French Fops

It seems only fitting in Henry the Fifth, a play that chronicles the greatest military victory over the French in English history, that Shakespeare pulls out all the comic stops in portraying the French leaders as a bunch of effeminate fops.

It begins innocently enough with the Dauphin’s insulting “gift” of the tennis balls, but by the time Henry actually reaches France, entire towns must be surrendered because the Dauphin can’t militarily “get it up”: “his powers are not yet ready // To raise so great a siege” (III.iii.46-47). If this is a measurement of masculinity, Henry just won the first round.

But what would you expect from the Anglo-philic and Franco-phobic Shakespeare?

When we next see the Dauphin and his fellow French nobles, it’s not just the prince who seems wanting in testosterone. They are a group of sad sack whiners, complaining about losing to “a barbarous people” (III.v.4), the “Normans, but bastard Normans, Norman bastards” (III.v.10). The Constable cannot believe they are losing to those who come from a “climate foggy, raw and dull” (III.v.16). The punchline comes, though, from the prince himself, who complains,

By faith and honor,
Our madams mock at us, and plainly say
Our mettle is bred out and they will give
Their bodies to the lust of English youth
To new-store France with bastard warriors.

— III.v.27-31

It’s bad enough that these wimps are saying “screw the English,” but now their women actually want to. In the meantime, the French fops are relegated to going to “English dancing schools” (III.v.32), as if dancing is their only worthy physical outlet.

Since they cannot win physically–though they think the “have power enough” (III.v.53)–they are left to talk about how much better they are. And talk they do. Talk, talk, talk is all we get in their night-before-the-battle preparation. Talk of “the best armor in the world” (III.vi.1). Talk of “the best horse of Europe” (III.vi.5)–this one is especially funny, as the Dauphin goes to great lengths to make mythological comparisons to Pegasus and Hermes (he has even written a “sonnet in HIS praise” [III.vii.38, emphasis mine], and says that the “horse is [his] mistress” [III.vii.43], but probably the less said about that the better).

this scene will also be discussed with it comes to our monthly vacation is Bawdy-ville, later in the month…

Heading into battle, the arrogant French feel that they are so much greater than the English that they need only to “blow on them, // The vapor of (their) valor will o’erturn them” (IV.ii.23-24). But when the battle doesn’t go their way, they are reduced to wondering if it would be better to “stab (them)selves” (IV.v.8). Of course, they don’t stab themselves, but instead kill only those they can: the English camp’s boys.

Pathetic.

But what would you expect from the Anglo-philic and Franco-phobic Shakespeare?

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