Wednesday, April 15, 2009


This is the essay that I wrote for the midterm we had to turn in last class. I basically rewrote the question I did for I Henry VI, but I go into more detail. I also included some ideas that we discussed in class last week. Okay!

Midterm: Who Deserves Authority?

A Validation and Challenge to Traditional Gender Hierarchy

            The Traditional Gender Hierarchy, as illustrated by Robert Fludd in Utriusque Cosmi Historia, is a recurring motif that makes several appearances throughout William Shakespeare’s plays. In the engraving, one can see that a true order exists: God above Nature, and Nature above Man. In plays like The Taming of the Shrew and I Henry VI, Shakespeare explores another aspect of the hierarchy that relates to the traditional gender roles of the Elizabethan Era and how one comes to possess the authority to ruler over another. Shakespeare examines the differences between men and women and the stratification between these sexes—both validating and challenging the supreme sequence—when he writes about Joan la Pucelle’s rise to power in the wake of the king’s death in I Henry VI.

            The opening of I Henry VI presents England in uncertain times following the death of beloved monarch Henry V—a captain-less ship. During the funeral, tensions mount between Gloucester, who eulogizes the dead king and wants to keep the States best interests in mind, and the corrupt Winchester who believes “The Church’s prayers made [Henry V] so prosperous” (1.1.32), and that he should thus take over the rule of England. Here, Shakespeare reveals a glimpse at the dissension that leads to a disruption in the normal hierarchy because of the so-called “vacuum of authority”, or lack of clear leadership. The status of England is not helped by its fickle leadership—the ‘War of the Roses’ between the Duke of Somerset of the Red Rose and the Duke of York of the White Rose—which leads to a vulnerability that allows France to advance and gain some authority, thanks to a woman. Obviously, a new era of blurred hierarchical lines is on the cusp of emerging, that starts to ignore the established rules of the time.

            Joan arrives in France with a promise to return Charles the Dauphin to his rightful place as King, and she is able to quickly assert her authority over the weak-willed men of France by besting him in combat, by otherwise winning the men over with her charm, and by claiming that her authority resides within some divine source—it seems that to make up for the fact that she is not a man, she resorts to a high power to still retain some authority. The question of whether Joan uses her sexuality for her endeavors are purposefully ambiguous, and both enemies and allies constantly challenge her purity—Talbot calls her “Pucelle or pucelle” (1.7.85).

            Joan’s actions are startling for the fact that she is a woman impersonating a man, and it is no wonder that she is looked down upon and even feared for her nonconformity: she is usurping the natural order of things and subverting man’s authority. Rather than remaining a reflection of man, she is attempting to place herself in the Sun’s place, and she almost gets away with it. Shakespeare challenges the Traditional Gender Hierarchy, much in the same way he does with The Taming of the Shrew, by creating a strong willed, independent woman. Like Joan, Katherina attempts to conquer men with her biting wit and demands equality, but they both ultimately fail. As a punishment for attempting to overthrow the authority of men, Joan is burnt at the stake, but not before she is humiliated and completely dehumanized at the hands of the English who view her as nothing less than a monster—York: “Break thou in pieces, and consume to ashes, Thou foul accursed minister of hell” (5.6.92). The only thing that makes Joan so evil is the fact that she is crossing gender and social boundaries, by assuming the identity of a man. This is Shakespeare’s way of validating the gender hierarchy.

            Joan and Winchester are a symbol of a ‘New Way’ of rule. No longer does authority and victory lie with the powerful and brute forces of Men, but rather with the cunning and opportunistic ways of those who usurp their way to authority. When the traditional and chivalric Talbot dies in battle, not by being overcome by the opposing side, but because of the internal struggle in his own country that delays him aid, it is a sign that the ‘Old Way’ of winning is no longer effective. The English have joined the French and have decided not to act in straightforward and mighty justice, but in strategizing and deceiving. Talbot is a victim of the “Vacuum of Authority”, because without a clear male leader, chaos reigns, and anything can happen.

            At the end of the play when Charles gains his land back and a temporary peace with the Regent of England, some sense of order is brought back to the men. Joan’s attempt has failed and she is punished for her ways. However, there are cracks in the foundation of peace at home that prophesize civil unrest: Suffolk has found a way to influence King Henry VI’s new wife Margaret—“Margaret shall now be queen and rule the King” (5.7.107)–and she succeeds in claiming an undeserved spot in royalty where Joan has failed. This is because Margaret doesn’t attempt to subvert the authority of man as obviously as Joan or Katherina, but rather in the manner of Bianca. Margaret finds herself in the position to claim authority over her husband almost by accident, and it is Shakespeare’s ultimate judgment that suggests authority only fully rests in the hands of men who are able enough to wield such power. Yes, Henry VI deserves power and so do Charles and York, but that doesn’t mean they have the authority that goes along with such a title. The lack of authority at the head leads to a distorted hierarchy, which allows even women to rise up and take control, and it might as well belong to those who are capable.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Joan of Arc

One of my favorite parts of I Henry VI was reading about poor Joan of Arc (even though it was not accurate!!!). I admit I have a soft spot for Joan of Arc, and I can't believe Shakespeare turned her into such a monster.

In high school for a European History class, I participated in a group film project that retold the story of Joan of Arc. This was made about 3 years ago, and I play a couple of characters in it. It's directed by my friend Kitty Mach, who is an up-and-coming filmmaker, and I think she is brilliant. Some of her work can be found here. Anyway, this is the film, and I think it does Joan much more justice than Shakespeare did in I Henry VI.

I Henry VI Assignment

Here's what I wrote for the assignment we had over the weekend. After today's discussion, I have a couple of more things to add, but I'll do that later.

How does the “Vacuum of Authority” affect the gender themes in I Henry VI?

How do the themes we’ve been dealing with in class assert themselves in the play?

            I’m not entirely sure what is meant by the “Vacuum of Authority”, but it sounds like the ‘absence of a clear leadership’ which definitely plagues the characters in I Henry VI because throughout the play, and because there is a struggle for authority among the men of France and within England, it allows for a woman to rise up and have a role that otherwise would never have happened. By tradition, men are higher on the Traditional Gender Hierarchy—God, then Nature, the Man, and then Woman—and so the responsibility and privilege of power is often reserved for men.

            Upon the death of the great King Henry V, his son is still too young to take responsibility for the kingdom and there are many people who attempt to take over as a result: Gloucester of the State, Winchester of the Church, Somerset and his Red Rose followers, and Richard Plantagenet—later named Duke of York and Regent of the throne—and his White Rose followers. The death of Henry V also lends an opportunity for the French to reclaim their land: Charles the Dauphin wants his title as King of France, and among this directionless struggle of power among men, it is a woman who gets things moving towards resolution.

            The “Vacuum of Authority” allows for Joan la Pucelle to place herself amongst men, and she proves herself worthy, besting both Charles and the powerful Talbot in battle. Although her influence is great—she is able to convince many to believe her, even changing the mind of Burgundy to support the French side of things—she is not the equal of men and her validity is often questioned (her virginity is played with ambiguously to imply that she is a whore). She claims herself to be the “scourge of England”, and it’s true, as she is actually the one responsible for the favorable status of France by the end of the play.

            The “Vacuum” ultimately leads to an unclear direction for the future of France and England, and new players bring themselves in, in hopes of gaining some power at the cost of old traditions. Joan, as well as a few others like Suffolk, are revolutionary thinkers because they are able to take advantage of and exploit tradition. No longer does authority and victory lie with the powerful and brute force of men, but rather the cunning strategizing, like Joan charming men and Suffolk infiltrating Henry VI’s marriage. A symbol of this new way of things is when the traditional and chivalric Talbot dies in battle, not by being overcome by the opposing side, but because of the internal struggle in his own country that delays him aid, who have decided not to act in straightforward and mighty justice, but who play and strategize and deceive. Talbot is a victim of a new way of fighting: this is Chess, not Checkers.

            Gender themes are present in this play, whenever dealing with Joan la Pucelle. Among the men of the play, Joan is the most strong-willed and the boldest. Whatever her source of insight, be it demons or God, she plays her cards well as long as she can. But there is a downside to a woman claiming so much power so fast and subverting the authority of men, just like there are consequences for Kate in Taming of the Shrew. These consequences for Joan are that she is seen, not as a woman, but as a sorceress, a male impersonator, and as a whore. Joan is also aware of her actions and identity, knowing that she is pursuing the actions of men and usurping their role. An interesting point is that, upon the death of Talbot, when Lucy comes to claim the bodies and talks with the same authority as men, Joan refers to Lucy as a “He”. This shows that it is a male trait to have such qualities as authoritativeness, and Joan definitely is aware her and others’ actions. 

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Sigh No More

During some downtime at rehearsal for a play I'm in, I got to talking with a friend about Shakespeare. We talked about our favorite plays--mine is Twelfth Night--hers is a tie between Henry the Fifth and Much Ado About Nothing. In the middle of our painting a set, she stopped what she was doing and recited the following:
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey nonny, nonny!
It's from "Much Ado About Nothing", and appears in the opening scene for the 1993 version directed by Kenneth Branagh. I agree with my friend that it's probably one of the most beautiful opening scenes of a film I have ever seen.

The scene suggests a feeling of ease and merriment, without a care in the world. It's funny because, although it's very pretty and all, it's really about how dishonest and flighty men can be, and that women shouldn't dwell on it so much. Women are instructed to remain "blithe and bonny", to dismiss the "dumps so dull and heavy", and to replace "woe" with more light and cheerful feelings. To me, the song is like an inverted message in "Comedy of Errors", when Adriana tells Antipholus that she understands men's expected behavior, in regards to adultery. Here, it is a piece of advice to women on the same subject: It's a sort of surrender, that boys will be boys, and that a woman cannot, nor should not, do anything about it. I told my friend about this and she agreed, expanding a bit more about Beatrice's relationship with Benedick. 

From what I gathered when I talked to her, Beatrice is like Kate, because they are somewhat strong women who have a command of language, often using their words to challenge the wits of men--Benedick and Petrucchio respectively. My friend said that these women are commonly mistaken for feminists, and that they cannot be labeled as such, because they betray themselves in the pursuit of love. My friend says that the reason why Beatrice and Kate are the way they are, is because their experiences in life have hardened them. For a good example of a feminist in Shakespearean Literature, she told me to watch out for Portia in "Merchant of Venice", and I will. I'm curious to see if Shakespeare has alleviated his misogyny, and has written a more respectable female character.

Who's reflecting who?

Today, while randomly hopping across the internet, I found an article that talked about how Dogs look like their Owners. Now, I've always believed this to be true because of that opening scene in 101 Dalmations where all of the dogs... look like their owners. I couldn't find a picture of it, but this one kind of does the job. 

The article says:
A group of 70 people who do not own dogs were asked to match photos of 41 dog owners to three possible breeds - Labrador, poodle or Staffordshire bull terrier. They matched the owners to the dogs more than half the time. Yet given three choices, they should have been right only about a third of the time. 
"This suggests that certain breeds of dogs are associated with particular kinds of people," said study leader Lance Workman, a psychologist at Bath Spa University in the UK.
So I read this and I started to wonder about the relation between certain dogs and certain people. Is it the person that looks like the dog, or is it the dog that looks like the person? Which one is the "Sun" and which one is the "Moon"? Is the person's appearance reflected by the dog, or do we reflect our dog's appearance. And is it on purpose? 

In class we talked about how, in the Traditional Gender Hierarchy, the Sun is a symbol for the dominant characteristic, where Truth and logic originates, usually belonging to the MAN. The Moon symbolizes the opposite: Madness rather than Logic, Rhetoric and Rope Tricks over Philosophy and Truth. The moon is an embellishment of the sun, or rather an attempt and failure to recreate it. It is a representation of the original, but it is not a presentation of it. It is a picture of an apple, rather than an actual apple. All art is then, a failed recreation of nature. If nature be Truth, Art is Rhetoric. And if Nature is secondary to God, then Art is false to the third power.

This is not to say that it is the actual truth--it is just a way of thought that dominated the gender roles of Elizabethan times, that was around long before, and still persists today. Shakespeare obviously understood that it was the norm, and he offered a validation of it, as well as a challenge to it. In Taming of the Shrew, he established that Man as the Sun and Woman as the Moon is the ideal norm. Kate was a failed attempt at a Woman trying to usurp Man's authority. It failed because Petrucchio used her own tricks against her. He used rhetoric and rope tricks to neuter her most devastating weapon, her language. During the most devastating example of Petrucchio's victory over Katherina--Act 4, Scene 5--Petrucchio has made Kate lie and say that the Sun is the Moon.

    I say it is the moon. 


    I know it is the moon. 


    Nay, then you lie: it is the blessed sun. 


    Then, God be bless'd, it is the blessed sun: 
    But sun it is not, when you say it is not; 
    And the moon changes even as your mind. 
    What you will have it named, even that it is; 
    And so it shall be so for Katharina. 
Even though the man is supposed to represent Logic and Truth, Petrucchio demonstrates the he is as mad or madder than Katherina. She even tells him "The moon changes as your mind", suggesting that he is a lunatic. Shakespeare is showing a clear example of Madness belonging to the male, but it is likely that Petrucchio is only using madness as a tool. Does this suggest that Petrucchio is reflecting Kate's so-called madness? And that he is acting like a Moon, making Kate the Sun? 

Who exactly is being reflected here? Kate or Petrucchio? And who has true authority? Does the Dog look like the Human? Or does the Human look like the Dog? Oh. My. God.

Eventually Kate has become the very definition of the Moon, reflecting Petrucchio's language even though it defies God and Nature "But Sun it is not, when you say it is not". Katherina now accepts the authority of Man and Petruchio. But I believe that although Shakespeare perpetuates the Traditional Gender Hierarchy, he doesn't really support it. I think this is so because he shows cracks at the foundation. Just as Kate has become the ideal love object, two more shrews appear in her absence: Bianca and the Widow, disobeying the orders of their respective husbands.

Is Shakespeare saying that it is an unwinnable battle between the sexes? It is definitely a lose-lose situation for one side, at least, according to the tradition. A woman who wants equality is labeled a shrew and is seen as a threat to male authority. A woman who wants to be loved is thus forced to surrender her rights to the man. Perhaps Shakespeare is pointing out the flaws in this foundation, and although he is definitely not condemning it, he's not saying it's perfect. In the pursuit of love, Men have to lie, and Women have to lie down and take it.