Thursday, October 8, 2009

Wanted: Fertile Womb to Replenish Sickly Land

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...


  1. Hi Gayle

    Sorry – due to character limits, I’m going to have to post this in two parts again!

    Part 1:

    Just wanted to say that I'm still reading and still enjoying. If I haven't commented recently it's because I've had nothing substantive to add to your very eloquent pieces and because I've been back at work (I was on sick leave when I first began writing).

    Slightly surprised, however, that you received no comments on 'History's Mysteries' - all the more so because I first came across your blog via an historical Richard III mailing list, and many people on that are ardent defenders. My own take on it is that Richard was ultimately responsible for what happened simply because the princes were in his care, but beyond that I think it's difficult to go any further.

    I'm always dubious about "naming" possible perpetrators (Richard/Buckingham/Margaret Beaufort etc) because it all seems too neat. I also tend to subscribe more to the "cock-up" than the "conspiracy" school of history, and given that people are still fiercely debating the causes of assassinations and mysterious deaths that happened less than 40 years ago, it seems impossible to delve back 500 years.

    On this subject, all I will say is that source evidence suggests that Richard was genuinely in fear of his life shortly after arriving in London in 1483, and that much of what subsequently happened was reactive policy-making "on the hoof". Annette Carson in a recent and highly praised biography of Richard has also raised the theory that Edward IV had been poisoned, rather than dying an untimely but natural death. Not sure that I agree with that, but it's food for thought.

  2. And Part 2:

    As for the princes, I really don't know. If Richard had deliberately ordered their deaths, I've always found it surprising that they weren't dressed up as natural causes and the bodies displayed, as per Richard II, Henry VI etc. You could argue that nobody would have believed that, but based on what actually happened Richard had the worst of both worlds - innuendo and suspicion that he was a murderer, but still a belief among enemies that a rallying point for opposition existed. In fact, Henry VII was plagued by as many rumours that the princes were still alive as Richard had been that they were dead!

    Buckingham had motive and opportunity, and there's an extraordinary sense of hurt and betrayal that transcends the centuries in Richard's hand-written description of him as "the most untrue creature living". But, as I say, that's to lapse into the kind of "too neat for real life" theory that I try and avoid.

    I don't believe Tyrrell was guilty. He had significant advancement under Richard, but also held important offices under Henry VII. The "confession" came late in the day, and seems to me very much a case of Henry trying to draw a line under an issue in the most expedient way possible, just as he ordered the destruction of all copies of Titulus Regius. I've not got much time for Henry VII - horrible man, who inflicted one of England's two genuine monster king's on his subjects in the form of Henry VIII. (The other monster king, in my opinion, was not Richard but Henry V - but that's one for probably a much later blog!)

    For what it's worth, I don't think Henry knew what had happened, either. The Perkin Warbeck theory sounds implausible to me, but I suspect Henry may have feared he could be genuine. I seem to recall he never let his wife come face to face with the pretender. And, lastly, loathe as I am to disagree with anything you write, I think the odds are against the bones found in the Tower being Edward IV's sons. There's been serious academic demolition of this belief in recent years relating to the condition the bones and where they were found, and even suggestions that they could date from as far back as the Roman occupation.

    Back to the play and your latest blog, I just wanted to add that in "Kind Tyrrell, gentle Tyrrell" we have the complete inversion of normal moral values. But I'm not sure that "Margaret's version wins out in the end". Her prophecies *aren't* fulfilled in their entirety (Elizabeth's daughters survive), and there's something horribly reductive and sterile about her version of history in which "Plantagenet quits Plantagenet" that makes her as blood-stained as Richard and very much his sister-under-the-skin.


  3. Hi Jonathan,
    Nice to hear from you! First, you're obviously a much better historian than I am--so I welcome your corrections and additions. I'm afraid my knowledge of this period comes from a few synthetic history books, the introductions in my various editions of Shakespeare, and what little history I got as a grad student in the Medieval Studies Program at Cornell (way back when). I am a medievalist, but my degree's in English lit. I'm a bit stronger on the earlier periods (will have more to say on Richard II, one of Chaucer's kings), but to be honest my sensibilities are more literary than historical (that's probably obvious!) I felt, nevertheless, that I owed it to the past to at least problematize some of the issues. As an American, I obviously don't have your more visceral sense of some of these guys (as an Englishman/woman might not get my take on the Salem witch trials, or Vietnam)--I think your comments really add a historical/cultural perspective that I don't have. So thanks for that.
    Interesting about the bones--that new info wasn't anywhere I looked. I guess it's just too romantic an idea to be completely dismissed, or perhaps, conversely, we can't stand to not have questions answered... I shall mention this fact before I finish the play off. Re: Margaret--yes, Elizabeth's daughters survive, but I've always considered this to be a kind of sexist moment--i.e., a queen who loses her sons isn't a mother anymore. And perhaps that over-reading from a feminist perspective! I agree, she's not a moral antidote to Richard. I guess I do have a perverse affection for her as a literary character (as opposed to a historical figure). I think Shakespeare set her up to represent the passing of old ideas and old literary tropes. The play is, on some level, his struggle to redefine English poetics against a great classical tradition (Chaucer struggled with this, too)--hence the ubi sunts and Rota Fortuna stuff. She derives from the classical Furies (Erinyes), but as a character, yes, she's not a nice person. I guess I see her as almost allegorical here...I'd be interested to hear your take on that.
    Btw. my last name is Margherita, like the pizza. I was trying to put it up on the blog, but it's too long to fit on the "about me" column. Also, still trying to figure out how to add outside content here--will ask my husband, who's a computer geek.
    Hope you're feeling better...

  4. Hi Gayle

    I was thinking my last two comments must have got lost in the ether, and I only by chance dicovered them at the end of 'Wanted: Fertile Womb to Replenish Sickly Land' rather than following on from 'Nothing But Songs of Death'. I'm clearly not yet up to speed with blogs!

    I very much doubt I'm a better historian than you, but my first degree was joint honours English Literature and History, and I've always had an interest in the subject - especially late medieval/early modern.

    Yes, there is something romantic about the idea of the bones being part of the puzzle. Which is probably why they're still in Westminster Abbey, and haven't been subjected to scientific analysis since (I think) 1933. But they're just one set of skeletons among many that have been found - both before and since 1674 - and only seem to have been accepted as genuine because they fit Thomas More's unreliable history. And, even then, they don't *quite* fit, because he says they were later moved from the stairwell.

    Back to the play, again, I agree that Margaret is a terrific character and it's a shame that both Olivier and McKellen omitted her from their film (as opposed to stage) versions. But I guess that was a symptom of having to pare down the text so heavily, especially in McKellen's case.

    I agree, also, that she works as an allegorical figure. She represents history as providence in 'Richard III', but I think Shakespeare demonstrates that the providential model is as flawed as Richard's attempt to seize history by the scruff of its neck. In fact, I'd go further and say that a couple of equivocal moments in the play's conclusion that ever so slightly undermine Henry VII suggest that no historical model survives scrutiny. You get a lot more of that in the second tetralogy until Henry V manages to square the circle using the power of myth. But that can only survive for a short period before everything collapses under the weight of its own contradictions!


  5. I'm going to see if I can guess your "equivocal moments" when I get to Act 5--but in the meantime, prompted by your comments, I've been going back to the history books a bit. I haven't got anything good on Richard, so I'd welcome a recommendation or two--about his reign, or about the period generally. I did drag out Simon Shama (yes, a popularizer, but an influential one) who has this to say about Richard: "...Richard of Gloucester, whom we've been conditioned to think of as either the incarnation of a godless villain or (by impassioned devotees) as a northern hero vilely defamed by Tudor propaganda. In reality, Richard was much more interesting but also much more sinister than either of those stereotypes allow, being not a godless but a godly fanatic, devoted to wiping out the unworthy, beginning with Edward IV's in-laws, and his own inconvenient nephews, so that he might institute the reign of piety and justice in England: Henry V in a crazy-castle mirror. It was Richard who took improbable offense at what he thought was his brother's gross immorality--insisting that he was living in sin with Elizabeth...when Richard was killed at Bosworth Field, the country was saved not from a monster of corruption and depravity but from a Puritan martinet." Interesting take--puts Richard's staged piety tableau in a different light. Thoughts?
    On history in general as an aid in reading the plays--I am coming to a new understanding here. As an academic I was influenced by the Cold War between theorists (my background) and historicists, whom we all painted as being conservative and anti-literary. Ten years on, I see how stupid that was/is. I shall be a better historian as a blogger than I ever was as a scholar...

  6. Well, there are only two "equivocal moments", and one of those only appears so if read with a cynical mind! But the other - one particular line - is so strikingly at odds with the image of the vanquishing hero that I wonder why on earth Shakespeare included it. :-)

    I like the Schama quote, but isn't it as much a caricature as the traditional and revisionist versions that he rails against? I think there are probably as many different Richards as there are historians! There is, though, possibly something in the idea of the proto-puritan martinet. But, equally, you can detect a real desire to make justice more easily available to ordinary people, and also an ultimately fatal hesitancy to take action against potential enemies, such as the Stanleys. What's fascinating about Richard is that, for a monarch who so polarises opinions, he refuses to sit squarely in any box.

    Re books worth reading, it's almost best to choose both pro and anti, and then see which part of the ground in between you occupy. Charles Ross wrote a good, classical biography. Annette Carson, whom I mentioned earlier, has written most recently on Richard. From her sub-title, 'The Maligned King', you can guess her standpoint. But she tries very hard to concentrate on primary sources and see to what extent the preconceptions of villain or hero fit them.

    (I had a history teacher once who thought, on balance, that Richard *did* order the murder of the princes, but it didn't affect at all his opinion that he was a wonderful king. Which is, actually, rather scary the more you think about it!)

    The "puritan" is certainly interesting in the context of the end of Act III. And I think it's valid to portray him as counterfeiting an image of the virtuous strongman - not a person to be liked, but one who can provide security and leadership in the "troublous world". That was the route the McKellen production went down.

    Oh - and I've always liked the historicists, such as Stephen Greenblatt - so long as you take two thirds of what they say with a pinch of salt!


    P.S. Richard received a great many encomiums during his reign, and you always have to weigh the praise against the fact that he was the one currently in power. However, the city of York came out with this formally minuted and therefore highly unpolitic statement the day after Bosworth:

    "... it was shown by divers persons, and especially by John Sponer, sent unto the field of Redemore to bring tidings of the same to the city, that King Richard, late mercifully reigning upon us, was through great treason of the duke of Norfolk and many others that turned against him, with many other lords and nobles of this north parts, was piteously slain and murdered, to the great heaviness of this city."

    So someone must have liked him...

  7. Hi Jonathan,
    I'm in the mid-week crush, but will probably finish Richard sometime during the next week. I couldn't find the Annette Carson at the library, but I did find another well-reviewed bio (name escapes me at the moment) and I ordered the Ross. It's funny, but I'm feeling I owe Richard something more. The irony of Shakespeare writing such a slanderous play about a (putatively) slanderous king is just too thought-provoking to let go.
    Here's a question I've been wondering about. How do regional differences play out in this, historically? Schama calls Richard a "northern" hero, and your quotation above suggests something similar. Was the north anti-Tudor? As an American, I'm afraid these regional issues are lost on me.
    Re-reading Act 5 I'm mostly struck my how flat and lifeless Richmond seems--like a stick figure, next to Richard's multi-dimensionality ...his speeches are so banal, they actually seem phony.
    Maybe I'm just too enthralled by Richard. At moments like this, his immorality seems almost beside the point. Which is, of course, scary. It makes you realize how easily people fall under the spell of great tyrants...fortunately, most of them don't have Shakespeare writing for them!
    Thanks as always for sharing your perspective and your knowledge...whatever else comes of the blog, my interest in history has been revived, which is pretty cool.

  8. Hi Gayle

    The mid-week crush, indeed. I'm desperate for the weekend, at the moment!

    Anyway, here we go again. Two posts! Part 1:

    I think regional differences are certainly significant - though, of course, you can endlessly debate the significance of the word significant, to paraphrase from the wonderful BBC comedy, 'Yes, Minister'. A north-south divide is something that's always been talked about in Britain, though the extent to which it's real as opposed to a running joke is a different thing. Another running joke is the propensity for Yorkshiremen to see Yorkshire as "God's own county". I'm a north-midlander (if that doesn't sound too contradictory) living in the south, so I have a kind of shared perspective. My home town is Ashby de la Zouch, which is relevant to the blog in that it was where William, Lord Hastings was based. The castle was slighted (made indefensible through partial demolition) after surrendering to the parliamentarians during the Civil War, but the best preserved part of the ruin is still known as Hastings' Tower.

    As for a north-south divide during Richard's time, I'm not sure how pronounced it would have been. Certainly, there's a chronicle reference from around then (might be Croyland, but I could be mistaken) to the north as being "from whence all evil takes its rise". I suspect *all* regional differences would have been more pronounced then, though I can't say for certain.

    Richard arguably put some southern noses out of joint by bringing in his own adherents. But, equally, you could view him as being pretty cosmopolitan for the period. He spoke good Latin, for instance, and, I think, had a basic grasp of Flemish from his time in exile there.

    Was the north anti-Tudor? To go that far might be an exaggeration, but it tended to be more catholic and conservative. The Pilgrimage of Grace was a northern movement. Some years before that, the Earl of Northumberland who failed Richard at Bosworth (whether it was deliberate treason or simply an inability to commit his reserve because of the lie of the land is open to question) was murdered during a tax riot, and it's supposed it may have been partly in vengeance for Richard...

  9. Part 2:

    As for Richmond in the play, he's certainly paper-thin. Of course, as this symbol of a bright new dawn, he doesn't need to be a fully realised character. But, even so, you'd expect a little more heroic charisma. Sam Mendes directed a production of 'Richard III' a few years back, and he may have felt the same. Whatever the reason, he did something very odd, suggesting that he'd lost a little faith in the text at this point. He juxtaposed Richard's and Richmond's battle orations, by having both speak them alternately in four-line chunks from opposite sides of the stage. Intellectually, it was interesting, as it highlighted the contrasting nature of their appeals (Richmond more elevated; Richard base, violent, xenophobic). But otherwise, the idea was a total failure, hamstringing both actors and allowing neither to achieve any momentum.

    I might as well mention the two lines I find especially equivocal about Richmond here. The first (and the one that I admitted was a deliberately cynical reading) is:

    "Let them not live to taste this land's increase
    That would with treason wound this fair land's peace."

    It’s not, perhaps, an unfair thing for a medieval monarch to say, but coming two lines from the end of the play, it throws the idea of bloody suppression into sharp relief. Henry VII was as adept at getting rid of rivals as anyone.

    The other, more significant, line is:

    “I think there be six Richmond’s in the field;
    Five have I slain today instead of him.”

    *Why?*?!!! He’s a hero. Why is he skulking behind doubles wearing his arms? There’s no reference to this is any source material. You don’t see the heroic Henry V do it … But Henry IV *did* employ such shadows at Shrewsbury, something that Shakespeare makes much of in the mouths of Hotspur and Douglas. Now, Henry IV wasn’t a villain, as such, but neither is he – that “vile politician” – portrayed as being entirely admirable, and England gets darker, more confined and fractured, under his stewardship. It’s only a fleeting line, and probably not one used with any deep consideration, but what is it saying about Richmond?


  10. Hi Jonathan,
    It's been awhile since I could actually sit down and write for fun (as opposed to work), but I am moving towards the end of the play now, with some sadness, I guess. I'm also reading a rather old synthetic history from the Ricardian perspective by a guy named Kendall, an American who was so enamored of Richard that he apparently had his ashes scattered over Bosworth Field. Not sure if I find that weird or wonderfully romantic...anyway, it's a big book, somewhat inclined to flights of purple prose, as in this snippet from the chapter on Bosworth:
    "It had begun for him as a child in violence and it had ended in violence; the brief span between had been a tale of action and hard service with small joy and much affliction of spirit...and through his darkening days he had kept to the end a golden touch of magnanimity..."
    No one writes like that anymore, and I find it oddly compelling, perhaps for that reason. So earnest, not a trace of irony. Anyway, Kendall hates Henry VII, calls him an avaricious paranoid, essentially, unpopular in his own day and worthy of note only for holding onto power and being the grandfather of a revered monarch. It's interesting...but I await the other book for another perspective.
    On regional prejudices in the Middle Ages, I can offer a literary footnote--Chaucer's Reeve's Tale makes delightful fun of the accents and rural sensibilities of northerners, so there must have been something like our own north/south divide (absent the nastiness of civil war, of course).
    On the six Richmonds, most literary critics see this as evidence of Richmond's "theatricality," although I've also read that this was a not uncommon practice for rulers on medieval battlefields--I guess I've always thought that it provides a sharp contrast to Richard, who can't really be "duplicated"--whatever else he is, he's unique and singular...
    Hope to finish the "endgame" in a day or so...

  11. I forgot to tell you how much I love the name Ashby de la Zouch--part no-nonsense Anglo-Saxon, part exotic and continental-sounding. America needs better place-names...