Last month, I did a short entry on Shakespeare’s treatment of women in the two Henry VI plays we had read thus far. The treatment was pretty unflattering (and not just in the “Do these pants make me look fat?” context, either). No, it’s been pretty abysmal:
The First Part of Henry the Sixth
- Joan la Pucelle (major character assassination, see exhibits A and B)
- Margaret of Anjou (single scene, with hints of a certain inappropriate bawdiness)
The Second Part of Henry the Sixth (exhibit C)
- Queen Margaret (spiteful schemer, adulteress, and liar)
- Eleanor Cobham (ambitious and unafraid to go occult)
- Marjorie Jordan (witch)
- Simpcox’s Wife (liar)
In The Third Part of Henry the Sixth, we again have only three women.
Once the flirty schemer, she is now a spiteful and cruel warrior, willing to bear the knife herself in the killing of York. It seems that she very well may have begun to “think…on revenge, and cease to weep” (2HenryVI: IV.iv.3) after the death of Suffolk in The Second Part, closing off all femininity–save only the same kind of animalistic “mama bear” vengeance that we’ve seen before in Titus Andronicus‘ Tamora. She has become the “She-wolf of France, but worse than the wolves of France” (I.iv.112); while “women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible — (Margaret has become) stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless” (I.iv.142-143). She’s not exactly the touchstone for womanhood.
Elizabeth Woodville is a commoner, her father being a squire for Henry V (who later knighted her father). Elizabeth’s first marriage was to Sir John Grey of Groby. Her husband died in the Second Battle for Saint Albans, fighting with the Lancastrians; thus, his lands were confiscated. Her petition to have her titles reinstated leads to one of the more bizarre wooing sequences we’ve seen thus far in the Canon. By the end of their first meeting, Edward’s lascivious advances have been repelled and he has asked her (a woman with no recognized ties to the royal blood lines of Europe) to be his queen–even though Warwick has gone to France to negotiate a royal marriage to Lady Bonne (see below). Lady Grey comes off as relatively chaste, bright, and strong. She’s the best example of woman in the first three plays of this historical tetralogy.
Lady Bonne is the sister-in-law of the French King Louis XI (the younger sister of his wife). Though she has a speaking role in the play, her main role is that of pawn, a woman to be married off to royalty to create political and military alliances. In fact, when asked for her opinion of the marriage offer, she knows her place: “Your grant, or your denial, shall be mine” (III.iii.130). She is merely a piece to be moved around the board.
So, while the treatment of women in The Third Part is better than that in The Second Part (we finally have a lady we can respect in Lady Grey), the overall batting average still ain’t great.