The Women of Shakespeare's Richard III

Margaret, Elizabeth, Anne, Duchess of Warwick

Lady Anne in Richard III
Madge Compton played Lady Anne Neville in Richard III in 1930. Sasha / Getty Images

In his play, Richard III, Shakespeare draws on historical facts about several historical women to tell his story. Their emotional reactions reinforce that Richard the villain is the logical conclusion of many years of intrafamily conflict and family politics. The Wars of the Roses were about two branches of the Plantagenet family and a few other closely-related families fighting each other, often to the death.

In the Play

These women have lost husbands, sons, fathers, or will by the end of the play. Most have been pawns in the marriage game, but nearly all of them who are depicted have had some direct influence on the politics. Margaret (Margaret of Anjou) led armies. Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth Woodville) promoted her own family's fortunes, making her responsible for the enmity she earned. The Duchess of York (Cecily Neville) and her brother (Warwick, the Kingmaker) were angry enough when Elizabeth married Edward that Warwick changed his support to Henry VI, and the Duchess left court and had little contact with her son, Edward, before his death. Anne Neville's marriages linked her first with the Lancastrian heir apparent and then with a Yorkist heir. Even little Elizabeth (Elizabeth of York) by her very existence holds power: once her brothers, the "Princes in the Tower," are dispatched, the king who marries her has locked up a tighter claim on the crown, though Richard has declared Elizabeth Woodville's marriage to Edward IV invalid and therefore Elizabeth of York illegitimate.

Is History More Interesting Than the Play?

But the histories of these women are much more interesting than even the stories that Shakespeare tells. Richard III is in many ways a propaganda piece, justifying the takeover by the Tudor/Stuart dynasty, still in power in Shakespeare's England, and at the same time pointing out the dangers of fighting among the royal family. So Shakespeare compresses time, attributes motivations, depicts as facts some incidents that are matters of pure speculation, and exaggerates events and characterizations.

Anne Neville

Probably the most changed life story is that of Anne Neville. In Shakespeare's drama she appears at the beginning at the funeral of her father-in-law (and Margaret of Anjou's husband), Henry VI, shortly after her own husband, the Prince of Wales, has also been killed in a battle with Edward's forces. That would be the year 1471 in actual history. Historically, Anne marries Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the next year. They had a son, who was alive in 1483 when Edward IV died suddenly -- an death Shakespeare has follow quickly on Richard's seduction of Anne, and has precede, rather than follow, her marriage to him. Richard and Anne's son would be too difficult to explain in his changed timeline, so the son disappears in Shakespeare's story.

Margaret of Anjou

Then there's Margaret of Anjou's story: historically, she was actually already dead when Edward IV died. She had been imprisoned right after her husband and son were killed, and after that imprisonment was not at the English court to curse anyone. She was actually then ransomed by the King of France; she ended her life in France, in poverty.

Cecily Neville

The Duchess of York, Cecily Neville, not only wasn't the first to identify Richard as a villain, she probably worked with him to gain the throne.

Where's Margaret Beaufort?

Why did Shakespeare leave out a very important woman, Margaret Beaufort? Henry VII's mother spent most of Richard III's reign organizing opposition to Richard. She was under house arrest for much of Richard's reign, as a result of an early rebellion. But perhaps Shakespeare didn't think it politic to remind the audience of the very important role of a woman in bringing the Tudors to power?

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "The Women of Shakespeare's Richard III." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). The Women of Shakespeare's Richard III. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "The Women of Shakespeare's Richard III." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).