Reconsidering ‘Richard III’

Is it really true, as suggested in your article (“The power of seduction in ‘Richard III,” April 5), that Shakespeare’s “Richard III” is often performed without Queen Elizabeth, who has more lines than any character but the two leading men? Your readers are also told that “[Queen] Margaret is the only character that Richard never fully conquers.”

The play’s Act IV, Scene 5, requires rethinking Elizabeth’s apparent capitulation to the seducer (on behalf of her daughter) in the previous scene. In light of its sequel, IV.4 can no longer be taken at face value as a simple rehash of Anne’s earlier surrender to an unwelcome suitor. In retrospect, Elizabeth’s acquiescence becomes a calculated expedient, because as soon as she’s safely out of range, she does the opposite of what she promised the provocateur, and bundles her daughter off to the Earl of Richmond.

Richard’s contemptuous interpretation of Elizabeth’s giving-in (“Relenting fool, and shallow, changing woman”) is thus ironically deceived, and the latest harbinger of his impending comeuppance.

Shakespeare’s historical tragedy derives much of its moral force from Elizabeth’s brave if necessarily devious subversion of the tyrant’s sociopathic agenda. Her behavior also foils any neat political reading of the play as a whole. Those wishing to “take back the night” from the male marauder should consider Elizabeth as an exemplar, not just another sucker for his dubious charms.

Murray Biggs

April 7

The author is a professor of English and theater studies at Yale College.