The women’s lamentation in Richard III played a political, social, and moral role in this play. It propagated feminist concerns through the women’s intelligence and sensitivity in their period of mourning; it challenged the political status quo through their pleas, and it highlighted the moral decadence of their society through their losses.
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How their lamentation brought out Richard’s weaknesses and women’s strength
Sensitivity, intuition, and alertness distinguish the women in Shakespeare’s Richard III. This serves to bring out the dishonesty inherent in the King’s character. The dialogue he has with these women during their lamentation is symptomatic of his view of them. To Richard III, they were nothing but mere objects. However, it is this attitude that reveals his flaws. The women’s mourning is an exemplary depiction of their sensitivity and intuition.
Act one, scene two, starts with Lady Anne following the coffin that carries Henry VI’s body. She is going for his burial and is clearly bitter and angry about it. She calls Richard III all manner of names and swears and curses haphazardly. Lady Anne describes him as a hedgehog, toad, devilish slave, and a dreadful minister of hell (Shakespeare 1.2. 44-170). She seems so engrossed in her lamentation that one might be tempted to think that she is enjoying it.
After this swearing, Lady Anne then explains the source of her bitterness. Richard does not deny that he killed her husband’s father as well as her husband; he only adds that love motivated him. It is at this point that one first realizes how selfish and arrogant Richard was. Instead of empathizing with Anne’s grief, he turns the matter around and asks her to marry him. This individual makes the matter about him rather than about a bereaved lady. Furthermore, he mocks Anne by telling her to kill him. He even gives her his sword to achieve this. It is not difficult to detect Richard’s treachery; he was aware that Lady Anne was incapable of executing him (Shakespeare 1.2.171), so he was simply trying to downplay her emotions. At the time, Richard took advantage of a grieving woman to achieve his own aims.
One may be tempted to take Richard’s side when he confesses to the murders because he is trying to be sincere. However, after Lady Anne leaves the scene, Richard immediately remarks that he is not worth even a portion of Edward’s value. This illustrates that this individual lacked any moral fiber within him. He already began planning how he would woo Lady Anne. Richard’s attitude serves to concretize Lady Anne’s place as a victim to his self-seeking interests. He was a liar, murderer, and a dominator to boot.
One sees the same selfishness in Richard’s interaction with Queen Elizabeth. She has lost her two sons, who Richard killed. The Queen is facing an immense tragedy because the loss of one’s children is even more painful than the loss of one’s husband. Instead of empathizing with this lamenting woman, Richard chooses to ask for her daughter’s hand. Once again, this was a classic display of Richard’s arrogance and vanity.
He did not care about the pain he had caused Queen Elizabeth but only focused on what he could get out of her. If she accepted his proposal, Richard would preserve his hold on power through her lineage. In their exchange, one can clearly relate to Elizabeth’s pain and terror. Her lamentation is also indicative of her state of alertness. When Richard asks to marry her daughter, she responds by asking him for more time. Elizabeth knew that she was in a state of confusion, owing to her grief. In order to avoid making a severe mistake, she buys more time by telling Richard that she will talk to her daughter about it.
One would expect that a lamenting woman is an easily victimized one. However, Elizabeth proves that this assumption is untrue when she detects Richard’s character. By asking Richard, “Shall I be tempted by the devil thus?” (Shakespeare 2. 4. 420), she illustrates her awareness of Richard’s folly. Therefore, Queen Elizabeth’s lamentation serves to highlight her intelligence and alertness. One may be tempted to think that she is a victim of Richard’s folly, but she is sharply aware of her place. She did not dismiss Richard immediately because she needed to preserve her future and that of her daughter too.
Scholars claim that Richard III was one of the most villainous Shakespearean creations. He is evil and delights in using force and fear to govern. In fact, it is only his sharp words that mask these qualities. The women in Richard III can see through Richard’s tricks and can predict the outcomes of his actions even in their state of mourning. To Richard, women were tools to be used in his game of power. However, these women are not clueless about Richard’s trickery. They realize that they need to think about their options in order to protect themselves.
Lamentation as a political tool
In order to understand the implications of women’s lamentation fully, one must familiarize oneself with the historical expectations of the Elizabethan audience that Shakespeare wrote for. At the time, male patriarchy was a grave reality. Consequently, women would only access politics through limited avenues, and lamentation was one of them. It should be noted that this same audience had a female monarch owing to a crisis in succession.
That society regarded women’s participation in politics as peripheral unless one was a monarch. These expectations set the stage for Shakespeare’s choices in ‘Richard III’. He used a seemingly insignificant act, such as mourning, to empower these women or create heroes out of them. The playwright places most women on the sidelines in this narrative. They can only criticize, mourn, and bury the dead. However, through Elizabeth’s lamentation, audiences got to appreciate the Queen’s strong sense of maternal heroism. She was more concerned about her children’s well being than her own interests.
Conversely, Margaret’s lamentation illustrated the female’s ability to maintain a grip on power. She curses elaborately but still contributes towards the tensions in the play. Conversely, Anne’s lamentations illustrate how women in that era still had a certain power over men. Richard has to confront Lady Anne despite her state of mourning in order to court her. He depended on her even though he appears to exert power over her (McEachcran 22).
Overly, one can treat women’s lamentation as an outlet for them. These women had endured monstrous acts under Richard III’s hands. As stated earlier, they lived in a patriarchal society. The 1590s were a time when women played a subservient role in society. It should not be surprising that Shakespeare wrote the play in a manner that would gain acceptance among them. Society depended on women for succession and protection of their welfare, but it would not admit this openly. Shakespeare chose to put women in their place by using an uncontroversial method to demonstrate their power.
Women’s mourning was a source of political protest. In this regard, women were acting as change agents in their society. Their expression of grief was their way of demonstrating their own displeasure with the status quo. It had the potential to alter how England administered its political sphere. Lady Anne’s words in the first Act seem less about grief and more like an attack upon Richard. This individual had a rebellious power over him. Richard was also aware of this power that she exercised. She seemed warrior-like in her attacks against him at the beginning. Furthermore, Richard asserted that women’s mourning might spark off civil unrest. There was strength in their lamentations because it questioned the legitimacy of Richard’s rule.
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The women in this play are symbols of Elizabethan moral worldviews. Margaret, Elizabeth, Anne, and Duchess reflect how Shakespeare understood ethics. In the process of lamenting, these women illustrate how victimization occurs when destruction and violence become commonplace. Power was the King’s obsession, and others wanted to take the King’s place by causing a civil war. It was this state of affairs that led to the destruction that affected the women in the play.
Through the women’s lamentation, Shakespeare wanted to show how individuals, the family, and societies can be subjected to a state of anarchy when moral decay occurs. Their agony and grief are quite imminent when they curse and moan over the loss of their loved ones. Anne suffered from the death of her husband and father in law. Duchess and Elizabeth also faced the same degree of sadness. These women are in a state of despair. The Duchess explains that she had experienced eighty years of sorrow. She felt that her only source of relief was the grave. She added that a week of sorrow neutralized one hour of joy (Shakespeare, 4.1.120).
Queen Margaret and the Duchess’ complaints have not been underscored. In fact, one can even assert that Shakespeare overdid it with regard to these women’s suffering. Through the state of annihilation, in these communities, guilt, sorrow, and grief reduced women to helpless beings. In the last Act of the play, all women come together to mourn about society’s injustices. Elizabeth even seeks to learn about cursing from Margaret. The latter individual realizes that mourning is her only outlet, and she might as well learn how to do it well. They were sufferers of the disorder that was prevalent in their time.
The women’s lamentation as a source of revenge
Revenge or retributive justice was also another way that the women utilized lamentations in Richard III. In the first Act, scene two, Lady Anne asks God for vengeance upon the people who brought so much pain to her. In the final Act, the three ladies cry for revenge. Among all these women, the need for revenge excessively motivated Margaret. One may sometimes see this character as a spokesperson for all the historical facts of violence that took place after Henry IV’s reign.
During Margaret’s lamentations, the audience learns about Henry IV’s abandonment of moral principles, King Edward IV’s disregard for their commitments to the people, the Yorkists’ war incitements, and Clarence’s failure to abide by moral codes. Violent rulers and accomplices filled this society. None of them would undo the decades of civil disorder and individualism that they had experienced. Indeed, Margaret’s lamentation summarized the generational nature of this society’s problems. These people’s leaders were highly immoral. Anne’s and Margaret’s mourning highlights how Richard epitomized this state of affairs (McEachcran 18).
The women were not always mourning; in certain scenarios, they also vented out their hatred for Richard and other rulers who caused the disorder. In one instance, Margaret apportions blame to King Edward, Dorset, Clarence, and Richard for her losses. She even religiously predicts that justice will come upon her oppressors through destruction. What is even more amusing is that sometimes the curses boomerang to the speaker. Shakespeare probably did this in order to symbolize England’s mess. He wanted to show that although the women were victims of social injustice, they also participated in its creation.
However, Shakespeare stresses the fact that vengeance never belongs to man, but God instigates it. The women never realize that their wishes cannot be regarded as divine orders. Margaret’s curses and calls for justice came to pass not because she caused them to occur, but because fate willed it. She did not exert revenge upon her oppressors or wrongdoers. The other wailing women were not willing to step outside of themselves in order to recognize their own sense of guilt.
The women’s misguided need for revenge can be contrasted to Richmond’s concepts. His values involved the recognition of a higher order. It also involved an element of forgiveness. Therefore, the need to exert revenge upon others taints the women’s character. One may perceive Richmond as the savior to this society. He comes in at the end of the play, and seems as though he has not been tainted by the moral disorder in England. The women’s lamentation had a myopic effect because they did not see their wrongs; Richmond submits to a higher order and thus makes the point that vengeance should not be carried out by man but should be left to God (Levine 44).
When compared to Richard, the women serve to bring out Richard’s ill moral character. However, when contrasted to Richmond, the women’s lamentation serves to illuminate their own character flaws. Shakespeare illustrates that the problem with England is its high state of individualism through the women and Richmond. The latter represents morality, and the women symbolize immorality. Their need to get revenge shows that there is something beyond men’s world that can only be instated by a higher being. The women’s lamentation is essential in showing how God’s intervention is useful in that society.
Their participation in disorder prevents them from enjoying the full benefits of this restoration. An example of how this happened was when the women liaised with Richard. Anne had the opportune moment to stand by her dead relatives when Richard made his proposals to her. However, when she submitted to his advances, she partook of his vices. Other women such as Margaret participated directly in the bloody conflict within the play. The ladies of the play were quite intelligent, but they were not blameless, as well. Their lamentations may tempt one to think of these women as helpless victims. Nonetheless, a deeper analysis reveals that this is not true (McEachcran 13).
Philosophers understand justice as the basic tenet of virtue. However, for it to exist, there should be the elimination of the forces that led to the violation of order in the first place. In the play, the writer illustrates that people were responsible for the lack of justice through the women’s anguish. Their sense of victimization, as well as their calls for justice, brought out this reality perfectly. Additionally, their call to a divine order brings out this issue too. The women’s struggle against Richard’s dominance illuminates the need for order and restoration. Therefore, these women prove that destructiveness emanates out of a patriarchal society.
The women illustrated subversive power through their lamentations. Their mourning took on a warrior-like stance at some point. It also illustrated the folly inherent in their political systems by contrasting their character to Richard’s and other leaders. Their intuitiveness and sharpness highlighted this fact tremendously. They brought out the need for moral order too through their contemplation of previous injustices. Lastly, the women advanced feminist causes by showing how detrimental male patriarchy was, and how women’s character was stronger than men’s.
Levine, Nina. Women’s matters: Politics, gender and nation in Shakespeare’s Early History plays. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1998. Print.
McEachcran, Claric. The Cambridge Companion to Shakespearean Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 2006. Print.
Shakespeare, William. Richard III. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. NY: Simon and Schuster Inc., 2009. Print.