Rape and Romance

In Act Three, Scene Three of Henry the Fifth, Henry threatens Harfleur with the rape of their virgins:

And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.
What is't to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;

— III.iii.11-14, 19-21, 33-35

Sure, it’s only a threat (as Henry immediately tells Exeter to “use mercy to them all” [III.iii.54]), but a horrible threat filled with grotesque imagery (“mowing like grass”…”hot and forcing violation”…”defile”).

King Charles VI of France offers Henry “Katherine his daughter” (III.Chorus.30), and when we meet her IN THE SCENE IMMEDIATELY AFTER HENRY’S THREAT OF RAPE, she is preoccupied with learning the language of the man who will–most likely–become her lord and master. She asks for an English lesson as she says, “Je ne doute point d’apprendre, par la grace de Dieu, et en peu de temps” (III.iv.36-37), meaning “I trust to learn, by the grace of God, and in short time.” There is very little time, if she is to learn how to communicate with her future husband. It’s interesting, too, that she wants to know how to say parts of the body; it’s as if she knows what will interest a husband–the carnal. Of course, it’s even funnier when the scene ends with a bawdy punchline, a she learns the English words “foot” and “gown”–homonyms for the French “foutre” (to fuck), and “count” (remove that second letter and you get the picture). Her English lesson ends with the two words that most perfectly describe the bodily and bawdily relationship she anticipates.

Maybe Pennington’s purely political wooing of Katherine in Bogdanov’s The War of the Roses IS the right approach…

Even when we get to the post-war, final-scene, romantic comedy close to this history, we get less than purely romantic imagery from Henry: “I love thee cruelly… and thou must therefore needs prove a good soldier-breeder” (V.ii.201, 203-204). Cruel love, breeding (not romance): this is the charm of our warrior king.

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