Margaret of Anjou appears to many as an enigma, hidden beneath layers of literary interpretations. The understanding of Margaret and the world around her in historiography is almost inseparable from the literature which she inhabits. She is as much a character as she is a person, and it is nearly impossible to understand her without looking at her role in literature, most prominently in Shakespeare. Margaret’s role in Shakespeare spans four plays—the three parts of Henry VI as well as Richard III—and she is one of Shakespeare’s most varied and long-standing female characters; according to historian Sarah Pagardio, Margaret has the greatest range of any of Shakespeare’s characters, male or female, inhabiting roles of ‘daughter, bride, wife, mother, lover, queen, avenging warrior, and grieving widow.’ Scholarship on Margaret of Anjou is often criticised for its focus on Shakespeare, and so this article, whilst admittedly it does start with Shakespeare, shall attempt to trace the turbulent history of the representation of Margaret of Anjou from Shakespeare to the present day. It is almost tragic to see that literary presentations in the 21st century do not appear to have deviated much since Shakespeare, particularly considering that since Shakespeare we have gone through three waves of feminism and several more influential female queens. However, this article shall attempt to prove that the story of Margaret of Anjou within literature is not one of continuity but one of dramatic change.
According to Levine, the Henry IV plays ‘[sound] multiple warning about the dangers of unruly women’, and Margaret of Anjou is where the majority of warnings are set off. Born in 1430 in Pont-à-Mousson, France, Margaret was the second oldest daughter of King René of Naples and Duchess Isabella of Lorraine. In 1445, at the age of 15, Margaret would marry a man a decade her senior—Henry VI of England.
Henry himself is an interesting character; a series of mental breakdowns and insanity starting in 1453 appear to have overshadowed his contemporary influence as a scholar, an informally regarded saint and martyr, and the founder of Eton College, Kings College, and All Souls College. Henry is now just known as the man who, according to A. Cheetham, ‘lost his wits, his two kingdoms and his only son.’
Upon her husband’s breakdown Margaret ruled in his place and would rule intermittently as Queen, Queen Mother, and regent for her incapacitated husband and her young son. This inversion, an example of a woman performing roles which were, at least in England, typically masculine, has unsurprisingly led to incredibly misogynistic tropes emerging surrounding Margaret of Anjou—most famously, of course, is Shakespeare’s she-wolf.
The zoomorphism of Margaret in literature was a typical way for authors to degrade women—the portrayal of women as animalistic others shares similarities to Shakespeare’s presentation of Lady Macbeth. It is also reminiscent of earlier medieval tropes, explored through works such as The Wonders of the East, in which women were presented as hybrid creatures with both male and female characteristics as well as animalistic qualities in order, it can be argued, to highlight the un-naturalness of women who transgress typical gender boundaries.
There are two main animal images that crop up again and again in Shakespeare’s presentation: first is the she-wolf and second is the snake. Snake imagery is used in proximity to Margaret, and she is described as having a ‘tongue more poisonous than an adder’s tooth’ to remind the audience of original sin and thus the inherent evil and deviance of women. We later see this theme again in Antony and Cleopatra, in which a snake bite is the method chosen by Shakespeare for Cleopatra’s suicide, though it was not in Plutarch’s original telling.
The imagery of a she-wolf is neither so broad nor so longstanding as the image of the snake when it comes to female deviance, though it does have longevity when it comes to depictions of Margaret. The concept of a she-wolf is however more contemporaneously rooted through Isabella of France (1295-1358). Like Margaret, Isabella acted as regent for her son, however Isabella deposed her husband to do so, and some also believe that she even arranged his murder. The chronology is a bit tricky as to who superseded whom as the first she-wolf—whilst Isabella lived a century before Margaret, the use of the phrase ‘she-wolf’ when applied to these two characters is much closer in date. The term ‘she-wolf’ was first applied to Margaret of Anjou in Shakespeare’s 1591 play Henry VI, Part III, whereas the term ‘she-wolf’ was first used to describe Isabella of France by Shakespeare’s rival, Christopher Marlowe, just a year later in his 1592 play Edward II. Now I am not about to get into a debate about whether the coincidence could be explained by the theories that Christopher Marlowe was the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. In fact, it doesn’t really matter; what is important is that the concept of she-wolves was in the ether—that is, what is truly important about much of the literature, and indeed historiography on Margret of Anjou, is that it tells us as much about our own times as it does of the past.
So why choose a she-wolf? The image of a she-wolf originates in Roman mythology. It is the she-wolf who, in the Roman foundation myth, nurtures the twins Romulus and Remus. This concept of the wolf as nurturing as well as fiercely protective of her cubs or sons is clearly what is being picked up on by later writers. However, this classical image is complicated by the fact that the word lupa can be used to describe both a female wolf or a sex-worker, and perhaps authors’ propensity to draw similarities between these two systems is why the she-wolf is used time and time again to represent these queens. Like most unpopular queens, claims of adultery were lobbied against Margaret, and like in most other cases they are completely unsubstantiated. However, these rumours of adultery were often used to question queens about their fulfilment of the main role of queenship—undoubtedly, giving the king an heir. In having these two systems represented through the symbol of a wolf, the image of a loving and protective mother is problematised for the Elizabethan audience by lasciviousness and an inability to fulfil the main role of queenship, an issue which would have been highly contentious particularly within Elizabethan society.
Shakespeare doesn’t just use animal imagery to characterise Margaret, however; he also uses the one thing that has always and seems will always be used against powerful women—accusations of being a witch. In his play, Shakespeare carefully constructs a version of Margaret who is stereotypically witchlike. He calls her an ‘Old Queen’, a foul withered witch’, and a ‘hateful, withered hag.’ Margaret even illustrates what Keith Thomas would in 1971 call ‘the charity removed model,’ with Margaret claiming that they have dealt ‘uncharitably’ with her. Whilst the witch comparisons are constantly used to describe dangerous women, Elizabeth Zauderer has added another layer of nuance to the analysis of Shakespeare’s construction of Margaret. Zauderer argues that there is a similarity between Shakespeare’s depiction of Margaret and of Richard III. Perhaps this only further contributes to the othering of Margaret and goes back to earlier depictions seen in The Wonders of the East, when masculine women were viewed not just as otherized witches but as monsters, too.
The broad overview of Shakespeare’s depiction of Margaret seems rather similar to the one of the present day. So how can it be claimed that the depiction of Margaret throughout history is a story of dramatic change? It is in fact the eighteenth century that provides the answer to this question. Worral has argued that the ‘feminisation’ of Margaret reached its apex in the 1790s when ‘gender panic’ ignited by the French Revolution coincided with what Sarah Burdett has termed ‘audiences’ sympathies for the real-life Queen of France’. The eighteenth century marked a broad change in depictions of Margaret from ‘brutal warrior to sentimental mother,’ with revisions of Shakespeare’s play taking place, such as Valpy’s adaptation which removes all scenes in which Margaret either speaks of or partakes in warfare. This switch in the characterisation of Margaret was not long-standing, however.
The characterisation of Margaret in the eighteenth century appears to be a blip in the evolution of the depiction of Margaret throughout history, so much so that this stage in literature is almost entirely ignored in historiography on the subject. Instead, many people opt for a direct line being drawn between Shakespeare’s Margaret and the Margaret of Phillipa Gregory’s White Queen series, in which Margaret is described by Anne Neville as ‘the bad queen, a she-wolf worse than the wolves of France.’ This direct quotation from Shakespeare illustrates not only how prominently Shakespeare still shapes the interpretation of Margaret of Anjou, but the lack of revision also reveals that the misogynistic depiction of Margaret really hasn’t changed, with modern authors picking up on different aspects, such as Margaret’s sexuality, to present the stereotype of a bad queen and woman.
Whilst there has not been much change in the depiction of Margaret, it is important to note that the literature surrounding her is not linear, and the similarities between the present day and Shakespeare’s own time can lead scholars to completely write the eighteenth century out of the narrative. However, there seems to be some change, as work done by revisionist historians such as Helen Maurer and Helen Castor have been using comparative historical approaches to better understand Margaret’s active role in politics, and modern interpretations of Margaret—such as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones, whom she supposedly served as the inspiration for—have created a new narrative, in which Margaret is not a bad queen but a badass.
Written by Sophie Whitehead
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