Are the women of Shakespeare’s Richard III irrelevant and weak, or is there something else going on?
It’s easy to find yourself wondering, what is wrong with the women in Shakespeare’s Richard III?
It starts with Anne’s strange volte-face to Richard’s wooing, and gets worse when Queen Elizabeth agrees to allow the deformed king to marry her daughter, who also happens to be his niece.
Richard’s Way With the Women
In Richard III, more than any other Shakespeare play, it seems as though the women have lost their spirit.
In the face of an incredibly unappealing suitor, the recently bereaved Anne inexplicably agrees to marry her husband’s killer. And Elizabeth, whose sons have also been killed by the maniacal king, acquiesces to him marrying her daughter.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the women of the play are inconsequential; pawns that are used to satisfy Richard’s whims. You’d also be forgiven for thinking that they are weak, as they seem to so easily bend to his will. After all, this would appear to be a fair assessment of the play, until we stop and look at the dialogue.
Are The Women of Richard III Irrelevant?
If the female characters of Richard III were really inconsequential, then Shakespeare wouldn’t have wasted time toiling over their words. Instead, he’s created some fabulous dialogue for both Anne and Elizabeth, which shows, in both cases, that not only are these woman intelligent, they’re quick-witted and they’re feisty.
Anne has an incredibly witty exchange with Richard, which is a rather dark version of the conversation between Katharina and Petruchio in The Taming of The Shrew. Likewise, Elizabeth does not give up without a fight, and yet, eventually, and with seemingly no reason, they do both relent to him.
If we agree these aren’t stupid woman and they’re not easily pushed around, why the sudden change in attitude?
The Smarts of Self-Preservation
I think the most important thing to remember when reading or watching Richard III (or any Shakespeare play for that matter), is that the world these women inhabit is vastly different from the one in which we live.
These girls have no power, no way of earning money, cannot own property, and are, therefore, entirely dependant upon a husband. Anne’s husband has just died, so what’s to become of her? Elizabeth knows that her daughter could be socially and financially (not to mention physically) damaged by her uncle, if he sees fit to do so.
In both cases, these women are, right from the start, beholden to Richard. Surely then, the only reason they bend to his wishes, is because they have no other choice?
It’s very unlikely, given the ferocity with which she expresses her hatred, that Anne suddenly takes a fancy to Richard. I’d also bet the farm that Elizabeth doesn’t have a dramatic change of heart, which tells her the king is not such a bad guy after all.
And Let’s Not Forget…
When we’re talking about the women of Richard III, it would be criminal not to mention Margaret. She, unlike the others, has no similar problem of self-preservation. She is already outcast by every other character, she’s got nothing to gain by trying to get on Richard’s good side. And she has no intention of swallowing her pride, or her hatred of him.
Moreover, she does have some sort of power in the play: her curses, which all come true.
But this, of course, is cold comfort. She’s able to exact some small revenge. However, bringing misery to others does not ease her own. She, like the other women, is left on the sidelines. They watch their husbands, sons, fathers and uncles kill each other in what seems to be a senseless and endless cycle of violence.
Yes, the women of Richard III are pretty powerless, but that doesn’t mean they are weak. In fact, their ability to survive, despite the chaos and brutality around them, is testament to an underlying strength.