Renaissance Women: An Insight into 1 Henry IV

By Carmen Stephen, December 1996

The essay that follows was researched and written by Carmen Stephen as part of the course on Shakespeare by Individual Studies, 1996; it is reprinted here with her permission. While copyright is retained by Carmen Stephen and the University of Victoria, this material may freely be used for educational and non-profit purposes, so long as the author and source are cited.
Please remember that plagiarism is not research.

The plays of Shakespeare can be used as a window upon Renaissance sociey. However, if one looks through this window and does not leave behind the ideals of a modern society, the view may become distorted and not be as pleasing as it was for Shakespeare's contemporaries. In I Henry IV, the characters of the women are not equally developed as the male characters; but their interaction, or lack thereof, depicts the changing, yet somehow stagnant, roles of women during the English Renaissance.

In I Henry IV, the "themes of public and private life are brought together" (Speaight, 163). Elizabethan society was marked by gender seperation, both publicly and privately. Lady Percy does not play an active role outside of Hotspur's private life. To Hotspur, a woman's world was "To play with mammets and to tilt with lips (2. 2. 91), a gentle powerless occupation that did not mix with man's domain of "bloody noses and cracked crowns" (2. 2. 92). Although women writing during this time affirmed that women are "tender foft and beautifull, fo doth her difpofition in minde correfponde accordingly; she is milde, yielding, and and vertuous"(Sowernam, 43), women among the higher social classes began to question their inferiority to men as a result of the new emphasis on education for women.

The heightened exposure to Biblical and classical influences among Renaissance women created paradoxical results. "Education was designed to fill specific private functions and responsabilities" (Travitsky, 5). Women were not encouraged to leave their place within the home, but instead were encouraged on the "development of the home as a school of faith" (Travitsky, 7). The literature presented to women advocated the virtues of humility, submissiveness, obedience, and chastity, and reinforced the sanctity of marriage. As women were given the power to speak, the were not nesessarily heeded as worthy to be listened to. This is notable when Lady Percy shows assertion to Hotspur: "I'll know your business, Harry, that I will!" (2. 2. 81) Her husband in turn jokingly tosses her anger aside as if her words said nothing: "Away, away you trifler!" (2. 2. 89).

The identity of a woman fringed upon that of her husband; in fact, the woman was seen as an extension of the man. Women were "objects of male desire and dependent on that desire for their status, livelihood even their lives" (Newman, 7). The handbooks urged them against any opposition to their husband; they were to accept their husband as teacher and master. One woman perceived men as having an active role in maintaining women's virtue: "Eue was a good woman before fhe met with the Serpent, her daughters are good Virgins if they meet with good Tutors" (Sowernam, A3). This reflected the patriarchal influence of Renaissance society, as respecting and obeying the husband or father was parallel to respecting and obeying the king. Obedience was one of the most important virtues a woman could display: "Obedience is better then Sacrifice: for nothing is more acceptable before God then to Obey" (Sowernam, 9). Lady Mortimer speaks no English, yet even without communicating with her husband she is able to display her dependence. Glendower explains, "My daughter weeps: she'll not part with you./ She'll be a soldier too, she'll to wars" (3. 3. 191,192). Lady Percy displays her reliance on her husband when she decrees "for since you love me not,/ I will not love myself" (2. 2. 96). Her sense of self-worth is based upon her husband's perception of her. Woman's honour reflected her husband's honour; a wife was a husband's most presious possession, in that "they are neuer free-men, nor euer called honeft men, till they be married, for that is the potion which they get by their wives" (Sowernam, 23). Yet despite all they could bring to a man through marriage, women were still seen as frail creatures predisposed to temptation; they still carried the burden of Eve's original sin. "In the Renaissance...women were at one and the same time revered and hated, admired and held in contempt" (Watson, 161). Their gentle nature was in contrast with the danger they represented, and "distrust of women remained and undercurrent of medieval thought" (Travitsky, 4).

Although the Renaissance represented a break with the past, the preoccupation with medieval traditions persisted. The code of chivalry is evident, as "in the character of Hotspur, we sense the youthful, impassioned enthusiasm of the seeker after glory" (Watson, 218). Glendower notes that "hot Lord Percy is on the fire to go" (3. 1. 261). His quest for glory is not to be impeded by his wife. Mortimer expresses the shame in male weakness and displaying this through tears, as his wife does in crying; he states "but for shame,/ In such a parley should I answer thee" (3. 1. 199,200). Shakespeare captures the essence of the code of chivalry as he contrasts the harsh exertions of the battle with the soft pleasures of amorous love... Hotspur becomes melancholic at home with his wife and dreams of the battlefield" (Watson, 244).

Despite the greater freedom within marriage, men remained "haunted by this fear of deception and of cuckoldry" (Watson, 439) and the mistrust of women lingered. The knowledge of a husband's habits and faults was threatening as "weakness and tempermental frailty [could] lead them almost blindly to betray their man" (Watson, 441). Lady Percy senses Hotspur's inqueitude and supplicates him to share his worries with her saying, "I must know it, else he loves me not" (2. 2. 64). But she is not given a direct response to her question "What is it carries you away?" (2. 2. 72), as Hotspur is not able to fully endow his trust in her. Although he displays great affection and intimacy for his wife he seperates her from his serious affairs. He falls victim to the generalities of the feminine sex that were prevalent during the Renaissance. "I know you wise- but yet no farther wise/ Than Harry Percy's wife; constant you are-/ But yet a woman"(2. 2. 106-108). This marks the "social anxiety about gender that characterizes Elizabethan culture" (Newman, 35). The discourse between Lady Percy and Hotspur demonstrates the common view that power was to rest with the man. Women's status as individuals remained quite static. Lady Percy admits that she must "by force" (2. 2. 117) be satisfied with her husband's ambiguity, because she does not have the power to insist upon her desires.

It is ironic that while 1 Henry IV was written and performed the monarch of England was a woman. "Elizabeth's brilliand reign served to elevate the public opinion of women...[yet] her very success underlines the limits of the ambiguous enfranchisement of women characterizing the English Renaissance" (Travitsky, 11). Because she never married, Elizabeth escaped losing her independence and was exempt from obedience to a male power figure. It is interesting that The Merry Wives of Windsor was written because Elizabeth I was so enthralled by Falstaff that she wished to see him in another play, but this time in love. It seems that she was more struck by a male character, and the most openly despicable at that, than any of the female characters in 1 Henry IV.

Feminist work has changed the perspective with which we view Shakespeare's plays today, and allows us to ask questions that before went unanswered. Hostspur's relationship with his wife would not have been questioned by Shakespeare's audience, the question is a phenomenon of modern society. However, in order to understand Shakespeare we must place ourselves historically, remember the values of the Renaissance and put aside the values explicit of the twentieth century.


Works Cited

  1. Barnet, Sylvan et al., eds. The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare. Toronto: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
  2. Newman, Karen. Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama.Chicago: Universiy of Chicago press, 1991.
  3. Sowernam, Ester (pseud.). Ester hath hang'd Haman: or an Answere to a lewd Pamphlet, entituled, The Arraignment of Women. With the arraignment of lewd, froward, and unconstant men, and Husbands. Divided into Two Parts. The first proveth the dignity and worthinesse of Women, out of divine Testimonies. The second shewing the estimation of the Foe-minine Sexe, in ancient and Pagan times: all which is acknowledged by men themselves in their actions. Written by Ester Sowernam, neither Maide,Wife, nor Widdowe, yet really all, and therefore experienced to defend all. London: Printed for Nicholas Bourne, 1617. STC 22974. University Microfilms Reel no 1188.
  4. Spaight, Robert. Shakespeare: The Man and his Achievement. London: J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd., 1977.
  5. Travitsky, Betty, ed. The Paradise of Women: Writings by Englishwomen of the Renaissance. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981.
  6. Watson, Curtis Brown. Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960.

[Top] | [List of research resources] | [Shakespeare by Individual Studies]

This page last updated April 8 1997.