Study Guide

Henry VI Part 3 Women and Femininity

By William Shakespeare

Women and Femininity

QUEEN MARGARET
Had I been there, which am a silly woman,
The soldiers should have tossed me on their pikes
Before I would have granted to that act.
But thou preferr'st thy life before thine honor. (1.1.251-254)

Even though Margaret's a "silly woman," even she could have stood up to Edward. Yeah, Margaret's basically telling Henry that he's even dumber and weaker than a woman. According to her, a real man should prefer his honor to his life. What does that tell us about masculinity in this society?

RICHARD
Ay, with five hundred, father, for a need.
A woman's general; what should we fear? (1.2.68-69)

Richard is convinced his father's army has nothing to worry about, because they're led by a woman. Well, the joke's on him: that army ends up beating them—and killing York, as well. While the men might like to use the kid gloves on Margaret, she doesn't go easy on them. It's clear that she goes against her society's ideas about a woman's ability to be strong and powerful.

YORK
She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of
   France,
Whose tongue more poisons than the adder's tooth:
How ill-beseeming is it in thy sex
To triumph like an Amazonian trull
Upon their woes whom fortune captivates.
But that thy face is, vizard-like, unchanging,
Made impudent with use of evil deeds,
I would assay, proud queen, to make thee blush. (1.4.112-120)

York says that Margaret is worse than animals, that's she's an insult to all women, that's she's a liar, that she's evil… need we go on? The point is, he thinks Margaret is as far away as she can possibly be from the way women should behave.

YORK
O, tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide,
How couldst thou drain the life-blood of the child
To bid the father wipe his eyes withal,
And yet be seen to bear a woman's face?
Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible;
Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless. (1.4.140-145)

York sums it up quite nicely here. He outlines what a woman should be: weak and mild. Margaret is totally the opposite of those things. Okay, okay, so he's a little biased because her men just killed his son, but his characterization of her clearly shows how women were supposed to behave in this time. Why does it matter that the king's and queen's gender roles seem to be reversed? What does this say about the legitimacy of the crown?

EDWARD
No, wrangling woman, we'll no longer stay.
These words will cost ten thousand lives this day. (2.2.180-181)

After heated words and intense insults, Edward tells Margaret she's an argumentative woman. He's got a point: she argues with the men about who should be king more than Henry does, and it's his crown they're after. We know that for Shakespeare, language is power, so it makes sense that the men in this play don't want women to be able to argue with them.

KING HENRY
By this account, then, Margaret may win him,
For she's a woman to be pitied much.
Her sighs will make a battery in his breast,
Her tears will pierce into a marble heart.
The tiger will be mild whiles she doth mourn. (3.1.35-39)

Henry is confident in his wife's abilities; he's sure she'll win over France. He knows she's good with convincing people to do things (hey, he's totally been there once or twice before). It's interesting that he doesn't seem annoyed or embarrassed by her strength. In fact, he's almost bragging about it here.

LADY GREY
And that is more than I will yield unto.
I know I am too mean to be your queen
And yet too good to be your concubine. (3.2.96-98)

Even Elizabeth knows how to speak her mind. She boldly tells Edward that she's too good to be his concubine—a risky thing to tell a king. Edward is attracted to this, though, and he asks her to marry him right away. She's not made of the same stuff as Margaret, but she stands up for herself when she wants. Do any of the women in this play actually fit the gender stereotype for women during this period?

RICHARD
Ay, Edward will use women honorably!
Would he were wasted—marrow, bones and all—
That from his loins no hopeful branch may spring
To cross me from the golden time I look for. (3.2.126-129)

Here, Richard plays with words about using women. On the one hand, he's saying that his brother should treat women well (honorably); but then again, he wants Edward to use up women so there is nothing left. His nasty little pun shows us how he thinks of women: as objects that can be used by men. Of course, he thinks of everybody as an object to be used, but this takes on a sexual undertone when it's applied to women.

QUEEN ELIZABETH
And I the rather wean me from despair
For love of Edward's offspring in my womb.
This is it that makes me bridle passion
And bear with mildness my misfortune's cross. (4.4.17-20)

The first time we see Elizabeth, she's holding her own about not becoming a concubine. Now, she's more worried. She tells Rivers she's in danger because she carries the future of England in her womb. Her predicament is a unique one: she's not involved in the fighting, but she's in danger because of her role as mother to the next king.

OXFORD
Women and children of so high a courage,
And warriors faint? Why, 'twere perpetual shame! (5.4.50-51)

Oxford is impressed that Prince Edward and Margaret show strength and courage in war when some warriors are scared. His remark contrasts women and warriors, and surprisingly compliments women in the process. But it also tells us that this is not the norm; he's surprised because he expects women to be weak.