Demonic Women and Machiavellian Men in Shakespeares's Early History Plays

Yu, Yiding, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Parker, John, English, University of Virginia

In Shakespeare’s first history tetralogy (Henry VI Part 1, 2, 3, and Richard III), there are three prominent women characters, Joan of Arc, Eleanor (the Duchess of Gloucester) and Queen Margaret. All these three women are portrayed as extremely ambitious, crafty, and monstrous in the sense that they are not only pitiless, but also invoke the unearthly power of devils to achieve their own political ends. Assisted by her fiends, Joan fights on behalf of France, England’s arch enemy; having dreamed of being crowned as queen herself, the ambitious Eleanor consorts with a witch for political prophecies about King Henry’s death; and Queen Margaret is an infanticide of the innocent child Rutland and ruthlessly taunts his bereaved father York. But are these “demonic women” merely the nation’s bane and a reflection of the evilness in an irredeemable world, or do they have more complex motives and responsibilities? And what roles do they play in the historical narrative that Shakespeare intends to present to his audience?
Instead of focusing on a single “female monster” excluded from the context of history-making itself or viewing them as a considerable threat to the patriarchal authority and the nation’s integrity, I aim to examine the complexity of the three women characters within a wider political framework in comparison with the male Machiavels around them in order to analyze a pattern of political struggle interrupted and intensified by the ambitious women. Not assigning these men and women characters to antithetical positions—the righteous male hero and the demonic female other—Shakespeare deemphasizes the relevance of gender to our moral judgment and underscores the inevitable political struggle not only in history but also the Elizabethan present in his own time.

MA (Master of Arts)
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