It’s easy to say that Shakespeare recycled his own material. Showing how he recycled his own material is an adventure of its own and provides enough tantalizing ideas to keep anyone occupied for the better part of a lifetime.
On Wednesday, I mentioned how Richard III and Macbeth are eerily similar plays. If you look at the actual history behind both of them, the similarities only get more glaring. I’ll save the history for Macbeth, at least, for another post.
For now, because Richard III has quite a bit of history behind it, let’s take a quick look at who is who.
Who the heck are all these Edwards and Richards?
The first thing that needs explaining is there are THREE Edwards and THREE Richards.
Two of the Edwards are Princes of Wales, the third is King Edward at the time of this play. In Richard III, Edward, Prince of Wales is one of the princes who dies in the Tower of London. The other Edward, Prince of Wales, died in Henry VI, Part 3. He’s mentioned in Richard III because his mother, Queen Margaret, is in the play and mentions him.
As if that isn’t as clear as mud, there are three Richards as well. There’s Richard, Duke of Gloucester and two Richards, Duke of York. We don’t actually meet one of the Dukes of York in this play, but his legacy is very much a part of what happens here. His legacy is that he tried to lay claim to the throne and Queen Margaret had him murdered for it. Murdered and his estate burned.
Richard, Duke of Gloucester is King Edward’s brother and the first Richard, Duke of York’s son. He was a major player in two of the Henry VI plays and will become the titular character in the play.
The second Richard, Duke of York, is King Edward’s second son. He’s the other prince murdered in the tower. Originally, Queen Elizabeth fled with him to sanctuary within church property until Richard, Duke of Gloucester had the boy removed to be put with his brother.
Then, there’s the Grays and the Woodvilles.
Three houses unequal in honor, and only two of them noble.
So, we know Richard III is the conclusion of Shakespeare’s version of the War of the Roses, but it brings in another faction which played a fairly large part in the drama of Edward’s reign. When Edward was busy fighting to avenge his father and his youngest brother, he met and married a widow named Elizabeth Woodville.
Elizabeth already had sons by a previous marriage. She had married a minor noble, Lord Grey, who was on the Lancastrian side of the War of the Roses. After his death, however, the estate that should have been his son’s, went back to the crown. One of the first things Edward did when he became king was to restore the earldom to his wife’s eldest son. This son is Lord Grey in Richard III.
So, where’s the drama? The Woodvilles were a fairly numerous family and were not of the upper nobility. We’d probably liken them to the Middleton family of the present day. Only with a LOT more drama. Because when Edward became king, the Woodvilles were suddenly a big deal. And because there were a LOT of them, they started picking up honors and intermarrying with these older noble families who’d held power at this point for several decades, if not longer.
Well, if part of your bread and butter is in holding power and influence at court and you maintain that by keeping that power and influence within the same group of people essentially, then welcoming a family that has no title and not as much property into the inner circle isn’t necessarily going to go over well.
It certainly didn’t with Richard or Clarence. Or some of the other nobles in the play for that matter.
So, when you’re reading the play, make sure you read your character list very carefully. Because it’s how some characters are related to the Queen that determines their fate…
The Loyal Thane Turns Murderer
I wish the bastards dead,
And I would have it suddenly perform’d.Richard III, Act IV, Scene 2, lines 18-19.
Richard III begins with the titular Richard of Gloucester saying he’s going to be a villain and that he’s already turned George of Clarence against Edward VI. This is the loyal thane turning against the very king who made him great which we see again in Macbeth. The clincher? Richard, George, and Edward are brothers.
In the three Henry VI plays, we meet the three brothers after their father, Richard, Duke of York is murdered by Margaret of Anjou, Queen of England. They also lost a younger brother, who isn’t named in Richard III.
The upshot? The three brothers swear revenge and begin a rebellion against the weakling king and his tyrannical queen. Edward is crowned king and Richard takes it upon himself to execute the former king and the former king’s son. The latter in front of Margaret of Anjou, to boot.
So, Richard, brother to the king, helps make his older brother king to help avenge their father’s and youngest brother’s deaths. Quite a bit of loyalty, wouldn’t you say?
Compare that to Macbeth’s character for a second and you’ll see the parallels. The play opens with a rebellion to overthrow King Duncan I (a real historical king, by the way). The hero? The Thane of Glamis: Macbeth. And his reward is to be Thane of Glamis and Cawdor for his efforts.
Now, Shakespeare doesn’t make it clear what Macbeth’s relation to Duncan is in the play. In fact, he ignores the real-life familial connection between Macbeth and Duncan for the purposes of the drama. He might have just assumed that his audience would have known the two were related, or was counting on the assumption they were related. We don’t know.
What is very obvious, however, is that Macbeth is first loyal, and then decides to take the throne for himself. Just as Richard does.
When shall we three meet again? When there’s a tyrant to bait, obviously.
Who meets us here?Richard III, Act IV, Scene 1, line 1
When shall we three meet again?Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 1, line 1
Richard III has at least two meetings of three women who all discuss the titular character. Macbeth has, of course, the three witches. We all know the three witches, thanks to Terry Pratchett and Harry Potter. But who are the three women in Richard III? I think this is perhaps one of the most intriguing uses of recycled content in literature.
The two scenes in Richard III are in Act IV. Scene I is in front of the Tower of London, where the two princes are being held. In Scene 1, the two princes are still alive. By Scene 4, they are dead.. Outside the Tower of London in Scene 1, Queen Elizabeth, the Duchess of York, and Anne, Duchess of Gloucester meet so that they can offer their congratulations to the two princes who, they think, are there until Prince Edward can be crowned.
The keeper of the tower tells them the King has ordered that no one be admitted to the two princes. Throughout the entire scene, the three women play off each other. For instance, in lines 21-24, each woman answers the keeper, announcing their relation to the princes as justification for seeing them, which is surely higher than any command of any earthly king.
Q. Eliz. I am their mother, who shall bar me from them?
Dutch. I am their father’s mother, I will see them.
Anne. Their aunt I am in law, in love their mother,
Then bring me to their sights.Richard III, Act IV, Scene 1, Lines 21-24.
After this, they all spend quite a number of lines going over how horrible Richard is and curse him. They also bring back to mind Queen Margaret’s curse upon them all at the beginning of the play. At the end of the scene, the Duchess of York bids them all farewell in similar fashion:
Go thou to Richard and good angels tend thee!
Go thou to sanctuary, and good thoughts posses thee!
I to my grave, where peace and rest lie with me!Richard III, Act IV, Scene 1, lines 92-94
The pattern is the same at the beginning and at the end. Not unlike how the weird sisters greet Macbeth in the beginning.
1. Witch. All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Glamis!
2 Witch. All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
3. Witch. All hail, Macbeth, that shall be King hereafter!Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3, lines 48-50.
Perhaps Shakespeare liked the pattern of the words, perhaps he had something else in mind which has been lost through the centuries. We probably won’t know. But I do find it interesting that you have two scenes, in two different plays, with three women using very similar speech patterns with the murder of a kind at stake.
A couple of scenes later, in Richard III, the two princes are dead. This time, it’s not Anne with the Duchess of York and Queen Elizabeth. It’s Margaret.
The forerunner of Lady Macbeth is a force to be reckoned with.
Bear with me; I am hungry for revenge,
And now I cloy me with beholding it. Thy Edward he is dead, that kill’d my Edward;
Thy other Edward dead, to quite my Edward;
Young York he is but boot, because both they
Match’d not the high perfection of my loss.Richard III, Act IV, Scene 4, line 61-66.
Lady Macbeth is perhaps one of the most scintillating vilenesses in all of literature. We see in her all the charisma of a Maleficent from the animated Sleeping Beauty, and the suave grace of Cruella de Vil. But, as a character, her beginning was in Queen Margaret.
We first meet Queen Margaret in the three Henry VI plays. She’s responsible for murdering Richard, Duke of York, and stirring up the trouble that would eventually unseat her husband and condemn her only son to death. She mocks the Duke of York with the destruction of his property and his youngest son’s murder right before she has him killed, although most productions have her performing the murder herself.
Queen Margaret only appears at opportune moments in Richard III to point out uncomfortable truths. Much like the weird sisters.
At the beginning, everyone wants to be rid of her, their temporary rivalries forgotten. They spend an entire scene snipping at each other until she arrives on the scene and then they all turn on her–a fact which she is very gleeful to point out.
What? were you snarling all before I came,
Ready to catch each other by the throat,
And turn all your hatred now on me?Richard III, Act I, Scene 3, lines 187-189.
She basically tells them all that they should be honoring her, that they’re all usurpers and murderers and that they will all come to a bad end. She even foretells that Queen Elizabeth will seek out her help before it’s all over. And that Richard is a “bottled spider” and will betray them all.
After Queen Elizabeth’s two youngest sons, the princes, are murdered, Margaret casually brings her own sorrows into it again, even telling the Duchess of York and the Queen to their faces that their Edward (both king and prince) were justly slain for her own Edward. It’s as bold as Lady Macbeth proposing to her husband they murder Duncan.
And, by the way, Queen Elizabeth does ask for her help in learning to curse. Oddly enough, just like the weird sisters, this scene is the last time we’ll see Margaret in the play. Her bloody work is over and her curses have been fulfilled.
Just like Birnan wood marching to Dunsinane hill.
Where are they? Gone? Let this pernicious hour / Stand aye accursed in the calendar! Macbeth, Act IV, Scene 1, lines 133-134.
If you really want a good, juicy breakdown of the historical Margaret, read Dan Jones’ books, especially his The War of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors. He tells you ALL the shenanigans that were going on at the time!
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