How is the theme of gender explored in the prologue to Act 3 of Shakespeare's play Henry V?

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Issues of gender are among a variety of issues raised in the Prologue to Act 3 of Shakespeare’s play Henry V. The prologue opens with a Chorus (a male actor presumably playing a male character) addressing the audience as a gender-neutral “you” (1). The first reference to a male occurs in line 4, when the “king” is mentioned. He is described in ways traditionally associated with the male gender – he is headed off to war, thus behaving actively rather than passively and thereby asserting his power.  He is in possession and command of a “brave fleet” (5), so that his power (an attribute often associated with males in Shakespeare’s society) is once again emphasized.

Indeed, the next line refers to the sun as Phoebus, a male god who possesses enormous power of his own. Boys are next mentioned as workers on the ships (8): young males are being trained in the ways of male power. The idea of girls or young females serving in a similar capacity would have been unthinkable to most people during Shakespeare’s day.

The Chorus himself, of course, is presented as a very lively and active male, as when he urges the audience to react in various ways and uses vigorous verbs to do so:

. . .  Follow, follow!

Grapple your minds to sternage of this navy . . . (17-18)

Presumably the actor playing this role would have been loud and boisterous and would have moved actively around the stage, exhorting the audience. In all these ways, he would have been behaving in ways that were far more acceptable among males of Shakespeare’s days than among mature females, who were on the whole expected to be much quieter and more passive than males of this period.

Interestingly, the first explicit reference to females in the speech refers to “old women” (20), who are listed – along with “grandsires” and “babies” -- as those who must stay behind in England while vigorous young men go off to France to fight. Old women are thus linked here with the weak, while even the youngest men (those who have just one hair on their chins) are imagined as eager to go off with Henry to battle the French (21-24).

The only other explicit reference to a female in the speech refers to Princess Katherine, daughter of the French king. Obviously she is more powerful than most women of her time would have been, but even she is imagined as the daughter of her father (rather than as an independent person in her own right), and she is also imagined as someone who is “offer[ed]” as a marriage partner by her father to Henry . Even this powerful woman, then, is presented as a possession of a male who offers her to another male. The whole Prologue, then, presents men as powerful and active and presents women (when they are mentioned at all) as relatively weak and passive.

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