Study Guide

Henry VIII Women and Femininity

By William Shakespeare

Women and Femininity

FIRST GENTLEMAN
Sure he does not;
He never was so womanish. The cause
He may a little grieve at. (2.1.46-48)

So, a man who fears death is apparently like a woman. Ouch. We hate to be the ones to say it, but the men in the play think that weakness is a totally feminine trait.

WOLSEY
I know your Majesty has always loved her
So dear in heart, not to deny her that
A woman of less place might ask by law:
Scholars allowed freely to argue for her. (2.1.130-133)

Oh, no, he didn't. At Katherine's trial, Wolsey wants to put Katherine in her place, so he says that she should shut it and leave it to a scholar (who would have been a man at this time), because he'll be able to do it so much better. Really, if Wolsey is so worried, it's because Katherine can hold her own against men; she doesn't need someone arguing on her behalf, because she's got it covered.

OLD LADY
You, that have so fair parts of woman on you,
Have too a woman's heart, which ever yet
Affected eminence, wealth, sovereignty;
Which, to say sooth, are blessings; and which gifts,
Saving your mincing, the capacity
Of your soft cheveril conscience would receive
If you might please to stretch it. (2.3.34-40)

Even though the men might define women as weak, the Old Lady thinks that women want power and wealth. She's trying to convince Anne that Anne actually wants to be queen, but she's also showing the audience there's a whole other side to women that the men don't see. And that side is interested in many of the things the men want, too.

QUEEN KATHERINE
Sir, I desire you do me right and justice,
And to bestow your pity on me; for
I am a most poor woman and a stranger,
Born out of your dominions, having here
No judge indifferent nor no more assurance
Of equal friendship and proceeding. Alas, sir,
In what have I offended you? What cause
Hath my behavior given to your displeasure
That thus you should proceed to put me off
And take your good grace from me? Heaven witness
I have been to you a true and humble wife,
At all times to your will conformable... (2.4.16-27)

Defending herself at trial, Katherine points out she's got a double whammy against her: she's a foreigner and a woman. The fact that she relates the two of those together shows us that her society thinks of her gender as a disadvantage. We get it: women had less say over their lives and had to obey what their fathers and husbands said. What we want to know is: does that hold true for Katherine? Does she have to listen to men, or does she do her own thing? Or something in between? What, if anything, gives her power?

QUEEN KATHERINE
And to such men of gravity and learning,
In truth I know not. I was set at work
Among my maids, full little, God knows, looking
Either for such men or such business.
For her sake that I have been—for I feel
The last fit of my greatness—good your Graces,
Let me have time and counsel for my cause.
Alas, I am a woman friendless, hopeless! (3.1.82-89)

Katherine has no problem characterizing herself as weak to Wolsey and Campeius, since they do have some power over her. She plays the victim card by using her gender to tug at their heartstrings and get a little sympathy. Too bad it doesn't work.

CAMPEIUS
You wrong your virtues
With these weak women's fears. A noble spirit,
As yours was put into you, ever casts
Such doubts, as false coin, from it. The King loves
   you; (3.1.186-190)

That's a backhanded compliment if we've ever heard one. Campeius tells Katherine that she's not like other women; she's strong and fearless. Um, okay. If we read between the (not so subtle) lines, we'll get that this dude thinks women are weak and fearful.

KATHERINE
My next poor petition
Is that his noble Grace would have some pity
Upon my wretched women, that so long
Have followed both my fortunes faithfully,
Of which there is not one, I dare avow—
And now I should not lie—but will deserve,
For virtue and true beauty of the soul,
For honesty and decent carriage,
A right good husband. Let him be a noble; (4.2.159-167)

Katherine is close to death and wants to get everything in order. High on her "to do" list? Her petition for women in her letter to her ex, Henry. Did you notice what she wants for them? Noble husbands. Katherine knows that a hubby gets all the power in this society, so the least she can do is ask for honest men to help the girls out.

WOLSEY, weeping
Cromwell, I did not think to shed a tear
In all my miseries, but thou hast forced me,
Out of thy honest truth, to play the woman.
Let's dry our eyes. And thus far hear me, Cromwell... (3.2.508-511)

Women cry and get all emotional over nothing, something no manly man would do, according to Wolsey. Wolsey tries to act more masculine by cutting out his emotions. The funny thing is, none of the women in this play act the way Wolsey describes. If anyone is swayed by emotions, it's the men. So what gives?

KING
Is the Queen delivered?
Say, 'Ay, and of a boy.'
OLD LADY
Ay, ay, my liege,
And of a lovely boy. The God of heaven
Both now and ever bless her! 'Tis a girl
Promises boys hereafter. (5.1.199-204)

Boys are better than girls, according to Henry. He desperately wants Anne to deliver a baby boy, but the Old Lady tries to talk up the pretty girl she actually had. We're not sure if it does any good, though, since Henry's got his heart set on a boy, and he's already devalued girls to anyone who will listen. Hey, the king wants an heir, we guess.

EPILOGUE
For this play at this time is only in
The merciful construction of good women,
For such a one we showed 'em. If they smile
And say 'twill do, I know within a while
All the best men are ours; for 'tis ill hap
If they hold when their ladies bid 'em clap. (Epilogue.9-14)

The Epilogue gives us instructions on how to react to what we have just seen performed. Did you notice how the focus is on the ladies? It's not about the gents, or even the content, as much as it is about the women. Since they are virtuous, we should like the play. Hmm… why would Shakespeare want us to leave the theater with this idea about women? In about a play about Henry VIII, of all things?

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