Women in Henry VI: witches and bitches

A couple of months back, when we were in the midst of The Taming of the Shrew, we discussed the difficulty of the play, especially as it relates to the depiction of women.  The play, especially in recent decades, has been seen as a horrible example of dramatic misogyny.

Two months down the line, however, as we find ourselves deep in the Henry the Sixth histories, I see that women actually had it pretty good at Shakespeare’s hands back in Taming, for what have we seen since?

In The First Part of Henry the Sixth, only two women appear in the play:  Joan la Pucelle and Margaret of Anjou.  We’ve spent time and more time documenting the hatchet-job Shakespeare does on Joan.  And while Margaret has some amusing turns in her only scene in the play, she’s also portrayed as having less than a chaste character.

In The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, however, women are even more disparagingly portrayed:

  • Queen Margaret: she’s spiteful, a schemer, a liar, and an implicit adulteress)
  • Eleanor Cobham: she’s an ambitious plotter, unafraid to dabble in witchcraft (she appears only in first half of the play; she is never seen again after end of Act Two)
  • Marjorie Jordan: she’s a witch
  • Simpcox’s Wife: the wife of the false miracle at Saint Albans, she is a liar (she has but seven lines, and all save the last are lies–all to support the lie that is her husband’s “miracle;” her final line is truthful, but only because she had been caught in the lie)

of course, there is also mention of the Sergeant’s wife in Act Four; but she is not a character, she is an offstage rape victim… and the crime against her is EXCUSED

If history in Shakespeare’s era, the tale of great men and their actions (HIS-story, after all), then Shakespearean history truly is “no women’s matters” (I.iii.120).

Comment?