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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How Women Function in "Richard III"

In her book Women’s Matters: Politics, Gender and Nation in Shakespeare’s Early History Plays, Nina S. Levine describes how Richard’s simultaneous dependence on and hatred of women that results in his “warring with women” throughout the play was ultimately reflective of the crisis of succession and a female monarch experienced by Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience (99). Levine argues that while Richard makes a claim for the women as unnatural, sexually perverse enemies, an Elizabethan audience would have seen their lamentation and cursing as “an acceptable model for female heroism” that allows the female characters “a place in politics [beyond] Richard’s misogynistic construction of women as either aggressors or victims” (102). Rather than portraying Margaret as a passive victim, she is aligned with Richard as a foil character, equally implicated in the play’s bloody conflict while actively reasserting her last “vestiges of power” in the form of elaborate curses (102). Anne on the other hand embodies the contradictory role of women within a patriarchal lineage system, in which she becomes trapped within Richard’s manipulation of “courtly discourse” to confirm both his power over her and his dependence on her. Finally, Levine illustrates how Elizabeth functions as a positive symbol of maternal heroism and aggression, battling for her children rather than herself (107-8). However, the women also represent a maternal source of destruction that mirrors contemporary concerns with “the female Tudor body politic” and Richard’s own misogynistic discourse on the subversion of masculine power and proper sexuality (110). Levine suggests that the women “turn their grief into vengeance” in an attempt to “[right] the monstrosity they have engendered” in Richard, or as an Elizabethan audience would have seen, in the Queen’s England (115). Ultimately, the play “interrogates the differences between the patriarchal myth of Tudor origins and the political realities of the 1590s” by underscoring Shakespeare’s ending that “[restores] patriarchal authority…and [returns] women to their place, off the political stage” as fictional and unrelated to the reality of England’s reliance on “women’s roles…in ensuring the succession…and the nation’s welfare” (120, 122).

Not only does this essay provide the role of women in the play with historical relevance, suggesting what they might have meant to Shakespeare’s audience, but it also demonstrates how Shakespeare’s use of Tudor propaganda might be used to critically examine patriarchy and its cultural myths. According to this essay, the women of Richard III are actively engaged in politics in a way that undermines traditional gender roles and empowers them, even when they are potentially implicated in the destruction and chaos of the play. This essay establishes the world of the play as destabilized in a way that empowers its female characters, providing them a crucial place in the political sphere even within a system that attempts to exclude them. Levine’s essay also allows a modern production to situate the play within the frameworks of post-modernism, cyborg feminist theory, and the current political scene that has just experienced a comparable overturning of traditional white, Western, patriarchal notions of who is fit to rule a country.


Levine, Nina S. Women’s Matters: Politics, Gender and Nation in Shakespeare’s Early History Plays. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press. 1998.

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