Jane Shore: Selfless Victim or Filthy Harlot?
Jane Shore is a woman who lived in Renaissance England, taking her place in history as one of the many mistresses to King Edward IV. Shore was his favorite concubine, which has awarded her a bit of fame; she appears in many works depicting the reign of Edward's successor, Richard III. Two of the most famous works that feature Jane Shore as a character are Sir Thomas More's History of Richard III and William Shakespeare's The Life and Death of King Richard III. Although she possesses only supporting roles in such works, she plays an important role to the whole of the play; she is used to skew the image of Richard, aiding to create an image of Richard as either a horrible tyrant or as a great ruler. Each author had his reasons for including Jane Shore as a character, and he also had his reasons for depicting her in very different lights. I would suggest that More's characterization of Jane Shore as a selfless victim is used to magnify Richard's cruelty, hypocrisy and immorality, while Shakespeare's character of Jane Shore, although having a minimal role, serves the purpose of being an example of Richard cleaning up the Royal court.
Thomas More's History of Richard III gives a grotesque view of King Richard III, depicting him as an evil man, riddled with character flaws of the worst kinds, even from birth. More describes Richard as being "malicious, wrathful, [and] envious" (More 8). Richard is a power hungry tyrant, orchestrating evil and heinous acts in order to gain the throne, as well as to secure his position as ruler. He would do just about anything to gain power. He was "outwardly coumpinable where he inwardly hated, not letting to kiss whom he thought to kill; dispiteous and cruel, not for evil will always, but often for ambition, and either for the surety or increase of his estate" (9). He would turn on his friends, and even on his own flesh and blood. Richard would eventually go so far as to murder his own young nephews because they were a threat to his position as potential ruler of England. Throughout all of the words that paint these bloody, sad images is the character of Jane Shore, mistress to King Edward IV. While most people in Renaissance society deemed her a fallen woman because of her infidelity, More chooses to complement her in his work.
Proper she was and fair, nothing in her body that you would have changed...For a proper wit had she, and could both read well and write, merry in company, ready and quick of answer, neither mute nor full of babble, sometime taunting without displeasure and not without disport. (56-57)
These words written to describe Jane Shore are by no means insulting or degrading; in fact, she seems almost perfect. She is beautiful, smart, and witty. She has social grace and is well educated. The reader is almost invited to form a sort of kindred relationship with her. We see no evidence of More chastising her for committing adultery or being immoral. He merely states that this is the case, not judging her at all.
Jane Shore bore a lot of power over King Edward and in the court of England. "As Edward's mistress she garners genuine though perpetually provisional clout at Court...Shore plays the peacemaker to fashion for herself a supporting role in the marketplace of public business" (Shepard 313). Jane's power was a direct result of her relationship with Edward. She was able to persuade the King to do many things, such as release prisoners and return goods that had been taken.
[Jane Shore] never abused to any man's hurt, but to many a man's comfort and relief; where the king took displeasure, she would mitigate and appease his mind; where men were out of favor, she would bring them in his grace; for many that highly offended, she obtained pardon. (More 57)
Every time she exercised some power in the court, she did so for good causes; she did not help people for her own benefit. More does not fail to note this in his history, adding to the sympathy we feel when she is punished for such actions by Richard III later on in her life. She is selfless and generous in her nature, which, according to More, makes her eligible for public humiliation by the hand of Richard.
Over time, Shore's power in the court grew. By using her influence over King Edward, she quickly became an integral part of the English court. "In a very real sense, Jane Shore was, for a time, the true ruler of England and, like a real Queen, her power was known to all" (Campbell 1). Richard III saw her possession of power as a threat to his own position. Richard was obsessed with ruling England and he would not let anything stand in his way. His immense desire is evidenced by the fact that he killed his nephews on the way to the crowning. Not only did Jane's power threaten the throne, the power allotted to Shore was also a threat to the balance of power between gender roles in Renaissance England. "Power is traditionally reserved for the privileged, and the fact that a commoner like Jane wields so much of it is a blatant defiance of and threat to the power structure" (2). According to the ways of the time, as a woman, she should never have had so much influence over majestic decisions, and being a common woman made the situation even harder to swallow. The "privileged" that the power rightfully belonged to in England at this time were men who had money, both criteria that Jane Shore did not fit.
Richard sought to punish her for her decisions and actions, going so far as to accuse her of witchcraft and sorcery. "Ye shall all see in what wise that sorceress and that other witch of her counsel, Shore's wife, with their affinity, have by their sorcery and witchcraft wasted my body" (More 48). Women were considered evil and corrupt beings and Jane Shore was rumored by Richard to have used her sexuality to seduce King Edward, putting him under her spell so she could exercise power in the government.
More recounts that, as a punishment for her position and actions, Shore suffered public humiliation and was made an example of. Soldiers were "sent into the house of Shore's wife...and spoiled her of all that ever she had...going before the cross in procession upon a Sunday, with a taper in her hand...she were out of all array save her kirtle only" (55). With her possessions gone, she was forced to parade around in public on a Sunday afternoon, clad only in an overcoat. This punishment, akin to wearing a scarlet letter, was cruel, unusual, and unnecessary. According to More, Shore was unjustly punished because of her good deeds and for her moral decisions. Ironically, she was punished by a man who had violated every commandment in the book, as well as breaking a few other laws and codes on his way to power. All of these horrific deeds and sins were overlooked to allow Richard to rule, but Shore was punished for committing adultery.
Even though she was being exhibited as a sinner and as a fallen woman in such a humiliating and revealing manner, Jane Shore served her punishment with a dignity and grace that More does not overlook. "She went in countenance and pace demure so womanly...so fair and lovely" (55). People in the audience took pity upon her, even those that hated her and disagreed with her actions. She had the power to sway the public in her favor, yet she could not sway the evil Richard III. More's description of Jane Shore' actions in such a way that denotes kindness and selflessness adds to the sense of pity that is felt for her and the sense of disgust that is felt for Richard III. His reasoning for depicting Jane Shore in such a grand and delicate way is surely to evoke sympathy in the reader, thus leading to an immense dislike at the unfair and unjust Richard III. Thomas More may have had many reasons for criticizing Richard's character and rule. One possibility is for the religious purpose of unmasking the morally corrupt Richard.
More was a religious man, following God's way instead of the way of the government. He knew of the mortal sins committed by Richard, and on Richard's behalf, in order to help him gain and keep the throne. "Sir Thomas More had questioned the ethics of a society which punished adultery but condoned ingratitude, which eternalize evil in marble but wrote of kindness in dust" (Beith-Halahmi 332). Jane Shore violated the sacrament of marriage by committing the sin of adultery, but More saw her as a victim of the corrupt society that would tolerate such an evil ruler. "She simply violates the commandment against adultery in becoming one of Edward's many mistresses, an act that, indirectly, might well comfort rather than agitate Yorkist England" (Shepard 2). In More's eyes, she had no choice but to become Edward's concubine. However, within that role, she assumed so much responsibility for the greater good that More commends her. "[More] had yet made her a focus of humanity and kindness in the inhuman, self-seeking world of courtiers, and thus an essentially moral figure in an unethical milieu of ambition and ruthless cruelty" (Beith-Halahmi 232). Richard III overlooked the good that had come of her decisions, only seeing her as a threat to his own selfish plot. Richard's inability to recognize and accept her moral goodness leads the reader to believe that Richard could not recognize moral goodness in himself, also. Richard was not a man of God, which made him undeserving of the throne.
William Shakespeare's portrayal of Jane Shore in his play The Life and Death of Richard III is quite different than that of Sir Thomas More's characterization. Shore is not mentioned in the dramatus personae, which lists the cast of the play and the parts that they serve, which makes her insignificant to the audience. She is spoken about only in references, being addressed as "Mistress Shore" or "Shore's wife." By Jane Shore not being addressed or referred to by her fist name, Shakespeare diminishes her importance as a person, focusing on her filth and faulty behavior.
Clearly Shakespeare is not interested in describing the personality of Jane Shore; therefore she is not drawn in the round. But through references to her Shakespeare exemplifies the grave fault and criminal irresponsibility of Edward IV, which while they might be merely weaknesses in private life, become in that of royalty, dangers to the commonwealth. (273)
The feeling in the play that is present when her name is mentioned is that of annoyance, as if she is a bothersome problem that Richard must deal with, a problem that Edward created and let fester in the court. What little part Shore does play in the work is also given a sense of evil and corruptness, giving Richard no choice but to be of good moral character and to punish her for her actions.
Shore's role in the play is to give the audience a sense for the things that Richard had to deal with while King, without giving her a role in the forefront. Edward was stupid to let such a corrupt being enter and play a part in the Royal court, and as King, Richard sees it as his moral duty to rid the court of her filth. "Her name becomes the symbolic representation of the lasciviousness of King Edward's court" (234). The "trudge betwixt the king and Mistress Shore" (Shakespeare, I, i) is mentioned in secret. While discussing King Edward's decisions, Lord Mayor states that "I never look'd for better at his hands/After he once fell in with Mistress Shore" (Shakespeare, III, v). Jane Shore's influence over the King is seen in a negative light by these men in the play. She is thought to have corrupted the King into making decisions that are not expected and the men of his court have come to expect that from him, due to her influence. This is in stark contrast to Thomas More's Jane Shore, who is not only virtuous, but should also be considered a role model for the good deeds she did while in an indirect position of power. Her influential behavior improved conditions and the lives for whom she intervened.
William Shakespeare chose to write about Richard and not Edward because he did not deem Edward a worthy monarch. "The explanation of Shakespeare's omissions and deviations from his sources can be found only through an understanding of his conception of the ideal ruler and the qualities he requires of him, and his view of the Jane Shore episode is...determined by this conception" (Beith-Halahmi 235). Edward, because he allowed a woman into his bed and into his court, does not possess the respectable qualities that a king should possess. "As a ruler Shakespeare's Edward IV is a nullity, a mere link in the chain of political sin and divine retribution" (273). He was weak to let a common woman have influence over his decisions. Richard, on the other hand, was not so easily persuaded by Jane Shore. In fact, in Shakespeare's play, Richard fears Shore, and therefore is forced to punish her.
Shakespeare, writing from Richard's point of view, notes some of Shore's good deeds while a lover of the king, but even these are explained away. "The only instance referred to is that of Hastings who will later be accused of an adulterous relationship with Mistress Shore. The kindness of the King's concubine thus becomes merely that of a whore for a prospective client" (272). Lord Hastings is one of the many men that Jane Shore persuaded the King to grant a pardon for. Instead of having his best interest at heart, she is only thinking of herself and how his release can benefit her.
Shore is not given any sense of morality in this play whatsoever. "The personality of Jane Shore is also subordinated to Shakespeare's central design in this play whereby power supersedes humanity" (270). The play's focus is not on the moral character of anyone besides Richard. Everything else is seen in terms of the power held, whether rightfully or not. Shore's power in the government is seen as a threat to Richard and, in the opinion of the play, is rightfully seen as such. She is out for power, money, and selfish things. "Shakespeare severely indicts the irresponsible King [Edward] and, assigning all the references to the Mistress of Edward to Richard, chooses to show only her frivolity and physical appeal" (332). She has slept her way to the top and, knowing that the king will not live forever to provide for her, she must secure another benefactor, namely the Lord Hastings that she has released from imprisonment for that purpose.
Shakespeare is writing the play through the eyes of Richard III, so naturally the play would be skewed. He is giving Richard's history a twist for Richard's benefit. The play is titled and written after King Richard III, so logically it cannot portray him in a negative light. Jane Shore is therefore portrayed as a lustful, greedy, power hungry woman who takes advantage of any man she can find. Richard is forced to punish her, ridding the court of such filth that was procured by his brother, King Edward.
Shakespeare not only uses Jane Shore to illustrate what a wonderful and moral ruler Richard is, but he also does not use her in times where she can make Richard seem cruel. "Shakespeare fails to follow this up with any mention of Jane's imprisonment, or her penance, both of which illustrated Richard' cruelty" (234). The only thing mentioned in the play is that Richard has successfully rid the court of Shore and her devious influences, no details are given. Shakespeare purposely omits the subsequent events of Shore's belongings being seized, her imprisonment, and her humiliating public stand as her penance. If these events were recounted and included in the play, then Richard would not seem to be such a fair and just ruler. Even though the audience is helped to view Jane Shore as a problem that Richard must deal with and clean up, her deeds have not warranted the severity and type of punishment that Richard saw fit to bestow upon her. To use a modern phrase, her punishment was cruel and unusual, which would take away from the type of king that Shakespeare was trying to portray Richard to be.
Sir Thomas More chose to accentuate the character of Jane Shore and Shakespeare chose to almost totally ignore the character of Jane Shore. Shore did, in fact, exist and she did, in fact, have a sexual relationship with King Edward IV. The degree of influence and amount of actual power that she possessed while in this relationship is open to speculation. The reasoning behind her actions is also open to argument and interpretation. More would argue that Jane Shore had a lot of influence over the royal court of England and used this power for the greater good. She did not abuse her position, she used it. Shakespeare would argue that Jane Shore was a seductress who took advantage of the King's weak masculinity in order to secure herself a place in the court. When she exercised her influence, she did so with her own future in mind, only making decisions that would benefit her and ensure her power and money after Edward was gone from the throne.
When King Richard III took the throne, he did, in fact, punish her for committing the sin of adultery. Richard himself was not a moral role model by any means, and More would argue that he had no right to punish Shore for adultery, especially since she orchestrated so many other good and positive things in the court. The reasons behind Jane's punishment are also skeptical. More would argue that Richard, being power hungry and selfish, saw Shore's power and prestige a threat to his rule. He used the sin of adultery as an excuse to punish her and stop her from bearing any sort of power over his territory, both literally and metaphorically. Shakespeare, on the other hand, would argue that Shore was power hungry herself and Edward, blinded by love and the feminine form, did not see her devious ways. Richard, the stronger ruler by seeing her clearly for who and what she is, rids the court of her, thus proving that he was a just and morally good ruler. With Shore gone and made an example of, Richard could assure that his position of power, unsteady to begin with because it was born out of lies and murder, would not be endangered in any way and the royal court would not be infected with her adulterous ways.
Sir Thomas More died a martyr, adhering to his religious beliefs rather than to the ways of the government. He was viewed as a thorn in the side of the English monarchy because he spoke his mind, as well as wrote his thoughts and opinions. Recognizing that Richard employed numerous mechanisms of varying degrees of immorality, More wishes to make his opinions known and give his version of the facts. Jane Shore, although an adulteress, committed the lesser of the two evils and was punished severely for it. More uses Shore as an example, not only of Richard's horrific deeds, but also of his hypocrisy. The public accepted this atrocious act, and More is making a statement against that. He is informing the public of the events that went on before and during Richard's reign, in the case that the people were unaware of the evil that ruled the country.
William Shakespeare wrote his play based upon the his version of Richard III's reign. His own opinions of the criteria for a great ruler form the structure for his play. Edward IV does not fall as a respectable ruler using Shakespeare' criterion, but Richard III does. Jane Shore is used for two purposes: to be an example of Edward' faulty ruling and to display Richard's necessary acts of cleaning the court. Both men depict a very different character, and it is interesting to think that More's delicate victim is drawn from the same woman as Shakespeare's threatening mistake.
Beith-Halahmi, Esther Yael. Angell Fayre or Strumpet Lewd: Jane Shore as an Example of Erring Beauty in 16th Century Literature. Salzburg: Insititut fur Englische Sprache und Literatur, 1974.
Campbell, Brad. [base "][OE]We are Not Safe:' Jane Shore and the 15th Century Power Structure.[per thou] http://www.english.uiuc.edu/klein/_disc2/0000000a.htm
More, Sir Thomas. The History of King Richard III. ed. Richard S. Sylvester. Boston: Yale University Press, 1976.
Shakespeare, William. Life and Death of King Richard III. New York: Gramercy Books, 1975.
Shepard, Alan Clarke. [base "]'Female perversity,' male entitlement: the agency of gender in More's The History of Richard III.[per thou] The Sixteenth Century Journal. (26: 1995), 311-328.
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Last update: Monday, December 11, 2000 at 12:50:17 AM.
|Dr. Janet Wright Starner || Writing Center Director || Assistant Professor/English || Wilkes University|