Shakespeare’s presentation and portrayal of his female characters in The Merchant of Venice and Henry V follows a typical pattern that is present in all of the Shakespearean plays that I have read so far.
When looking closely at the fate of his female characters, this pattern becomes even more evident for it repeats itself no matter how different the plays are. For instance, Henry V and The Merchant of Venice are different in every respect. The female characters not only come from different backgrounds, they also have very different personalities. However, as different as these plays and their characters are, the female characters end up suffering the same fate. It doesn’t seem to matter whether they are born into a life of peasantry, nobility, or come from royalty, for they ultimately will end up being no better than a piece of land, or cattle, or some possession that a man can own and do with as he pleases. Scholars have been debating for centuries now as to whether Shakespeare’s women reflect his society’s attitudes or that of his own.
Henry V is definitely geared more for the male audience. There are only two or three acts in which a female character is present at all. When we first get a glimpse of Katherine, she is trying to learn the English language. This scene is supposed to be somewhat comical, but are we really supposed to believe that while there is a war raging throughout her country, that all Katherine is concerned about is the fact that she can’t speak the language of her enemy? This scene in which we get our first glimpse of Katherine is somewhat degrading to her character as well as misleading. This leaves the audience with the inaccurate perception that Katherine, and thus all women in general, care very little about what’s going on around them, and more about making themselves presentable.
Afterall, isn’t Katherine the “Grand Prize” that will be awarded to the winning side? I find it very insulting that Shakespeare’s only significant female role in the whole play, is being used as a ” Prize” to be given away. Shakespeare doesn’t even try to hide the fact that he is setting Katherine up as a prize. I find this kind of arrogance to be offensive and very belittling to women. While the men are off fighting the battle, Katherine, the future Queen of France, does not appear to be a bit concerned over the fate of her own country. Instead, she readily accepts her fate as she prepares herself for the role of Queen of England. This play is very biased and one-sided.
Most of the English men are portrayed as noble, humble and superior to the French. Henry himself can do no wrong, and is portrayed through out the play as the best leader that the English have ever had. This image that he can do no wrong and is as close to being perfect as one can get, only holds up if you don’t go digging around in Henry’s past, in which he had been portrayed as a spoiled, pampered partying boy. The French, in contrast to the English, are presented as arrogant, incompetent, and weak, very similar to what Henry had been not to long ago. There is, however, one thing lower than a Frenchman, and that is, a French woman.
The fact that Shakespeare subjected Katherine’s character, (she, who had been born into royalty which was the highest social position one can reach), to being treated as a possession or prize for a man, only adds credence to the argument that Shakespeare had very little respect for women. Katherine character, for the most part, adds very little, if anything at all, to the play. In fact, the role of Katherine could have easily been omitted altogether, and personally, I wish it had been The last act, in which Henry easily manages to win the affections of Katherine, is a weak attempt on Shakespeare’s part to end the play on a an uplifting note. It’s a shame that Shakespeare put it in at all because it definitely changes the way I feel about this play, in particular, .