ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

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.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No comments yet.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)