Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly discusses her latest endeavor – working with Elizabeth Schafer to bring Margaret of Anjou, “a new play by Shakespeare,“ to life. Margaret of Anjou will be produced at SF Shakes this year.
Imagine Shakespeare as a young playwright in the early 1590s, trying to capture the attention and imagination of Queen Elizabeth I. How would he begin? It’s no secret that women were seen as physically and intellectually incapable of doing what men did – Elizabeth herself was aware of this when she gave her famous speech at the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588: ‘I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman. But I have the heart of a king, and a king of England, too…I myself will take up arms.” Astride her horse, flanked by lieutenants, Elizabeth was the new woman of England, the new woman of history.
Enter Margaret of Anjou, daughter of Rene, Duke of Anjou, and, we believe, Shakespeare’s special envoy to the imagination of Queen Elizabeth. Margaret was born on his stage in the wake of Elizabeth’s Armada speech. Women could be more than chattel – England had before its very eyes a queen who was multi-lingual, a beautiful writer, and an expert diplomat. A queen who’d most likely chosen not to marry because marriage would have compromised her power (and because her father provided a terrible marital role-model!) Now think of Margaret, Elizabeth’s real-life predecessor. Elizabeth hadn’t needed to be a wife in order to have access to power; and, had she been a mother, she might have suffered the heartache that befell Margaret as she lost both her husband and her only son to the forces ranged against her.
Elizabeth Schafer, author of Ms-Directing Shakespeare, theater historian, and Professor at Royal Holloway, London, has collaborated with Cal Shakes’ Philippa Kelly to pirate from Shakespeare’s four plays to give Margaret a singular textual life of her own. Professor R.S. White gave Margaret her world premiere when he invited Elizabeth and Philippa to launch a staged reading with Robert Conke’s Melbourne Acting Troupe, Nothing But the Roaring, in February 2016, sponsored by the Centre for the History of Emotions. Now we are partnering with SF Shakes’ Rebecca Ennals. Our mission: to bring Margaret across the Atlantic for a staged reading at SF Shakes in this important anniversary year. Our play, drawn from Shakespeare’s Henry VI tetralogy and Richard III, uses only Shakespeare’s words to shape Margaret’s journey. It’s being billed at the Caryl Churchill Theater in London this year as a ‘new’ play by Shakespeare and does something we think is important: it proves that Shakespeare wrote a female role that is an ‘Everest’ on par with King Lear.
Historically, Margaret, brought over to England dowryless to secure a relationship between the Duke of Anjou and England, was alluring and (initially) obedient, and it seems that her marriage to England’s Henry VI suited both herself and her husband. However, it took 10 years for her to conceive a child, and, once she did, Henry VI fell into one of what would be frequent bouts of insanity, with Margaret ruling in his place. It was Margaret who led the Lancastrian side in the Wars of the Roses, and her feats, in part, inspired the character of Cersei Lannister in today’s Game of Thrones.
Shakespeare adheres to the beginning of the historical Margaret’s story, but changes its course considerably. Shakespeare’s young Margaret is, like her original, an ingenue, bought and sold; but the playwright makes King Henry VI weak instead of mad. In real life, Margaret became intimate with the Duke of Suffolk (possibly as a retreat from her husband’s madness?) But in Shakespeare’s play Suffolk woos her on behalf of Henry VI at Tours, and the young, impressionable woman falls for Suffolk instead of her intended husband, while Suffolk encourages this love-interest so that he can use her as a puppet to rule the feeble Henry. What we see in our play, Margaret of Anjou, is the young Margaret, complying with her father’s cold sale of her as goods; the new Queen Margaret, intimate lover/conspirator with Suffolk behind her weak husband’s back; the mourning Margaret, grieving for the execution of her lover as traitor; the Amazonian Margaret leading her troops into battle; the monster taunting her defeated opponent, Richard, duke of York; and the raging crone, whose husband and son, prince regent, have been murdered.
Margaret, unlike her theatrical contemporary Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, is never tamed. She looks forward to later formidable female parts like Lady Macbeth, Volumnia, and Paulina.
Please share this post and celebrate with us this year as, with Rebecca Ennals of SF Shakes, we make Margaret America’s Queen.