Women in Shakespeare’s Richard III

Subject: History
Pages: 6
Words: 1750
Reading time:
7 min
Study level: Bachelor


The paradigm of literary heritage remains one of the central issues of literary analysis and qualitative studies due to an increasing variety of interpretations that revolve around pieces of writing created long before the current patterns of social perception and moral justification of actions. Thus, the context of today’s scholarly research in literature is overwhelmed with intentions to decode new, previously abandoned semantic and cultural contexts of literary texts. When it comes to the works that require reconsideration, a paradox of relevance is employed, meaning that the value of work is directly proportional to the number of its translations and analyses, whereas the demand for interpretation and analysis stems from the writing’s value and recognition.

However, despite the existing issue of finding the writings worth analysis and reconsideration, the works of William Shakespeare are, by all means, some of the most prominent examples of how a literary piece may exist beyond time and social prerequisites. Over the past decades, the emergence of the feminist theory has drawn much attention to the reevaluation of female characters in the stories that were primarily driven by the male character’s images and actions (Goodman 183). Thus, in terms of the present paper, Richard III, a notorious historical drama created by William Shakespeare, will be analyzed through the lens of the feminist perspective of the writing, placing major emphasis on the female character’s contribution to the story.

Historical Context of Richard III

Written approximately in 1592, the present historical drama refers to the events of the War of Roses taking place in 1455-1484 between the Houses of York and Lancaster. The war was catalyzed by the fact that both Houses were the successors of the Royal House of Plantagenet and, thus, had equally rightful access to the throne. The plot of the play does not encompass the course of the war yet focuses on the life of Richard III, one of the most mischievous and emotionally complex representatives of the House of York.

The phenomenon of perception of women in 15th century England was rather controversial due to the fact that women belonged to practically all layers of society, from peasants and nuns to the queens and county governors. Still, the attitude towards them was mostly attributive, meaning that even leadership embraced by women was regarded through the lens of their assistance for a more qualified and powerful man (Barwell 139). Considering that the society of the 15th century was not as complex in terms of social equality as it is today, it is difficult to evaluate women’s position in society and the extent of oppression and discrimination. Thus, it is evident from the historical background that the women of Richard III are be regarded as independent political and social actors, serving as an attribute to the reimbursement of men’s power and prestige.

Plot Summary

Initially, the plot of Richard III focuses on the desire of Richard III, the Duke of Gloucester, to devour the power of being a king in spite of all the obstacles, and it makes him both the protagonist and the main villain of the story. Orchestrating the death of his brother at the very start, Richard then continues to ruthlessly get rid of all the people who could even remotely hope to take the throne instead of him. Indeed, his journey, as well as the overwhelming part of the plot, focuses on the specifics of pollical manipulations and the rule of political power. Eventually, a seemingly legitimate successor of the royal throne, King Richard III, is murdered by the Earl of Richmond, who later becomes King Henry the VII.

Image of Women in Richard III

The play itself includes five female characters: Lady Anne, Richard’s wife, Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, Richard’s archenemy and former queen, Queen Margaret, Queen Elizabeth, and Queen Elizabeth’s daughter, who eventually does not appear in the play yet is included in Richard’s plans on seizing power. At first, it seems that these women serve solely as the embodiment of Richard’s political maneuvers. However, when assessing each of the characters more closely, it becomes evident that all of them are extremely complex characters who play a major role in the overall process and Richard’s formation.

The Duchess of York

The Duchess of York, a widow and a mother of Clarence, Richard, and Edward, is an extremely reserved and uncompromising woman who does not try to discreet the loathe for Richard despite him being her son. When looking at the evolution of her feelings about the son, one may see that the Duchess of York, while cherishing family relations, has no emotional affiliation to Richard, but still hesitates to tell the children the name of the murderer, only implying that Richard’s words were nothing but a sophisticated forgery:

DUCHESS: Ah, that deceit should steal such gentle shape,

And with a virtuous visor hide deep vice.

He is my son, ay, and therein my shame,

Yet from my dugs he drew not this deceit.

BOY: Think you my uncle did dissemble, grandam?

DUCHESS: Ay, boy (Shakespeare 2:2 105)

Despite the fact that she knows the truth, the Duchess of York still tries to reach out to her son and ask him about the feelings he might have when living in a never-ending sin of destroying his family and the trust of others. Yet, everything he hears as a response is Richard’s explicit statement that he was not going to listen to his mother whatsoever (Shakespeare 4:4 28-33). Thus, it may be concluded that regardless of frustration and despair, Richard’s mother is an emotional anchor for her son.

Queen Anne

One of the most common interpretations of the relationship between Richard and Anne is that the former successfully managed to seduce her into marrying him, while she was no more than a checkbox in the plan to seize power. However, Anne’s character is far more sophisticated than this common attribution of her character, as she is exhausted to combat Richard’s imposing rather than gullible enough to be “wooed” by him (Shakespeare 1:2 247).

Moreover, given the fact that she knew everything about his murders even when he did not mention it explicitly, it was a considerate decision for Anne to comply and satisfy a part of her dignity in order to stop Richard’s mischievous mind from spiraling another reckless plan on getting the throne. Thus, Anne embraced her fate way before Richard celebrated his rise and claiming that “Anne my wife hath bid this world goodnight” (Shakespeare 4:3 43). It would be reasonable to conclude that the character of Anne should be analyzed through the lens of her motivation to give up, instead of being perceived solely as another tool in Richard’s battle for the throne.

Queen Margaret

Queen Margaret, both the husband and the son of whom were murdered by Richard, is represented as a sharp-tongued and evil widow and grief who has no other choice but to curse Richard desperately for what he had done. The image of this woman, depicted through the prism of confrontation with the protagonist, contributes to the intensification of Richard’s cruelty. At the same time, Queen Margaret’s feelings as a mother and wife were completely disregarded because of her impulsive nature:

I had an Edward till a Richard killed him;

I had a husband till Richard killed him.

Thou hadst an Edward till a Richard killed him;

Thou hadst a Richard till a Richard killed him (Shakespeare 4:4 42-45)

Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth is one of the most controversial female characters due to her ambiguous motivation and questionable morality. It is demonstrated by the fact that it was the death that saved her daughter from marrying her uncle and the murderer of her father (Shakespeare 5:3 124). However, even despite her nature, the image of Elizabeth should also be regarded as the image of a woman who was left with nothing and, consequently, abandoned her moral compass to secure safety and nobility for her daughter.

Evaluation of Women’s Contribution to Richard III

The discussion above indicates that the play characters, as well as their real-life prototypes, are women with an extremely complicated story full of moral dilemmas, losses, and grief. As a result, all of them eventually must make questionable decisions in order to save their lives and the well-being of others. According to the research dedicated to the research of women’s role in Shakespeare’s plays, women may be represented as objects, subjects, and objects-subjects of the storyline (Callaghan 185). Consequently, there exists a hypothesis that rather than being depicted as objects, women of Richard III were the ones who perceived themselves as ones. Indeed, such a hypothesis has a right to exist, as one may assume that women in the context, despite their power or status in society, feel the fear for their life and, thus, unintentionally disregard their authority in order to comply.

However, on the other hand, such a conviction undermines the probability that women-subjects develop a tangible strategy of sacrifice and obedience. When speaking of the rise and fall of Richard, it is hard to explicitly state that the women involved had a direct influence on the process when looking at their actions. However, when taking into account that Richard himself was driven by an absolute lack of sympathy and morality, one may assume that the overall contribution did not concern directly rise or fall but the intention to contain Richard’s cruelty. Moreover, considering the fact that every woman he met somehow managed to increase the belief in his omnipotence, it may be rightfully concluded that women in Richard III motivated the man to fall with the help of creating the illusion of him rising above the others.


The feminist perspective of literature has been primarily focused on perceiving the writings through the lens of female characters and images in order to critically evaluate the presence or origin of explicit and implicit gender inequality. In Shakespeare’s Richard III, the paradigm of female characters was mostly presented from the perspective of masculinity and power, presenting women as attributive tools to the male characters. As a result, the aspect of female motivation was lost and perceived as compliance rather than a critically made decision to take on the role of an object in a given scenario. Hence, it may be concluded that female characters in the play discussed are created on the basis of complex feelings and emotions. Thus, they were never a mere tool for the plot development, comprising a full-scale part of the story instead.

Works Cited

Barwell. Ashley. “The Healing Arts and Social Capital: The Paston Women of Fifteenth-Century England.” Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, vol. 35, no. 1, 2018, pp. 137-159.

Callaghan, Dympha. Shakespeare Without Women: Representing Gender and Race on the Renaissance Stage. Routledge, 2000.

Goodman, Robin Truth. The Bloomsbury Handbook of the 21-st Century Feminist Theory. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Richard III. Folger Shakespeare Library, 1597. Web.