What do the female characters in Richard III contribute to the play?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Women in this play are particularly interesting in the way that they can be viewed in a number of different ways. For example, Anne is viewed as both inconstant and an example of the pervasive influence of evil. Queen Elizabeth is viewed by Richard as an enemy because she is the mother of the twins and she is intelligent and strong-willed. However, by far the most fascinating female character in the play is Margaret, who spends most of her time wandering around the castle and cursing those she comes into contact with. In a sense, Margaret is an example of how female characters are somehow empowered by Shakespeare, as Margaret's rage stands for the anger of all of those who have fallen foul of Richard. Also, her curses in Act I are used to foreshadow important events in the play, and she has an important role in teaching the duchess and Elizabeth how to curse in Act IV scene 4, demonstrating how language can be used in defiance of victimisation:

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

Margaret's advice is a little extreme, as she says they must steep themselves so utterly in their misery in order to be able to curse effectively, but she is presented as an empowered woman who uses her rage and sense of injustice against her enemies, and she influences the other female characters in the play in this regard. Women then in this play are presented in a number of different ways, with Margaret being a particularly memorable character used to demonstrate the agency that women--even when they are at their most helpless and defenceless--can possess.

lmillerm eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are several female characters, but Margaret is one I would like to discuss specifically. Elements of her character can be seen in the others, although they all add to the play.
Margaret represents all of those who have been victimized by Richard's power. She is the voice for all those who wish they can say the things she is saying. Margaret's character is also illustrating the typical role women have in that society. Her husband's social status is the only reason she had any social standing; without him she has to rely on others for survival.

unspeakable49 | Student

1. Dramatic role: They have a very melodramatic style of speaking. Their curses and laments add to the dramatic quality of the play.

2. Their reactions also highlight the extent of Richard's villainy. They also emphasise the moral theme of the play - those who are guilty will pay. However, in the play, even the innocent suffer, and some of those who claim to be innocent also have blood on their hands from the War of the Roses.

3. They add to the supernatural element of the play through their curses. Their curses are also prophetic,  especially Queen Margaret's. This then reveals the future of the plot.

4. Despite having such strong personalities, they are helpless because of the pressures of society. For example, the Duchess of York is the only one who always sees Richard's character for what it is, and yet she cannot do anything against him. Their position in the society of the play reveals the position of women in Elizabethan society as well.

5. Through the relationship between the Duchess of York and Richard, a different facet of Richard's personality is revealed. We see him as a neglected son and this is the major tool Shakespeare uses to evoke sympathy and pity for Richard - two I mportant emotions in adding to the complexity of the audience's reaction to Richard.

6. The women play a small part in bringing about Richard's downfall. Firstly, through their curses, and secondly, the Queven works against Richard by promising Elizabeth to Richmond in marriage instead.

7. Richard loses Elizabeth to Richmond. This foreshadows the defeat he will suffer at the hands of Richmond on a much larger scale. His desire to marry Elizabeth also emphasises his villainy.

9. One of the flaws of the play is the mourning of the women. Their cursing and wailing becomes very repetitive at some points.