My Life as Queen Margaret

Brian Bedford as Richard III; Maggie Smith as Queen Margaret,
Stratford Shakespeare 1977, from Guilded Butterflies

A couple of weeks ago, my Shakespeare class read Richard III. Since the last Plantagenet monarch’s remains were found just about a year ago, it seemed only fitting to delve into the play that has since become known as a Tudor spin job. The play is just as I remembered it, only perhaps a little worse–definitely not Shakespeare’s best. There’s no deep insight into human nature, no acute depictions of suffering (although the scene in which Queen Elizabeth speaks to the walls of the Tower, begging them to protect her sons, is pretty good). True, the Duke of Clarence is quite a cool guy, but he gets drowned, famously, in a butt of Malmsey wine, which makes for an interesting demise but unfortunately occurs offstage.


To be blunt, Richard III is an uninteresting story of unmotivated evil versus unwitting–indeed, absolutely clueless–good, which only wins out in the end because it has to in order to be historically accurate. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that it’s a dog of a play. Still, I do have a favorite character in Richard III, although it’s occurred to me that I may be the only person who actually likes Queen Margaret.

Queen Margaret is a character who really has no business being in the play at all: she is the wife of the previous king, a ruler who, before the action of the play starts, had already been deposed and killed, along with their son. By all rights, this woman–the remnant of the previous regime– should be under lock and key, if not in a tomb herself. So why is she  free to wander around the court, cursing people at will, popping on stage at various moments to call forth doom and destruction on pretty much everyone? There’s really not a good explanation for her presence in the play, and that intrigues me, although you can read a very good undergraduate analysis of her function here.

Actually, I like Queen M out of sheer perversity: I  love the fact that she’s a cranky old anachronism. In fact, I’ve noticed that my 20-year-old cat is very much like Queen Margaret. Most of the  time, Blackie is quiet, sleeping in the warmest spot she can find. But every so often, she slinks around the house, howling at the top of her feline lungs, just as Margaret stomps across the stage, hurling curses. Perhaps in creating Queen Margaret, Shakespeare was making a comment about the impunity of old age. After all, survival against the odds, whether calculated in terms of regime change or just in extensive years of a cat’s life, endows one with a certain freedom of speech that exists solely to make other people uncomfortable.

Blackie, aka Queen Margaret

Sometimes, I feel like Queen Margaret myself. There are days that I wander around, making outrageously pessimistic comments that few people listen to. “Climate change is going to destroy civilization as we know it,” I announce, and no one bats an eye. Or, on a more personal note, “Don’t worry about your student loans–global economic meltdown will occur in the next ten years. You’ll never have to pay them back!” People just stare at me, then make the obvious choice to ignore me, and life goes on.

So, let me pay tribute here to the Queen Margarets out there, those of us who go about cursing, muttering, hollering, and generally making pests of ourselves. The world needs our nasty, incisive comments from time to time, even if it takes no note of them. After all, without Queen Margaret, Richard III would be just another play about a dead king–and heaven knows we have enough of those.

The skeleton of Richard III, from