Thursday, September 17, 2009

A Tiger's Heart

I know I promised you blood and gore this time, but I realized that I needed to write about Margaret, Henry VI's widow, before moving on to Clarence's murder. I've always liked Margaret in this play because she's the only person who stands up to Richard from the beginning. She's neither afraid of him nor snowed under by his charisma. She more or less spits in his face, calling him names and making dire (and accurate) predictions about his future. Despite the rhetorical power of these speeches, her part is often cut; both film versions and many stage productions simply leave her out. I think she's an important part of the play, and of Will's vision of history, too, so I'd like to spend a little time speculating about what he had in mind when he pulled her out of the historical chronicles and gave her a personality.

I decided I couldn't do Margaret justice without at least reading through the Henry VI plays, since she actually has a much larger role in 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI--she doesn't show up until the end of I Henry. So, I finally read them. And I'll be honest with you. It wasn't like reading Othello or Lear or any of the plays we're all more familiar with. No, parts of these plays definitely dragged. And there were a lot of characters I just couldn't care much about. But I have to say, the women are a lot more interesting in these early histories than in the later plays of the 2nd tetralogy. These girls are very, very badly behaved.

How badly? Well, they all seem to be over-sexed, power-mad, and completely amoral. Most of them are French, and therefore...well, not English. They tend to emasculate the men who come into contact with them, either by kicking their butts in battle, like Joan of Arc, or by dominating them sexually and turning them into passive weeping weaklings, as Margaret does to Henry. Some of them dabble in the Dark Arts, as well. Of course there have been women like this since the advent of narrative. The temptress (Eve), the witch (Morgan le Fay), the femme fatale (too numerous to count), the psychotic/possessive soul-eater (a horror staple) often help to, as my less-skilled undergrads used to write, "move the plot along" in genre fiction. Will's plays, with a few exceptions (Macbeth, King Lear) tend to avoid these cliches, remaining at least ambivalent about women (okay, this is arguable, but we can argue about it later). In the later histories women are all but invisible; when they do appear, it's in some non-threatening and docile capacity.

Margaret is anything but docile in the early plays. From the moment she appears as a French captive, she exerts a sexual power over men, most significantly Henry, who will make her his queen, and the Earl of Suffolk, who will become her adulterous lover. She plays men off against one another--in some ways she's not unlike Richard--and her only real loyalty is to her son. The excessive torments she visits on Richard, Duke of York (our Richard's dad) in III Henry VI are Will's own invention. She forces him to stand on a molehill, wipes his tears with a cloth dipped in the blood of his murdered son, and finally crowns him with a paper crown before killing him. Before his death York curses her, calling her a "she-wolf of France," an "Amazonian trull" (that word means what you think it does), and denouncing her lack of feminine virtues:

O tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide!
How coulds't thou drain the life-blood of the child
To bid the father wipe his tears withal,
And yet be seen to wear a woman's face?
Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible--
Thou stern, obdurate flinty, rough, remorseless.

The cruelty of this tiger-hearted woman is so unspeakable that her own allies shudder to watch. Amid the barbarism and internecine violence of civil war, Margaret's monstrosity still stands out. It's clear, however, that her Amazonian evil is meant to showcase Henry's effeminate weakness. Throughout most of the last two plays chronicling his reign, Henry does little more than wring his hands and weep. When it becomes clear that the Yorkist faction is going to take his throne and probably kill him, he bargains for his life by promising to make Richard of York (the dad, again) his heir, in exchange for letting him serve out his own reign. Margaret is understandably furious when he disinherits her son, Edward, and severs herself from him forever. Henry laments and regrets some more, but does little to prevent the disaster that is enveloping his kingdom. It's left to Margaret, like Joan, to assume the man's role and lead the Lancastrian armies onto the battlefield in an effort to preserve her son's right to reign.

Will's point is clear: when weak rulers marry strong women for love (or, okay, sexual passion), kingdoms crumble and the world rips apart. Margaret's viciousness only makes sense in relation to Henry's inability to control her--remember our discussion of The Taming of the Shrew, which makes explicit the link between domestic and social order. In the comedy, it's only a political idea. When the couple in question are a king and his queen, it's a fact with bloody consequences. Because Henry can't control his wife--and therefore his rivals--he's unfit to rule, despite his legitimate claim to the throne. Margaret has to be evil enough to upset the "natural" order of patrilineal succession--that's why Will goes to such lengths to make her into an "unnatural" villain, a manly (and therefore monstrous) woman.

Although Elizabethans--including Will--were strong believers in hereditary monarchy, hereditary rights could be nullified if the legitimate king lacked the moral and/or emotional strength to defend them, as in the case of Henry VI and (in the 2nd tetralogy), Richard II. If he isn't enough of a man to rule, someone more virile will step up and depose him--although the legitimacy of that line will remain in question. (Of course, once you add a moral component to the right to rule, you're halfway to a democracy anyway...but that's another issue.)

Because Will's understanding of history and its politics invests so much in the ideal of male potency, the threats to that ideal are represented as a kind of twisted femininity (Margaret) or sexually amorphous theatricality (Richard). By the time Margaret shows up in Richard III, she's got a long history that runs the gamut of female stereotypes. She starts out as a nubile young temptress, becomes a domineering wife, a cruel middle-aged virago, and then, finally, a cursing old crone.

Let's see, where does that put me? Hmm. Never mind.

When she appears on the stage in Act 1, she's no longer beautiful, powerful, or even fully visible. She's ignored by everyone, as if she's some old homeless woman with a shopping cart full of dumpster detritus (I'm sure she's been played that way in some modern-dress productions). Driven mad by her son's murder, she's become an almost mythic figure, a crazed Cassandra who seems to tread the border between this world and the next. She curses Elizabeth first, predicting that her fate will be similar to Margaret's own: she will "die, neither mother, wife, nor England's queen." When she turns her venom on Richard, her curse is both eloquent and (as we'll see later) effective:

...Stay, dog, for thou shalt hear me.
If heaven have any grievous plague in store
Exceeding those that I can wish upon thee,
O let them keep it till thy sins be ripe,
And then hurl down their indignation
On thee, the troubler of the poor world's peace.
The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul.
Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou liv'st,
And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends.
No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine,
Unless it be while some tormenting dream
Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils.
Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog,
Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell,
Thou slander of thy heavy mother's womb,
Thou loathed issue of thy father's loins,
Thou rag of honor, thou detested...

Richard interrupts her at this point, and Elizabeth takes his side; Margaret's stream of invective makes them temporary allies. Although she's reduced to threats and curses, this woman who once helped a kingdom to ruin, it's hard not to admire her, simply because she's the only one who sees Richard as he is. I have to confess that the first time I taught this play I was in the middle of a seriously ugly professional battle (which, like Margaret, I lost) and took real pleasure in reading these lines aloud. If you have someone you feel has unfairly victimized you, I recommend this: go into a room and read Margaret's curses in the loudest, most resonant voice you can muster. I guarantee you'll feel better.

In the broadest sense, Margaret represents the voice of history in the play, the history that Richard, the modern man, wants to subvert, erase, and ignore. That history should be reduced to the curses of an old madwoman is a testament to Richard's mastery of the present, his ability to direct events--and the play--as he wills. When his power begins to decline, however, history--and Margaret's curses--will return (quite literally) to haunt him.

Next time, I promise There Will Be Blood.


  1. Awesome. I can think of a few I'd like to ship a plague to. So...even then--that whole "star is born" weenie guy, strong woman thing was an issue? Or--did William have trouble with women? Were they really that bad back then? Maybe he was gay--as some have speculated. All the female characters act like men. Hmmmm. Food for thought. Now bring on the blood.

  2. Well, you know, men wrote (almost all) the stories. So most of them are full of anxieties about manliness. I mean, even if you go back to Beowulf, which was probably composed about 800 years earlier, the scariest monster is Grendel's mom. I don't know if Will wanted Richard to be gay (in real life he probably wasn't)--but it's true that sex of any kind just doesn't interest him in this play. He's like, you know, the Joker or something. I might do something with comic book villains later...