The daughter of King Charles VI and Queen Isabel, Catherine has been raised to act like a prim and proper princess who doesn't make out in the backseat of her boyfriend's car before she's married (5.2) and who doesn't cuss in front of men (3.4). She's also got a seriously thick accent when she speaks English. So, if you're a 16th-century English playwright named Willy Shakespeare, and you're writing a play that gets a lot of pleasure from making fun of France, then this combination of character traits is a recipe for comic gold.
Let's face it, Shmoopsters: when most audiences think of Catherine, they think of the silly English language tutorial scene, where Shakespeare makes the pretty French Princess talk dirty to her lady-in-waiting, Alice. What? You want the juicy details? Of course you do.
It all goes down in Act 3, Scene 4, where Catherine learns some English words, which is the perfect opportunity for Shakespeare to crack a dirty joke or two. When Catherine hears the words "foot" and "gown," she's disgusted and declares that they're way too naughty for her to say because they sound too much like the French words "foutre" and "con" (go ahead and look those up in a French dictionary). Let's take a look at the original passage, along with the translation, of course:
De foot et de coun! O Seigneur Dieu! ce sont mots
de son mauvais, corruptible, gros, et impudique, et
non pour les dames d'honneur d'user: je ne voudrais
prononcer ces mots devant les seigneurs de France
pour tout le monde. Foh! le foot et le coun!
Neanmoins, je reciterai une autre fois ma lecon
ensemble: de hand, de fingres, de nails, de arm, de
elbow, de nick, de sin, de foot, de coun. (3.4.17)
Here's the translation from the Norton Shakespeare:
De foot and de cown [gown]? O Lord God, those are evil-sounding words, easily misconstrued, vulgar, immodest, and not for respectable ladies to use. I wouldn't speak those words in front of a French gentleman for all the world. Ugh! de foot and de cown! Still, I shall recite my entire lesson once more. D'hand, de fingre, de nails, d'arma, d'elbow, de nick, de sin, de foot, de cown.
Of course, the big joke is that, in the process of protesting about the vulgarity of "foot" and "gown," Catherine ends up repeating the dirty-sounding words... several times. Basically, Shakespeare is banking on the fact that his audiences will get a really big kick out of watching a princess (especially a French princess) say naughty words out loud.
Is Catherine just a character Shakespeare uses for some PG-13 rated comic relief? Yes and no. Although she's an important figure, Shakespeare doesn't develop her character much and never gives us any insight into her desires and motives. Why? Well, if we're being honest, Catherine's desires and motives are completely irrelevant to the action of the play.
As we know, Catherine is married off to Henry V as part of a peace treaty that will unite France and England. Catherine knows what's expected of her and behaves accordingly. The first time we see her, she's trying to learn English because she knows it's likely that she'll be married to an English-speaking king. Later, when Henry begs her to marry him (even though he knows she has to marry him whether she wants to or not), she points out that the decision isn't up to her: "Dat," she says, "is as it shall please de roi mon pére" (5.2.11). Translation: It's up to the king (roi), who is Catherine's father (pére).
Catherine's status as a political pawn becomes even clearer after Charles officially consents to give her over to Henry. Check out the following passage, where the French and English kings talk about Catherine as though she's a French town that Henry has yet to conquer:
Yes, my lord, you see them perspectively, the cities
turned into a maid; for they are all girdled with
maiden walls that war hath never entered.
Shall Kate be my wife?
So please you.
I am content; so the maiden cities you talk of may
wait on her: so the maid that stood in the way for
my wish shall show me the way to my will. (5.2.33)
What stands out in this passage is the way Charles, the King of France, and Henry use the language of warfare to talk about sex and marriage. Here, Charles suggests that the walled cities Henry hasn't managed to invade are like "maids" (virgins) that have yet to be penetrated. Still, Henry quickly points out that, because he's conquered France (with his army), he's forcing Charles to give him his maiden daughter. After Charles agrees that Henry can have Catherine as his wife, Henry jokes that he'll soon be conquering/penetrating Catherine, "the maid" who has just been given to him as part of the peace treaty.
Notice, too, the way that Henry takes Catherine's French name and turns it into the English nickname "Kate." (This, of course, reminds us of Shakespeare's other "Kate," Katherine Minola, whose father marries her off to Petruchio against her will in The Taming of the Shrew.) So, even though Catherine appears in only two scenes of the play (Act 3, Scene 4 and Act 5, Scene 2), her character is key to the play's themes of Power, Warfare, and Gender.Timeline