PTS 07/041 The Bitch Is Back …

BH elton john bitch is back
I entertain by picking brains
Sell my soul, by dropping names (Elton John, 1974)  Photo:  Terry O’Neil

Richard III: Act I, Sc iii (Ponytail Shakespeare read-through)

Richard has been a part of my life, a surprisingly large part, for about six years or so.  In fact, we might call him part of the ‘soundtrack of my life’, since I turned 40.  So whilst I try and inevitably fail to do the play justice in these posts, one of the things that’s already settled is the Shakespeare’s Jukebox ‘Soundtrack Album’ that I publish at the end of my amble through the play.  Some songs have been ringfenced, so that I don’t use them for any other play … this is one.

If there’s a decidedly ‘camp’ flavour to the jukebox, in fact to these posts (I mean:  Mercury, Hasselhoff and now EJ?), it could be down to two factors:

  • I’m teaching Edward II, to two classes, at the moment (conspiracy theorists, and I like one as much as the next person, will note that these two plays were probably written within months of each other, if not simultaneously); and
  • this is a camp play.  At some stage I might get stuck into the relationship between Richard and Buckingham (a personal theory that causes wide-eyed incredulity in my classes, more often than not)

I’ve often described it as a pantomime for grown-ups.  Ironically, because a child’s pantomime is possibly the worst way I can think of spending an evening. Perhaps this takes on board the criticisms of those who favour other, more mature or ‘intellectual’ plays.  Richard is gleefully childish and petulant, at least until he becomes king, and there are several times where I want to shout:

He’s behind you!

or similar, at members of the cast:  Clarence, Hastings, the young Duke of York, the hapless Burghers of London, at the very least.

But … having ambled through the HVI plays for the first time this year, I have a completely different understanding of and respect for this play.  The Bitch is back in Act I scene iii, and there can be only one Bitch (capitalisation intended), as we saw in The Hollow Crown

Margaret of Anjou is right up there with Tamora of the Goths as one of Shakespeare’s strongest (and, yes, bitchiest) female characters.  Much as I hated Suffolk in the HVI trilogy, I think I can understand his fatal attraction to her, especially seeing her played by Sophie Okonedo in The Hollow Crown … phew!  Deadly, sure, but also distracting, disarming, deft, and distinctly gorgeous.

BH sophie margaret riii
You look so cute when you’re mad, Margaret …

If I experienced any regret in those first three plays, it might be that Richard and Margaret never truly got to spar.  I always had the sense that if they had, it would have been a clash of Shakespearean titans, a bit like that scene in Heat (1995) – you know the one … if you don’t, for Christ’s sake, watch it, and then tell me which one’s Pacino and which one’s playing De Niro.  I made a point, therefore, of re-reading Act I scene iii and thinking about Margaret.



Margaret, let’s not forget, was supposed to have been banished the realm at the death of her husband and her son in 3HVI – a woman who told King Lewis of France:

‘I was, I must confess,
Great Albion’s queen in former golden days:
But now mischance hath trod my title down,
And with dishonour laid me on the ground;
Where I must take like seat unto my fortune,
And to my humble seat conform myself.’  (3HVI:  III.iii.6-10)

Thing is, once you’ve read the previous plays, you know she wouldn’t recognise ‘humble’ if it fell at her feet and worshipped her …

What a difference there is between the film versions of Richard I’ve use in the classroom: the BBC ‘Ron Cook’ (1983) and the Hollow Crown ‘Benedict Cumberbatch’ (2016).  Both, I think, go out of their way to ‘witchify’ Margaret: the former is a faithful adaptation, and thus Margaret (Julia Foster) is an insane, toothless crone, who would have been frightening to a contemporary audience, I’m sure; Okonedo’s Margaret needed to scare a modern audience, and she’s much more gothic, more angry, and vicious, and her witchcraft uses the modern superstitious signifier of the mirror to good effect.  Of the two, Okonedo is the recognisable Margaret from the previous plays, hands down.

In either version, it’s a great moment in the play when Margaret steps out of the shadows that she’s been darkly muttering in for forty lines or so:

‘Which of you trembles not, that looks one me?’  (I.iii.159)

She was, in her pomp, Queen of the acerbic question, and here we are again, recalling former glories.  I’m trembling, but maybe with anticipation as much as anything else. I think Shakespeare relished this confrontation too – it is, after all, ahistoric.  John Julius Norwich tells us it is:

‘virtually certain that he is using her presence […] purely for dramatic effect and with no thought for historical truth.’

It’s a mark of how rattled the assembled factions are (in an already heightened situation, with Edward IV‘s death looming large) that they turn on her, prompting more haughty rhetorical questions:

‘What?  Were you snarling all before I came,

Ready to catch each other by the throat,

And turn you all your hatred now on me?’  (I.iii.187-189)

She has a point.  Interestingly she employs one of the common motifs of the play by dehumanising her audience.  It certainly is a dog eat dog, or perhaps ‘hog eat dog’ England that she’s lingering in.  This is very much the old Margaret that I found so damned attractive despite myself …

It’s worth remembering at this stage that she is powerless: banished, disinherited, alone.  Any effect she has on the assembled nobility is through sheer force of personality, seasoned with a splash of superstition – the piquant Tabasco of the Early Modern period.

And if that superstition is the only weapon left to her, she’ll employ it, in spades.  There follows an incredible crescendo of curses, with Margaret remarkably (given her crimes and previous machinations) positioning herself as an instrument of Divine Vengeance:

‘Can curses pierce the clouds and enter heaven?’  (I.iii.194)

But more significantly:

‘If heaven have any grievous plague in store

Exceeeding those that I can wish upon thee,

O, let them keep it till thy sins be ripe,

And then hurl down their indignation

On thee, the troubler of the poor world’s peace.’ (I.iii.216-220)

The main curses she offers are, of course, the ones she gives Richard.  Like some kind of anti-matter fairy godmother, she wishes him a guilty conscience, paranoia, and that Shakespearean staple, the bad night’s sleep.  He may feel a temporary, cheeky victory in his wordplay, but she is utterly implacable.

Watching, reading, this section is like some early Modern version of Final Destination – you know, inevitably, once she opens her mouth, that everything she says is absolutely going to happen.  She is the voice of Doom, as many of the characters reflect before they shuffle off their respective mortal coils.  If only they, and perhaps especially Buckingham, had listened …

‘O, but remember this another day,

When he shall split thy very heart with sorrow,

And say poor Margaret was a prophetess.’ (I.iii.298-300)

The Bitch has returned.  She has spoken.  Even in her relative impotence she has scared the living daylights out of her enemies.  And, as specifically illustrated in both film versions (despite this not being in the script), she will have the last laugh.

What a woman!



John D Cox and Eric Rasmussen (eds.)  King Henry VI part 3 (Arden Third Edition), (Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2016)

James R. Siemon (ed.), Richard III (Arden Third Edition), (Bloomsbury Publishing: London, 2014)

Elton John, The Bitch Is Back (1974)

John Julius Norwich, Shakespeare’s Kings (Penguin:  London, 2000)

Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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