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I Cannot Tell: Gender and Passive Resistance in Shakespeare’s Henry V

Updated on June 29, 2011

It was the widely held belief in Renaissance Europe that God should be the head of his creation, the king the head of his people, and man the head of his household. In A Godly Form of Household Government, John Dod and Robert Cleaver affirm this principle as it pertains to the government of the family and elaborate on the implications of this divine order for the lives of women:

As it were a monstrous matter, and the means to overthrow the person, that the body should, in refusing all subjection and obedience to the head, take upon it to guide itself and to command the head: so were it for the wife to rebel against the husband. Let her then beware of disordering and perverting the course which God in His wisdom hath established: and withal let her understand that, going about it, she riseth not so much against her husband, as against GOD, and that it is her good and honor to obey God in her subjection and obedience to her husband.” (259)

Thus patriarchy, according to Cleaver and Dod, was both supremely natural and divine. As God had intended man to be the head of his household, he had made creation to follow that order, and rebellion of the wife against her husband’s authority would be as unnatural as the rebellion of body parts against the head. Likewise, men were the divinely ordained rulers of their households, just as kings were the divinely ordained rulers of their nations. For a wife to rebel against her husband was, just as for a subject to rebel against his or her monarch, a rebellion not only against the individual, but against God and the intended order of the universe, a sin which aligned its perpetrator with Lucifer himself, whose great and infamous sin had been rebellion against God (An Homily Against Disobedience and Willful Rebellion 179).

In real human interactions, however, outside of marriage manuals and other behavioral treatises, the near-impossibility of such perfect self-denial and subjugation to the will of another had the potential to force women wishing to maintain the appearance of virtue into adopting an indirect and passive form of resistance. In the last scene of Shakespeare’s Henry V, the French Princess Katherine employs such a tactic as she is courted by the conquering English king. Through repeated insistence in broken English that she “cannot tell” (5.2.108) what he inquires when he asks her if she loves him, Katherine finds refuge in her own ignorance, real or feigned, and is able to offer slight resistance to the advances of her betrothed without being blamed for willfulness or obstinacy. Though Dod and Cleaver would have a husband and wife who are truly one, who “hideth no secrets nor privities [one] from the other” (261), Katherine blamelessly gains the power of concealment for herself through exploiting the language barrier between herself and the king.

Katherine’s resistance, veiled in timid incomprehension, is suggested through her acknowledged understanding of much of Henry’s speech and her commentary on it. Although she claims that “I cannot tell vat is ‘like me,’” she understands Henry’s meaning when he explains that “An angel is like you, Kate” (5.2.108-110), a comment that, while poetic, would be fairly unhelpful to a person unfamiliar with the uses of the English word “like.” Her response to this statement,“O bon Dieu, les langues des homes sont pleines de trompheries!” or “The tongues of men are full of deceits” (5.2.116-118), openly expresses distrust of the English conqueror, revealing to us a measure of defiance and contempt hidden beneath her compliant exterior. Katherine simply veils in her native French a statement that she would likely not have spoken openly in English, particularly with the inclusion of the epithet “bon Dieu,” or with such vehemence as to be punctuated with an exclamation point.

Hesitancy and resistance is also evident in Katherine’s question, “Is it possible dat I sould love de enemy of France?” (5.2.169-170). Katherine’s fears in this regard are greatly illuminated by Cleaver and Dod, who write that “matrimony requireth a greater duty of the husband towards his wife, and the wife towards her husband, than otherwise they are bound to show to their parents” (259). Thus, in yielding to Henry’s advances and becoming his wife, Katherine trades her allegiance to her home country and to her father, the King of France, for loyalty to the English invader, hitherto her greatest enemy. In accepting Henry, Katherine is expected to “show herself not only to love no man so well as her husband; but also to love none other at all, but him, unless it be for her husband’s sake” (258). Although Henry and Katherine’s proposed marriage is intended to bring peace between England and France, to Katherine, it means forsaking all of her previous loyalties to family and to country, and becoming “one body with her husband,” as stated by Cleaver and Dod (258), or one body with “de enemy of France” (5.2.170), and thus the enemy of France herself.

Although Shakespeare’s Henry V uses similar language to Cleaver and Dod’sGodly Form of Household Government, with the French Queen asking that “God, the best maker of all marriages / Combine your hearts in one, your realms in one! / As man and wife, being two, are one in love, / So be there ’twixt kingdoms such a spousal” (5.2.353-356), this “oneness,” in the face of Katherine’s resistance seems less a reality than an unlikely ideal. It is also less clear in Henry V than in A Godly Form of Household Government whether Henry’s place as husband and king, head of his marriage and his kingdom, is divinely appointed or simply won. It is, after all, only through war that Henry, the son of a usurper, has gained the right to each, and Henry’s supremacy over Katherine is not only as a man, but also as the conqueror of her country. It is won, rather than given to him by virtue of divine right. Thus in Henry V, it can be easily interpreted that Henry’s dominion over his wife and country are more a result of his own will and social customs than God’s.

While Cleaver and Dod prescribe for all wives a regimen of absolute submission to the desires of their husbands, such submission from any intelligent being, who can neverliterallybe truly of one body and one mind with another, is a near practical impossibility. However, the appearance of such perfect subjection was essential to a woman’s apparent “virtue” in the Renaissance. Thus Shakespeare’s Katherine, while outwardly appearing obedient to the will of her future husband, has visible reservations to a union that would render her subject to a former enemy of her family and country. She cannot, as a realistic character in a drama rather than a hypothetical ideal in Dod and Cleaver’s marriage manual, completely repress and eliminate her own desires, or mold them to perfectly fit the shape of Henry’s. Thus she expresses hesitancy and resists him passively, the only way she can, through claiming ignorance of Henry’s meaning and through communication of her true thoughts in her native French only, with Alice, her nurse. The language barrier between Katherine and Henry provides Katherine with one of the few advantages available to women in a time that required them to be totally submissive: the power of concealment, facilitated by claims of ignorance. It is ironically through claims of incapability that the supposedly weaker vessel finds her only agency and strength.


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