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.