The White Queen 1.4: The Bad Queen

LADY RIVERS: I would also like to call a witness to attest to my character.

WARWICK: Their name?

LADY RIVERS: Margaret of Anjou, your anointed queen.

WARWICK: What did you say?

LADY RIVERS: I think you heard me. I escorted Margaret to England to her wedding when she was just fifteen. I carried her train at her coronation. I was by her side when she gave birth to her son. I was her dearest friend. And if any harm comes to me, it will be your head she spikes on the city walls. I can promise you that.

The truism of civil wars—wars that are fought “brother against brother”—is finally beginning to ripple upwards in the aristocracy. The fourth episode of The White Queen is unsparing in its tearing apart of families, some by necessity and some for power. The plight of Margaret and her son is waylaid this week in the interest of a new Margaret and son, Margaret of Anjou and her terrifying son, Edward, the Black Prince of Wales. Now that his campaign with George has failed, Warwick the Kingmaker offers up his last political pawns, his daughter Anne, in marriage to Edward, and she is abandoned by her family and carried off on campaign with the deposed Lancastrians. This is precisely the fodder of her nightmares we saw back in episode two.

While the analogy of civil war may seem a worn point to make, it is significant to the genre theory of the period. When considering the ethics of loyalty and fidelity, the notion of resistance is immediately evoked. Civil resistance allows for the hazy notion of loyal dissent: an act of service that requires the vassal subject to disobey feudal leadership in order to fulfill his or her obligation of duty. Following this logic one could argue that adaptation is a kind of textual civil resistance, one that authorizes its source- or hypotext by the act of appropriation while simultaneously making changes to it. It is this disloyalty rather than any strict fidelity that supplies the women here with political piquancy. While Warwick and George deploy an overt royalist rhetoric of love, loyalty, and service (seemingly regardless of house), the disloyalty to their sources and the anxiety that infidelity produces gets freighted by the metaphorical language of civil war.

Back in London, Edward and Elizabeth are troubled by news of this new alliance, and are taken by surprise when Warwick leads an assault on London. Warwick, now in control of the country, has Jacquetta tried for witchcraft, but his plans are thwarted when she appeals to her friend Margaret of Anjou for a testimonial. Old bonds and the mystery of women’s domestic secrets swell to the surface. Jacquetta is able to martial her political clout against what the show posits to be a true accusation by adopting a character type indicative of late Renaissance drama: the contesting female servant. Fidelity figured as a central theme for those characters without blue blood. Shakespeare depended on the ambiguities inherent in the language of love, service, and civil strife to experiment with models of resistance. Think Emilia, Iago’s wife in Othello. While Shakespeare may have given us a variety of ways to define the female gender, the women of The White Queen suggest that the only possible model for female political service is one driven by an ethic of infidelity—the same ethic that inspired the first beheading of an English king by popular dissent. Here the language of fidelity dissimulates the victimization of female “servants to the crown” in an effect perhaps more ideologically unsettling than any overt subjection.

In the halls of power the  episode makes it seem as if these women are fighting a kind of trench warfare, moving into increasingly desperate territory. As Anne unwittingly makes for the war trail, Elizabeth seeks sanctuary at Westminster Abbey with her children, barely squeezing her belly through the back gates. Here she again takes up a Marian posture as servant to God and loyal to her husband, God’s anointed representative on Earth (although Margaret Beaufort would beg to differ). Jacquetta is freed and makes it to the catacombs just in time to help her daughter give birth to a baby boy (finally!) and clear heir to Edward’s throne. As good as political news as this is, portending a peace Edward has yet to cultivate in the country he continues to fight for, it is a re-instantiation of the gradual station Elizabeth and Jacquetta had cultivated for the bevy of daughters they both trail about them. Of her own process Phillipa Gregory has described herself as “reading the records…with a feminist perspective.” If the show is to continue in this direction, it would suggest that baby Prince Edward isn’t destined for a long life in order for the women to recapture some of their standing. In the ultimate act of fidelity as a wife, mother, and queen, Elizabeth has committed a kind of “unnatural revolt” (as Marlowe would describe it) against her own identity politics. Perhaps the cruelest war we’ve witnessed so far is in fact that civil war with one’s self.

  • CITATION: “The Bad Queen.” The White Queen. Television. Directed by Jamie Payne. Written by Lisa McGee. 7 September 2013. London: BBC One, 2013. STARz cable channel.
  • Check out the BBC One promo video for this episode below:

“Be Stone No More”: Collaborative innovations in Theatre History

Hide death upon her face.

There are few forums in which the discourses of theatre history and theatre praxis meet, and fewer still where they mutually inform. On a cool Friday evening, the departments of Theatre and English at the University of Illinois collaborated on an enraging performance art piece that put criticism and performance in direct conversation. The event Be Stone No More was equal parts contextualizing talk, comparative performance, and group discussion. Dr. Andrea Stevens began with a brief talk covering the state of the Renaissance repertory stage in 1611. This was followed by a performance of a scene from William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale blended with a scene from Thomas Middleton’s The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, the combination of which—orchestrated by Sara Boland-Taylor—aimed to test the performed female body. The Q&A component was then not situated as a space for intellectual overflow, but a formal component in which the audience as a group conducted a kind of group analysis of the repertorial comparison. Unlike anything I have seen, the evening gave context, primary evidence, and analysis equal time and weight and wherein emphasis was distributed between director, critic, and performer.

Repertory studies is increasingly a powerful methodology for organizing early modern drama and exposing the analytical capacities for its performance. It has often been confused with repertoire: the collection of strategies and skills an actor collects, perfects, and deploys over a lifetime. Repertory is a two fold concept: a) a system of performance in which a playing company rotated a series of plays on the boards, putting a different play up every day, and b) the collection of plays a company purchased, revised, and/or commissioned, curated into a set by a company (with varying degrees of intention) that exposes possible immanent readings. This performance piece provided a snapshot of what repertory is capable. By staging comparable scenes of still and silent females—one a statue, the other a painted corpse—the performance was an act of both recovery and myth-busting. Putting Shakespeare on equal footing with Middleton reveals and begins to recuperate the merit-worthy drama as yet under-examined, undermining the supposed pre-eminence of “the Bard.” So while we could never recreate original conditions of early modern performance, the evening seems to argue that we can in fact apply original practices as we know them in order to summon up thematic and ideological approximations.

Elizabeth Farren as Hermione in The Winter’s Tale by Johan Zoffany, ca. 1780.

Staging a slice of the 1611 repertory in an open forum like this presents the critic with the challenge of taking a leap into imaginative speculation. It is a leap that the current positivist discourse of theatre history shuns despite valorizing the rigor repertorial comparisons provide. In this case, where co-directors Sara Boland-Taylor and Stevens wanted to explore the fetishizing of the female as art object on the early modern stage, it seemed a necessary and productive move away from the entrenchment of the historical record. The most immediate realization in observing these blended scenes was the presence of a still, silent body. While in the seventeenth century the female stone/dead bodies would have been performed by boys between the ages of 7-17, here they were performed by a dancer and an actress, both lean and blonde. The dancer performed the stone body of Hermione and the Lady’s corpse, the actress her daughter in both cases but alive and as a spirit, respectively. In both cases, it was unclear to the audience throughout the scene whether the stone/dead body was going to perform reanimation, or continue as a form of inanimate stasis. This was especially powerful in the case of The Winter’s Tale, where Hermione becomes reanimate in a gesture that suggests her persecuting husband’s recuperation, but never in fact speaks in that reanimation from stone (if she was ever really convincingly stone at all). The effect was a blurring of that moment of change, questioning whether any change occurred at all, or as a third option, leaving room for individual audience members to interpret the conditions of change individually. While that suggestion might be made by a single play, the comparative and excerpted staging compellingly suggested the notion that a staging could carve out a polyphonous interpretive space.

In the end, two innovations came to the fore in Be Stone No More. In the first, the comparative mechanism highlighted the repetitive invocations of art, artifice, and the forcing of beauty on an object to create art, suggesting a kind of metatheatrics. What conditions of silence provide room for a range of interpretations? Was flexible interpretability a value in the early modern theatrical marketplace? To what degree were the King’s Men, in a drastically reduced and censored marketplace, cultivating competing and comparative resonances through parallel motifs and compositional strategies? In the second, the innovative event format of context, performance, and analysis provided an actual formula for scholarly and performative investments to commingle without having to first prove their respective relevancies to one another. And in an unexpected turn, while most of the evening’s investments were in undermining the Shakespeare Industry’s preeminence in period production choices, it was also a kind of recovery for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. It’s a play whose criticism is dominated by the puzzle of the oft-quoted stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a Bear” (III.iii). In recuperating comparative and collaborative methods of assessing drama, across disciplines and between works, perhaps it will only be the methods of isolated textual analysis that are in this manner discharged.