Lady Anne Derives Power from Speech in Richard III

by Megan Hjermstad '99

In Shakespeare's The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, the historical context of the play is dominated by male figures. As a result, women are relegated to an inferior role. However, they achieve verbal power through their own discourse of religion and superstition. In the opening speech of Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 1-30 Lady Anne orients the reader to the crucial political context of the play and the metaphysical issues contained within it (Greenblatt, 509). Lady Anne curses her foes, using strong language to indicate her authority. She speaks in blank verse, by which she utilizes imagery to emphasize her emotions and reinforce her pleas. Her speech clearly illustrates the distinction between the submissive female role within the male sphere of war and the powerful female voice within the realm of superstition.
The language Lady Anne uses is appropriate for the scene which is set during the funeral procession of King Henry VI. Lady Anne mourns the deaths of King Henry VI, her father-in-law, and his son, Prince Edward. Lady Anne says to the King that she was "wife to thy Edward, to thy slaughtered son" (1:2:10), although in history she was only betrothed to him. As a result, her relationship to his father, King Henry VI, is closer and her sadness is more valid. This supposed marriage also generates greater shock over her ensuing marriage to Richard III. The end-stopped lines are appropriate because they slow the speech and emphasize the dullness of one who feels pain and sorrow at the loss of a loved one. In addition, the ornate verse emphasizes the drama of her speech and the powerful emotion she exudes. The language upholds the sanctity of the King and recalls an elegy or psalm that would be said at the funeral ceremony. She asks the pallbearers to put down their "honourable load, / If honour may be shrouded in a hearse" (1:2:1-2) and calls him a "holy king" (1:2:5). It is significant that her glowing, positive praise of the King is produced with the religious language of holiness and honor which gives her power.
In addition to mourning the death of the King, she laments the fall of the House of Lancaster. The dispute between the house of York and the house of Lancaster is the crucial background of the tragedy. She asserts the right of the Lancaster dynasty rule in her statement: "Th'untimely fall of virtuous Lancaster, / Thou bloodless remnant of that royal blood" (1:2:6-7). Taken literally, the "ashes," and the "bloodless" King relate to a funeral pyre and the white skin tone of death. However the "pale ashes," can also be interpreted as the white rose which represents the King. A "bloodless" rose is also the white rose of the King's shield. This division and conflict between the white rose and the red rose are outside the sphere of Lady Anne's control. The War of the Roses is a war in the sense that it is within the male sphere and she is unable to change the unhappy result of the dispute which results in the death of her husband and father-in-law.
By addressing the ghost of the King, Lady Anne introduces the supernatural. At line 5 she turns from the pallbearers to address the lifeless form of the King. She describes the figure of the king as "key-cold" (1:2:5) associating the imagery of the cold metal with the chill of death. Having clearly shown his death, she calls to his ghost for aid. "Be it lawful that I invocate thy ghost" (1:2:8) she says. The law which forbids summoning of spirits implies a social belief in the supernatural. In speaking to him she brings life to the body, and indirectly personifies the ghost of Henry as if it were a substantial form. The ghost of King Henry which Lady Anne summons is one of many spirits in the play which "are an ineradicable presence, a part of the structure of reality, an uncanny age group capable of blessing and cursing" (Greenblatt, 509). The speech turns at line 14, when her deliberative verse turns imperative. She continues to address the spirit of the King whom she renders capable of befalling a curse upon his murderer. If this is so, the King's power must be derived from his spirit. Thus she implies the concept of the divine right of a King, invested by God. The King retains the power he has over the English kingdom in the kingdom of heaven and Lady Anne begs of him to exact heavenly retribution on his foe.
Lady Anne's speech is relatively simple in that she does not make allusions, or biblical references, however she does use figurative speech. In the lines, "Lo, in these windows that let forth thy life, / I pour the helpless balm of my poor eyes" (1.2.12-13), the metaphors explain her inability to change the circumstances of the king's death. The window is the metaphor for the open wound from which his spirit fled. The life let forth from the body is the spirit, again made somehow tangible by the discourse. In addition, the balm from her eyes are the tears she sheds over his body. Yet, even the salt of her tears is ineffective to prevent the death of the King. He is a victim of the War of the Roses, the consequences of which she is unable to deter.
She asks for revenge upon his murderer with a string of curses and oaths, which are complemented by the rhetoric of witchcraft. Despite her anger, the form of the speech doesn't change, and continues to be regular though defined with more repetition. The repetition of key words which magnifies her mood and complements her anger in her cries:

O cursed be the hand that made these holes,
Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence,
Cursed the heart that had the heart to do it. (1.2.14-16)
The repetition of "cursed" three times suggests a spell is being cast. In addition, the nouns, "blood" and "heart" are each repeated twice. Through the sequence of the three lines, these aspects of the human body, the hand, blood, and heart, form a metonymy for a human body. The contrast between the blood of the murdered King and the blood of this murderer, shows the equivalent physical humanity of the two men. However, the murderer is less than human in nature and physique. He is seen as the composite of human parts, but as unwhole. Although she curses the body parts of the man, she never specifically curses the man. This implies that though he is endowed with physical human characteristics, he is not entirely human. She wishes for him the unhappy life of "wolves, spiders and toads, / or any creeping venomed thing that lives" (1:2:19-20). She uses the discourse associated with sorcery to compare him with living beings which are less than human and deformed in their nature. Thus she relates misery to the form with which he has already been endowed by nature.
Having cursed Richard, her vengeance turns to his son and his wife. Ironically, the ill fate she wishes on his son matches the description of Richard himself:
If ever he have child abortive be it,
Prodigious, and untimely brought to light,
Whose ugly and unnatural aspect
May fright the hopeful mother at the view,
And that be heir to his unhappiness. (1:2:21-25)
She describes a premature child, that has not been in the womb long enough to be formed correctly. As a result his monstrous image is the same as Richard's aspect. This description is an important hint that Richard is the despised murderer. Since she does not say Richard's name we do not know for certain that he is the murderer until he appears on stage. She also refers to his false birthright, by which he cannot rightfully inherit the crown from Richard, but can only inherit his grotesque form and his unhappiness. In contrast, the curse she wishes upon his wife is weak. She asks that his wife be "more miserable by the death of him / Than I am made by my young lord and thee" (1:2:27-28). The fact that she marries Richard suggests that her curse is somewhat false. Perhaps she intentionally imposes a lenient punishment for his wife, one that she has already suffered, knowing that she might become his wife.
Lady Anne derives power from the language she uses to present her oaths. Like Lady Anne, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Margaret also recite curses as a form of control over their situations. The manipulation of a curse for personal means is the only power that a woman has within the male dominated Shakespearean society. Whereas the male derives power from physical force, the women can exert some power through verbal strength.

Works Cited


Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.

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