New Shakespeare play celebrates warrior queen

Vengeful fury: Jade Anouka plays Margaret of Anjou at Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

Is it brilliant or blasphemy? The ambitious production combines material from the Bard’s plays with fresh lines from playwright Jeanie O’Hare to tell the bloody history of Margaret of Anjou.

“She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France, Whose tongue more poisons than the adder’s tooth!”

So seethes the rebel Duke of York at Margaret of Anjou, the cunning, bloodthirsty Shakespearean queen who audiences have almost forgotten.

Across her appearances in four of Shakespeare’s history plays, Margaret has more lines than any other female character, and even more than King Lear.

But a fresh project at the Royal Exchange Theatre has resurrected the warrior queen and put her at the heart of a “new Shakespeare play”.

Queen Margaret combines all the lines Shakespeare wrote for the character with additional material from playwright Jeanie O’Hare.

O’Hare wanted to flesh out Margaret’s transformation from beautiful, clever teenage bride, to fearsome military general, and finally to embittered, deranged witch stalking the palace halls.

“It is like she’s been lying there in plain sight for 400 years,” she said.

The real-life Margaret was a niece of the King of France. When she married Henry VI aged just 15 in 1445, she entered an alien English court that was rife with anti-French feeling amid the Hundred Years’ War.

But, despite her youth and the hostility of many nobles, she quickly established herself as a key player in court politics.

Unlike Shakespeare’s Margaret, she never wielded a sword in battle, but she did command the Lancastrian armies during the Wars of the Roses and waged a violent but unsuccessful campaign to secure the throne for her son.

By giving Margaret new life, O’Hare joins a illustrious line of dramatists to have experimented with the Bard’s smaller roles.

Most famously, Tom Stoppard took two minor attendants from Hamlet and threw them into the absurd tragicomedy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight told much of Shakespeare’s second history cycle through the eyes of the popular drunken rogue, Falstaff.

Jade Anouka, who stars as Queen Margaret, is sure that Shakespeare “would totally be up for” the new play. Is it brilliant or blasphemy?

Hateful with’red hag

Corrupting blasphemy, say some. Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the history of the English language. His poetry captures the full range of human experience and emotion like no one else. These attempts by new writers to mesh their words with his will always seem disjointed and, at worst, cringe-worthy.

It’s brilliant! argue others. Of course O’Hare isn’t trying to improve or replace Shakespeare. By reinventing his plays, we find new ways to explore, question and love his work. It also provides us with a new insight into female characters and other perspectives which have been sidelined. Shakespeare is a rich playground for creativity.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to see Queen Margaret?
  2. Should we try to rewrite Shakespeare?

Activities

  1. Research another woman who served as queen during the Wars of the Roses. Design a poster about her life, and be sure to include a picture.
  2. Research Margaret of Anjou using the links in Become An Expert. Imagine you are a young queen coming to the English court for the first time to marry the king. Write a letter back to your family in France, expressing your experiences, fears and aims.

Some People Say...

“Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognise the quotations.”

Orson Welles

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Queen Margaret runs at the Royal Exchange in Manchester until October 6. It includes all the lines that Shakespeare wrote for the character Margaret of Anjou across Henry VI: Parts I, II and III, and Richard III, combined with material from playwright Jeanie O’Hare to flesh out the scenes in between.
What do we not know?
We know very little about Margaret’s later life. After her husband and son were killed and her enemy Edward IV assumed the English throne, Margaret was ransomed by her cousin, the King of France, and died in poverty abroad. In Richard III, however, Shakespeare imagines that Margaret has remained at court as an angry old women to terrorise and curse the later kings.

Word Watch

Four
Henry VI: Parts I, II and III, and Richard III.
Hundred Years’ War
A series of battles between five generations of English and French kings from 1337 to 1453. England had lost much of its French territory by the time of Margaret’s marriage, which was organised as part of a short-lived peace treaty between Henry VI and Charles VII of France.
Wars of the Roses
A series of battles from 1455 to 1485 between the noble houses of York and Lancaster for the English throne. The wars ended when Lancastrian Henry VII defeated Yorkist Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth, starting the Tudor dynasty.
Illustrious
Respected and well known.
Tragicomedy
Containing elements of comedy and tragedy.
Orson Welles
Considered one of the greats of American cinema, Welles was an actor, director and writer who lived from 1915 to 1985. He considered Chimes at Midnight, released in 1965, to be his best work.
History cycle
Richard II, Henry VI: Parts I and II, and Henry V. While these plays were written later in Shakespeare’s career, the events they relate happened before those that Margaret appears in.