Henry IV Part 1
How we cite our quotes:
[…] the noble Mortimer,
Leading the men of Herefordshire to fight
Against the irregular and wild Glendower,
Was by the rude hands of that Welshman taken,
A thousand of his people butchered;
Upon whose dead corpse there was such misuse,
Such beastly shameless transformation,
By those Welshwomen done as may not be
Without much shame retold or spoken of. (1.1.1)
In the first scene of the play, Westmoreland reports that, after 1,000 English soldiers were "butchered" by the Welsh in a border skirmish, the corpses of the Englishmen were subject to "beastly shameless transformation" at the hands of the Welshwomen. Shakespeare is discrete here, but we know from other sources (such as Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles) that the Welshwomen were said to have mutilated the genitals of English soldiers. The actions of the women, reported very early in the play, firmly establish the women (and Wales as a whole) as a serious threat to masculinity and English power.
History snack: We give you a link to Volume III of Holinshed's Chronicles (a major source for events in the play) in "Best of the Web," but here's a brief excerpt of the material Shakespeare most likely read:
The shameful villainy of the used by the Welshwomen towards the dead carcasses was such as honest ears would be ashamed to hear and continent tongues to speak thereof.
Came there a certain lord, neat, and trimly dress'd,
Fresh as a bridegroom; and his chin new reap'd
Show'd like a stubble-land at harvest-home;
He was perfumed like a milliner;
With many holiday and lady terms
He question'd me; amongst the rest, demanded
My prisoners in your majesty's behalf.
for he made me mad
To see him shine so brisk and smell so sweet
And talk so like a waiting-gentlewoman
Of guns and drums and wounds,--God save the mark!-- (1.3.1)
The first time we hear directly from Hotspur, he offers up a rather lame excuse about why he refused to turn over his war prisoners to the king. (There may be some truth in his account, but we also know that Hotspur refuses to give up his prisoners because he wants Henry to ransom Mortimer from the Welsh.) This passage is interesting for what it reveals about Hotspur's notions of gender. Here, Hotspur is outraged by the presence of a "certain lord" who talks like a "gentlewoman," smells of perfume, and is perfectly groomed on his battlefield. For the hyper-masculine Hotspur, effeminacy has no place in warfare.
By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap,
To pluck bright honour from the pale-faced moon
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fathom-line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honour by the locks;
So he that doth redeem her thence might wear
Without corrival, all her dignities:
But out upon this half-faced fellowship! (1.3.9)
We discuss this passage in "Principles" but we think it's worth mentioning in our discussion of "Gender" also. When Hotspur compares the pursuit of "honour" to the dramatic rescue of a "drowned" maiden, it becomes clear that masculinity is synonymous with courage and valor. We're also not surprised that "drowned honour" is figured as both a damsel in distress and a sunken treasure to be retrieved from the bottom of the ocean. For Hotspur (and the chivalric tradition in general) women are never anything much more than a prize.