Thursday, April 3, 2014

Henry V and Shakespeare's Rape Culture

Tom Berger, scholar in residence at the American Shakespeare Center's graduate program at Mary Baldwin College, was fond of reminding us to be careful about applying our post-Enlightenment sensibilities to pre-Enlightenment works, which I have found to be a wise mantra for anyone who performs Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare's misogyny, in particular, can be appalling, and early modern rape culture is on full display in Henry V, or at least in the Folio version of it.

In versions of Henry V based on the Folio text, audiences are familiar with Henry's threat to the Governor of Harfleur:
If I begin the batt'rie once againe,
I will not leaue the halfe-atchieued Harflew,
Till in her ashes she lye buryed.
The Gates of Mercy shall be all shut vp,
And the flesh'd Souldier, rough and hard of heart,
In libertie of bloody hand, shall raunge
With Conscience wide as Hell, mowing like Grasse
Your fresh faire Virgins, and your flowring Infants. (TLN 1266 - 1273)
The quarto text implies more than it actually says:
if we begin the battery once againe
I will not leaue the halfe atchieued Harflew,
Till in her ashes she be buried,
The gates of mercie are all shut vp.
What say you, will you yeeld and this auoyd,
Or guiltie in defence be thus destroyd? (TLN 1265 - 1270)
Who knows why, but it's not hard to imagine either Burbage, Shakespare, or even the printer not wanting the epitome of Christian Kings threatening to order his men to rape the women and children of the first town in France he conquers.

By the time the play was printed, the gory specifics of Harry's threat were a bridge too far, and though the coarser verse in the quarto text may be a result of cutting and re-assembly, there are also possible performance implications of King Harry, who has previously declared that his passions are restrained by his reason, is uncomfortable with the idea of having to threaten (and follow through) this kind of destruction. Notably, the Folio-text verse, including the lines specifically threatening rape, is much more regular.

That all said, sexual violence was and is a part of war; it's not the part they put on the recruitment posters, and it's the part they want you to forget when they tell you to support the troops, but if the national embarrassment that was Abu Ghraib teaches us nothing else, it's that even female soldiers are not necessarily free from the lure of sexual violence in military conflict. This is all to say that Shakespeare, in the Folio text, may simply be acknowledging the reality of his (and Henry V's) time.

Still, the Folio text, the version regarded as solely the work of Shakespeare's hand, goes further:
     Dolphin. By Faith and Honor,
Our Madames mock at vs, and plainely say,
Our Mettell is bred out, and they will giue
Their bodyes to the Lust of English Youth,
To new-store France with Bastard Warriors.
     Brit. They bid vs to the English Dancing-Schooles,
And teach Lauolta's high, and swift Carranto's,
Saying, our Grace is onely in our Heeles,
And that we are most loftie Run-awayes. (TLN 1406 - 1414)
Rape is here not regarded as a crime of violence against women, it is adultery, and the petty treason of wives conspiring against their husbands is elevated to a higher form. French women are not being raped, they are throwing themselves at their conquerers to breed superior children. In performance, it generally comes off as a joke about the comparative weakness of the French, but Shakespeare is indicting female sexuality in general here.These lines, like Harry's explicit threats to Harfleur (Harflew) cited above, are notably absent in the quarto text.

This, it seems to me, is another great reason for exploring the quartos of Shakespeare's plays. While previous generations of scholars and editors disparaged the quartos as being the products of the play house, and thereby tainted by other hands and minds, they present us with a picture of early modern philosophy that we might rather regard as "less misogynist."

It's worth saying again that we don't know exactly who or why these changes were made to the text, and that we should be careful about applying our own post-Enlightenment philosophies to pre-Enlightenment works. Still, when the quarto texts speak better to our post-Enlightenment sensibilities, Shakespearean companies who ignore them because of the judgments of Victorian minds are passing up the opportunity to give their audiences a Shakespeare that, among other things, is more inclusive and accessible to the modern world.

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