Attitudes Towards Women In Henry V And Richard III

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Throughout Richard III and Henry V women are severely taken advantage of, demand or ignored altogether. For Richard III, Lady Anne, Queen Elizabeth, and Margaret all are relatively powerless in comparison to Richard, and their womanhood is what creates this relative lack of power. Richard himself is a purely evil character with his killing and lying that takes place throughout the play. The only force going against this darkness of Richard is the women, yet their morality seems to lack enough impact throughout most of the play. Henry V on the other hand focuses mostly on the development of the male protagonist, not so overly demanding women, but more so ignoring them all together.

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The three main women in this play play rather stereotypical roles in regards to how women are supposed to be seen in this time. The inferiority of these women is very prevalent, as we see the reinforcement of many of these stereotypes such as being child bearers. We also see a large amount of ‘embellished’ emotion being evoked from these women, with a lot of mourning and crying occuring. Margaret taunts Elizabeth with her loses saying, “Decline all this, and see what now thou art: For happy wife, a most distressèd widow; For joyful mother, one that wails the name; For queen, a very caitiff crowned with care” (4.4 99–102). The importance of this quote is that it points out the rather limited roles women have in society. Elizabeth goes from a family holding queen to a powerless, less family oriented woman. Her life falls apart with her loss of what is most dear to her, which is her family. While it is understandable that the loss of family is such a big deal, it is stressed that since she is a woman she is much more affected because of that motherly role she possesses.

We see the taking advantage of, or use of women as tools in Henry V. Henry is talking back and forth with the French Ambassador and Henry eventual says, “Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance / That shall fly with them: for many a thousand widows / Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands; / Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down” (1.2 284- 288). This scene is so important in that it displays the common perception about women by men. This perception is that women are helpless and innocent, but the way Henry is using women here is as a tool to attempt and frighten the ambassador. Henry is not ashamed that he must threaten innocent women in order to achieve his goals.

Continuing this theme of powerless women, we have to take a look at Lady Anne and her situation in relation to Richard. She is a recent widow, along with the fact that she is still mourning the death of two family members, one being her husband Edward and her father in law Henry VI. Despite these terrible events Lady Anne still is willing to marry Richard. He seems powerless to even control her own actions as she had just cursed the man earlier. “O, cursed be the hand that made these holes; Cursed the heart that had the heart to do it; Cursed the blood that let this blood from hence” (1.2.15). Based upon this it seems relatively apparent that Lady Anne is so powerless as a woman that she does not refuse Richard despite her hatred for him at the time the quote was spoken. Richard only wants her for her physical beauty as well as a woman, demanding her as a person and only accepting her physical appearance. Richard says himself, “Your beauty was the cause of that effect—” (1.2.126). This statement on the surface appears as a compliment, but can as easily be seen as a statement against her as an individual.

Richard also subtly insults Queen Elizabeth is his refusal to refer to her as a Queen. Instead of properly referring to her as a queen he calls her “Lady Gray’. He does this because of his need to hold himself in a higher regard than her, and referring to her as queen would likely make himself feel lesser to her.

Once again we see this motherly love entwined with a sense of helplessness. Queen Elizabeth says, “Ah, my poor princes! ah, my tender babes! / My unblown flowers, new-appearing sweets! / If yet your gentle souls fly in the air / And be not fix’d in doom perpetual, / Hover about me with your airy wings / And hear your mother’s lamentation!” (4.4 8-13). This is the queen’s reaction to finding out her sons have been killed. This scene evokes a deep emotional response for the queen, but there is a slight form of commentary going on here in regards to womanhood. The loving mother of her children is put in the worst possible situation with the death of her kids, which is supposed to be the worst possible event a woman in this time could endure. Shakespeare seems to be speaking about this idea of helplessness most women encounter in this play as a whole. Many of the ideas discussed early harkon back to this overall feeling. This utter devastation the queen faces here shows that despite her status as the queen, as a woman she is unable and helpless to avoid the painful events that transpire in this play.

Going back to Henry V we must take a look at the idea of women being pure victims due to the actions of men in this play, and what it means as to the view of women. It has been relatively established up until this point that women are seen as relatively helpless in both plays. They often are victims of actions men take and have to face ramifications that they seemingly do not deserve. In Henry V we see a direct instance of this. Shakespeare says, “The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand / Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters; / Your fathers taken by the silver beards, / And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls, / Your naked infants spitted upon pikes, / Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused / Do break the clouds “(3.3 43-50). This quote brings out the dark reality of war and the actions men are willing to make regardless of the ramifications. Now one may question the direct significance of mean during war being such savages, but this reflects directly back upon the helplessness of women, and the ramifications they must face because of male actions in these plays. We see the threat of killed husbands creating widows and the raping of soilder’s daughters as mere threats. Women are held helpless to the actions of men in both plays.

In conclusion, we must look at a specific case of a man directly informing his wife that she may face the ramifications of a man’s actions, despite her own opposition. In Henry V the English soldier Pistols talks to his wife saying, “Look to my chattels and my movables: / Let senses rule; the word is ‘Pitch and Pay:’ / Trust none; / For oaths are straws, men’s faiths are wafer-cakes, / And hold-fast is the only dog, my duck: / Therefore, Caveto be thy counsellor” (2.2 45-51). This quote holds an eerie degree of foreboding as far as what is going to transpire. Pistol gives no sense of assurance that he is going to come back alive, and more so gives a sad goodbye. He tells her that life is cruel in most senses for women, and that the word of man is not trustworthy. This quote really sums up the overall feeling expressed towards women. In the most basic essence, women are controlled by the demands men hold towards them, as well as the fact that they are helpless in their attempts to free themselves from men and attain any semblance of individuality.

24 May 2022

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