Richard III

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Women Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Power Theme Icon
The Throne and the State Theme Icon
Language Theme Icon
Women Theme Icon
Time Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Richard III, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Women Theme Icon

The women in Richard III are, on the surface, as disempowered as they usually were in the historical 15th century society that the play depicts. Men preside over the nation and over their wives, as the crown passes from Edward to Richard to Richmond and as Anne follows her husband Richard's orders even when it breaks her heart to do so and King Edward's daughter's wedding is arranged for her by Richmond and Queen Elizabeth.

Yet, while women in the play lack political influence and independence, they wield intense emotional force and speak a vigorous, powerful language. The future-shaping curse language described in the "Language" theme is spoken exclusively by the female characters Queen Margaret, the Duchess, and Queen Elizabeth. Further, the play's female characters form the emotional core of the play. While male characters mostly negotiate political action, the women articulate the emotional tolls those actions take and thus bring the play to life for the audience. "I had an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him; I had a Henry, till a Richard kill'd him; Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him; Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kill'd him" explains Queen Margaret to Queen Elizabeth, and her repetitions illuminate the parallels between each woman's grief, not only for Queen Elizabeth but for the Duchess and the play-goers watching. Likewise, nearly every moving lament in the play comes from the mouth of Anne, Queen Margaret, the Duchess, or Queen Elizabeth. By contrast, Richard tries to curtail the force of the women's speeches. Interrupting the Duchess and Queen Elizabeth's furious expressions of grief after the princes' murder, Richard says: "Let not the heavens hear these tell-tale women rail on the Lord's anointed." When the Duchess cries in agony, "O, let me speak!" Richard responds, "Do, then; but I'll not hear." Yet whether or not Richard listens, the women are heard and their words ring powerfully through the air of the play long after they are spoken.

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Women Quotes in Richard III

Below you will find the important quotes in Richard III related to the theme of Women.
Act 1, Scene 3 Quotes

Can curses pierce the clouds and enter heaven? –
Why, then, give way, dull clouds, to my quick curses!

Related Characters: Queen Margaret (speaker)
Page Number: 1.3.203-205
Explanation and Analysis:

Old Queen Margaret, wife of King Henry VI and mother of Edward of Westminster, has entered unnoticed. While Richard and Queen Elizabeth bicker, Margaret delivers a series of angry asides under her breath, accusing Elizabeth of stealing her throne and Richard of killing her husband and son. Eventually, Margaret gets tired of waiting and speaks out loud, calling everyone "wrangling pirates." She then directly accuses Elizabeth and says that Richard owes her a husband and a son. Soon everyone gangs up on Margaret.

Furious with everyone on stage, the old queen then launches into an eloquent tirade against the house of York. In the quote she asks a rhetorical question: can curses really make their way into heaven? In that case, she instructs the "dull clouds" to separate and make way for her "quick curses." Indeed, what follows is extremely quick, in the sense that it conveys her fierce intelligence, and her predictive powers. The curse language that she begins with this quote is future-shaping or predictive, as the curses she makes ultimately come true.

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Thou elvish-marked, abortive, rooting hog,
Thou that wast sealed in thy nativity
The slave of nature and the son of hell.

Related Characters: Queen Margaret (speaker), Richard, Duke of Gloucester, King Richard III
Related Symbols: The Boar
Page Number: 1.3.239-241
Explanation and Analysis:

In Margaret's stream of prophetic curses, Richard is saved for last. She curses him to be tortured by his conscience, to mistake his friends for traitors and traitors for friends, and to be kept sleepless by nightmares of hell. She then begins a long list of horrible epithets. We can note that the list is strengthened by Anaphora--the repetition of a single word (or words) at the beginning of consecutive lines. In this case, the repeated word is "thou." Margaret continues for six lines and seems to have more material before being interrupted by Richard saying "Margaret." Note that she responds masterfully with only "Richard!"

The quoted expert gives the first half of her six-line list of epithets against Richard. She calls him an "abortive, rooting hog" and a "slave of nature" and "son of hell." Note that even without precisely understanding the meaning of these lines one can perceive the sting of Margaret's language. Her reference to a "rooting hog" is a clever play on Richard's heraldic symbol, the Boar. She twists the supposedly noble Boar into a disgusting, aggressive Hog, outlining Richard's true personality.

But everyone on stage has already been cursed by Margaret, and so they are blinded to her accurate assessment of Richard's character. Though Margaret seems to know her predictions will come true, the others discount them. After her exit, Richard pretends to forgive her and spares her life (since she technically has been banished on punishment of death). By doing so, Richard further discounts Margaret's slew of curses and impresses everyone with his gentleness.

Act 2, Scene 4 Quotes

Ay me, I see the ruin of my house!
The tiger now hath seiz'd the gentle hind;
Insulting tyranny begins to jet
Upon the innocent and aweless throne.
Welcome, destruction, blood, and massacre!
I see, as in a map, the end of all.

Related Characters: Queen Elizabeth (speaker), Richard, Duke of Gloucester, King Richard III
Page Number: 2.4.54-59
Explanation and Analysis:

Edward is dead, and his son, Prince Edward of Wales, is in line to be crowned king. But Richard and his sidekick Buckingham plot to have Richard crowned; they imprison and plan to kill Queen Elizabeth's relatives Rivers, Dorset, and Grey. In this scene Elizabeth's younger son, Duke of York, has recounted a strange interaction with Richard, and Elizabeth sees through Richard's manipulation of her son. A messenger then enters and informs Elizabeth of her relatives' imprisonment.

To this news Queen Elizabeth responds with the lamentation excerpted in the quote. She claims to see the "ruin of her house," since by imprisoning or killing everyone, Richard has disempowered her family. She refers to him as a "tiger" that has pounced on his opportunity, characterizing him as tyranny ascending to the throne that should be pure ("innocent"). She dramatically welcomes "destruction, blood, and massacre," saying that she sees the end of everything like she's viewing a map. This language is powerful and dramatic, but Elizabeth is essentially correct--she sees what will happen, but can do nothing to stop it.

Act 4, Scene 1 Quotes

My woman's heart
Grossly grew captive to his honey words
And proved the subject of my own soul's curse,
Which ever since hath kept my eyes from rest

Related Characters: Lady Anne, Queen Anne (speaker), Richard, Duke of Gloucester, King Richard III
Page Number: 4.1.83-86
Explanation and Analysis:

Queen Elizabeth, the Duchess, Dorset, Anne, and Margaret Plantagenet are all at the Tower in hopes of visiting the young princes. However, they are stopped by Brackenbury, who says that Richard (whom he calls king) has forbidden visits. Immediately following Brackenbury's exit, Stanley enters and informs the women that indeed, Richard will be crowned king, and that Anne's presence is required so that she can be crowned his queen.

Here, she laments her situation, frustratedly recalling how Richard wooed her with his "honey words." Richard's language is a powerful tool, and Anne, too, is eloquent in her cries, but she becomes the victim of her own prophetic curse-speech. During her grief and Richard's courtship, she cursed him to make the woman he married miserable. Now that she has married him, subdued by those honey words, she has fulfilled her own prophecy and is herself extremely miserable and restless, unable to sleep. 

Act 4, Scene 4 Quotes

Ah, my poor princes! ah, my tender babes!
My unblown flowers, new-appearing sweets!
If yet your gentle souls fly in the air
And be not fix'd in doom perpetual,
Hover about me with your airy wings
And hear your mother's lamentation!

Related Characters: Queen Elizabeth (speaker), Edward, Prince of Wales, Duke of York
Page Number: 4.4.10-15
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene begins with Queen Margaret alone on stage delivering a soliloquy in which she explains that she has been "slyly" lurking in the Palace, secretly watching the downfalls of her enemies. She pauses and hides, however, when Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess enter the stage. The pair is distraught over the deaths of the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York.

Elizabeth begins with this monologue, crying out to her dead sons, whom she calls her "tender babes" and her "unblown flowers." In this powerful speech, she invites the "gentle souls" of her children to "hover about her" and hear their "mother's lamentation," that is, unless they are "fix'd in doom perpetual." We see in Elizabeth the pain of losing her children and her desire to speak to them even in their deaths; she cries out to them, wanting them to know that she grieves for them. At the same time, we see the uncertainty that death brings; she doesn't know if they are doomed to hell or exist as "airy" angel-like spirits who can hear and be near her.

Watching a mother lose her children is extremely painful, though not for Margaret, who comments (below) that Elizabeth and the Duchess deserve their grief for their crimes against her. Margaret will ultimately tell Elizabeth that the power behind curses is bitter grief.

I had an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
I had a Harry, till a Richard kill'd him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kill'd him.

Related Characters: Queen Margaret (speaker), Richard, Duke of Gloucester, King Richard III, Queen Elizabeth, King Edward IV, Ghost of King Henry VI, Ghost of Edward of Westminster
Page Number: 4.4.42-45
Explanation and Analysis:

Queen Elizabeth and the Duchess continue to lament the deaths of the Prince of Wales and Duke of York, while Queen Margaret offers asides suggesting that she has suffered worse and that the other women are deserving of their grief. When Elizabeth and the Duchess sit down, Queen Margaret reveals herself and asks them to privilege her grief over their own since she had been grieving for longer than they have. She then compares the woes of each side, suggesting they can see their own losses as mirrors of her own.

With beautiful parallel phrasing she shows how the losses and grief are related. Margaret had an Edward, "till a Richard kill'd him." She had "a Harry, till a Richard kill'd him." The Edward she speaks of first is her son Edward of Westminster, and the Harry is King Henry IV, her husband. Both men have been murdered by Richard III. Likewise, Elizabeth "hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him," and had a "Richard" as well, "till a Richard kill'd him." The Edward Margaret mentions second is King Edward, Elizabeth's husband, and the lost Richard is the Duke of York, Elizabeth's son. The parallel phrasing and similar names and relationships of the deceased are linked masterfully by the same words which end each of the lines in the quote. Richard III killed everyone mentioned. These lines illuminate the gruesome extent of Richard's murders, and help turn Elizabeth and the Duchess more fully against Richard.

Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days;
Compare dead happiness with living woe;
Think that thy babes were fairer than they were,
And he that slew them fouler than he is:
Bettering thy loss makes the bad causer worse:
Revolving this will teach thee how to curse.

Related Characters: Queen Margaret (speaker), Richard, Duke of Gloucester, King Richard III, Queen Elizabeth
Page Number: 4.4.121-126
Explanation and Analysis:

Margaret, the Duchess, and Elizabeth have been angrily bickering, trading insults and blaming each other for their losses. Queen Margaret reminds the other women of her curse, now fulfilled, and begins to exit, when Elizabeth begs her to teach her how to curse: "O, thou well skilled in curses, stay awhile / And teach me how to curse my enemies." The lines in the quote are Margaret's response, a recipe for powerful curses.

She instructs Elizabeth to stay awake at night and fast (not eat) during the days. Next, she says to compare the happiness that is now dead with the woe that she now experiences. Remember your lost children as perfect and better than they ever really were, and imagine the one who killed your children to be even worse than he is; such thinking will make the loss seem more terrible ("better") and make the killer seem more evil ("worse"). Understanding these instructions and constantly thinking about your revenge will give Elizabeth the power ("teach thee how") to curse.

Here we see that the curse-language and power attributed to women in the play is fueled by loss and woe. Elizabeth calls out in response to this instruction, "My words are dull. O, quicken them with thine!" But rather than giving further instruction or giving Elizabeth secret words, she simply responds that "Thy woes will make them sharp and pierce like mine." It is woe that hones the women's words and woe that embodies their words with the ability to curse others.

Bear her my true love's kiss; and so, farewell.
[Exit QUEEN ELIZABETH]
Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!

Related Characters: Richard, Duke of Gloucester, King Richard III (speaker), Queen Elizabeth
Page Number: 4.4.453-454
Explanation and Analysis:

This exchange comes after a long conversation between Richard and Elizabeth. Richard has already been cursed by his mother, the Duchess, who has exited. In his dialogue with Elizabeth, he tries to convince her to help him to marry her daughter. Richard believes that such a marriage will secure his seat on the throne (as discussed above in 4.3). But Elizabeth is appalled, saying that she'll do anything she can to protect her daughter from the man who murdered her sons, suggesting to Richard that she knows of his evil deeds.

After a long argument with many shifting tactics, Richard appears to convince Elizabeth to talk to her daughter and write back with her answer. Richard, believing himself victorious, tells Elizabeth to bring her daughter Richard's "true love's kiss," and bids the Queen farewell. The moment the Queen leaves the stage, Richard calls her a "relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman!" behind her back. This line plays on the stereotype that women are fickle and untrustworthy, constantly changing their minds. Richard knows that Elizabeth would be a fool to get tricked again and change her mind (relent), but in this case Elizabeth is actually fooling Richard, pretending to agree to support him when in reality she will not.