Men behaving badly or why women love Richard III

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“Ask any woman to name her favourite romantic novel and the likelihood is that she will mention one of two titles: Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice. No matter that the hero of one is a psychopath, given to roaming the moors in a frenzy of rage, despair and sexual frustration, while the other stands around in drawing rooms being superior. At the heart of both, there is a brooding, obsessive, all-consuming passion that every woman – if she is being honest – aspires to be the object of at some time in her life.” The Telegraph

Men behaving badly or why women love Richard III

It has long been noted that however ‘politically incorrect’ women tend to respond warmly to the most disreputable of fictional heroes. Yes, many women (myself included) go for the moody ill-tempered Mr Darcy, the dismissive bigamist Mr Rochester and the sharp tongued commitment-phobic Benedick. Lots of ladies love the scheming Machiavellian Richard III, and even I admit to a certain fascination with the cold and calculating Iago. Even the wife tamer Petruchio gets a surprisingly positive reception from many women.

Including theatre directors, students and feminist scholars. For instance director Jude Kelley who in 1993 linked Petruchio and Kate by suggesting that they must both undergo a taming to conform to their own societies norms, set up the play as a love story between two outcasts, two people who as she explains ‘might need each other, might really work well for each other.’

Feminist scholar Germaine Greer is surprisingly nice about Petruchio too “Kate’s speech at the close of the play is the greatest defence of Christian monogamy ever written. It rests upon the role of the husband as protector and friend, and it is valid because Kate has a man who is capable of being both, for Petruchio is both gentle and strong (it is a vile distortion of the play to have him strike her ever)” From The Female Eunuch.

I am always struck by how far female students will go to defend the bad behaviour of some characters. Take Caliban, unusual husband material, who is accused of attempting to rape Miranda in The Tempest. Because he is the underdog? Because he is bullied by Prospero? For whatever reason students will go to great lengths to defend him, ‘he didn’t know it was wrong’ ‘he didn’t understand,’ or ‘Prospero is lying’.

Literary critic and socio-psychologist Tania Modelski notes that in romance fiction for women heroes are surprisingly ‘brutal and it is a function of the story to explain brutality in men’ a comment which immediately reminded me of the number of female readers of Shakespeare who find excuses for the male heroes ‘Benedick was afraid of getting hurt’, ‘Petruchio was grieving for his father’, ‘Caliban didn’t know rape was wrong’ so many of us are so willing to extract from Shakespeare’s plays good reasons for the men behaving badly.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    This makes me think of several things. Firstly at least stereotypically women have been generally been considered less interested in Phwoar than men. For instance they are less likely to mind if the hero is not typically good looking. Hence it has generally been the female roles which are cast to wow. Secondly I think about some research done by Caroline Salmon (amongst others) which suggests women are most drawn to (fictional) men who combine the warrior and the lover and that a lot of Shakespeare’s heroes do fit that mould. Benedick is a Soldier and a lover, Petruchio uses the language of a warrior even as he woos his wife, Richard is both a warrior and a (slightly creepy) lover.
    As to whether it’s fair that considering the Phwoar factor for women seems trivial, well in a way everything is trivial until you start to look at it closely and then becomes rich, complex and fascinating. Thanks for your very un-trivial comment! ^liz.

  • Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

    I agree, and your analysis of the scene is top class and spot on. Thanks for adding that to my blog. ^liz

  • Christian Smith

    Lurking under the question ‘Why women love Richard III’ lies the question that asks why Anne loves Richard. The transformation of Anne’s feelings from hate to love in the space of about 200 lines is Shakespeare’s way of displaying his persuasive writing and debating skills – important skills in the early modern period. The two characters flyte for most of the exchange, with Anne pouring all of her pent-up hatred at Richard and Richard elegantly softening each of her blows in extraordinary renaissance debate style (today reminiscent of a tai chi master). He patiently waits for her to start running out of steam, using her energy against her. Then he subtly displaces the flow of her rage as he relates the death of his father and how he did not cry then but does cry now for her love. When she says, lines later, ‘and much it joys me too,/ To see you are become so penitent,’ she has fallen into a trap that she first slipped into when Richard changed the direction of the sympathy from her to him. Seizing upon that direction change, Richard gives her his sword and drops to his knees. But how can she kill him now, when she, without even knowing it, sympathizes with him. He then locks her into a choice that is no less rigid than that given to Andromaque by Pyrrhus. She responds with the only choice open to her – marry him. If any women viewers/readers love badly-behaving male Shakespearean characters, it is largely due to Shakespeare’s incomparable writing.

  • Duncan

    This post links nicely with your previous observation that women read Shakespeare plays differently to men. While the allure of female characters such as Cleopatra is part of standard scholarship (and with Kim Cattrall currently playing her in Liverpool, a subject of popular discussion), any treatment of the phwoar factor of male characters in the eyes of female audiences doesn’t seem yet have the same degree of respectability. It’s almost as if it’s considered a trivial question. Is that fair?

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