck provide me with the looks/money/status I obviously deserve… and having been cheated of this things that are rightfully mine, how dare women add insult to injury by not acting like it’s still the 1800s and obeying me (or the mythical 60s and supplying free love)… and on and on and on and fucking on…
Richard isn’t really repellent, not physically anyway, and not even in terms of his surface personality. Plenty of people talk about how hideous he is, but it’s usually his enemies, people who are directly attempting to denigrate or infuriate him. He clearly has objective ‘deformities’ – his ‘crookback’, his mismatched legs, and his withered arm – but they don’t stop him being a very effective warrior, as we see in Henry VI ii and iii. (And we’re not here going to even start deconstructing the idea that ‘deformity’ equals ugliness, much though it needs deconstructing.) Neutral persons or allies don’t mention his ostensible ugliness or deformity. On the contrary, people tend to find him plausible and charming, even admirable, rather than terrifying or repulsive. He manages to successfully chat up a woman who hates him, and whose husband he killed, while they stand over the body of the father-in-law she loved and he murdered. She goes ahead and marries him. Admittedly, this is partly supposed to be down to her own foolishness (which she herself acknowledges later in the play), which plays into patriarchal ideological notions of women as fickle, etc… but Shakespeare makes Richard put a lot of work into that scene. He knows the audience won’t buy it if Anne just changes her mind quickly after a bit of flattery. He lets Richard win the encounter – just – by the skin of his teeth, and then puts a separation of time between this and the marriage, implying more persuasion. The difficulty, paradoxically, emphasizes the fact that the seemingly impossible event occurred at all, and why it occurred. It’s clearly meant to represent a meaningful seduction of a woman who is not stupid, by a man possessed of some intense form of personal attractiveness. Indeed, Shakespeare builds the entire play on Richard’s attractiveness! We, the audience, are attracted and seduced as well. Richard takes us into his confidence and we are thrilled to watch him play everyone around him like violins. And, back within the story, there’s always women like Mistress Shore, who seem happy to take lovers of status. This is not a guy who needs to be alone if he doesn’t want to. Even if he’s gay – as played by McKellen and Dreyfuss (ha) – he could easily have partners, sex, love, if he wanted them. He inspires loyalty and admiration in a great many men throughout the play, men of all sorts of social status. The truth is that he doesn’t care about other people, except as means to his ends. And he is not much different to his fellow aristocrats in this, though considerably more honest about it with himself and us (the audience). It’s a product of privilege. When it comes to women specifically, he is uninterested in them except in terms of assuaging his feelings of resentment and inferiority towards them. He doesn’t want to love and be loved by women. He wants to dominate and punish them. He doesn’t actually want affection or intimacy from anyone, man or woman. Richard is entirely wrapped-up in and with himself. In his opening speech he complains that he is “not made to court an amorous looking-glass”. His picture of the notional lover he claims to long for flips mid-sentence to become a mirror. He’s actually in a deeply passionate romantic relationship all the way through the play. With himself. I think that’s probably pretty relevant to the kinds of men who go out killing because they’re romantically or sexually frustrated… or rather who imagine that they do. Like Richard, they are creatures born of a clash between privilege and disappointment. The feeling of monstrous, cosmic unfairness that leads them to go killing people because they’re not happier with their lives is an artefact of privilege. It’s what happens when someone in the most privileged group looks up and sees even more privileged people above him, and notices the unfairness… without ever looking below himself and seeing the predicament of people less privileged. Indeed, it’s the very privilege that blinds them to the people below them. Those are the people they expect to be served by. (None of this, while partaking of the modern discourse of ‘privilege’, is in any way necessarily in contradiction with a Marxist class-struggle model of society… but I’ll get to that some other time.)
I’m abusing the play, to be honest. I’m forcing it into service to make some rather crude points. But they’re points that can stand being made, especially since such rudimentary principles as ‘don’t murder people because you haven’t got a girlfriend, or murder your girlfriend because she left you, or perhaps just because she annoyed you’ seem to elude so many men. It’s a play with a great deal going on in it (some of which I hope to talk about in later posts in this series), and I wouldn’t want you to think that what I’m doing here represents my take on What It Definitively Means. No. Still less am I offering this as a ‘Marxist analysis’ or anything like that. A left-wing analysis, sure. Perhaps even a very sketchy pop-feminist analysis. But a proper Marxist analysis would have other fish to fry (though I hope it wouldn’t neglect these issues). However, I don’t actually think I’m mapping anything onto the play that isn’t in it. I’m not forcing anachronistic resonances onto it, as long as we don’t take my exact parallels too seriously. The attitudes I’m finding in Richard – the seething hatred and resentment of women stemming from male privilege, narcissism and thwarted patriarchal entitlement – are there to be found, complete with their echoes of so much of today’s seemingly-escalating online misogyny and anti-feminism. Sadly, the play cannot be said to be a straightforward indictment of his attitudes, though there are long scenes in which there are only female characters on stage, talking at length about their losses, grievances, hopes, fears, etc. (They’re usually cut from productions, mysteriously… oh, and I don’t think they give the play a pass on the Bechdel Test, since the female characters’ grievances are mostly about men. I love the idea of judging Shakespeare by the Bechdel Test, by the way. So perversely satisfying. I’m sure it’s been done.)
Startlingly, the play brings in Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, to accuse and berate her son. He never wins an argument against her. In the early part of the play he dodges these arguments by strategically missing her points (muttering about her to us, the audience, behind her back as he is too afraid of her to tackle her head-on). In the later part of the play, after he has become king, he tries to use his new position to bully her into silence or humility. The chance he’s been waiting for for years. She waylays him and he tells his drummers to keep drumming, drowning her out, unless she promises not to tell him off. “Madam, I have a touch of your condition,” he tells her, “which cannot brook the accent of reproof”. Compared to the easy contempt and vitriol he spews elsewhere in the play, there’s a real sense that he had to gird his loins to manage even that curiously weak rebuke to his mummy. Having killed her other sons, he then presents himself to her as the last son standing, no doubt hoping to finally be her favourite. He uses this power – as well as the power of the kingship – to attempt to control her. Yet you feel that he is burned by her bitter reproaches.
The mummy issues are huge here, and I’d love to be able to say that Shakespeare presents them as entirely Richard’s problem… but the text tends to support the idea that Richard might have legitimate grounds to resent his mother, which is pretty problematic in a play about such a monstrous figure. Whereas he has known acceptance, trust and admiration from his male relatives and allies (both in this play and the two previous ones in which he appears), his mother evinces no fondness for him whatsoever. She even hints at a negative attitude towards his version of military prowess… the main source of his status (prior to achieving the crown) in the warrior culture in which he lives. She unhesitatingly sides with his enemies in the post-Wars of the Roses situation. In her confrontations with him, she uses guilt as a weapon, invoking the pain she went through when giving birth to him (in a way that women elsewhere in Shakespeare usually only do when pleading with someone else for a son’s life), and listing her disappointments with him going back to day one. Admittedly, her perception of him is validated by his own behaviour, but you can’t help wondering whether her perception pre-dated the behaviour. His desire for uncritical maternal affection – and, to be less sentimental about this, his desire to escape judgement by puzzling socially-atypical female authority – is indicated in the creepy way he ends his attempt to win-over Elizabeth (who, it will be remembered, is an older woman) by calling her “mother” and then forcing a kiss on her.
This sort of stuff was obviously Shakespeare’s plan for the character. Back in Henry VI iii, Richard begins the process of rationalising his quest for power, and he does it in typically circular, self-involved, self-enclosed, self-pitying terms which drip with resentment towards women in general, female personifications of natural forces, and his mother in particular, with the mother and the longed-for sexual partners in uncomfortable proximity:
Well, say there is no kingdom then for Richard;
What other pleasure can the world afford?
I’ll make my heaven in a lady’s lap,
And deck my body in gay ornaments,
And witch sweet ladies with my words and looks.
O miserable thought! and more unlikely
Than to accomplish twenty golden crowns!
Why, love forswore me in my mother’s womb:
And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,
She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe,
To shrink mine arm up like a wither’d shrub;
To make an envious mountain on my back,
Where sits deformity to mock my body;
To shape my legs of an unequal size;
To disproportion me in every part,
Like to a chaos, or an unlick’d bear-whelp
That carries no impression like the dam.
And am I then a man to be beloved?
The italics are mine. (Sorry about the gap. I can’t yet solve the formatting problem!)
A Freudian reading of Richard III is actually far better justified than a Freudian reading of Hamlet, I think. And if we’re talking about psychoanalytic readings of Shakespeare, I should mention Janet Adelman’s book Suffocating Mothers, in which Adelman adumbrates the above passage as a crucial iteration of themes in the First Tetralogy (Henry VI I, ii, iii & Richard III) and in Shakespeare’s work more generally. She points out that the Tetralogy is fraught with anxieties about threats to masculinity from female power, and goes on to claim that a great part of Shakespeare’s career as an artist is taken up with a central problem of masculinity threatened by femaleness, with the threat located (or articulated) in the literal or figurative maternal figure. Hamlet resurrects the problem (after a period in which Shakespeare left it alone) with its depiction of Gertrude, whose female sexual and maternal body poisons Hamlet’s masculinity by the adulteration of the father from which the son tries to draw his masculine identity. In subsequent plays, Shakespeare tries to resolve, solve, negotiate, renegotiate or efface this preoccupation in various ways. (Fair disclosure, it’s been a while since I read Adelman, and couldn’t find my old copy, so I’ve been refreshing my memory of her arguments with the use of this review: http://extra.shu.ac.uk/emls/iemls/shaksper/files/MOTHERS%20REVIEW.txt)
I seem to remember finding many of Adelman’s claims unconvincing, what with them being grounded in psychoanalytic assumptions rather than the historical/social context of the time. I also seem to recall regretting an over-willingness on her part to read texts figuratively according to her needs when they actually fail to touch literally upon her chosen subjects. And I say all this with a proper awareness that she’s a real academic and a seriously learned person, whereas I’m just some random blogger. I also say it as someone with a fair bit of time for Freudian/psychoanalytic readings… at least, for a Marxist. I tend to find such readings seductive as a description of the poetic effect or logic of a text but insufficiently penetrative (ooh, there’s Freudian for you) as an analytical tool (bloody hell Jack, you should’ve quit while you were ahead). To be serious, I like a bit of psychoanalytic criticism, though I’m unconvinced by it. I especially enjoy Lacanian criticism, especially via Žižek (which is how most of us seem to get our Lacanian criticism these days) despite my issues with the man.
Having just nobodysplained to Adelman about where she’s wrong, there’s no doubt that she hits on something big. The following statement (quoted in the above-linked review) seems very fine and true, for instance (though I might quibble with some of the terminology):
Despite Shakespeare’s sometimes astonishing moments of sympathetic engagement with his female characters, his ability to see the world from their point of view, his women will [from Hamlet on, presumably] tend to be like Gertrude, more significant as screens for male fantasy than as independent characters making their own claim to dramatic reality; as they become fused with the mother of infantile need, even their fantasized gestures of independence will be read as the signs of adulterate betrayal.
Adelman is on pretty firm ground when treating the actual mothers who appear in Shakespeare texts, and even when treating some of the less literal mothers. There is definitely something to her reading of Macbeth as attempting to escape the threatening power of women, what with the witches, Lady Macbeth’s ambiguous maternal status, and the birth/pregnancy/delivery/milk/baby metaphors which pervade the play.
Shakespeare, like Richard, seems to have had some mummy issues, to be honest. There’s Gertrude, of course. There’s also the dominating and emotionally-abusive Volumnia, mother of Coriolanus. She embodies the warlike Roman virtues (though she’s got at least as much to do with the martial patriotism of Shakespeare’s culture, with all its dawning imperialism) and instils them into her son, emotionally and socially stunting him in the process. She trains him in pride and brutality and isolation, and all through obsessive, creepily sexualised, yet highly conditional love. It leaves Coriolanus incapable of reacting to anyone with tenderness except her (and, arguably, his enemy counterpart), fatally vulnerable to her demands, incapable of holding onto a stable and autonomous masculinity, ultimately destroyed by this inability. (Of course, I’d want to pay at least as much attention to the social context of Shakespeare’s time, which is ultimately more germane.) There’s the passive-aggressive, manipulative, deeply interfering Countess Roussillon in All’s Well That Ends Well (though Shakespeare is arguably still on her side in this play, what with its frankly startling sympathy for the female social predicament). And there’s the Duchess of York in Richard III, who manages to be a deeply ambiguous depiction of a woman who rightly criticises an outrageously villainous son, yet who also seems frowned-upon by the text. Even as she denounces with truth, we sense the text backing up Richard’s resentment of her. And this fits into a matrix of associations in the dramaturgy and language of a series of plays which situate all manner of anxieties and repulsions in the figures of powerful women.
Arguably, Richard III is the point in the Tetralogy where the narrative achieves some self-awareness about its own anxieties about women, with the misogynistic triangulations of Richard confronting the narrative with its own worries. Those worries are transfigured into the creepy blamegame of a monstrous, self-loathing narcissist who is also a kind of actor/playwright of the diegetic reality in which he lives. And yet, as Adelman points out, even the righteously and vocally pissed-off women of Richard III spend the play becoming more and more powerless. Their Senecan complaints may be powerful, but they express powerlessness. Even the ferocious Margaret, such a force in the earlier plays, is rendered ineffectual and eventually absent. It’s more than a little reminiscent of the way in which today’s misogynists constantly and eagerly ‘warn’ feminists of what may happen one day, when men have finally had enough, when the – I dunno – Beta revolution begins or something
Of course, I’d want to argue that the really interesting thing about depictions such as this is not what they tell us about Shakespeare as a man, or about some notional psychoanalytical truth about all humans everywhere at all times and in all places, but rather what they tell us about the circumstances of their production and distribution, and by extension the circumstances in which they have continued to be produced and distributed. The social context, in other words.
This is the real issue when it comes to all depictions, both in terms of understanding where they come from and in understanding what they do. (And here, if I were being thorough, I’d go into ideology and dialectics. Maybe in a later post.) When the depictions represent male ideological conceptions of femaleness, the interesting – indeed crucial – thing is to look at how these ideological conceptions are constructed, disseminated, understood, etc. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that my pat answer to this (it’s actually a hugely complex and contingent issue) is that they tell us something about patriarchal relations within a historically specific form of hierarchical class society. There’s all sorts of interesting stuff about how Shakespeare’s society is in transition, which – again – I intend to get to in later posts. One thing I will mention here in passing is the way in which, because Shakespeare’s society is one in which the old feudal warrior code/ethic is being adapted into semi-obsolescence, the texts of the time have a fascinatingly conflicted and ambivalent relationship with martial culture (which, of course, is also steeped in all sorts of patriarchal conceptions and assumptions about masculinity).
The really key point for the purposes of the current discussion is the frankly terrifying way in which many of these depictions seem so consistent with forms of patriarchal, sexist, misogynistic ideology which are still very much with us today, or at least are mirrored in contemporary forms. Forms of ideology which are, it would seem, still playing their subjective part in feeding into male violence against women, and against society generally.
Ultimately, Richard doesn’t really convince as a medieval MRA or an Elizabethan (to take the time when the play was written) spree killer. These are rhetorical flourishes of mine. And besides, he’s too charming, too attractive. Shakespeare invites us to be caught up in the man’s energy, cleverness, daring, wit, quickness, determination, etc. There are other guiltier desires he serves too, such as the desire to see the canting world of respectable hypocrites punished by an honest hypocrite, a hypocrite who is honest with us about what he really is. But Richard is one of Shakespeare’s earliest full-blooded stage creations; one of the first with real interiority. And it comes from his failure to properly understand himself, to even begin to get a handle on his mass of neuroses. And these neuroses are heavily bound up with misogyny, and a massive inferiority complex about women, about a masculinity threatened by mother, lover, wife and queen. Richard is, in some ways, the embodiment of a deep strain of misogynistic anxiety in the First Tetralogy itself, pulling itself apart from the rest of the text and then looking back at the text, and at us, and reflecting what he looks at. He’s a mirror in this respect too. And what we see reflected in him is, at least in part, the homicidal energies of patriarchy within class society. The play is, as I say, about 423 years old. It’s wonderful that we can still see so much in it that is directly relevant to our current predicament. It’s also, in another way, seriously fucking depressing.