The young, pretty princess of France does not play a very active role in the progress of the narrative, but she is nevertheless significant because she typifies the role played by women in this extremely masculine play. The scenes that center on Catherine and her tutor, Alice, depict a female world that contrasts starkly with the grim, violent world in which the play’s men exist. While the men fight pitched battles, yoking the course of history to the course of their bloody conflicts, Catherine lives in a much gentler and quieter milieu, generally ignorant of the larger struggle going on around her. She fills her days mainly with laughing and teasing Alice as the latter attempts to teach her English.
The fact that Catherine’s scenes are in a different language from the rest of the play’s scenes dramatically underscores the difference between her lifestyle and that of the men: where the soldiers speak a hard, rhythmic English, Catherine speaks in a soft, lilting French. These differences point to the fact that, while Catherine’s life may be more pleasant than that of the men, the scope of her existence is extremely limited and has been chosen for her: she has become beautiful, pleasant, and yielding because she has been raised to become whatever will make her desirable to a future husband. These qualities have been determined by the masculine value system around which her culture is structured.
Catherine’s father hopes to marry her to a powerful leader in order to win a powerful ally, and thus Catherine has been molded into the graceful and charming woman that a powerful leader is likely to want. Shakespeare uses Catherine’s English lessons with Alice to highlight her role as a tool of negotiation among the men. As the English conquer more and more of France, Catherine’s potential husband seems likely to be English. Catherine thus begins to study English—not because she herself desires to speak the language (we are given almost no insight into what Catherine herself might desire), but because her father intends to marry her to his enemy in order to end the war and preserve his power in France.
I just finished Henry V, the 19th Shakespeare play, in my quest to read all the Bard by his 450th birthday next year. If you're interested, visit my blog to find out what I thought of it and more on what I thought of Henry:
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