In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the construction of gender, especially its emphasis of masculinity, serves to justify war and its associated violence, control women, and solidify the gender hierarchy. Although Henry derives power from his masculinity throughout the play, he primarily does so when justifying war by feminizing France and overtaking the one female in a position of power, ultimately finding his identity as a ruler and a man in overtaking and controlling all things feminine.
Henry’s first major act of asserting his masculinity occurs when he attempts to justify war by masculinizing and feminizing the lands of England and France, respectively. He masculinizes the English at the beginning of Act 3 by declaring, “in peace, there’s nothing so becomes a man/as modest stillness and humility/but when the blast of war blows into our ears/then imitate the action of the tiger” (Act 3.1.3-6), essentially emphasizing the relationship between willingness and desire to fight for King and country and male virtue. Henry further implies that those who choose not to fight when their country is in need are lesser in terms of caliber of men and should “hold their manhood’s cheap” (Act 4.3.66) by idly sitting by. On the other hand, France is personified with feminine terms, is expressed as a “she”, and is represented as a female body through metaphors like ‘womby vaultages’ (Act 2.3.182), all of which indicate that the land is passive, fertile, and vulnerable to exploitation, much like the women in France. By first feminizing the country he wishes to control and suggesting that it is natural for the more masculine nation to dominate the feminine one, he makes his overtaking of the land and its people that much more feasible.
The play’s gender dynamics are also apparent in Henry’s superfluous act of wooing Katherine in Act 5, Scene 2. Katherine’s royal status provides Henry with the legitimacy his claim to the throne previously lacked, and although she may realize this, her position as a woman leaves her with no real option for action. His image’s salvation lies in her role as an integral political figure in her own country, and by dominating both her and her feminized country, he remains the ultimate victor. Though Shakespeare provides no background depicting an exchange that prompted Katharine’s desire to learn English, it is possible that she wisely takes the initiative to learn a second language and its associated social codes so not to subjugate herself or lose her agency within her inevitable, inescapable marriage. However, even this attempt proves futile, as she learns the English names for body parts, foreshadowing the masculine conquest of her body and country and the loss of any sense of autonomy she once possessed. Shakespeare emphasizes that women, like land, are solely considered property to seize control of, and “winning” Katharine is as important a symbolic victory as conquering France itself.
Shakespeare’s emphasis of Henry’s ideology of masculinity as something defined by physical strength-as showcased in acts of war-extends to the act of finding a partner in marriage; sexual conquest seems to be the ultimate act of masculinity, with men as victors and women as their victims. In this play, Shakespeare heavily relies on the idea of using overpowering strength that accompanies the very identity of being male to convince women to be submissive and resort to their subservient role. Men are to be active, both in war and in their pursuit of women while women are to remain passive and submissive, awaiting action from male figures. The minimal female presence indicates a “silencing” of women in the play and time period, and even male characters recognize the lack of agency held by women as Westmoreland states, “The king hath granted every article/his daughter first, and, in sequel, all” (Act 3.2.305-307), suggesting that Henry’s conquest of France is inseparable from his sexual conquest of Katherine.