Yes, I know that's a creepy picture. But if Will were around today, he'd love Photoshop. Remember that in the pre-technological era, calling something "artificial" was high praise. The shopped image encrypts a moral narrative about our relationship to nature, and he'd like that, too.
Birth imagery--much of it creepy--abounds in Act 4. In fact, I'd venture to say that this play--or at least this part of it--is more obsessed with female "organs of increase" than any other except King Lear, where the womb is transformed into a "dark and vicious place" that brings forth horrors. The lamenting mothers in Richard III--Elizabeth, the Duchess, and Margaret--talk a lot about childbirth, in rather gruesome terms. Richard does too, in the extremely icky "second wooing scene" in which he tries to convince Elizabeth to hand over her daughter--also named Elizabeth--so he can beget children on her. And remember, this is his own niece he's talking about. "Unnatural" doesn't even begin to cover it. Let's take a look at a few of the "uterine moments" (sorry, but what else can I call them?) in Act 4.
Even before Richard has the princes murdered, his mother laments the fact that she's given birth to a monster:
O ill-dispersing wind of misery!
O my accursed womb, the bed of death!
A cockatrice hast thou hatched to the world,
Whose unavoided eye is murderous.
The cockatrice, for those of you who need to brush up on your mythical critters, was thought to be a creature with the head of a rooster and the tail of a lizard--often depicted with wings. Like the basilisk, it supposedly had a "death-darting eye"; its gaze could turn people to stone.
Later, Margaret accuses the Duchess of bearing an infernal beast:
From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept
A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death...
The womb as dog kennel. As an evocative image, it doesn't get much better--or rather worse--than that. When Will pulls out all the propagandistic stops, he's not fooling around. Margaret continues in mythic Fury-mode, thanking God that she's getting her revenge on the house of York:
O upright, just, and true-disposing God,
How do I thank thee that this charnel cur
Preys on the issue of his mother's body...
Thanks, God, for letting this carrion-eating dog gobble up his own siblings.
Later in Act 4, Richard waylays Elizabeth in the middle of mourning her murdered sons, and inquires about her daughter, Elizabeth. Anne's dead--presumably poisoned--and Richard needs a wife from a royal line to legitimize his claim to the throne. Richmond is lurking in France, and nobles are fleeing the court like rats from a sinking ship.
Richard doesn't deny killing the princes, just as he didn't deny killing Henry VI and Edward in Act 1:
If I have killed the issue of your womb,
To quicken your increase I will beget
Mine issue of your blood upon your daughter.
A granddam's name is little less in love
Than is the doting title of a mother.
They are as children but one step below,
Even of your metall, of your very blood:
Of all one pain, save for a night of groans
Endured for her for whom you bid like sorrow.
Your children were a vexation to your youth,
But mine shall be a comfort to your age.
The loss you have is but a son made king,
And by that loss your daughter is made queen.
I cannot make you what amends I would,
Therefore accept such kindness as I can.
Hey, sorry about your sons. I'd fix that if I could, but it's kind of too late. How about this: I'll impregnate your daughter, and you can have grandchildren instead! And she'll be a queen, too! Now think about it before you say no. Grandchildren are really better than children, because they don't keep you up at night, and you don't have to give birth to them! No pain! Isn't that cool? It's a win-win.
Yes, this is seriously creepy. Essentially Richard wants Elizabeth to play pimp--to "prepare her [daughter's] ears to hear a wooer's tale." Elizabeth is having none of it. I imagine her barely able to hide her incredulity. She points out that Richard has disrupted the process of generation itself, leaving parents without children--"old barren plants, to wail it with their age."
Richard promises to be better in the future:
Plead what I will be, not what I have been;
Not my deserts, but what I will deserve.
Urge the necessity and state of times,
And be not peevish-fond in great designs.
Tell her it's for the sake of the nation, and don't dwell stubbornly on the big picture.
The man of the present moment now pleads on behalf of a future he has all but obliterated--the old are "barren plants" now, their children cut off in the flower of youth. The final rhyme--"times/designs" unveils what he wants to keep hidden, namely that this is but another "design" to further Richard's hold on the present and give him some purchase on the future.
Elizabeth states the obvious in rather bald terms, since he seems not to get it:
Yet thou didst kill my children.
Richard's retort is beyond horrifying:
But in your daughter's womb I will bury them,
Where, in that nest of spicery, they will breed
Selves of themselves, to your recomfiture.
It's a complicated image, but a graphic one--the "nest of spicery," with its olfactory implications, invokes the female genitalia in terms reminiscent of the Song of Songs in the Old Testament. Spices were also a means of preserving meat in the era before refrigeration, as well as dead bodies before burial. The scent of spices counteracts the stench of the grave, but the final part of the image --"they will breed selves of themselves"--reminds us that early modern people still believed in "spontaneous generation"--i.e., that dead bodies created new life in the form of maggots. The image of new life is brilliantly intertwined with the specter of death and decay. The womb, in short, becomes a tomb--if Richard gets his way, the nation's future will be a rotting corpse.
So what are we to make of all this womb-talk? First, Richard is no longer in control of his own "double meanings"--the audience now hears the darker implications of his rhetoric, but he doesn't. The beast-bearing womb mentioned by Margaret and the Duchess is an apocalyptic image, a vision of nature twisted and inverted. King Lear will use similar imagery in talking about his unnatural, devouring daughters. Throughout Act 4, the womb represents a return to origins, and a return to history--it's our own origin, after all, and the beginning of every person's history. As Richard begins his descent into madness and (eventually) death, Will wants us to see that his unnatural acts have corrupted the very root of things, made the nation into a barren body, a vessel of tears, a crypt of decay. His death will cleanse the land, purge it of corruption. When Henry VII marries Elizabeth of York at the end of the play, her womb--which is the only part of her that's present, metaphorically speaking--will revitalize the nation and begin a new, fruitful dynasty.
Jumping ahead (in Ricardian fashion) to the end of the play, let's take a look at Richmond's (now Henry VII's) final speech:
O now let Richmond and Elizabeth,
The true succeeders of each royal house,
By God's fair ordinance conjoin together,
And let their heirs--God, if his will be so--
Enrich the time to come with smooth-faced peace,
With smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days.
Abate the edge of traitors, gracious Lord,
That would reduce these bloody days again
And make poor England weep forth streams of blood.
Let them not live to taste this land's increase,
That would with treason wound this fair land's peace.
Now civil wounds are stopped; peace lives again.
That she may long live here, God say 'Amen.'
End of story. Elizabeth, significantly, never appears in the play. It's really her womb that's important, not her person--she's just a vessel, whereby England will be reborn through the Tudor line. Through the union of Henry and Elizabeth--whether Henry is a "true succeeder" or not could be argued--youth returns to the land. Peace is "smooth-faced," not wrinkled with age and ire, and the days are once again prosperous. The land, once weeping blood, now begins to "increase," sickly no more.
Next: Backtracking--Margaret, Madness, Mayhem. And maybe some thoughts on the next play...