Richard III is Shakespeare’s second-longest play (the longest being Hamlet), so a production of it has to be substantially edited. More often than not, that means cutting out the entire character of Queen Margaret. It’s an understandable edit, given that Margaret doesn’t have any influence on the plot, and she makes reference to events that occur in the Henry VI plays, with which even many avid Shakespeareans are often unfamiliar.

I wholly respect any decision to eliminate Margaret, but personally, I find her essential to the theme of the play, and one of the more powerfully dramatic figures of the play. She frames the entire context of time within the play.

First, she represents the past. As the last Lancastrian, she reminds the current Yorkist regime of its overthrow of Henry VI. She’s like a ghost, just as haunting as those that visit Richard and Richmond on the eve of battle. She knows history.

She also knows the present, and sees what’s going on better than anyone else in the play. She can see through Richard and knows his plots when everybody else is fooled by him.

And lastly, she foresees the future. She predicts that Richard will destroy the House of York, and warns them that they will look back on her predictions and note their accuracy: “O, but remember this another day, / When he shall split thy very heart with sorrow, / And say poor Margaret was a prophetess!” (I.iii.299-301) And they do: “Thus Margaret’s curse falls heavy on my neck. / ‘When he,’ quoth she, ‘shall split thy heart with sorrow, / Remember Margaret was a prophetess'” (V.i.25-27).

But these are not distinct roles. Margaret isn’t a historian, journalist and prophet. She is the person who views connections over time and history. Margaret isn’t actually a prophet; she doesn’t have a supernatural power to see events in the future. In actuality, she finds connections between the past and present and knows that the future will be the same. The old saying is, “Those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it.” Margaret knows the past, and she knows the Yorkists don’t know the past (or, more accurately, they know the past but ignore it), and thus she knows they will repeat it. She parallels the present to the past quite effectively when talking to Elizabeth and the Duchess of York:

I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
I had a husband, till a Richard killed him;
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him
(IV.iv.40-43).

In summary, Margaret believes that Richard’s violence is inevitable. Peace cannot exist in England as it is now. The era is designated for violence, and violence will happen. It will come at Richard’s hands, and there is no stopping it.

Richard, on the other hand, views his role a different way. He believes he can manipulate the era. As early as his opening soliloquy, he says that the time is now designated for peace, but he will change the time and make it violent and bloody.

So who’s right? Is Richard a tool of time, simply the object by which the era of violence exercises itself? Or does he actually alter what would otherwise be an age of peace? Many people talk about this matter in terms of fate and free will, but I don’t know that it’s as metaphysical as that. It’s the old question of history. Does history march on its own and some people follow and some don’t (“The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try and catch on to His coattails as He marches past.” — Otto von Bismarck), or do individuals alter the course of history (“The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” — Thomas Carlyle)?

The real conflict of Richard III is between the views of Richard and Margaret, even though they only appear on stage at the same time once. The conflicts between Richard and his relatives are, by and large, reflections of the deeper conflict between Richard and Margaret. So while Margaret may not be important to the plot, the play loses much of its edge when she is gone.

All that, and she’s just gosh darn awesome.

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