The Role of Women in Shakespeare “Henry V”
Women have no business in the affairs of the King and his adventures in war or so it would appear to be true in Shakespeare’s “Henry V”. Scant references made on the role of women in the play bespeak the existing social context of the kind that is dominated largely by male prerogatives. There is little material that can be gleaned in relation to the sentiments of the female sex. Most of the time the female character is relegated to the margins while the men get busy in their warmongering pursuits—such that nothing much is heard on the side of women save for brief scenes portraying their subservience to a man’s wishes. In addition, the female character is portrayed only either as collateral damage or merely spoils of a war. They are seen as residual consequences to the bigger task at hand which is the conquest of another kingdom and the birth of a king, and are presented as a minority concern, perhaps even as superficial ornaments when it comes to deciding when to declare battle or to negotiate peace.
Thus, because of this purposive deafening silence on the women’s role in “Henry V”, the play narrative lends to the idea that Shakespeare may have attempted to gloss over the role of the women during times of war in order to achieve a dramatic tale which only focuses on the magnanimity of King Henry V on his first years as ruler of England. Consequently, this means that the story of King Henry V concentrates on the development of a male protagonist, his development, growth and maturity as king, leaving the rest of the details especially with regard to women conveniently cast away from curious (in-) attention of the audience/readers.
Shakespeare’s “Henry V” chronicles the rise to power of King Henry V after succeeding the throne upon his father’s death. It is a continuation of “Henry IV” which tells the story of his father’s exploits. At any rate, now that he has been crowned king, he immediately rises to the occasion and played his role as the leader of England. At first there were lingering doubts in the court whether or not he is ready to rule. Having spent most of his life in the company of lowlifes and common folks the people especially the clergy felt that he does not have enough experience in politics to be an effective monarch representative of the land. Accordingly, the Bishop of Ely expresses his nervous apprehension over the fact that “his addiction was to courses vain; his companies unletter’d, rude, shallow; His hours fill’d up with riots, banquets, sports; and never noted in him any study, any retirement, any sequestration from open haunts of popularity” (Shakespeare 465). This notion that he was still unprepared for the tasks of the king and was easy to manipulate, thus emboldened the clergy to suggest that he must wage war against France to reclaim his divine and lawful authority as the rightful ruler of the French upon some narrow and technical interpretation of an ancient law. King Henry V eventually is persuaded to go to battle even while he is unaware that this was only a ploy to distract him from promulgating a decree that would take away a substantial portion of the Church coffers.
However, to the surprise of his detractors, namely the French Ambassadors who appraised him as a man still tied up to his youthful days—insulting him by appeasing him with a can of tennis balls being a symbolic and reminiscent of his younger days, and the Bishops of the court who believed him to be unfit to rule, King Henry V showed that he can hold his own as king regardless of the fact that has not given the royal position much thought during his carefree days. Indeed, throughout the rest of the play, Shakespeare underscores the growth of King Henry V from a rudderless youth to a stern and wise and able ruler. This is beside the fact that the main theme that undergirds the play is the victory of the Englishmen in the Battle of Agincourt which depicts the symbolic rite of passage for the main protagonist.
Despite unfavourable odds, the hasty attack on French soil and the sobering yet flimsy justifications to start a war, King Henry V’s character proves to be in the same stock and calibre as his father and predecessors. Harold Bloom notes that the significance of the character of Henry V lies “in the incredible depth and complexity in its portrayal that spans the breadth of a boy that has outgrown his trivial concerns to become a man and a king” (160). In other words, the play is a story of the coming of age of a boy to become the most powerful man in both England and France. The play is likewise rife with instances whereby the audience is treated to an immersive glimpse of King Henry V’s transformation and passage to adulthood.
It cannot be gainsaid therefore that the narrative mainly highlights the coming of age of a king and magnifies war as a means to prove that the main protagonist has indeed earned his keep as the king. However, war is a messy and risky business not only for the commoners who must don on a loyal soldier’s uniform to fight a war for a king but also, if not more specifically, to women who must endure the violence of men. King Henry V’s reply to the insult of the French ambassadors is instructive on the point that war leaves in its wake a trail of blood and suffering; For the warmongers “Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance that shall fly with them: for many a thousand widows shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands; mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down” (469). It is important to note as well that the vengeful and harsh tone of the passage reflects the realities of war, its ramifications and its violent results.
The passage shows that women who may not participate as soldiers on the battlefield are just as mortally affected by its consequences. A scene wherein Pistol, an English soldier, prepares for war as he bids farewell to his wife exposes the ugly side of war. He instructs his wife to “look to my chattels and my moveables: Let senses rule, the word is ‘Pitch and pay;’ Trust none; for oaths are straws, men’s faiths are wafer cakes, And hold-fast is the only dog, my duck: Therefore, caveto [warning and wise caution] be thy counsellor” (Shakespeare 473). Put differently, there is an air of foreboding in the monologue of Pistol simply because there is no assurance that he will come home alive from battle. As such, the instructions were not meant to be a casual reminder of the wiles of men while he is away but actually it is more of a final diatribe about how the wife is to take care of herself in the likely event that Pistol will not survive the war.
Furthermore, apart from the fact that the wives and mothers of the soldiers stand to lose their sons and husbands in war, there is also the greater possibility that women shall suffer the licentious and ravages of the invading army. On the side of the French civilians, the invading English army is ready to take on the villages with vile motivations. Such that King Henry V uses the barbaric nature of his soldiers to threaten the leaders of Harfleur to concede in battle lest:
“the blind and bloody [English] soldier with foul hand defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters; your fathers taken by the silver beads, and their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls; your naked infants spitted upon pikes, whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused do break the clouds” (Shakespeare 476).
And thus, alas, such threats are not empty or imagined for truly war brings out the worst characters in men especially when the circumstances permit if not encourage them to act in the most unmerciful and unflinchingly inhumane manner if only to assure that such brutality will be to the advantage of the invading army. The most unfortunate thing is that the women who do not play key roles in the decision to engage in war usually end up as the passive victims. Anna Jameson, in her analysis of the role of women in Shakespeare’s plays and on other classical literary works, opines that when it comes to violence “the helpless and the morally destitute women can only cry out in protest as the most that they can do to dissuade a stubborn and resolute violent man from doing as he naturally pleases” (125). Coinciding with this premise are the events that unfolded during the Battle of Agincourt whereby the ultimate conclusion is that the King of France must accede to the wishes of King Henry V and give up his daughter as a price for truce and in exchange for the villages in the kingdom that lie in danger of being ransacked if the French King refuses Henry V’s demands.
Jameson continues her arguments by pointing out that Princess Catherine plays the role of a woman that has forfeited her life for the wishes of the dominant male figure (129). This is to say that the marriage of King Henry V and Princess Catherine was already a foregone conclusion—a stark inevitability, at the precise moment when it was clear that the English invaders would win the war decisively. True enough, at the end of the play, Henry engages in a soliloquy to convince Princess Catherine to marry him. However, his romantic protestations appear flat on its face for the reason that such statements are devoid of meaning—expressed only as a manner of mechanical duty on the part of a king to win the heart of the enemy’s daughter. A careful reading of the long passage wherein Henry conveys his desire for Catherine yields to the conclusion that the words of love have been stretched far and thin to the point of obvious exaggeration.
On one hand, it was the first time Henry ever laid his eyes on Catherine which explains the hasty and catch-all-phrases or clichés of romance used by him. On the other hand, Henry’s objective was to assert his rule on French soil and this, according to traditional warfare and strategy, can be more effective if he succeeds in convincing Catherine to take him as her husband. Indeed, King Henry V was too quick to fall in love, so to speak, that his monologue raises the question whether or not he is truly in love. But then again there was absolutely no need to harangue Princess Catherine with empty words of affection for in the end the decision to marry him has been made for her: “Dat is as it sall please de roy mon pere [if it shall please my father]” (493). In other words, Catherine did not have to hear the speech of Henry because she knew that she had no other choice but to say yes. As Henry sets the terms and conditions of truce, he reminds the French King that “in love and dear alliance, Let that one article rank with the rest; and thereupon give me your daughter” (494). This final statement must be taken alongside his previous declaration that forsooth, “having neither the voice nor the heart of flatter about me, I cannot so conjure up the spirit of love in her” (493). Thus, it would be fair to conclude that Catherine saw through the motivations of Henry and consequently eschewed his feigned affections and regarded his proposition in a business-like manner. Henry, in turn, understood the situation and so approached the French King, as a last resort, to ensure that he will indeed have the hand of Catherine in marriage as he negotiated the terms of the alliance.
In the final analysis, Shakespeare’s “Henry V” is dominated by male motifs and thematic presentation of the birth of a king. It is a tale that narrates the breaking-in, in a manner of speaking, of Henry into the world of politics and the court way of life. Throughout the entire narrative, it is easy to see how Henry was able to hold his own by perhaps using the very lessons he learned from his father even when he has thrown caution in the wind as a youth before he succeeded the throne (Chambers 56). Nevertheless, his rise to kingship and his means to earn the confidence of his men by waging war against France have powerful repercussions to the lives of the women who are arguably denied a voice of protest. It could be that for each time that a king is made, a thousand women are brought to the fore to suffer the consequences. Suffice it said, that the role that women play in relation to “Henry V” is laced with sacrifice and suffering, in a sense as pregnant mothers about to give birth to a child of the land; when from the womb of the motherland a king is conceived and borne to the world with the attendant and familiar cry of pain and hurt in all its dire plenitude. In other words, the birth of a king coincides with or results to the suffering of the women as mothers, wives and daughters of the land as if they had given birth to the king himself—literally and figuratively.
Bloom, Harold. “Shakespeare and the Value of Personality”. In: The Tanner Lectures on Human
Values. Princeton, New York: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Chambers, E.K. Shakespearean Gleanings. London: Oxford University Press, 1944.
Jameson, Anna. Characteristics of Women: Moral, Poetical and Historical. New York:
Doubleday & Co. & AMS Press, 1971.
Shakespeare, William. “The Life of King Henry the Fifth”. In: The Complete Works of
Shakespeare. Ed. Sybil Thorndike, pp. 465-494. Holloway, London: Murray Sales &
Service Co., 1979.