A Medieval Hero for Modern Times

As the drama of the 2016 US Presidential election drags on, I keep thinking about Margaret of Anjou, a little-known but key player in William Shakespeare’s history plays 1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI, and Richard III. She was the real-life wife of England’s King Henry VI during the most violent chapters of the War of the Roses. Margaret governed with her husband and tried to protect him as his cousins and uncles vied for control over Henry and the throne. Her untraditional role made her unpopular among the court and the general public, but earned her great trust among t her husband’s closest friends and allies. When the king’s cousin, the Duke of York, raised an army and attempted to overthrow Henry, it was Margaret who rallied the troops and led the opposition straight into battle.

Margaret interfered in politics, and that’s why the Duke of York hated her and called her unwomanly. York called her a “she-wolf” and labeled her “inhuman” when she thwarted his claim to the throne. He told her she shouldn’t be so proud, because she wasn’t that pretty. He called her a shameless slut, not because he believed the rumors that she was cheating on Henry, but because that’s what men do when women challenge their power.

Female academics studying these Shakespearean works have piled on with the damnation of Margaret, calling her a crazy old hussy, a shrew and someone whose behavior was worse than Lady Macbeth. Another woman scholar called Margaret “the most relentlessly sustained symbol in Shakespeare of all that is unnatural” and labeled her vile, ruthless, and “totally evil.” Margaret’s own biographer, Helen Maurer, called her a “bitch” on page one of her text. Esteemed historian Antonia Fraser called her “savage” and “cruel” because she did not “obey the orders and laws of men.”

Let’s be clear, Margaret was not a nice woman. But who requires that a man who desires to lead be a nice guy? And who needs nice when the fate of the country is on the line? Why bother with nice when your life, your husband’s life, and your child’s life hang in the balance of every political fight? Every one of the women who criticize Margaret overlooks the reality of her situation. Margaret’s only so-called crime was being a woman in a man’s job.

Ultimately, Margaret lost her battle, and her son and husband were murdered by their enemies. These men banished her to France as they claimed their victory. In real life, that’s where Margaret’s story ended. But not Shakespeare’s Margaret. Shakespeare’s Margaret stuck it out in England to continue resisting the men who knocked her down. She stuck it out because she had sadness and anger on her side. She did it because she had the energy to keep going. She did it because it was the right thing to do.

With nothing left to lose, Shakespeare’s Margaret takes on Richard III, the biggest chauvinist in the Shakespearean canon. We all know Richard murders his nephews, the two princes in the Tower, kills off his competition for the throne, and destroys his detractors and later the allies who question his methods. That’s just how he treats the men in the play. By Act 4, they seem like the lucky ones; they’re all dead. It’s the women who are forced to deal with him with nothing but their wits and their words to defend themselves and their daughters.

Richard seduces the grieving widow of a man he has murdered and then mocks her for accepting him. After she dies under questionable circumstances, Richard proposes marriage to his teenage niece. Her mother hurls insults at Richard and blows off the proposal. But he doesn’t get it. He assumes she has accepted and calls her a “shallow, changing woman.” And when his mother tries to tell him what she really thinks of him, he tells his band to play louder to drown out her criticisms.

It is Margaret who comes to the rescue of these women, despite their criticisms of her. Even though the women know Richard is a woman-hating monster, they first side with the men, attacking Margaret for making a fuss. Later, as they slowly realize they are all adrift in the same boat — silenced, marginalized, bereft of the men who were meant to defend them — they beg Margaret to show them how to defend themselves. Margaret teaches the women to undermine the personification of misogyny who takes over their country by force. She teaches them to hammer him relentlessly for his grotesque crimes. She teaches them to resist his dubious charms. She teaches them to persist.

Unfortunately, few people — even avid theatre-goers — are aware Margaret exists in Richard III. She was a complex character and therefore a problem for actors, producers, and audiences who didn’t want anyone on stage who challenged tyrannical Richard’s lust for power. Think about that for a second. We would rather watch a version of the play in which Richard is a victim of fate than put a woman on stage who directly challenges him. Alternatively, the A-list men who played Richard over the years couldn’t handle sharing the limelight with a sassy woman who made them look bad. However they rationalized it, Margaret was cut out of two hundred years of productions of Richard III.

When Margaret disappeared, her scenes with the other women in the play ceased to make sense, and the women’s roles were stripped until they were nearly powerless. Which is too bad, because an uncut Richard III is a showcase of powerful women who see through Richard’s shiny veneer while the men in the play suck up to him.

Margaret teaches us what we should already know — what all women should already know. We must challenge the criticisms sexist men level at powerful, complex women. And we must challenge the narrative of the women who buy into their crap. Because those same women can and will find themselves adrift and powerless with no one to defend them. We must stand strong together.