From Anticipation to Disappointment and Exasperation
Margaret's Marriage to Henry
The First Part of the Contention of the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster, or
Henry the Sixth, Part Two
Margaret is not a loveable character. We have little reason to even like her. She's arrogant, conniving, selfish and power-hungry. She is a villain and a loser. Just like everyone else in her plays, the three Henry the Sixths and Richard the Third. But like all of Shakespeare's characters, she is a multifaceted figure. Part of Shakespeare's genius, probably the greatest part together with his language, is his fascination with the complexity of people. He doesn't necessarily tell us why they got to be the way they are but he gives us good hints. One of the dangers of performing Shakespeare's plays is ignoring these hints and interpreting the characters as one-tone stereotypes, which unfortunately Julia Foster does in her interpretation of Margaret in the BBC production from 1982. Before I go on I would like to explain that I think Julia Foster is an excellent actress and she performs brilliantly in the BBC production. What I disagree with is the interpretation itself. In her first scene and her love scene with Suffolk she plays a believable Margaret. In all others, she does not. In all the others she presents the queen as sarcastic, belligerent, contemptuous and nasty. But is she all that? If so, is she all that all the time? With everybody?
We meet Margaret at the end of Henry VI Part One. She lasts all the way into Richard III. In this essay however I will explore Margaret's character in the twenty-odd years of the middle H6. I will concentrate on her relationship with her husband.
The play opens with Margaret's arrival in the English court and her first meeting with her husband, the young King Henry. What are her expectations? It is reasonable to assume that she expects her husband to be kingly – strong, decisive, powerful. She expects to be welcomed as a queen.
For a few minutes everything goes well. The husband and wife exchange eloquent - probably prepared or at least well practiced according to courtly custom - words of love that have nothing to do with these two individuals but which goes smoothly enough. Henry says a nice thing, Margaret says a nice thing, Henry says a nice thing, the lords say long live, Margaret says thanks and that's it. She and Henry go off to get her coronated.
The next time we see Margaret, in Act 1.3, she's strolling through the town with Suffolk when she's confronted by the petitioners. It's interesting that one of them is petitioning to the king against Suffolk's enclosure of the commons, which as Shakespeare's audience would know, caused poverty and hardship for his farmers. Before Margaret can react to this, though, the accusation against York is expressed. Margaret's response is to tear up all the petitions, send away the petitioners and confront Suffolk with the words, “Is this the fashion in the court of England?”
She then makes the immediate leap to Gloucester's power over Henry and astutely analyzes her own position. She has been brought from France to be queen together with what she had not unreasonably expected to be a kingly king only to find that he's a pious wimp with no interest in being king and surrounded by a gang of power-hungry, feuding vultures. So far she's queen over nothing. The one figure who might possibly have Henry's interests sincerely at heart (only possibly, mind – that in itself is worth a careful analysis) is Gloucester and the first thing he did upon Margaret's arrival in court was to make an enemy of her by railing against her spendthrift father and the doweryless marriage at the cost of valuable French territory. Though she was not present to witness it, she undoubtedly soon heard about his view of her marriage: “...shameful is this league/Fatal is this league...She should have stayed in France and starved in France” (Act 1.1). He makes it worse later on when he pushes her out of a discussion in which she could reasonably expect to partake when he says, “These are no women's matters” (Act 1.3).
Nor has Margaret any reason to love Gloucester's wife, the duchess. Undoubtedly Margaret's upbringing in relative poverty, or at least always having to scrounge for the luxury to which she was raised to regard as her royal right, is a sore point with her and it is hardly surprising that Eleanor's flaunting of power and riches in front of this young upstart French princess who invades the court to take her, Eleanor's place...it's not a situation to endear them to one another. The roles of Eleanor and Margaret, both raised to exert considerable power, should not be played as caricatures of petty, spiteful bitches, as in fact Margaret is played by Julia Foster and Eleanor, at least in the beginning, by Anne Carroll in the BBC production, but as strong, intelligent, politically astute women with justified grievances in a society based on power struggle. The fact that Margaret acts childishly and far from admirably by striking Eleanor, pretending to mistake her for a servant (Margaret's attitude towards the lower classes hardly endears her to us but that too is the subject of another analysis), is of course a good reason not to like her but it is not a good reason to portray her as a one-dimensional nasty figure. She is young, she is alone in a hostile and foreign court, she is in fact the queen, she has once again been rebuffed by the man closest to her husband, who only gives her lame support at best. Margaret is not being likable, she's just being human. Any of us might have slapped Eleanor in that situation, since most of us are childish at times.
When Eleanor is banished in Act 2.3 Margaret is not seen to gloat to her face. Instead Shakespeare provides her with the opportunity to support Henry in the political power he wields every now and then. In a very symbolic gesture of power, Margaret picks up the staff Gloucester has relinquished and gives it to Henry, who now finally has become king. For a short, very short, moment, they stand together as the royal couple of England.
That Gloucester remains a threat to Henry's power should come as no surprise to the audience. Margaret is certainly aware of this, although Henry is not. In Act 3.1 Margaret delivers her second politically astute monolog in which she presents the change that has come over Gloucester. Naturally she is trying to turn the king against him, naturally she is showing Gloucester in a negative light in order to protect Henry's – and thereby her own – interests, but it is unlikely that she is lying outright. Of course Gloucester could be expected to become “insolent” and “proud” with “far-off look...and...angry eye...with stiff unbowéd knee, [d]isdaining duty that to us belong.” Henry has, in fact, banished Gloucester's “beloved wife”. He is, in fact, next in line to the throne. He is, in fact, popular with the common people. From Margaret's point of view he is a distinct threat and it is imperative that this be made clear for the dewy-eyed Henry. This monolog should be presented by the actress, not sarcastically and contemptuously as Julia Foster does it, but in a reasoning, straightforward tone, with a tinge of frustration and worry, which allows the character of Margaret to be the intelligent and politically astute lobbyist that she is. It's OK if she shows her dislike of Gloucester but more than that would counteract her purpose of persuading Henry to be careful with Gloucester. She's convinced that she's right but her reservations, in which she says she'll take back her words if they are shown to be unsubstantiated:
The reverent care I bear unto my lord
Made me collect these dangers in the Duke.
If it be fond, call it a woman's fear;
Which fear, if better reasons can supplant,
I will subscribe and say I wronged the Duke.
This should be played sincerely, not because she doubts herself but because she's a skillful and subtle debater.
The other lords of course are in agreement and Henry does not have the strength to protect Gloucester, who accurately accuses her of turning Henry against him. In her short response she calmly grants that, “I can give the loser leave to chide.”
Later, then, with the other conspirators, Margaret agrees that Gloucester must die. The others have their own agenda. York, of course, means to be king himself. Beaufort has always hated Gloucester. Who knows what Suffolk really thinks. But for Margaret the situation is clear. If Henry – and through him, she herself – is to remain in power, Gloucester must die. Were we in her position, in that situation, and had we her strength of character, her resoluteness, her determination, and yes, her cold-bloodedness, we would come to the same decision. Again, we don't have to like her but we ought to afford her the respect she deserves. And remember, she's no worse a manipulator and conspirator than any of the others.
That she then hypocritically praises Gloucester and expresses shock at his death is no suprise but Henry's desperate reaction to the death of his mentor perhaps surprises her. She is immediately attacked by a bad conscience and realistic fear of being accused of supporting Gloucester's murderers. This prompts Margaret's third monolog. Why does Shakespeare give her this long and passionate speech? I think it has to be seen as the turning point in Margaret's character development. So far we have seen her chiefly as a political person, with only a glimpse of her vulnerability and yearnings of the heart. This monolog should be played as by a young woman who is deeply hurt and truly unhappy. We should be shown that from the beginning, even before she set eye on him, Margaret wanted to love and be loved by her husband. She had expected him to be like Suffolk in “courage, courtship and proposition” (Act 1.3). When threatened by a shipwreck on her way to marry Henry she threw a heart-shaped jewel towards England - “The sea received it, And so I wished thy body might my heart...” (Act 3.2).
Instead he is too pious to love her and is blind to her struggles to keep him in power. If one must pity Henry for being thrust onto the throne when he would much rather live his life in a monastery, one must pity Margaret as much for being stuck with Henry. She sees only too clearly that Henry will never love her and in this monolog she expresses all too painfully that she has lost hope. I think Shakespeare wants to show us in this monolog that although she has just conspired in the murder of Gloucester, she is not only a villain but also a deeply unhappy individual. Even if she has succeeded in getting rid of Gloucester as a political rival, she has failed to win Henry's love away from Gloucester.
That she shortly thereafter begs Henry not to exile her lover Suffolk should not be surprising either. Nor is it hypocritical. It's only natural that as a young princess she had a crush on Suffolk but if Henry had lived up to her romantic expectations – unreasonable, yes, but who among us has never had romantic expectations on our sweethearts that are impossible for them to live up to? - and received her with love instead of a “flinty heart”, she probably wouldn't have had an affair with Suffolk. As it turned out, he was her only friend in this treacherous, conniving, xenophobic court. Of course she was in love with him. And the love scene that follows, as Suffolk takes his leave, rivals the love between Shakespeare's other two devoted villains, the Macbeths.
Having more or less decidedly lost Henry's heart, Margaret hopes one day to be reunited with Suffolk. This of course was not to be and we next see the queen cradling his bloody head in grief. Henry is completely in character when he off-handedly, even indifferently, asks, “How now, Madam? Still lamenting and mourning Suffolk's death?” (Act 4.4) In an interesting turnaround of Margaret's realization that Henry loved Gloucester more than her, Henry wonders if she would have mourned so much if he himself had died. She is probably not only being politically astute again but also sincere when she replies, “No, my love, I should not mourn, but die for thee.” Perhaps all her hope to be loved by Henry is not lost after all. She could as easily have said, “No my lord,” but she says, “My love.” And though she grieves for Suffolk, she also sees his death as the loss of a political ally in the struggle to keep Henry's throne for Henry.
For that is what occupies her in the rest of her few lines in the remainder of the play. One of Henry's most telling lines in the play comes at the end of Act 4.8 when he finds himself clearly in the squeeze between Cade and York. Suddenly he sees Margaret as the strong ally she has always been, and the need for the two of them to play the role she's tried to play all along. He finally acknowledges her as his partner when he says, “Come, wife, let's in and learn to govern better.”
It would be nice for Henry, and for Margaret, if the play ended there. But of course it doesn't. They're not given the chance to learn to govern better. They're in fact thrown off the throne by the war against York and in Margaret's final lines we see that she once again has to prod her lethargic husband into flight, the only hope they have to regain his throne. In exasperation she cries:
What are you made of? You'll nor fight nor fly...
...if we haply scape
As well we may if not through your neglect -
We shall to London get where you are loved,
And where this breach now in our fortunes made
May readily be stopped.
In response to this and Young Clifford's added urgings, Henry has nothing to say. They flee.
In Margaret we have one of Shakespeare's most complex and intriguing characters. He introduces to us a young hopeful soon-to-be coronated queen, anticipating a happy marriage with the words “my bliss is in your liking.” He quickly shows us however in the following two lines that something in Henry's demeanor presages the disappointment facing her when she prophetically continues,
“And naught can make poor Margaret miserable,
Unless the frown of mighty England's king.”
Thus Shakespeare sets the stage for Margaret's transformation from a young hopeful to a disappointed analyst of political affairs. He then shows her heartbreak at realizing she will not win Henry's love and at losing Suffolk. Far from giving us a defeated figure, however, he in the end gives us a glimpse of the Margaret to come. Frustrated by Henry's lameness in a crisis Margaret takes charge and stubbornly forces the action.
No, Margaret is not loveable or even likeable. But Shakespeare made it possible only for the willfully inaccurate not to understand her, and begrudgingly or not, respect her.
We can't help but look forward to Margaret the Warrior.
April 11- 24, 2011July 18, 2011
Works cited:The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
1983, BBC. Directed by Jane Howell. Cast: Henry – Peter Benson; Margaret – Julia Foster; Gloucester – David Burke; Suffolk – Peter Chapman; Duchess of Gloucester – Anne Carroll. The intro in the Norton edition calls the production “tepid”. I tend to agree but in spite of my complaints above, it's always very gripping to see. Shakespeare shines through no matter what. David Burke as Gloucester is best but Peter Benson is a convincing wimp.
Seen on stage: No.