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William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare Essay - Fearful Simile: Stealing the Breech in Shakespeare's Chronicle Plays

Fearful Simile: Stealing the Breech in Shakespeare's Chronicle Plays


Fearful Simile: Stealing the Breech in Shakespeare's Chronicle Plays

Kathryn Schwarz, Vanderbilt University

The quene perswaded and encoraged by these meanes, toke upon her and her husbande, the high power and aucthoritie ouer the people and subiectes. And although she ioyned her husbande with hir in name, for a countenaunce, yet she did all, she saied all, and she bare the whole swynge, as the strong oxe doth, when he is yoked in the plough with a pore silly asse.

A domestick fury makes ill harmony in any family.1

Critically speaking, Shakespeare's Henry VI plays are always going to pieces. If the project of carving up these plays and giving only the best parts to Shakespeare has passed out of fashion, it has been replaced by various discussions of the plays as self-fragmenting—artifacts mirroring the disrupted state they describe. In this sense the logic of the plays might best be described in terms of repetition rather than linear progress: heroic flourishes, treacherous acts, the crowning, capturing, and killing of kings recur as patterns that all but eclipse the individuals concerned.2 And the female characters of these plays, like the men and the battles and the vicissitudes of kingship, might be less distinct than they are variations on a theme.3 Margaret is led onstage as Joan is dragged off; Joan's witchcraft anticipates that of the Countess; sexual excess is suspected about the virgin, suggested about the Countess, known about the queen; the woman warrior is reduced to ashes at the end of Part 1 only to reappear as the "Captain Margaret" of Part 3. Yet the progress in the second Henriad toward a centralized image of power is not absent from these earlier plays, although it is differently gendered and certainly far different in its effects; images of female transgression come ever closer to home and, when they are inside, look rather different than they did when they were outside. As Jean Howard and Phyllis Rackin observe in Engendering a Nation, "The French women who threaten to subvert the English historical project in Part 1 are unmarried; in Part II, the dangers they embody quite literally come home to England in the form of ambitious wives, married to the men who govern the land."4 In the first, second, and third parts of Henry VI, the consolidation of power is marked by a movement of monstrous female agency from margin to center, a movement that begins with the claim that the enemy is an Amazon and ends in the recognition of something distinctly amazonian about the woman who is queen, mother, and wife.

Conventions of female excess distinguish between the domestic and the imported, between transgressions that radically oppose socialized femininity and those out of which it is formed. In Still Harping on Daughters Lisa Jardine draws such a distinction between viragoes and shrews: "The threat of the scold is local and domestic; that of the Amazon/virago is generalised 'rejection of her sex', a strangeness which travesties nature."5 The amazonian references of Shakespeare's first tetralogy reflect early modern fascination with the possibility that the distinction might break down, that the two categories of transgression might, through the image of the amazonian wife, become one and the same. The result, I suggest, is an excursion into the uncanny, what Freud defines as "that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar."6 Images of Amazons in socially conventionalized roles locate the strange—and, indeed, the terrifying—within the familiar, resulting in the anxieties of conflation, displacement, and loss which Freud theorizes as the uncanny's effect; this is the effect of bringing Margaret home, of locating female power at the intersection of the alien and the domestic. That intersection, Freud argues, is an effect of rhetoric, a collapse of opposition into conflation at the level of language itself. In his reading, the term heimlich identifies not only the home, with its structures of familiarity, but the ways in which those structures produce the conditions of their own disruption: "Thus heimlich is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich. Unheimlich is in some way or other a sub-species of heimlich."7 With respect to Joan la Pucelle, rhetorically held at arm's length, the threat that the familiar might converge with the strange remains remote; but Queen Margaret, appropriating the heimlich, uncannily performs its conventions from within the terms of domesticity itself.

The shift inward is bracketed by the two kings' bodies: Henry V, who is mourned in his fallen presence and celebrated for his glorious past at the beginning of 1 Henry VI; and Henry VI, whose corpse appears onstage in the far more muted procession that begins Richard III. These spectacular royal corpses anticipate and summarize the progressive threat to sovereign male authority, a threat played out in the actions of the tetralogy's women. Readers have always recognized that the women of these plays have an enervating effect on the men: they are "domineering females," "typically defined as opponents and subverters of the historical and historiographic enterprise," "associated with bloody rites of violence and 'misrule,' " known to be from hell because of the confusion of gender," representative of "illegitimate and therefore unnatural power," possessing "all the coded and recognizable ambiguities of the castrating woman."8 Such vigorous consensus threatens to obscure the fact that its explanation is curiously doubled, conflating feminizing and effeminating processes that do not, upon consideration, add up to quite the same thing. Women, these readings suggest, destabilize male privilege through their appropriation of masculinity; at the same time, women sap male potency through their association with the feminized French. We might get around this rhetorical paradox by asserting that, in the Renaissance imagination, female masculinity is a sign of heterosexual excess, which is itself a conventionally feminine trait: "In life as on the stage," Rackin has argued, "masculine women were regarded as whores."9 But I want to take seriously for a moment the sense in which explanations of Joan and, to a still greater extent, of Margaret call on notions of femininity and masculinity in the same breath. It is this simultaneity, I will argue, that constructs the specifically disruptive effect of female agency; by invoking a doubled set of conventions, the Henry VI plays complicate the hierarchical relationship not only of men to women but also of homosocial systems of power to heterosexual conventions and roles. In both their iconographic and their sexual functions, Joan and Margaret challenge rather than consolidate the naturalized referential assumptions of masculinity, and this tetralogy chronicles an increasingly acute failure to use women in order to negotiate the bonds among men.10

Judith Butler has described gender as "an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space through a stylized repetition of acts."11 For the female characters of the first tetralogy, gendered convention is not only highly and self-consciously stylized but doubled, presenting femininity and masculinity not as oppositional or mutually displacing terms but as simultaneous performative effects. It is a doubleness efficiently figured in the term Amazon, applied both to Joan and to Margaret; Amazon myth, with its paradoxical reference of masculine acts to female bodies, conflates the chivalric violence of encounters between men with the different violence of heterosexual conquest, with predictably disruptive effects. As objects of desire or items of exchange, Amazons do not consolidate male bonding; and if, as when Hercules "gives" the Amazon queen Hippolyta to Theseus, the attempt is made, the result is not comedy or confirmed masculine identity but parodic domestic roles and an inexorable progress toward tragic conclusions.12 In the course of the Henry VI plays, the disruption defined through reference to Amazons changes; although readers have tended to equate Joan and Margaret as figures of the French, the feminine, or the theatrical, these plays stage a significant shift in the terms of gendered performance. That shift is articulated in the difference between Amazon and amazonian, a difference that mirrors as it theorizes the movement inward that structures the tetralogy.

In I Henry VI, Joan is called an "Amazon" (1.2.104)13 as an articulation of doubled identity; constantly forced on the awareness of spectators both onstage and off, her position as a manly woman generates a peculiarly essentializing rhetoric that traces her disruptive effect to the fact that she "is" a collection of contradictory things. Margaret, by contrast, is termed "amazonian" and subjectively described as "play[ing] the Amazon" (1.4.114; 4.1.106); doubled identity here gives way to doubled performance, to a rhetoric of identity as relentlessly contingent. Joan functions only problematically within an economy governed by men because her value, as a gendered commodity and as an iconographie figure, does not remain constant; described through extremes of masculinity and femininity, catalogued as a virgin and as a whore, she figures these structures of categorization themselves as constructing not a continuum but an unsocializable collection of opposites. Margaret, by contrast, manipulates the terms of the socialized continuum itself. The moments at which she is identified as a virgin or a whore—as Henry's bride, as Suffolk's mistress—serve not to identify her through unassimilable contradictions but precisely to assimilate her into the middle ground of domestic convention. And it is Margaret's revision of the roles of mother, wife, and queen that brings masculinity and femininity into their most acutely performative conflation.

The rhetorical strategy that distinguishes Joan from Margaret participates in a larger distinction among monitory texts. Joan is described in the language of exemplary catalogues, which impose gendered conventions through the reification of polarities; extravagances of good and bad, restrained and excessive, familiar and alien, are categorized against one another in order to suggest a socialized space between, and it is Joan's embodiment of extremes at the expense of this socialized space that makes her a threat. Margaret, by contrast, recalls the language of conduct manuals, in which conventions are rhetorically performed rather than iconographically framed: as she plays a series of self-consciously domestic roles, Margaret at once echoes and suggests the transgressive potential of the terms through which wives, mothers, and even queens are defined. Both systems rely heavily on the relationship of the body to sexual acts; but if the first reifies that relationship as a self-evidently referential structure, the second implies, often against its own declared ideological ends, that the body may be less accessibly material than the processes through which convention is performed. The shift between ways of theorizing, and thus controlling, identity recalls another theory of the relationship between the embodied and the performed. In "The Signification of the Phallus" Lacan describes "the intervention of a 'to seem' that replaces the 'to have,' in order to protect it on the one side, and to mask its lack on the other."14 In negotiating the various implications of being, having, and seeming, Lacan suggests a transition from the rhetoric of identity as difference to the rhetoric of seeming as masking or appropriating the place of difference. By invoking this structure in order to articulate the roles played by Joan and by Margaret, I do not wish to argue that the play's variously amazonian women occupy the place of the phallus—although, considering the fantastic materiality and infinite metonymic retreat of early modern Amazons, the association possesses a certain imaginative power. I suggest instead that the tetralogy's representational strategy mirrors Lacan's in representing the conventional signs of discrete sexual identity, first as embodied paradox and, more powerfully, as constructed through a performance that is also a veil.

The three parts of Henry VI complicate the naturalized connection between masculinity and men through the changing relationships not only between "masculine" and "female" but also between "amazonian" and "Amazon," relationships that range from equation and causality to paradox. Such complications of identity and referentiality are in a sense the inevitable result of theatricality itself, which, Barbara Freedman argues, is constituted through a strategy of misreading analogous to the events of the Lacanian mirror stage: "Both tragic and comic narratives stage misrecognition in the quest for recognition. Whereas Shakespeare's tragedies address the need and failure to find a place in another's eyes, the comedies are more concerned with dislocating perspective; they suggest that only a limited perspectival space defined by error constitutes identity."15 In the Henry VI plays the theatrical effect itself is doubled, for, through its peculiar representation of women's place, Shakespeare's first tetralogy conflates the generic effects that Freedman describes. If Margaret's appearance as Henry's prospective bride at the end of 1 Henry VI shifts that play's register from tragic to comic conclusions, and if the results of that marriage turn comedy back toward tragedy, the plays mix up the conventions of recognition and misrecognition as well. "A woman's general. What should we fear?" Richard asks in 3 Henry VI (1.2.68), the false causality between statement and question marking the intersection of understanding and its failure. The attempt to relegate women to their place within masculinist hierarchies through the simple fact of recognizing them as women ignores another of the play's simple facts: that women may be masculine as well. "Henry VI, Part III, then, is spectacularly marked by the dissolution of every kind of male bond," write Howard and Rackin;16 I want to argue here that the tetralogy's spectacles of female agency are less that dissolution's symptom than its cause.


Henry VI, Part 1 defines Joan with relentless thoroughness as an outsider. Opposed to an English male aristocratic ideal, she is a woman, a peasant, a virgin, a whore, a saint, a witch, an Amazon, and French. Her threatened invasion, while it challenges English idealizations of heroic significance and physical space, could consolidate those ideals; if the English, at the end of 1 Henry VI, return to a smaller England, they bring with them a clarified sense of what Englishness means. Such a process appears to reiterate a convention of subjectivity, a negotiation of the relationship between familiar and strange that produces identity through difference; the multiplication of Joan's alien identities not...

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Possession may, as Lacan asserts, always be an illusion; it is also, however, a way of articulating the relationship between agency and desire that structures the representation of women in Henry VI, Part 2. As York speaks his last line to Joan—"Curse, miscreant, when thou com'st to the stake" (1HVI,5.3.44)—the statement of finality, punctuated by the stage direction "Exeunt," is immediately undermined by another stage direction: "Enter Suffolk, with Margaret in his hand. " For Joan, being a Frenchwoman in the hands of the English is an experience of violence that demonizes sex; for Margaret, literally in the hand of Suffolk and metonymically in the hands of the king, the position is...

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As 3 Henry VI begins, Margaret no longer stands in a mediated relationship to sovereign power. The king has become "Base, fearful, and despairing Henry!" (1.1.178), and Margaret claims the space of government. The claim, again, is based on an invasion that has already taken place. When Henry, yielding to York, disinherits his own son, Margaret first desires to disclaim her relationship to national and familial domesticity altogether: "Ah, wretched man! Would I had died a maid / And never seen thee, never borne thee son, / Seeing thou hast proved so unnatural a father!" (11. 216-18). Margaret here wishes herself back in the position of Joan, the maid opposed to rather than implicated in the political and erotic...

(The entire section is 6405 words.)