The Duchess of York’s appearance in Richard III, an unusual empowered woman for those times
Mother Warrior and Sorceress
In the realm of Shakespeare, few women are given the opportunity to exhibit any traditional form of power. Such is the case of Richard III, the telling of a psychopathic king who uses murder and deceit to become king. When he is prepared to embark on the ill-fated battle with enemy Earl of Richmond, he faces a more personal foe: his mother Duchess of York. In her final appearance, the Duchess issues a farewell to her son in the form of a curse, ensuring a defeat in battle and the souls of those Richard had murdered to be avenged. Their weapons are their words and their ultimate battle plan is to not only instill fear in Richard, but to also symbolize his death to him figuratively and literally. Though this moment is fairly brief, the Duchess’s farewell curse to Richard before battle is powerful with the Duchess, Elizabeth, and Margret serving as their own army. This form of power the Duchess takes on is not only for herself, but also for those who cannot speak for themselves; something expressed at its finest when the history and sharpness of her curse remain complete.
In the play, the Duchess is a mother and a widow with little power to her name; her legacy rests on her children. Richard’s birth has been a “grievous burden” toward the Duchess considering how Richard’s behavior worsened as he matured. This contrasts with the notion of motherly love as Richard was born to “make [the Duchess’s] earth her hell.” (Cambridge School Shakespeare 173) Contrasting again with the normative form of feminine traits is the Duchess, Margret, and Elizabeth joining forces as an army to face Richard and his soldiers. Together, they are stronger and united by a common bond of being childless and widows. Margret and the Duchess of York, especially, are familiar with losing husbands and children and its lasting effects, and it is through this where they form a deep hatred of one another. It was Margret who killed the former Richard’s son, and it was the Duke of York’s family who killed her husband, which lead to Margret becoming a grieving and hysterical widow, the Duchess’s family becoming powerful through Edward IV, and consequentially Richard III being crowned by the play’s fourth act (Cambridge School Shakespeare 167). Though they share a sordid history of murder within their own circle, their contempt for one another is put aside for a greater cause. The use of sorrow, anger, and haunting memories from each of them (specifically the Duchess) to curse Richard before he leaves for battle creates a shift in female power and solidarity. As a result, the women become soldiers and sorceresses. Through this, the Duchess’s final farewell to Richard ensures victory for his enemies, but also that of reversing the tarnishing of a royal family. Words, in turn, are turned into weapons more powerful and defensive than a traditional soldier’s armor.
A key factor in Shakespeare speeches is the diction chosen for whatever situation the characters face. After being fully acquainted with the treachery Richard is capable of, those who have suffered are bound to come together and declare the injustice they have been forced to witness. Though Margret, Elizabeth, and the Duchess are bonded through their status as former mothers and widows, they put aside their bloody history to fulfill their desire to proclaim, “The dog is dead.” With Margret’s help, the Duchess and Elizabeth are able to berate and infantilize Richard in front of his army. The switching of the possessives “thou” and “thy” reduce Richard’s status further (Cambridge School Shakespeare 169, 173-5). As a king and a soldier, his masculinity and competency as such are important to him considering his deformity. Rather than a traditional goodbye and promise to go come to his kingdom with open arms, Margret, Elizabeth, and his mother impede him and with Margret’s help, she seals her farewell and banishment of Richard in hatred and hopes in Richard’s enemies to defeat him.
Recurring themes in the Duchess’s curse encompass violent and substantial images of directed toward her son as she describes him (and possibly his actions) as “bloody.” Whatever his final actions may be, will end with bloodshed. Through a multilayered perspective, the Duchess is being truthful; soldiers die in battle, and Richard takes part in killing enemy soldiers, but it is on the battlefield where Richard meets his end. His bloodshed is his end and he has died by “God’s just ordinance” before he could become a conqueror (Cambridge School Shakespeare 175). Truly the souls of Edward’s children and the prayers of Richard’s mother were with the Earl of Richmond to promise him and his soldiers success and victory. The Duchess with her old age and grief can be more at ease with the treachery that had taken place, and can hope for a new start with the Earl of Richmond marrying Elizabeth’s daughter. As the marriage of the Earl and young Elizabeth take place, the language turns to self-reflection, God, and peace. Blood is mentioned, but only to symbolize the deaths of those who tried to “make poor England weep.” (Cambridge School Shakespeare 227) The end brings the living together to start a new history.
The “Hollow Crown” series carefully and chronologically retells the complete history of the monarchs; bloodshed, deceit, and all. In the adaptation of “Richard III”, there was an equal balance of portraying both men and women along with an even ratio of keeping a majority of lines intact. The overall Gothic exterior of Richard’s castle sets the scene for the murder and corruption bound to take place, with the women being used to provide the audience with a raw emotional aspect to the effects of murder. They bury their slain loved ones and mourn over their bodies whereas the men do not. While the men are confronted with death and take part in the act, it is the women who bear the lasting effects. Therefore, they are seen banding together hoping to remain protected (PBS). The Duchess, Margret, and Elizabeth know all too well how fragile their status as a woman is, and what their status relies on. It is when they have little else to lose when they come together and block Richard, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, and his men. As the Duchess, played by Dame Judi Dench, stands in the middle, she faces her son directly. Richard tries to act indifferent to his mother and the other women glaring at him, as he holds a higher ground literally as a king and soldier riding on a dark horse (PBS). Meanwhile, the women stand on the ground without any form of elevation. Though he could easily move around him, Richard’s need to come across as in control and superior to his men supersedes the logical choice of leaving the women behind. Furthermore, leaving out of fear of the women would prove him to be a coward. Instead, listening to his mother disown him through him dying in battle or herself dying from “grief and extreme age” make him appear to be the fiercer warrior of the two (Cambridge School Shakespeare 175). Dame Judi Dench’s portrayal of the Duchess provides an air of royal sophistication. Her delivery of the farewell curse is spoken with calm intensity, making the audience come closer and heed the power of her words. Given how her curse was kept intact, it ensured emotions and intensity of language in the play was authentic while staying true to Judi Dench portrayals of kind, no-nonsense women with commanding power in male-dominated sectors. Unfortunately in the 1994 reimagining of Richard III, women’s roles are considerably reduced. With this choice, the movie becomes male-dominated and centered on the action of war.
True to it’s advertising, the 1994 film’s central focus is the military and the war. Additionally, the war takes places in a fascist-era England complete with propaganda films. Throughout the film, there is the constant awareness of death, frequent fourth wall breaks by Ian McKellen’s portrayal of Richard, and more time dedicated to the murdering of characters. As a result, the representation of emotions and the women is perceived as an afterthought. Dame Maggie Smith’s rendering of the Duchess is limited to being an angry mother. In the few instances she is seen, she is with others, specifically her family. While starting as a loving mother—dressing formally and smartly, sitting with her family, smiling, and applauding when Richard begins his victory speech—she quickly becomes spiteful. With a majority of her lines and scenes with Anne and Elizabeth being cut, the Duchess comes across as one-dimensional. Additionally, with Margret’s character being cut out of the film entirely, Maggie Smith’s Duchess is bitter and her anger not as pivotal to the history of her family rise and fall. The closest she becomes is through her curse, but even her curse is reduced. She begins with openly stating her curse and Richard’s involvement in the murder of Edward’s children; the latter coming off as personal as she, too, is a mother. What remains intact from the original play are the lines “Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end; shames serves thy life and doth thy death attend.” (MGM) Unfortunately, the Duchess in this rendition of the film leaves the remaining women, Elizabeth and her young daughter, for France. This possible act of abandonment does come across as cowardly. However, this action is heartbreaking; the Duchess has little to no family left in the end and she wishes to escape the constant presence of death.
After facing England’s embodiment of death, the Duchess and the widows she stood beside are the more powerful characters in Shakespeare’s Richard III. It is their collective curse and them taking on the role of sorceresses that ensure the lives of their husbands and children weren’t going to be ignored, cause Richard his final downfall, and give England a new and better start. The women will be there to remember those taken from them, and it is the Duchess who can bury her treacherous son with a light heart and die in peace. England can now prosper again, live long with “civil wounds” stopped, and unite as the Duchess laid upon Richard his curse. “God say amen.” (Cambridge School Shakespeare 227)
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Mother Warrior and Sorceress In the realm of Shakespeare, few women are given the opportunity to exhibit any traditional form of power. Such is the case of Richard III, the […]