Monday, 27 February 2012

Richard's Way of Wooing the Ladies | What's Wrong With The Women of Richard III?

The Earliest Surviving Portrait of Richard III (1520)
Strangely, for a man who claims that he “
cannot prove a lover,/To entertain these fair well-spoken days”, Richard III manages to talk his way into negotiations of marriage with two of the most unlikely women. How does he do it? And, more importantly, what were Anne and Elizabeth’s mother, Elizabeth, thinking?

It’s the same old story isn’t it? Boy brutally murders girl’s husband in battle, girl tells boy she hates him. Boy tells girl he only killed her husband, because she’s so incredibly beautiful. Girl says she’d rip her face off if that were true. Boy gives girl a knife and tells her to stab him in the heart. Girl can’t bring herself to and says ‘all right then, I’ll marry ya’!

Richard III, who, if Shakespeare is to be believed, was not exactly the most attractive rooster in the henhouse, is not an obvious ‘romantic hero’; he’s certainly no Heathcliff or Mr Rochester. So, how does he manage to get an acquiescence of marriage from a woman who hates him and a promise, from another woman who hates him, to convince her daughter that he loves her?

The Problem Parts of Richard III

Neither of these scenes (I.ii and IV.iv) sit comfortably with me and, I think, there are two reasons for that. Firstly, it offends my feminist sensibilities. That’s a knee-jerk reaction, though. I’m well aware of the fact that the world has changed and, therefore, the bargaining involved in a contract of marriage; the way women are mere pawns in this process (despite being distasteful) is a fact that must be acknowledged and accepted.

However, the second discomfort is not quite so easy to overlook and that is that Anne and Elizabeth cease to be believable characters to me. I can accept that women had to, essentially, make the best of their lot and didn’t have a lot of choice in…well, anything.

The problem is that these two women, as Shakespeare portrays them, are not lie-down-and-take-it kind of gals. They’re mouthy, intelligent, witty and are quite a match for Richard, who is no slouch in the intellect department (after all, smarts are an important facet of a good villain). Then, suddenly and for no obvious reason, there is a volte-face from both women. Why?

Richard III - Smooth Criminal

Anne Neville - wife of Edward of Westminster
and Richard III (I'm going to guess that's not
the most accurate of portraits)
You’ve got to hand it to a man who can kill a woman’s husband, then, while she is weeping over his bloody corpse, convince her that he did it because he loves her. Understandably, Anne’s first reaction is to tell him to shove off (Shakespeare puts it rather more eloquently), but, as Richard keeps talking, her anger begins to dissipate.

Now, there are a few reasons for her to have changed her mind.

  • She’s flattered by his honeyed words and believes that he loves her
  • She’s worried for her future - with no husband and no children, what’s to become of her?
  • She fears for her own life if she should refuse him
  • She thinks, ‘Oh well, I was supposed to marry him in the first place, might as well go ahead with it now’ (at the age of fourteen, Anne was betrothed to Richard, but her father, unhappy with what he was getting out of the deal, changed his mind and hooked her up with Edward, son of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou - although no mention of this former engagement is mentioned in the play)

Or there could be another reason entirely, and, no matter how many times I read or watch the scene, I can’t come to a conclusion. Incidentally, the video below is from one of the best adaptations of Richard III, in my opinion, Richard Loncraine’s 1995 version with Ian McKellen as Richard and Kristin Scott Thomas as Anne.

Playing The Devoted Uncle

Elizabeth Woodville - Wife of Edward IV
and Sister-in-Law of Richard III (when the
skinhead was fashionable the first time around)
It’s the same old story, boy hates sister-in-law, has her brothers beheaded. Fearing for her sons lives, sister-in-law tries to flee with the youngest. Boy prevents sister-in-law’s getaway and puts her sons (his nephews) in the tower. Boy besmirches his nephews reputation, branding them illegitimate and, once he’s wheedled his way onto the throne, has the pair smothered to death. Boy then goes to sister-in-law suggesting that he should marry her daughter (his niece). Sister-in-law tells boy to get lost. Boy tells sister-in-law that by having children with his niece he’ll be able to put right the deaths of his nephews. Sister-in-law, eventually, says ‘okay then’.

This is possibly even more disturbing than the wooing of Anne, in part because Richard’s attempting to gain permission to marry his niece from the girl’s mother, which to us would be absolutely outrageous - but there were many incestuous relationships within the aristocracy and monarchy.

Mostly, however, it’s because Elizabeth has, arguably, more reason to hate Richard than Anne had. She is also well aware of what Richard is capable of. If we suspend or disbelief and say Anne is convinced by Richard’s ‘innocent act’, Shakespeare can’t possible expect us to believe that Elizabeth would do the same.

She, more than anyone, knows exactly how ruthless he is, so why on Earth would she acquiesce to her daughter marrying him - especially since she has a strong suspicion (as have we) that he killed Anne. Well, there are a few possibilities.

  • She may have felt that her life was in danger if she refused
  • She might have felt that her and her daughter’s lives were in danger if she refused
  • Given the denounced state of her marriage, she may have been concerned over young Elizabeth’s future - if Richard doesn’t marry her, who will?
  • She might have been playing for time, hoping that the rebellion would be successful before any marriage contract could be fulfilled

Again, just like Anne, I can’t reach a decision. Perhaps it is a combination of all of these things, perhaps it is none of them.

Nevertheless, I tend to be of the conviction that it is less Richard’s smooth-talkin’ style and more pragmatism that led both women to say “yes” to him. Their characters, before that bizarre change of heart, forces me to stick with this theory. Richard has, undoubtedly, got the gift of the gab….but, surely, he’s not quite that gifted?


  1. Strikes me that you can tell the difference between talk and stutter,ie bard or historian? - Truth detective

  2. That should read CAN'T tell the difference. Shakespeare was of course, born much later than King Richard, a should be remembered as a storyteller rather than a historian. - Truth Detective

    1. Hello there, Truth Dectective.

      I was, at first, a little perplexed by your comment, but I gather what you're getting at is that the events of the play don't necessarily reflect the actual events of Richard III's life. Of course, you're right!

      Shakespeare was a dramatist, out to make the most exciting play he could - can't let a little thing like truth get in the way of that.

      If you're interested, I refer to this subject in another post:

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

  3. From what I understood about Elizabeth, she just told him she would talk to her daughter in order to get him to stop and leave, but she really had no intention on going through with it, as at the first chance she leaves with her daughter to marry her to Richmond. It also mentions this on wikipedia: "Richard asks Queen Elizabeth to help him win her daughter's hand in marriage, but she is not taken in by his eloquence, and eventually manages to trick and stall him by saying she will let him know her daughter's answer in due course."