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.

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