Study Guide

Henry VI Part 1 Gender

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England ne'er had a king until his time.
Virtue he had, deserving to command;
His brandished sword did blind men with his beams;
His arms spread wider than a dragon's wings;
His sparkling eyes, replete with wrathful fire,
More dazzled and drove back his enemies
Than midday sun fierce bent against their faces. (1.1.8-14)

Yep, Henry V sounds sort of like Thor, Braveheart, and Aragorn, all rolled into one. No doubts about his manly man status. England should be safe with him on the throne. Except he's just died. So that's a bit of a problem.

Let's to the altar.—Heralds wait on us.—
Instead of gold, we'll offer up our arms,
Since arms avail not, now that Henry's dead.
Posterity, await for wretched years
When at their mothers' moistened eyes babes shall
Our isle be made a nourish of salt tears,
And none but women left to wail the dead. (1.1.45-52)

Bedford says there really isn't any point in fighting if Henry's not there to lead them, and also that there won't be any men left in England, just women weeping over all the dead. Bedford's prediction underlines the nobles' fear that only a stereotypically macho man can protect the kingdom, and things will go badly now that Henry V is dead.

Shmoop isn't endorsing Bedford's view of women here—but he does have a point that England could be in trouble. The death of a strong and charismatic leader is pretty bad news, especially when his successor is literally a baby.

Mars his true moving, even as in the heavens
So in the Earth, to this day is not known.
Late did he shine upon the English side;
Now we are victors; upon us he smiles.
What towns of any moment but we have?
At pleasure here we lie near Orleance.
Otherwhiles, the famished English, like pale ghosts,
Faintly besiege us one hour in a month. (1.2.1-8)

Mars is as macho as it gets—he's the god of war in the Greek pantheon—so when Charles says Mars is on their side, he's pretty happy about how the French are doing. He even compares the English to ghosts. Which, you know, may be a little premature.

Who ever saw the like? What men have I!
Dogs, cowards, dastards! I would ne'er have fled
But that they left me midst my enemies.
Salisbury is a desperate homicide.
He fighteth as one weary of his life.
The other lords, like lions wanting food,
Do rush upon us as their hungry prey. (1.2.22-28)

Guess the French aren't so Mars-like after all… Just after Charles has been bragging about the French and comparing the English to ghosts, the English have whipped them badly on the battlefield. It's even more embarrassing because Charles was literally just boasting that he'd rather die than retreat (1.2.20-21). Oops.

Stay, stay thy hands! Thou art an Amazon,
And fightest with the sword of Deborah. (1.2.106-107)

Charles is impressed. But in praising Joan this way, he might be accidentally implying that he's a sissy. Deborah is a great biblical hero, but Barak, the male commander she works with, is a little less impressive.

When God tells Barak to go out and fight the enemy, he says he'll only go if Deborah goes with him. She says that's fine, but then the glory will go to a woman, which it totally does when a woman named Jael pounds a tent peg through the head of the bad guy later in the story. Which leaves us with one question: Do you think Charles knows he's implying this? Or is he so caught up with Joan that he fails to recognize all the implications of his comparison?

My lord, methinks, is very long in talk.
Doubtless he shrives this woman to her smock,
Else ne'er could he so long protract his speech.
Shall we disturb him, since he keeps no mean?
He may mean more than we poor men do know.
These women are shrewd tempters with their
tongues. (1.2.120-126)

Charles is speaking alone with Joan during this conversation, and Reignier and Alencon aren't just bored while waiting—they're also making subtle jokes suggesting that Charles and Joan might be exploring sexual territory together. Though Joan has just turned down the Dauphin's romantic advances (1.2.113-116), both the French and English continue to hint at a possible sexual relationship between Joan and the Dauphin, and the play leaves the question open. How it's performed makes a big difference to how the audience sees it.

Where is my strength, my valor and my force?
Our English troops retire; I cannot stay them.
A woman clad in armor chaseth them. (1.5.1-3)

Talbot's awesome on his own, but he also cares a lot about his troops, so it's probably burning him up that they're losing to a woman—he's courteous to ladies, but he probably isn't so keen on gender equality in battle.

Heavens, can you suffer hell so to prevail?
My breast I'll burst with straining of my courage,
And from my shoulders crack my arms asunder,
But I will chastise this high-minded strumpet. (1.5.9-12)

Talbot calls Joan a strumpet, or prostitute, while fighting her. Since it doesn't seem like beating up a man in battle and taking up prostitution are very similar, the only reason for the comparison that we can think of is that Talbot may think they're both examples of a woman straying from her proper place in society.

The plot is laid. If all things fall out right,
I shall as famous be by this exploit
As Scythian Tamyris by Cyrus' death. (2.3.4-6)

Joan isn't the only woman who wants to conquer the men by violence, apparently. The Countess of Auvergne is plotting to do something to Talbot, and the person she wants to be like is Tomyris. Tomyris defeated the famous King Cyrus in battle and then majorly insulted his corpse. The Countess sounds pretty kick butt, yet by the end of the scene she's apologizing to Talbot and feeding him a banquet. So much for girl power—and perhaps a bit of foreshadowing about Joan's eventual defeat.

The Earl of Armagnac, near knit to Charles,
A man of great authority in France,
Proffers his only daughter to your grace
In marriage, with a large and sumptuous dowry. (5.1.17-20)

Speaking to Henry about marriage, it's clear here that gender is also politically important in making alliances. It's easier to get a peace treaty to stick if the king marries a noblewoman from the other side. While it's not the greatest for the women involved—who wants to be a living symbol of a treaty?—it does give women some sort of political role that they might not have otherwise.

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