Today we’re going to be breaking down a speech from Act 4, Scene 4 of William Shakespeare’s historical tragedy Richard III by none other than Queen Margaret of Anjou. This is one of Shakespeare’s most underrated characters. She has such a wealth of history, inner life and brilliant text. Let’s take a look.
Richard III is the final part of a long and winding story of civil war, blood, destruction and death known as The War of the Roses. The two houses of York (of which Richard and Elizabeth are a part), and Lancaster (of which Queen Margaret is a part) have fought each other for control of the English throne for years. With it ultimately going to the house of York, meaning King Edward the IV and his bestest little bro Richard had won. Throughout this particular play Richard has been working to usurp the throne from his brother Edward and subsequently his wife Queen Elizabeth, and at this point in the play he has succeeded and is now King Richard the III.
Now, Queen Margaret was the wife of King Henry the VI who lost the throne to the Yorks and is now dead. On top of that, she has been through years and years of strife, troubles, wars and loss, and when we find her in Act 4, Scene 4 of Richard the III she has lost everything, including partly, her mind.
Queen Margaret has just left the palace after learning of the death of Richard’s two young nephews, who he has had assassinated in order to secure the crown. She tells the audience that she’s going to go to France to make sure her enemies all die gruesome deaths. Just then Queen Elizabeth and The Duchess of York, Richard’s mother, enter. They lament the death of the two young boys and Margaret rubs salt into the wound, saying in more eloquent words than mine that this was an eye for an eye and that she has lost loved ones too. The Duchess emplors her to feel some compassion for her but Margaret doesn’t let up. She tells them that this is all Richard’s fault. Queen Elizabeth says she remembers when Margaret cursed her before… and Margaret remembers too…
I called thee then vain flourish of my fortune;
I called thee then, poor shadow, painted queen,
The presentation of but what I was,
The flattering index of a direful pageant,
One heaved a-high , to be hurled down below,
A mother only mocked with two fair babes,
A dream of what thou wast, a garish flag
To be the aim of every dangerous shot,
A sign of dignity, a breath, a bubble,
A queen in jest, only to fill the scene.
Where is thy husband now? Where be thy brothers?
Where be thy two sons? Wherein dost thou joy?
Who sues, and kneels, and says, ‘God save the Queen’?
Where be the bending peers that flattered thee?
Where be the thronging troops that followed thee?
Decline all this, and see what now thou art:
For happy wife, a most distressed widow;
For joyful mother, one that wails the name;
For one being sued to , one that humbly sues;
For queen, a very caitiff crowned with care;
For she that scorned at me, now scorned of me;
For she being feared of all, now fearing one;
For she commanding all, obeyed of none.
Thus hath the course of justice whirled about
And left thee but a very prey to time,
Having no more but thought of what thou wast
To torture thee the more, being what thou art.
Thou didst usurp my place, and dost thou not
Usurp the just proportion of my sorrow?
Now thy proud neck bears half my burdened yoke,
From which, even here I slip my wearied head
And leave the burden of it all on thee.
Farewell, York’s wife, and queen of sad mischance.
These English woes shall make me smile in France.
Thronging: Large densely packed
Caitiff: Wretch/Downtrodden person
Yoke: A tool used with animals to pull a load
I called you back then a self important imitation of a queen.
I called you back then; poor forgery, false queen.
Just a presentation of what I was fully.
The exciting contents page to a horrific tragedy,
Someone lifted up high just to be tossed into the pits of hell.
A mother who was given two beautiful children as some kind of sick joke only to lose them.
Just a dreamer, a tacky flag to be shot at.
You were just a sign of dignity, a breath and a bubble,
Only a joke queen to keep the throne warm.
Where is your husband now?
Where are your brothers?
Where are your two sons?
Where is your happiness now?
Where are the crowds that bowed to you and said ‘God save the queen’?
Where are the favour asking friends that flattered you?
Where are the masses of soldiers that followed you?
Get rid of all of this and see what you are?
Instead of a happy wife you’re a grieving widow.
Instead of a joyful mother, you’re one that cries out the names of her children.
Instead of being a queen you’re just a wretch with a crown fears.
Instead of the one giving favours, you’re the one that asks for them.
The person who scorned me is now being scorned by me.
Someone who was feared by all is afraid of just one person.
Someone who commanded all now commands no one.
The course of justice has left you as nothing but prey and all you have now is memories which torture you even more now that you know what you’ve become.
You did take my throne and now rightly so you are taking my sorrow.
Now your proud neck holds half my torture device, which now I will slip my tired head from and leave it all to you.
Goodbye York’s wife and queen of sad misfortunes.
These English troubles will make me smile in France
Notes on Performance
This is an incredible speech for working on inner life in that Margaret is one of Shakespeare’s longest running characters. We get to see Margaret go from young hopeful courtier all the way through to now as a hardened, mentally unstable and vicious ex-queen. Take into account just how much she has been through as you paint these words and ideas with colour.
Next big focus of this speech should be antithesis.
Meaning: Antithesis – a rhetorical or literary device in which an opposition or contrast of ideas is expressed.
In regards to acting what I mean is the understanding that your character is two opposing points to paint their picture. For example; in this speech Margaret says things like ‘For happy wife, a most distressed widow;’. This is a pretty glaring example of Shakespearean antithesis. The only more glaring one being ‘to be or not to be’. Hunt for the antithesis in this speech and use it to drive you through
Lastly, attack your target directly. Don’t get lost in a maelstrom of vague anger and Jove forbid do not play ‘madness’ please. Stay in the moment, stay in the character, and affect your scene partner.