Queen Margaret's Old Age

Queen Margaret's Old Age

  [Q. Mar.]  Hear me, you wrangling pirates, that fall out
In sharing that which you have pill’d from me!
Which of you trembles not that looks on me?
If not, that I am queen, you bow like subjects,
Yet that, by you depose’d, you quake like rebels?
Ah, gentle villain, do not turn away!
  Glou.  Foul wrinkled witch, what mak’st thou in my sight?

Richard III, 1.3.157-63

According to Shakespeare’s sources, Margaret would have been gone from England by the time of her appearance in Act I of Richard III, and she would have been dead by the time she shows up in Act IV. As the oldest and angriest Lancastrian left in the England of Richard III, Margaret is the most frequent and most furious champion of the figural interpretation of Richard’s deformities, the official position of the Tudor mythologizers. From this perspective, Richard’s hideous body at birth was an omen of his evil actions later in life. Thus, Richard and Margaret are mortal enemies, yet there is a surprising relationship between these two characters and between the abnormal bodies of each. One of these stigmata is always noted, the other rarely, but Richard’s birth defects and Margaret’s old age only make sense together, dialectically, each constituting the meaning of the other. Indeed, Richard and Margaret are competing choruses in Richard III, each vying for our viewpoint, especially our attitude toward the most important issue in the play, the meaning of Richard’s deformity, a causal reading coming from Richard, and a figural reading from Margaret. Thus, Richard may feel that his deformity is the cause of his villainy, and Margaret that it is the sign, but Shakespeare actually scrutinized each reading equally. On the one hand, he critiqued the causal interpretation by attributing it to Richard himself, a compulsive liar. On the other hand, he satirized the figural interpretation by attributing it to Margaret, an ugly old hag. Shakespeare made an aged and withered Margaret the spokesperson for the providential theology of the Tudor myth so that audiences would see this theology - literally see it - as something that is old and ugly. In this regard, Margaret’s old age is just as much stage stigma as Richard’s deformity. If so, then it turns out that Shakespeare used one stigma to critique the production and perpetuation of another: he satirized the aesthetics that promote the beauty of virtue and the deformity of vice, even as – paradoxically – he himself used this very aesthetic to make this point.

Context

Margaret of Anjou in Early English Literature
The Elderly in Shakespeare
Old Age in Shakespeare

Bibliography

Mason, Shirley Carr. “ ‘Foul Wrinkled Witch’: Superstition and Scepticism in Shakespeare’s Margaret of Anjou.” Cahiers Elisabethains: Late Medieval and Renaissance Studies 52 (1997): 25-37.