Political Dimensions in Richard III

Picking a theme or point to analyze in Shakespeare’s Richard III is, reasonably, difficult. As far as this course is concerned, Richard III offers Shakespeare’s most heinous villian yet (it seems that each antagonizing figure has come into our readings in order of their rising maliciousness: thinking Malvolio, Iago, and now Richard III), and in that there’s already an intricate historical context associated with the families, as well as the voices of the female characters. So, there’s a lot here. For this post, however, it seems best to rein in on the female characters, and how their involvement in the play contributes a significant depth in understanding how the plays politics affect more than just those involved in the politically driven actions.

The male characters in Richard III serve as the plot’s primary points of development. Richard manipulates, or ends, the lives of the other men around him in order to receive false inheritance of the crown. The death of Clarence and the death of Edward, and the subject of the crown are altogether politically driven. Now, Richard is arguably acting out of pure desire for the crown, making an emotional perspective in his pursuit viably the driving force. However, his motives are still forced from his political position and ineptitude: he’s last in line for the crown.

With only this characteristic of the political undercurrents that dictate the plays, and Richards, actions, Richard III would be notably one sided. It would also emphasize the period’s cultural dismissal of women’s involvement in the political system. However, Shakespeare offers the perspectives of the play’s important female characters (historically and contextually): Queen Elizabeth, Queen Margaret, and even lady Ann. Looking specifically at 2.2, where Queen Elizabeth and the duchess of York, and even the children in the scene, lament the deaths of Edward and Clarence. Their combined lamentation is important not only as a tool for Shakespeare to move the plot, or a necessity to please any expectation of human grieving the audience might have, but important for the emotional depth it consequently adds to the play. The political dealings of the male characters are characteristically flat, driven by one motive (Richards political drive for the crown.) The repercussions of the actions are only understood outside of the political sphere as Shakespeare offers the moment of lamentation in 2.2, and further dialogue, as window scenes. This adds a depth to the plot that transforms it from being solely political, and male oriented.

Furthermore, the way in which Shakespeare uses the women in Richard III decisively as window characters highlights the effects of the play’s politics, doesn’t only add dimension dramatically. This also develops, though fictionalized, a sense of how the women (as well as other bystanders to the madness) may have been affected historically, and also how the emotional effects of historical rents ought to be considered. Shakespeare obviously takes liberty in portraying the historical figures he’s writing the historic plays around, but with that liberty an opportunity to connect with history.

2 thoughts on “Political Dimensions in Richard III

  1. I think something else that is interesting about the political involvement of the women in Richard III is Queen Margret’s involvement. As we talked about in class, Margret is sort of a ghostly figure, because the women in the middle ages were only bystanders; they saw everything that was happening around them, but rarely were able to do anything about it. Margret is the only one who knows what is going to happen with Richard III because she was in the castle when it all happened before. Just the mere fact that Margret is still hanging around the castle is a testament to how little power women actually had in politics. If Margret was a threat to the York family, she would have probably been killed or at least locked away somewhere (probably in the tower).

  2. Your point about how these politically ignored women do indeed affect history really got me thinking about who exactly listens to them in the play. Margaret is there as a remnant of the old guard, the order that has been burned to the ground. No one listens to her. She curses them to the same fate that her family received, and her curse comes true. Had the current royal family truly listened to her, or used her as an advisor, as someone with knowledge of the former rulers, perhaps they might not have been doomed to repeat her history. It’s interesting, especially in one of the history plays, where the purpose is to keep the past alive (albeit dramatized) so that the mistakes of the past are not forgotten amongst the triumphs.

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