Throughout Richard III, many characters bring up the idea of curses. Some of the characters actually speak curses themselves, while others make reference back to these curses. From my readings, I’ve found three interesting connections that these curses bring with them.
The first of these is perhaps the most obvious in that the curses foreshadow of things to come within the play. Every one of the many curses spoken during the play come true at some point or another. This fact is even noticed by characters within the play, and as such they come to call Queen Margaret, easily the character who speaks the most curses, a prophetess. Through Queen Anne we see that even curses that are unwittingly spoken of oneself come true as well. Queen Anne makes this curse speaking to Richard, “If ever he have wife, let her be made/ More miserable by the death of him.” (I, ii, 26,27). While she wasn’t aware that she would come to be Richard’s wife later in the play, we see that the curse she speaks still comes true when the lay reveals she is never happy after marrying Richard.
This pattern of queens cursing reveals another interesting point to these curses. Of all the characters with speaking roles in the play, we see that all of the adult women speak a curse at some point during the play while none of the men do. During this time period, women were not involved in much if any physical labor, and were thus often seen as being weak. With this in mind, it is hard not to consider whether Shakespeare intentionally only had women cursing as to actually give them some kind of power during the play. Looking back over the scenes, if you take away the women’s curses you’ll find they serve little purpose other than to stir emotions over their loved ones. The curses are a part of their characters, however, which ultimately gives them perhaps the greatest power in the play.
The source of this power brings about the most interesting thing I found about these curses. When thinking on things such as curses, one often imagines witches or old hags speaking them and some type of demonic power bringing it about. Instead we see the exact opposite in Richard III, with elegant queens being the speakers of curses and what is presumed to be God answering them. We can see that God is meant to answer them from the lines preceding Queen Margaret’s curses in which she exclaims, “Can curses pierce the clouds and enter heaven?/ Why then, give way, dull clouds, to my quick curses!” (I, iii, 195,196) Since Margaret seeks to send her curses through the clouds into heaven, we can safely assume she intended for God to hear and answer them. With Christianity being predominate in England during this time period, it seems almost contradictory to religious beliefs for curses intended to be heard by God and much less answered. Looking back at the time period though, I think we can see why this is the case. Shakespeare wrote Richard III during the reign of Queen Elizabeth who was the granddaughter of Henry the Seventh, whom we know to be Richmond during the play. Depicting Richmond as coming to victory through the demonic fulfilment of curses would almost certainly not gone over well with the royal court. On the other hand, depicting Richmond as prevailing due to the divine hand of God fulfilling curses would have made a much better expression.
With these things in mind, it’s interesting to see just what motives Shakespeare had for using curses the way he did. Perhaps not only to better the play itself, but also to ensure he did not join so many of his characters in their fate of being beheaded.
– Justin Kemp