Study Guide

Queen Margaret in Richard III

By William Shakespeare

Queen Margaret

Queen Margaret is the bitter old widow of King Henry VI. Margaret's favorite hobbies include skulking around the castle like an angry ninja and cursing everyone near her for the terrible things that have happened to her family. (Preferably both at the same time.) We're going to get into Margaret's habit of cursing in a moment, but first, let's answer the question on everybody's minds: What's Margaret so bitter about?

Why So Bitter?

Well, for one thing, Queen Margaret's late husband was bumped off the throne by Richard's family so that Edward IV could be crowned king. Also, Richard also killed her son, so she's pretty unhappy about that. Oh, and did we mention that since Margaret is a woman and a widow, her livelihood depends on the people who murdered her husband and son? In other words, Margaret was once a queen but now she's a charity case without a husband or a son...and she's angry about it.

The grief she feels is awful, and the fact that the murders have gone unavenged adds insult to injury. Worse than anything, Margaret feels irrelevant, and her unnoticed misery only fuels her wrath.

Margaret the Hypocrite

Before we start feeling too sorry for Margaret, we should keep in mind that our girl has done some pretty nasty things too. Check out this passage, where Richard is more than happy to remind her about her violent past:

The curse my noble father laid on thee,
When thou didst crown his warlike brows with paper
And with thy scorns drew'st rivers from his eyes,
And then, to dry them, gavest the duke a clout
Steep'd in the faultless blood of pretty Rutland –
His curses, then from bitterness of soul
Denounced against thee, are all fall'n upon thee;
And God, not we, hath plagued thy bloody deed.

It turns out that back in the day, Margaret was involved in the murder of Richard's brother Rutland. Not only that, but after Rutland was killed, Margaret took a hanky dipped in Rutland's blood and waved it around in Richard's father's face. Um, yeah – not so nice. So, what Margaret seems to have forgotten is that she and the rest of her family have been just as treacherous as everyone else. Margaret is not exactly innocent. (Nobody in this play is innocent, except for maybe the young princes.)

Margaret and Cursing

At the same time, Margaret is most definitely a victim in this play. Since she has no real physical or political power, she turns to cursing. We don't mean letting four-letter words fly, we mean putting curses on people, Bellatrix Lestrange-style. If hurling nasty curses at one's enemies were an Olympic sport, Margaret would have gold medals hanging on her bedpost.

In Act 1, Scene 3, Margaret calls on the power of divine justice to make the following things happen:

  1. King Edward IV should die;
  2. Queen Margaret should outlive her children and be made to see another woman crowned queen;
  3. Rivers, Dorset, and Hastings should die early deaths;
  4. Richard should feel betrayed by his best friends and should have sleepless and/or nightmare-filled evenings.

And that's just for starters.

At first, most people (especially Richard) dismiss Margaret's cursing as the grumblings of a "hateful, bitter hag" (1.3.16). Most of the other characters think she's insignificant, too. Their first reaction is, "What? You're still here?"

But then Margaret's curses start to come true. Creepy, right? As scholar Stephen Greenblatt points out "there is something eerie and disturbing about curses, as if [...] they magically touch the hidden order of things." Margaret's cursing is so impressive and effective that Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess of York ask her to teach them how to do it. Queen Elizabeth even begs, "O thou well skilled in curses, stay a while / And teach me how to curse my enemies" (4.4.8).

Powerful or Powerless?

If Margaret's curses always come true, that must make her the most powerful figure in the play, right? Not so fast. Even though her curses are prophetic and seem to harness the power of divine justice, Margaret (just like the rest of the women) is pretty much powerless insofar as she can't do a darn thing to stop Richard from hurting people.

In many ways, Margaret represents the emotional crippling that's the natural result of all the horrible stuff that happens in the play. For the men, this is a battle of good and evil. But for the women of the play, the result of all this power politicking is dead husbands and sons, meaninglessly lost at the hand of treachery. The women are reduced to powerlessness, left to mourn the dead and hate the living, while depending on the charity of others to survive. The only thing they have to nourish them is their rage.

Margaret has the last laugh, as all her predictions come true. But it's a bitter laugh. She has let herself be caught up in the machinations of the men, and since she, as a woman in the 1400s, is ultimately less important than them, she suffers less grand ends than their martyrdom and mourned memories. Her curses, which she teaches to the other women, are a small gesture from Shakespeare. The women have power to bring others misery, but they cannot alleviate their own misery by bestowing it on others. Thus Margaret is the icon of powerless feminine suffering.