Thursday, January 2, 2020

Review of Verdi's MacBeth (WA Opera)

Our president, Frances Dharmalingham, has written a critique of a recent visit to the opera: Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’.

At Christmas 2018, my family’s gift to me was the promise of a visit to the opera. Finally, in October 2019, that promise was fulfilled, and we all spent a wonderful evening at His Majesty’s Theatre, completely enthralled by the W.A. Opera’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth. What a magnificent experience!

Being uneducated about music, I cannot comment on the technicalities of the orchestra’s performance or the singing. But I can say that from the first note of the overture I (and I am sure the entire audience) was wrapped and suspended in the most wonderful sound, as it anticipated and established the atmosphere of each scene, supporting and intensifying the prevailing or developing moods; and as the singing and acting revealed both character and emotion.

Along with the sound was the visual impact. Sets were effectively created through easily-moved columns and minimal furnishings, while the brilliant lighting scheme was crucial to the overall combined visual and emotional experience. As the scenery and costumes used mainly blacks, greys and white, with sudden bursts of scarlet, so too the lighting made clever use of contrasting dark shadows and bright, white light, with the implied menace of red in appropriate scenes.

There were so many memorable moments: among them the dagger scene, Banquo’s murder, Macbeth’s return visit to the witches, the sleepwalking scene, the appearance of the English army, and the final duel.

The discovery of Duncan’s dead body had rather a different emphasis from the scene in the play. Shakespeare’s play describes the horror of the unseen bodies of the king and guards, and then focuses on Malcolm’s and Donalbain’s need to escape; the opera featured a great outcry of alarmed dismay and anger, with the entire chorus on stage and a harsh white light full on the revealed body of Duncan. This was followed by a very moving hymn, the whole episode extraordinarily powerful.

In contrast to this, we were not shown the cruel slaughter of Lady Macduff and her children, but learnt of it through Macduff’s movingly beautiful lament.

Another major point of difference was the portrayal of the witches, with all the women of the chorus singing for them in three groups, instead of three single performers. Similarly, the three murderers were presented by the whole male chorus.

Banquo’s murder was undertaken in suitably dark surroundings, as in a forest, and his ghost’s appearances at the feast were cleverly engineered. The supernatural elements were most effectively handled when Macbeth returned to the witches, with the future kings one after another clearly not Macbeth’s descendants. For this scene a section of the stage floor was removed and the lurid light from below suggested that the witches’ cauldron was being heated by the fires of hell.

An interesting scene showed a crowd of poor and injured refugees, and established the effects of the war. It gave us a visual summary of the details given in the play, in the discussion between Macduff and Malcolm. It was followed by the really dramatic sudden arrival of the English army to support Malcolm’s campaign. It is notoriously difficult to show an “army” on stage, but this was a strikingly symbolic image, with an arrowhead formation of armour-clad soldiers bearing banners of the cross of St. George: a spectacularly effective moment.

As we are frequently reminded, Shakespeare’s play is noted for its poetic language and the power and variety of its imagery. This was necessarily the one element which was sacrificed in transforming Macbeth from drama to opera. I do not speak Italian and cannot therefore comment on the libretto as sung, but I took occasional glances at the sur-titles – only occasional, because the story is so familiar and the performance was so engrossing that I didn’t want or need to look away from the stage more than I could help. What phrases I did see carried fleeting echoes of well-known lines, but mostly they were prosaic rather than poetic, reminding one of the process of translation from 17th century English to 19th century Italian and back to 21st century English. This is only a comment, not a criticism.

To watch this performance was to be given a new perspective on the play, seeing the story unfold, the characters develop, interact and respond to events, and to feel the full emotional impact of Macbeth’s downfall. It will serve as an enriching backdrop to my next re-reading of the play itself.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Review of Bell's Much Ado about Nothing

Bell Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing  2019-07-07 reviewed by Frances, our president.

A group from the Shakespeare Club went last week to see the Bell Shakespeare production of Much Ado About Nothing.

I confess that I was not immediately captivated by it. The performance opened with a short section of the final scene of the play: the moment in Act V scene iv when Claudio agrees to marry (sight unseen) a veiled woman to replace the supposedly dead Hero, and then discovers that it is in fact Hero. Alas, I failed completely to grasp the point of starting in this back-to-front way, but all was made clear later, as the scenes from then on unfolded in the usual order.

The play is undeniably a comedy, and this production was determined to wrest from the script every last laugh. At first, grumpily, I felt the voices were too loud and the young men’s horseplay too adolescent, but their infectious good humour and energy, together with the fine comic skills of Duncan Ragg, as Benedick, soon won me over. Benedick showed excellent timing not only in the delivery of his lines but also in his address to the audience, with whom he built a lovely rapport.

Beatrice (Zindzi Okenyo) was a more thoughtful character, and gave indications of an earlier relationship and disappointment. Altogether her manner was rather mature for the youthful deportment of Benedick; I felt that she could have been given more opportunity to sparkle. For instance, in the famous gulling scenes (II iii and III i) Benedick had every chance to raise laughs, with many amusing hiding places. However the following scene, where Beatrice is similarly tricked, was disappointing in comparison. She remained seated downstage to one side, with no chance to show her responses fully. When alone at the end of the scene she did show a delighted shiver and hug as she skipped away, but I felt that she could have been given greater scope.

The riotous comedy gave way to a more serious theme with Claudio’s jilting and accusing Hero, leading to her collapse. The change of tone was carefully handled, and led to a sweet declaration of mutual love between Benedick and Beatrice when they were alone. It was unfortunate though that the audience could not quite take it sufficiently seriously, and laughed at Beatrice’s line: ‘Kill Claudio’. The production could have had greater depth by using the strength of Beatrice’s feelings. The dark side of the story might have provided more contrast with the lightness of the comedy.

Of course, speaking of comedy, the Watch make a major contribution to the humour of the play. What an extraordinary group they were! And credit must be given to the clever use of costume to disguise completely the fact that all four of them (in the Watch) were doubling with other characters. Dogberry, the constable, was played by Mandy Bishop, who also appeared as Balthazar and proved to be a charming singer in that role. As Dogberry she rode about on a child’s tiny scooter, in full biker’s outfit: boots, knee and elbow guards, and a helmet, and displayed an amazingly creative style of movement which reflected Dogberry’s sense of his own importance. We possibly lost some of this character’s delicious “malapropisms” (if that’s not too anachronistic a word), but his actions were wildly popular.

To return to the darker side for a moment: Don John needed to project a more sinister quality. The performance was full of cleverly inventive 'business' to show character, but to have Don John show his nasty side by going through the luggage of the arriving soldiers, and pilfering what looked like a piece of underwear, did not reflect the level of his malign spirit.

Leonato (David Whitney) was a convivial host and anchored the scenes with the young men. His shocking lack of loyalty to his daughter, after Claudio’s accusations, was made believable, as was his restored bonhomie at the end. Equally, Antonio (apparently Leonato’s sister despite the name, played by Suzanne Pereira) presented a quietly reliable support in the whirl of events.

It is a credit to the performers that they made the rather convoluted plot quite clear to the audience. I overheard near me a young woman, who obviously did not know the story, gasping with amused relief when she suddenly saw how it would all be resolved.

And so we came to the final scene, and to the section which we had seen at the beginning. The young women entered, Claudio spoke the required words, and Hero unveiled. But here the script was slightly altered. Deviating from the original, in recognition of our 21st century sensitivities, Hero gave Claudio a stinging slap on his face, and then refused to complete the sentence which ends “I am a maid.” Indeed, she then walked away from him, and sat looking extremely miserable. It was clear that this time they would have no happy ever afters.

It was as well that we had the last few exchanges in their 'skirmishes of wit' between Benedick and Beatrice to lighten the mood before the play ended with a delightful song, with the words of Sonnet 116: Let me not to the marriage of true minds. I think everyone left the theatre with a smile.

By William Shakespeare
Director James Evans
Designer Pip Runciman
Lighting Designer Niklas Pajanti
Composer & Sound Designer Andrée Greenwell
Movement & Fight Director Nigel Poulton
Voice & Text Coach Jess Chambers

Zindzi Okenyo
Vivienne Awosoga
Danny Ball
Marissa Bennett
Mandy Bishop
Will McDonald
Suzanne Pereira
Duncan Ragg
Paul Reichstein
David Whitney

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Reading Shakespeare aloud

Dear friends in Shakespeare: I have just stumbled over what looks like a fascinating and useful website. Check it out at Lee Jamieson's site. How to Read Shakespeare Dialogue Aloud.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Shakespeare’s French
 The following post by Rob Baxter comes from our recent newsletter

Shakespeare uses a surprising amount of French in his plays, especially in Henry V. But that use of the French language is not the only way in which French is part of Shakespeare’s language. The vast majority of Shakespeare’s vocabulary comes from French. More profoundly, much of the grammar and the syntax of Shakespeare’s language comes from French. (The English Project ‘Henry and the French Language n.d.’)
French began to be an influence on the English language with the arrival of the French-speaking Norman kings in 1066. In the next five hundred years, English was massively refashioned by French so that by the time Shakespeare was born, English had become a fusion language. (Mulvey 2016)
Some scholars who have examined different aspects of the plays have discovered borrowings from French sources, and apparent allusion to French personages and events, and, of course, the plays include French phrases and occasional exchanges in French.  Let us consider Shakespeare’s use of French in just three of his plays, Henry V, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Hamlet.
Henry V
Henry V is a play that rejoices in its hero king, Henry, warrior and wooer. Henry V not only defeated the French; he went on to win the hand of Katherine, the daughter of the King of France. Henry is powerful and kingly in battle. He is playful and winning in courtship.
In Henry V we find more than a dozen French lines for the soldiers including the exchange:

Boy. Encore qu'il est contre son jurement de pardonner
aucun prisonnier, neanmoins, pour les ecus que vous
l'avez promis, il est content de vous donner la
liberte, le franchisement.
[“Although it is against his oath to pardon any prisoner, nevertheless, for the sake of the crowns you have promised, he is willing to give you your liberty, your freedom”]
French Soldier. Sur mes genoux je vous donne mille remercimens; et je m'estime heureux que je suis tombe entre les
mains d'un chevalier, je pense, le plus brave,
vaillant, et tres distingue seigneur d'Angleterre.
[“On my knees, I give you a thousand thanks, and I consider myself happy that I have fallen into hands of a knight, as I think, the bravest, most valiant, and very distinguished gentleman in England”]                                                                 [4.4.52-62]
This shows some, but not conclusive evidence, that Shakespeare could write fluent French. In the next Act there is the rather naughty scene between Katherine and her maid, Alice, where the latter teaches the former some English translation of French words.  Whilst Shakespeare shows that he is familiar with French it can be seen that he is also boasting about the superiority of English. (The English Project ‘Henry and the French Language n.d.’)
The subject is parts of the body, so Katherine learns single words ‘de sin’, ‘de fingres’, ‘de mailes’ and ‘de bilbow’ which with a hint of a French accent is probably not so different from a French vocabulary lesson even today. 
The play demonstrates Shakespeare’s knowledge of conversational French, with its sideways glance at the verb ‘baiser’, which, for unsuspecting English audiences means 'to kiss', leaving its more sexual connotations for those French-speaking members of the audience alone. Shakespeare playfully uses the ‘double entendre’ word as a verb four times and is well aware that it was a word one had to be careful with. (White 2015)
The untranslated ‘baiser’ presents a space into which the English translation cannot reach. For French-speaking members of the audience, it denotes an extremely vulgar expression ‘to f**k’; French folk would assume use of the dirty expression, unless it's in a very well-known phrase like "baiser la main" [‘to kiss the hand’], a phrase Shakespeare actually uses in the dialogue. (Montgomery 2012)
History tells us that it was just at the time that Henry was courting Kate – 1415 - that the English language was triumphing in England; it was finally overcoming French as the language of authority and power. Henry’s father had deposed Richard II by an order read in English and the Henrys made English the language of their court. (The English Project)
There is more French spoken in Henry V than in any other Shakespeare play, more in fact, than in any other English play of that period. From 1066 onwards, England had been ruled in French and educated in Latin. English had been a despised tongue though it never ceased to be a written language, as in William Langland's Piers Plowman and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Henry V is not only a play about the defeat of the French army; it is also a play about the defeat of the French language. The English king is triumphant. So is Shakespeare’s English!
Turning to Hamlet, the Memoire’s of Queen Marguerite de Valois, contain the tragic story of a young girl at court who dies for love and grief. 
A young lord, living in the same household, falls in love with this young woman.  Their love is thwarted by the family objections; the young girl has a domineering parent.  Her lover then turns cruel and rejects her. 
She tries to hide her distress, but then breaks down, and dies within days, mourned by a queen. Her lover returns, and comes across a funeral procession.  The coffin is strewn with flowers. He wonders whose funeral it is, and then realises it is his beloved’s.  (Wikipedia: Margaret of Valois)
Does the story ring a bell with you? It sounds familiar, though the participants are not Ophelia and Hamlet, but Hélène de Tournon and the Marquis de Varenbon. Had Shakespeare read some of Marguerite’s Memoires as she had been born in 1553 and the letters seem to have been written in the latter part of the 16th century?
Love’s Labour’s Lost
And fascinatingly, Shakespeare found her a muse as well, basing the events of his comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost on Marguerite’s relationship with Navarre whom she married unwillingly in 1572.
Marguerite describes how in 1578, separated from her husband, she accompanied her mother, Catherine de Médici, as ambassadress of France in negotiations with Henry of Navarre. On this occasion she attempted to influence the outcome of the negotiations by employing the charms of the ladies-in-waiting on Henry and his lords. Like the princess in the play, Marguerite was witty and charming.
The Mémoires contain many particulars of her life, together with anecdotes told with a saucy vivacity which is charming, and an air vividly recalling the sprightly demeanour and black, sparkling eyes of the fair Queen of Navarre. Marguerite died in 1615, aged sixty-three. These letters contain the secret history of the Court of France during the seventeen eventful years 1565-82.
Marguerite de Valois

Hélène de Tournon, daughter of one of Marguerite de Valois' ladies-in-waiting, died for the love of a young nobleman, the Marquis de Varenbon, an incident that is the source for the story of Katharine’s sister in Love’s Labour’s Lost. (Boyce, 2005)The tragic death of Hélène de Tournon was probably the source for that of Ophelia in Hamlet who dies broken-hearted, rejected by Hamlet (as mentioned earlier), the man she loves who has also killed her father. The Marquis learned of the death of Hélène de Tournon when, on returning to Liège (from where he had been absent at the time Hélène died), he encountered the funeral procession, just as Hamlet encounters the funeral procession of Ophelia on his return to Elsinore.
Shakespeare knew of this tragic incident, which was not publicly known until Marguerite de Valois’ Mémoires were published in 1628.
Shakespeare’s Library
The question arises as to how Shakespeare acquired his knowledge of the French language. Concerning Shakespeare’s proficiency Kenneth Muir (1977) writes:
‘Of modern languages Shakespeare acquired some knowledge in French…  He could certainly read French…’
Stuart Gillespie (2001) makes reference to John Eliot’s book written for “English Gentlemen”, published in London in 1593 under the extended title

“Ortho-epia Gallica: Eliot’s fruits for the French, Enterlaced with a double new Inuention, which teacheth to speake truely, speedily and volubly the French-tongue.
Penned for the practise, pleasure, and profit of all English Gentlemen, who will endevour by their owne paine, studie, and dilligence, to attaine the naturall Accent, the true Pronounciation, the swift and glib Grace of this Noble, Famous, and Courtly Language”

and describes the French language manual as one Shakespeare might have had in his possession and seems
“exactly the type of book Shakespeare could have used to teach himself French”.
Robert Miola (2000) goes further referring to the French ‘teach yourself’ books Shakespeare might have acquired to further his studies:
‘Shakespeare’s library certainly contained books in French…including a French conversation manual, and perhaps works by Boaistuau and Belleforest.’
Belleforest’s Les Histoires Tragiques is a 1514 translation of the story of the 12th century Latin Amlethus into French (Amleth) and one of the sources Shakespeare used for Hamlet. The play makes more than fifty allusions to characters, events or words and phrases in Belleforest’s Les Histoires Tragiques, published (in French) in 1572.
These scholars—Muir, Gillespie and Miola—and Shakespeare himself show that he was sufficiently fluent in French to read and make use of French sources and was also familiar with a French person’s vernacular.
Miola’s reference to Shakespeare’s library has exercised the minds of many.  Shakespeare’s will runs to three pages, over a thousand words, with no mention of any book, whether a bible, texts of any poems or plays, or any sources.  The absence of books is a marked feature of the will.  No inventory of books to which a lawyer would, as a matter of practice, make specific reference in the will (for it be valid in law), is known to exist.
One of the few biographical details we know for certain about Shakespeare is how much he read. Over 200 books are quoted in his plays or serve as sources for them.
What did he read? Mostly history, literature, plays, and poems, with some books on mathematics and medicine. It would certainly seem to follow that Shakespeare either owned such books or had access to these relatively scarce books.
Where did he read books? There were no public libraries in England. The largest known library was Lord Lumley’s (1533-1609); he was an English aristocrat whose library contained some 7000 volumes; this collection became the original British Library. There were about 10 libraries of over 1000 volumes in England: the Queen’s, the universities’, the Inns of Court’s, and several other private libraries, including Sir William Cecil's. 
Shakespeare was not a student at a university or an Inn of Court, nor is he known to have been patronized by any of the owners of large libraries. He must have been self-taught.
Stuart Kells (2018) has researched this enigma and writes
‘Over the span of four hundred years, people sought [Shakespeare’s] library out….In all this time, the search came to nought [sic]. Not a trace of his library was found. No books, no manuscripts, no letters, no diaries….’
Kells suggests that one reason the library has been lost is because Shakespeare wasn't really a literary figure in his own time.
‘The idea of a literary Shakespeare as this inspired author was really created in the 18th and 19th centuries….In his time, he was a workaday dramatist, he had [many] other things on the go, [including] investing in theatres."
It seems that there is no satisfactory explanation of this puzzle; searches for any library, indeed any books of any description, belonging to Shakespeare, have led nowhere.                   
Boyce, C (2005) ‘KATHARINE’ in William Shakespeare: A Literary Reference to his Life and Work, Vol 1 Facts on File, New York
Gillespie S (2001) SHAKESPEARE’S BOOKS: The Athlone Press
Kells, S (2000) SHAKESPEARE’S LIBRARY Text Publishing, Melbourne
Montgomery M (2012) EUROPE’S LANGUAGES ON ENGLAND’S STAGES 1590-1620: Ashgate, London
Muir K (1977) THE SOURCES OF SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS Methuen & Co. Ltd., London
Mulvey C (2016) ‘WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE: A FRENCH POET?’ A Parisian Celebration of the 400th Anniversary of His Death: 25 May 2016,
The English Project ‘HENRY AND THE FRENCH LANGUAGE’ (accessed 15 Jan 2019)
White R et al. (eds.) (2015) SHAKESPEARE AND EMOTIONS, INHERITANCES, ENACTMENTS, LEGACIES Palgrave Macmillan, London
Wikipedia contributors, "MARGARET OF VALOIS," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia (accessed January 15, 2019

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Queens in Shakespeare's plays

What a fascinating topic! Our president, Frances, has researched and commented on Shakespeare's depiction of the Queen consorts depicted in his histories.

A comment by fellow member Claudia a few months ago has set me thinking about the history plays.  We had just finished reading Henry IV part 2 and she mentioned an interesting little detail: there was no queen in the play.

Beginning way back with King John, all the other English histories feature at least one queen, sometimes several, and while most are relatively minor, some are quite significant and certainly very interesting characters.

There is no wife in King John, but his mother Queen Elinor is an outspoken woman.  In the very first scene she feels free to comment disapprovingly on the French ambassador.

She is a strong supporter of her son, to the extent that she is not too scrupulous about legal questions:
“Your strong possession much more than your right,
Or else it must go wrong with you and me:
So much my conscience whispers in your ear,
Which none but heaven and you and I shall hear.”

Elinor is so well ensconced in the court that she follows John to France, giving her opinion and advice frankly, often acting as though a reigning queen herself.  She is decisive and confident in her own judgement, making a surprisingly quick decision to adopt the Bastard, Falconbridge, as her grandson.

So firm is her backing of her son that she openly reveals her antipathy to Constance’s demands for Arthur’s rights, and accuses Constance of promoting Arthur’s claims so that she can be queen.  She uses phrases such as “that ambitious Constance”, “Thou monstrous slanderer”, “Thou unadvised scold” and calls her “insolent”.  We notice that she makes no effort to dissuade John from his plan to have Arthur murdered.

After making a strong impression in the first half of the play, she disappears from the action of the battles and John’s final downfall.

John’s great great grandson was Edward III.  In the play Edward III we meet good Queen Philippa.  Her virtue and beauty have so strong an influence that, when Edward sees her features mirrored in their son’s face, he is instantly released from his overpowering infatuation with the Countess of Warwick.

Philippa accompanies him to the battlefields of France, and it is her pleading which saves the brave burghers of Calais from Edward’s vengeance.

In real life she did indeed follow him on all his travels in England and France, and bore him many children, including Edward the Black Prince, father of Richard II, and several other sons who became the influential uncles in Richard’s life.

Richard II was Edward’s grandson.  In Richard II the queen is not even named. She takes no part in state affairs, having only a domestic role.

She is devoted to her husband, calling him “my sweet Richard” and is much distressed when they are parted by his going to Ireland.  Her nervous sense of impending doom is justified by news of Bolingbroke’s arrival back in England, saying “I….have woe to woe, sorrow to sorrow joined.”  This is more strongly expressed when she eavesdrops on the gardeners: “They’ll talk of state, for every one doth so Against a change; woe is forerun with woe.”

She rallies slightly and shows some spirit in scolding the gardeners’ talk of the king’s likely deposition: “….for telling me these news of woe, Pray God the plants thou graft’st may never grow.”

The last we see of her is as she waits for Richard to pass in the street on the way to the Tower.  They take a very tender and loving farewell of each other.

The usurper, Bolingbroke, was crowned Henry IV, and as was noted, the Henry IV plays do not feature a queen.  In fact, the real Henry IV was married twice and managed to sire six children with his first wife, in between all the insurrections and battles.

Henry V also does not have an actual queen, but we meet Princess Katharine of France, who would become Henry’s wife after the events of the play.  Our first glimpse of her shows her learning English with her lady-in-waiting, revealing self-confidence and a youthful sense of fun.

Later, when Henry has reached agreement with the King of France, she faces a fairly business-like courtship.  Henry has told the King that she (Katharine) “is our capital demand, comprised Within the fore-rank of our articles” – referring to the schedule of English stipulations for peace.

Henry tells her: “Take me, take a soldier.”  She resists for some time:  “Is it possible that I sould love de enemy of France?”  “I cannot tell.’  “I do not know.”  “As it sall please de roi, mon pere.”

However, on being assured that her father approves, she softens and eventually yields to his kisses.  It is interesting to note that from there she says not another word!

Henry V died young, and his infant son became Henry VI at a tender age.  The three plays comprising Henry VI  feature probably the most unforgettable queen of them all: Margaret of Anjou.

When her marriage to Henry is arranged she stuns the envoy Suffolk, and then her new husband, with her beauty, but soon reveals her steely ambition and a callous determination to be more than a decorative consort.  She quickly sums up the power structures of the court and deviously plots her way to control.  She takes little trouble to disguise her affair with Suffolk, or to hide her impatient scorn for her gentle husband.

Margaret is devastated when Suffolk is murdered, but her response shows her firm resolve as she tells herself:
“Oft have I heard that grief softens the mind,
And makes it fearful and degenerate;
Think therefore on revenge and cease to weep.”

She becomes a warrior queen, recognising Henry’s lack of martial spirit, and devises strategy and directs action.

Margaret is furious with Henry over his agreement with York about the succession, and shows her devotion to her son:
“Art thou King, and will be forced?  I shame to hear thee speak. Ah, timorous wretch! Thou hast undone thyself, thy son, and me.”

Her treatment of the captive York shows her at her worst, delighting in the death of York’s son.  York’s invective sums up her chilling cruelty:
“O tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!  How couldst thou drain the life-blood of the child  To bid the father wipe his tears withal, And yet be seen to bear a woman’s face?”

As the wars drag on, Margaret becomes the courageous leader, even displaying diplomatic skill when pleading for help from the King of France.  Her valiant spirit shines before the battle of Tewkesbury; she inspires her followers with patriotic zeal, ending her speech:  “Henry, your sovereign, is prisoner to the foe; his state usurp’d……And yonder is the wolf that makes this spoil.  You fight in justice; then, in God’s name, lords, Be valiant, and give signal to the fight.”

Alas, she and her son are captured; she is forced to watch the prince’s murder, lamenting with heartbreaking sincerity.  She exits, cursing the York brothers:  “So come to you and yours, as to this prince!”

Although at the end of Henry VI part 3, King Edward orders that Margaret be returned to France, she reappears in Richard III, still resentful and insisting on her right to be England’s queen.  She seems the personification of hatred, completely obsessed with the reversals of her fortunes, and shows startling imagination in the range of insults and curses she flings at Richard.  Even in Henry VI she called Richard:  “…a foul mis-shapen stigmatic, Mark’d by the destinies to be avoided, As venom toads, or lizard’s dreadful stings.”  And so in the later play she adds:  bottled spider; hell-hound; cacodemon; elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog.  Among her curses: “The worm of conscience still begnaw thy soul!  Thy friends suspect for traitors while thou livest, And take deep traitors for thy dearest friends.”

As Hastings comments: “My hair doth stand on end to hear her curses.”

She “lurks” (to use her own word) about the court, to observe the workings of fate on her enemies and she finds grim satisfaction in Queen Elizabeth’s grief for her young sons:
“Plantagenet doth quit Plantagenet,
Edward for Edward pays a dying debt.”

After metaphorically placing all her woes on Queen Elizabeth, she finally resolves to leave all behind and return to France:
“Now thy proud neck bears half my burthen’d yoke;
From which even here I slip my weary neck,
And leave the burthen of it all on thee.
Farewell, York’s wife, and queen of sad mischance:
These English woes will make me smile in France.”

Margaret is such a powerful character that one can almost overlook poor Queen Elizabeth, widow of Edward IV, and a third queen, Anne.  Anne was the widow of Henry VI’s son and inexplicably agrees to marry Richard.  She soon has reason to feel regret and shame.

The last play is Henry VIII, where we meet Queen Katharine of Aragon, a noble and dignified woman, concerned for justice both in government and in her own claims.  She pleads her case against divorce strongly, but continues to be loyal to Henry and accepts her fate with resignation.

Anne Boleyn, artist unknown (courtesy Wikipedia)
Katharine is supplanted by Anne Bullen, a lady who enjoys a party, and whose beauty soon catches the king’s attention.  She expresses sympathy with Katharine’s plight, but clearly does not convince her interlocutor, and shows secret pleasure in her predecessor’s downfall.
We do not see her coronation, but her appearance and behaviour are described by onlookers most admiringly.

This is hardly surprising, given that she was the mother of the real-life Elizabeth I, ruler of England for the greater part of Shakespeare’s life.  Writers had to be careful, even if the play was written after Elizabeth’s death.

I have enjoyed this little excursion through the history plays.  It has given me a different way of looking at the works, and the chance to think about characters who might not otherwise attract so much of my attention.