Thyself a queen, for me that was a queen, Outlive thy glory, like my wretched self. Long mayst thou live to wail thy children’s death And see another, as I see thee now, Decked in thy rights, as thou art stalled in mine. Long die thy happy days before thy death, And, after many lengthened hours of grief, Die neither mother, wife, nor England’s queen. (Act I, Scene iii, lines 204–211)
Though women hold little power in the time of Richard III (other than through the relationships they have to important men), in this play women do demonstrate one significant type of power: the power to curse. At the beginning of the play, a bitter Queen Margaret, who has lost her family to the wars between the two families, curses Queen Elizabeth, who she sees as a usurper. Among other things Margaret wishes is for Queen Elizabeth to see her children and husband die and to lose her role as England’s queen. All of these curses come true by the end of the play.
I am their mother. Who shall bar me from them? (Act IV, Scene i, line 21)
As Act 4 opens, Queen Elizabeth learns that Richard, who has claimed the kingship, has denied her the right to see her sons in the tower. Anne and the Duchess of York, the boys’ aunt and grandmother, also protest, citing their familial relationships. But the women are all turned away, and Elizabeth does not attempt to gain access to her sons. She understands that as a woman she holds no power. Even though she is the boys’ mother, she also knows she can do little to save them from Richard’s plans. Her ability to make decisions about them is proscribed by her subordinate role in society.
Decline all this, and see what now thou art: For happy wife, a most distressèd widow; For joyful mother, one that wails the name; For queen, a very caitiff crowned with care[.] (Act IV, Scene iv, lines 99–102)
When the women learn the news of the murder of Prince Edward and Richard of York, Queen Margaret taunts Queen Elizabeth with all her losses. Elizabeth has traded in all her womanly roles for the exact opposite: The wife becomes the widow, the mother no longer has her children, the queen only wears a crown of worry. In this volley of abusive language, Margaret skillfully enumerates the limited roles that women are allowed to inhabit. The fact that Elizabeth so quickly turns from being a queen with a loving family to a woman with no place in court and only a daughter left underscores the weakness of woman.