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Shakespeare’s Berserker—Margaret of Anjou

Shakespeare Through the Lens of a Military Veteran

This series examines Shakespeare from a military veteran's perspective and offers a new angle on Shakespeare's text and characters, while delving deep into the challenges facing American theater and society.

I was "fresh off the boat." Well, actually I had been army, not navy, so there was no boat. However, I was brand new to the world of theater. I had seen Shakespeare's Richard III while AWOL in Montana (but that's another story), and now I was seeing it again. But this time, I was living a dream, seeing it in New York City. Officially discharged from the army, I had taken a short reprieve from my hunt for MFA programs to see Richard III at the Pearl Theatre. At the Pearl, I had the same question that I had in Montana: "Who's the crazy, homeless lady hangin' out upstage?" (To be honest, I didn't yet know the term "upstage" but you get the point.) She seemed like she had wandered off of the set of Sweeny Todd and instead of shouting "Mischief!" and singing "City on Fire!" she was occasionally hissing Shakespeare lines at us.

With Richard III an official obsession of mine, I decided to figure out what the hell was up with Margaret. I had already been working my way through Shakespeare's canon to find the veterans within each play (that's another blog series). But I had yet to read any of the parts of Henry VI, home of the young, pre-banished Margaret before Richard III. Like the majority of Shakespeare's women, I assumed she had not served in the military. And, as with so many assumptions, I assumed incorrectly.

Reading Henry VI, parts one, two, and three, I was in awe. Aside from the usual chromosomal explosion that I always get from Shakespeare's verse, I was in awe because I realized that Margaret of Anjou was a berserker! 

While I derive my notion of the berserker from the legendary Norse warriors, for the purpose of this discussion I will defer to Jonathan Shay's version of a berserker. Shay derives his berserker from Homer's Iliad: specifically from Achilles' running into battle baresark or “bare shirt,” meaning without his armor. I agree with Shay that "the berserk state is the most important and distinctive element of combat trauma." And Shay writes that the berserker state is unleashed when:

Everything that has gone before—detachment from moral and social restraints by prior betrayal of "what's right," grief and guilt at the death of the special comrade who has wrongfully substituted for the survivor, the sense of being already dead and deserving to be dead—all now converge on the berserk state. (Achilles in Vietnam)

What does this have to do with Shakespeare's Margaret, whose portrayal closely follows, with some exceptions, the real Margaret of Anjou, the French-born queen of King Henry VI of England? Well, I'm glad I asked.

Margaret is captured on the battlefield, in her native France. She is a teenager and is essentially taken as a prisoner of war by the English Earl of Suffolk. She's sent to England and is made to enter a loveless marriage with Henry VI, the King of England. Henry VI lacks power, decisiveness, and most of the qualities of a great leader, not to mention that he falls far short of the Elizabethan ideal of a great "man." Margaret, meanwhile, has fallen in love with her captor, Suffolk (perhaps even suffering "Stockholm Syndrome" hundreds of years before it's named) and conspires with him and Richard, Duke of York (the future Richard III's father). But York betrays them. Suffolk, Margaret's capturer-turned-true-love, is banished by the king, eventually captured himself by pirates and beheaded. Margaret, in her grief and guilt at the death of Suffolk, and consumed by "the sense of being already dead and deserving to be dead," carries Suffolk's head around for days. And then her King-husband agrees, upon his own death, to give his throne to Margaret's nemesis, York. York, her betrayer, lays claim to the throne while she and her son become powerless, broke, and homeless.

Margaret goes berserk. She takes command of the army. General Margaret is winning the battle and capturing the Yorks. The first York captive is Rutland—the twelve-year old son of Richard, Duke of York—the man who betrayed her. Margaret’s ally Clifford executes the child. She then captures York himself,

Alas poor York! But that I hate thee deadly,
I should lament thy miserable state. (Henry VI, Part 3, 1.4)

Margaret wipes York's tears with her handkerchief "stained" with the blood of his murdered son, places a paper crown on his head, listens to him "rage" and "weep," stabs him and commands:

Off with his head, and set it on York gates;
So York may overlook the town of York.

And I got it! If I view Margaret as a former P.O.W., as a person who had her sense of “what's right” thoroughly betrayed, as a soldier who suffered the death of a comrade (Suffolk), and as someone who already feels dead because of her impending doom, she meets all of Shay's requirements for a berserker on the battlefield.

Margaret's worst fears materialize; she loses the battle because York's sons also go berserk (but that's another story). Her sovereign husband is captured and taken to the Tower of London. York's sons murder Margaret’s son, young Edward, before her very eyes. Devastated, she begs for death too, but is denied, and instead taken prisoner to the Tower. There her husband, King Henry, is executed and she is banished.

I rushed to judgment on Margaret that first time I saw her. Instead of an informed, evidence-based opinion, I made a snap judgment based on looks and prejudice.

Today, twenty plus years from the first time I saw Richard III, when I see the "foul, wrinkled, witch" Margaret, I know I am seeing a berserker. Now, I see a homeless, morally injured, fellow-veteran that we have banished. Now, I see Margaret in the twenty-two veterans that commit suicide every day. Now, I see her in the over 51 percent of returning Vietnam Veterans that commit two to three violent crimes within their first year home from combat (from the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study). Now, I see her in the one out of four military veterans who are homeless. Now, I see people instead of merely "friends or foes" when I read about the soldiers turned berserkers in Vietnam at the massacre of My Lai. Now, I understand there are two sides suffering in the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Iraq. Now, instead of a snap judgment, I have complex feelings about the Special Forces sergeant, serving his fifth tour in Afghanistan, who shot sixteen non-combatants in their sleep in the middle of the night.

Now, I understand that a berserker is a person. Damaged. But a person.

And now, because of Margaret and my own experiences, I understand the all-consuming, unchecked, unmitigated rage of Margaret in one of her final appearances in Shakespeare’s history plays:

...God, I pray him,
That none of you may live your natural age,
But by some unlook'd accident cut off!  (Richard III, 1.3)


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Thoughts from the curator

This series examines Shakespeare from a military veteran's perspective and offers a new angle on Shakespeare's text and characters, while delving deep into the challenges facing American theatre and society.

Shakespeare Through the Lens of a Military Veteran


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The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

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When I was a younger man (in the last century), Shakespeare was a "word salad", confusing and impenetrable. But now, with more patience and discipline, and through reading analyses like yours, I can see that Margaret actually tells us her story and her condition very succinctly. Thank you, Stephan.

Very insightful.I played her (terribly I'm sure!) in college and have always been fascinated. I look forward to your next piece.

Now I need to read about the earlier Henry The Vi plays. Interesting character study and observation.

This is one of the most interesting things I've read in a long time. Thank you. I'm glad to see that you will be writing a 10-part series for Howlround and can't wait to read #2-10!

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