Both Henry V and The Rover call into question dominant notions of what it means to be a man Essay

Shakespeare’s Henry V and Aphra Behn’s The Rover were both written for an Elizabethan audience and concern many dominant notions of what it means to be a man. The dramatists explore not only masculinity but the extent to which men play different roles, often adopting behaviours and attitudes that they perceive as compatible with society’s expectations for what it means to be a man: brave, heroic, leaders and decision makers, providers for their families, and being the sexually dominant gender.

By exploring how the plays portray central male characters, it is also possible to see that the private thoughts of men, particularly those that conflict with the dominant notions of masculinity, are reluctantly expressed or kept hidden. Henry’s ‘state’, as put by Eliot, is ‘multiple and episodic’ (Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon, p. 76). He has to play many roles in order to be ‘a successful political and military leader’ (p. 36). His masculinity is an act; it is a role he has learned.

As a king and leader, he is portrayed as brave and heroic: an active participant who is willing to die for his country and refuses to be ransomed. His responsibility as king means he has to make sacrifices and face inner struggles in order to be successful: ‘I and my bosom must debate a while’ (4. 1. 31). No longer having the privileges of private men means he has to adhere to morals, as shown in his refusal to pardon the traitors and Bardolph. His only soliloquy evokes sympathy as it identifies Henry’s feelings of isolation: ‘must kings neglect that private men enjoy? (4. 1. 230). He feels guilty about his father’s actions and expresses how much he suffers, which emphasises a view of masculinity that it is not acceptable to express emotions in public; men have to keep a stiff upper lip. Patriotism is dramatised throughout the play.

Henry’s rhetorical speech in 3. 1 emphasises his courage and powers of leadership, but also exploits English patriotism by urging his men to fight and flattering ordinary soldiers. He implies they have ‘noble’ qualities (3. 1. 0) with ‘limbs’ that ‘were made in England’ and pushes his men to summon up their most fierce and aggressive qualities: ‘imitate the action of the tiger’, ‘conjure up the blood’, ‘set the teeth’, ‘Be copy now to men of grosser blood’ (3. 1. 6-15). Henry’s dramatic language shows that maleness encompasses qualities of bravery and a willingness to attack. There is also a suggestion that men will bond through the battle experience: he refers to his men as ‘dear friends’ (3. 1. 1), which implies that they are his willing companions. Men have to appear brave.

His speeches before Harfleur and Agincourt are calculated to rouse patriotic feelings in the audience. The audience also relies on the chorus and the actors’ descriptions to compensate for the limitations of the theatre. Even though his speech suggests the men are naturally patriotic and heroic, the text calls such notions into question as the common men express fears and reservations about death and battle: ‘We have no great cause to desire the approach of day’, ‘We see yonder the beginning of the day, but I think we shall never see the end of it’ (4. 1 86-88).

Henry’s disguise as a common man shows the strained relationships and that he cannot express himself, or get the men to express themselves, honestly while he is playing the role of king. This raises the question as to whether masculinity assumes men need to guard their feelings. Ordinary soldiers like Williams and Bates are unconvinced that there is any similarity between the king and themselves, pointing out that if they lose the battle the king will be ransomed while they will be killed. To soldiers like Williams, death in battle raises concerns of economic consequences.

As men, they have a responsibility to provide for their families. If they die ‘wives [are] left poor’; ‘children [are] rawly left’ and ‘debts’ will be owed (4. 1. 135-36). Although Henry appears to ‘accept the burden of responsibility as a natural and inevitable function of kingship'(Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon, p. 45); ‘debts’, ‘careful wives’, ‘children’ and ‘sins, lay on the King! ‘(4. 1. 224-25), his self-pity is difficult to take seriously given that Henry attempts to shelve all blame for his actions onto others and ‘within the will of God’ (1. 2. 290).

Shakespeare portrays the masculinity of the English as more heroic and brave by contrasting them with the French who seem arrogant, weak and over confident when defeated by a small, sickly English army. Even though King Charles orders his son and nobles to strengthen their defence, the Dauphin refuses to believe that Henry has changed or that he is a serious threat, dismissing him as frivolous: ‘idly kinged’ (2. 4. 26) and as ‘a vain, giddy, shallow, humorous youth’ (2. 4. 28). Ironically, it is Henry’s victory that will prevent the Dauphin from assuming his father’s title.

The French King is cautious, but weak and does not inspire his followers, instead talking of fears and old defeats, thus showing the first signs of disunity among the French, which in comparison to the unity of the English: ‘we band of brothers’ (4. 3. 60) heightens their weakness and builds anticipation with the audience. Their arrogance and impatience is shown in lines such as, ‘The Dauphin longs for morning’, ‘He longs to eat the English’ (3. 7. 85-86), indicates to the audience they are likely to be defeated. Shakespeare’s portrayal of female characters is also used as a device to dramatise aspects of masculinity.

Associating Katherine with body parts emphasises that women service men’s sexual needs. This not only diminishes women, but also heightens the intellectual superiority of men: masculinity is associated with decision making whereas women are portrayed as ‘soldier-breeder[s] (5. 2. 203); someone to duplicate the fathers in the next generation. The performance of the scenes with Katherine would be comical to an audience; her mispronouncing of ‘De foot and de cown’ (3. 4. 51) sounds like the French foutre, ‘fuck’ and con, ‘cunt’.

Portraying women in this way further weakens their social position at the expense of men’s supposed higher status. Similarly, The Rover also sexualises women, but the female characters show more power by flouting the rules of society. The play is primarily concerned with patriarchal power and the rights men appear to have to use women sexually. Love for Willmore means sex: ‘there’s but one way for a woman to oblige me’ (1. 2. 232). He enjoys games of sexual conquest almost as much as the act itself, but shuns commitment: ‘I am parlously afraid of being in love’ (5. 1. 82-83).

Yet what he really means is he has no interest in love, only lust; men driven by sexual desires do not need the emotional aspects of love. He often criticises the institution of marriage because it suppresses sexual desire. His character is presented as an attractive hero whose ‘business ashore was only to enjoy [himself] a little this Carnival’ (1. 2. 61-62). The sexual implication here is that he will ‘enjoy’ the loose women: the carnival participants are free to act on sexual impulses they would otherwise suppress and is described by Willmore as a ‘kind of legal authorized fornication’ (1. . 106).

This draws comparisons with Henry V, where the sexual domination of women, for example using images of rape to describe the battle: ‘shrill-shrieking daughters… Your naked infants spitted upon pikes’ (3. 3. 35:38), makes the men seem powerful: their strength is emphasised by the women’s weakness. However, the difference is that in The Rover, Behn allows her female characters to assert their intellectual powers to show men in a less sympathetic light, in a world where women can take the initiative; the world of carnival.

Blunt is described by Owens as ‘a wonderful comic creation’ (p. 154). Although at times this may be true, his angry and explicit statements in his desire to rape (which at one point he nearly succeeds) and beat women in revenge for his treatment by Lucetta makes this idea seem ludicrous. It does, however, raise the question as to whether Behn’s intention was to portray his character as comical to deliberately have the audience laugh in his face. Nevertheless, only some of the men appear to be belittled and there is a clear distinction between Willmore and Blunt.

Willmore is classed as a ‘rake’ and as pointed out by Owens ‘flout[s] the conventional social and moral codes of good behaviour’ (Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon, p. 161). Although his character is portrayed as ‘mad’, extravagant and he uses women for sexual and economic gain, he is also attractive and charming. His romantic rhetoric when he woos Angellica and Hellena: ‘but that secures my heart, and all the flames it feels’, ‘Oh the charms of those sprightly black eyes’ (2. 2. 71:3. 1. 176) enhances his desirability to women and thus makes him seem like a character whose maleness Behn has portrayed to appeal to the audience.

The couplet spoken to Angellica: ‘By heav’n bright creature, I would not for the world/Thy fame were half so fair as is thy face (2. 2. 65-66) is, as put by Owens, ‘brilliantly calculated’ (Shakespeare, Aphra Behn and the Canon, p. 157), in planting in her mind the notion that he may fall in love with her. He wants sex, but without paying. This is dramatised by the stage directions: ‘holds her, looks on her, and pauses and sighs’. It is his exaggerated behaviour that makes him appealing and powerful, even though his behaviour is manipulative. An audience would find him comical; unlike Blunt, they would laugh with him, not at him.

In other words, Willmore is a stock character from restoration drama that the audience would recognise and enjoy. Another similarity between Henry V and The Rover in their portrayal of masculinity is the patriarchal tradition of arranged marriages. Henry woos Katherine as a mere courtesy, creating another dramatically effective comic scene, as Katherine has already been ‘given’ to him by her father. Indeed, this issue was already raised in the opening scene when the archbishop discussed Salic Law in an attempt to justify the war. Masculinity is therefore associated with maintaining male succession and ensuring power is retained by men.

In The Rover, Behn explores this issue through the relationship of Belvile and Florinda. Her father and brother arrange for her to marry wealthy men against her wishes. Both plays portray females as possessions, where men control their women to protect their interests: be they financial, status or power related, but Behn is different because she allows Florinda to marry for love, therefore subverting the notion of patriarchy. Shakespeare and Behn portray masculinity in many different ways, demonstrating the dominant notions of what it means to be a man.