WESTMORELAND […] 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 butcherèd, 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. (1.1.38-46)
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.
HOTSPUR Came there a certain lord, neat and trimly dressed, Fresh as a bridegroom; and his chin new reaped Showed like a stubble land at harvest home; He was perfumèd like a milliner, […] With many holiday and lady terms He questioned 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!—
(1.3.34-37; 47-49; 54-58)
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.
HOTSPUR By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap To pluck bright honor from the pale-faced moon, Or dive into the bottom of the deep, Where fathom-line could never touch the ground, And pluck up drownèd honor by the locks, So he that doth redeem her thence might wear Without corrival all her dignities. But out upon this half-faced fellowship! (1.3.206-213)
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.
NORTHUMBERLAND Why, what a wasp-stung and impatient fool Art thou to break into this woman's mood, Tying thine ear to no tongue but thine own! (1.3.244-246)
In the play, Hotspur is frequently compared to an out of control woman. Here, Northumberland accuses him of being impatient, of having a big mouth, and being unable to listen to the ideas of others, which marks him as unruly, effeminate, and dangerous. Obnoxious, we know. Check out "Language and Communication" for more on this.
GLENDOWER My daughter weeps; she will not part with you. She'll be a soldier too, she'll to the wars. (3.1.200-201)
In light of Hotspur's previous remarks about a "certain lord" on the battlefield, we can imagine Hotspur's reaction to Glendower's remark (here) that Lady Mortimer would follow her beloved husband to war, just to be with him.
LADY PERCY O my good lord, why are you thus alone? For what offence have I this fortnight been A banished woman from my Harry's bed? Tell me, sweet lord, what is 't that takes from thee Thy stomach, pleasure, and thy golden sleep? Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth, And start so often when thou sit'st alone? Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks And given my treasures and my rights of thee To thick-eyed musing and cursed melancholy? (2.3.39-48)
It's pretty clear that Hotspur's relationship with his wife, Kate, suffers because of his preoccupation with warfare. We also notice that Kate is rather bold – she's not afraid to assert her desire for sex when she insists on knowing why Hotspur rejects her "treasures" and her marriage "rights." (Kate's getting Biblical here and alludes to St. Paul's insistence in his letter to the Corinthians that husbands and wives owe each other a mutual "debt" in Corinthians 7:3-5.) Kate (like all women in the play) is a marginalized figure, but she's also witty, sharp, and, as we see here, outspoken and confident. Some critics note that she's a more likable and subdued version of Katherine Minola in Taming of the Shrew. (Shakespeare has a thing for naming outspoken female characters "Kate.")
LADY PERCY In faith, I'll break thy little finger, (2.3.92)
Hmm. It seems like Lady Percy is always playfully threatening to maim Hotspur's genitals. Later in the play she threatens to break his "head" (3.1). What's the deal? Well, one the one hand, we could chalk it up to harmless and meaningless banter. Or, we could point out that Kate seems to know exactly how to push her husband's buttons. Given Hotspur's insistence that any contact with his wife will make him soft and weak, Kate's teasing threat is quite meaningful. We also recall that this isn't the only instance where the play portrays a castrating woman (lighthearted or otherwise). Kate's threats recall the Welshwomen in Act 1, Scene 1 (see above) who literally do maim the genitals of English soldiers. Even though Kate is a very likable and sympathetic figure, it's fair to say that the play dramatizes a major concern about the threat posed by emasculating women. On the other hand, we could also say that Shakespeare is poking fun at men like Hotspur who think women are icky and dangerous. You decide, and be sure to check out "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more on this.)
FALSTAFF, as King Weep not, sweet queen, for trickling tears are vain. (2.4.404)
When Mistress Quickly plays the role of the queen in the outrageous skit performed at the Boar's Head tavern, we're reminded that we never actually see or hear from the queen (Hal's mother) in the play. What's up with that?
In fact, there are only three women characters in Henry IV Part 1 and they're all pretty marginal figures. Even though we do see husband and wife relationships, it's rather clear the play is primarily interested in men and male relationships (fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, etc.) The world of Henry IV Part 1, we're reminded, is dominated by a concern with primogeniture – the system by which eldest sons inherit their fathers' wealth, titles, lands, power, debt, etc. The play, after all, is about a young prince who will inherit the crown from his father, the king, which is why Hal's mother seems so irrelevant in this play. (Note: Shakespeare is very interested in maternal figures in other plays like King Lear, Macbeth, A Winter's Tale, etc.)
GLENDOWER She bids you on the wanton rushes lay you down And rest your gentle head upon her lap, And she will sing the song that pleaseth you, And on your eyelids crown the god of sleep, Charming your blood with pleasing heaviness, Making such difference 'twixt wake and sleep As is the difference betwixt day and night The hour before the heavenly-harnessed team Begins his golden progress in the east. (3.1.220-228)
There's a lot to say about this passage, but the point we want to make here is this: in the play, the world of the Welsh Glendower and his daughter is portrayed as being very sensual and seductive. Here, Glendower urges his son-in-law, Mortimer, to relax and allow his daughter to sing a "charming" or bewitching kind of lullaby that promises to leave Mortimer "heavy" with sleep and pleasure.
Sounds kind of nice, right? The problem is (according to the play) that Mortimer's supposed to be going off to war soon and, after reading this passage, it's no surprise to us that he never actually makes it to the battle at Shrewsbury. The idea is that his relationship with his Welsh wife has made him soft, as we see here when he luxuriates in Lady Mortimer's "lap." Lady Mortimer sounds a lot like the seductive "Sirens" in classic literature, don't you think? (We should also remember that Mortimer was earlier captured by the Welsh, but was apparently "seduced" into joining their forces after Henry refused to ransom him.) This image of Mortimer with his head in his wife's lap seems to dramatize everything that horrifies the hyper-masculine Hotspur, who insists on the separation of women and war and says he has no time to be intimate with his wife, especially before he heads to battle. Check out "Warfare" for more on this.
HOTSPUR Come, Kate, thou art perfect in lying down. Come, quick, quick, that I may lay my head in thy lap. (3.1.234-236)
In the previous passage, we pointed out that Hotspur has an aversion to being intimate with his wife, especially when he's got war on the brain. So, why does Hotspur here insist that Kate sit down so he can put his head in her lap? Good question. Here's how we see things. It's not until Hotspur sees Mortimer with his head in Lady Mortimer's lap (as the Welsh woman sings a song) that Hotspur wants in on the fun. In fact, he demands that his wife, Kate, sing a song too. This seems to suggest that Hotspur wants to use his wife as a way to compete with another man, Mortimer. Hotspur could care less about getting cozy with Kate and he makes it clear throughout the play that he doesn't particularly care to hear her speak. (Feel free to disagree here.) For men like Hotspur, wives are kind of like trophies, tools used to make husbands seem more important.