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

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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the project of carving up these plays and giving only the best parts to Shakespeare has passed out of fashion, it has been replaced by various discussions of the plays as self-fragmenting—artifacts mirroring the disrupted state they describe.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 entire section is 15,276 words.)