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Meet the Female Characters in Shakespeare’s Richard the Second

William Shakespeare is one of the most popular playwrights of all time, and his writing continues to be a source of inspiration for further questions of study. In his work The Life and Death of King Richard the Second, the power of effective language is a critical part of the play, and one of the richest elements of the piece is the inclusion of three female characters: the Duchess of Gloucester, the Duchess of York, and Queen Isabel. While women weren’t historically given a place in political life, Shakespeare seems to highlight their lack of presence in the political sphere and ask the audience to consider their importance in the civic and domestic domains. Here’s a quick guide to the women in Richard II and how their small roles actually make a big statement.

The Duchess of Gloucester

At the beginning of the play, we find out that Thomas of Woodstock has been murdered. His wife, the Duchess of Gloucester, urges John of Gaunt (Thomas’ brother) to avenge his death. While the Duchess of Gloucester is not successful in convincing Thomas’ brother, her language is still powerful and skillfully executed, and she gives reasons and evidence as to why her husband’s death should be avenged by John:

In suff’ring thus thy brother to be slaughtered,

Thou show’st the naked pathway to thy life,

Teaching stern murder how to butcher thee.

The Norton Shakespeare 3rd Edition, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, et al., (1.2.31-32)

The Duchess of York

The Duchess of York quickly exhibits her noncompliant personality and strong rhetorical skills when she protects her son, Aumerle. Aumerle was caught plotting against Bolingbroke, the man who would ultimately overthrow Richard II, and his father, the Duke of York, did not approve of his actions—so much so that he wanted to handover Aumerle to Bolingbroke no matter what type of punishment his son would receive. The Duchess of York relentlessly defends her son despite her husband’s command to stop; when the Duke telles her “Peace, foolish woman,” the Duchess of York responds, “I will not peace” (5.2.81-82). When the Duchess speaks to Bolingbroke, she refuses to yield to a man’s command for a second time:

BOLINGBROKE: Good aunt, stand up.

DUCHESS of YORK: Nay, do not say, “Stand up”

But “Pardon” first, and afterwards “Stand up.”

(5.3.110-111)

The Duchess of York also presents a compelling argument against the Duke of York by expressing York’s insincerity and asserting that York cannot love anyone else if he cannot even love his own son. This strong reasoning emphasizes the Duchess of York’s rhetorical skills, and through this and her persistence, she is able to convince Bolingbroke to pardon Aumerle.

Queen Isabel

While the queen lacks a role in the political sphere, she is intuitive, and before her husband is overthrown, she is able to sense that something is amiss and misfortune might be coming. When she expresses her worries to one of Richard’s friends, he dismisses her words and claims that she can’t see the situation properly due to her grief. He compares her viewpoint to a perspective glass that alters the reality of true things, suggesting that the queen is confused. However, in time we find out that Queen Isabel’s intuition was correct. It is striking to note that Queen Isabel’s part is noticeably historically inaccurate. When the historical Bolingbroke unseated Richard II, Queen Isabel was ten years old. In crafting a mature character who can predict things that men could not, Shakespeare seems to underscore the importance of the female perspective. 

Final Thoughts

As displayed through their effective ability to wield language, the women proved that their arguments are not something that should be dismissed. Furthermore, the female characters allow us to analyze the historical role of women in politics and question their presence, or lack thereof, in the political sphere. Had the Duchess of York been absent or had Queen Isabel been granted a larger role in political affairs, perhaps the outcome of the play would have been quite different. Thus, we can see Richard II as a play that considers the significance of including diverse perspectives and becoming more aware of certain voices—specifically women’s speech.