What Do You Do With a Woman Warrior?:
A Response to "'Effeminate Dayes'"

Phyllis Rackin


     1. Banks and Holderness make a convincing argument that recent scholarship has probably overestimated both the oppression of women in Shakespeare's world and the disempowerment of female characters on his stage. The paying customers in the playhouse included women as well as men, and even in the English history plays, Shakespeare often expanded the official story to make room for female characters and female speech (¶13; cf. Stages, ch. 4, Engendering, ch. 11). As they remind us, Shakespeare's original audiences must have enjoyed the playful "effeminate" pleasures exemplified by the Welsh scenes in Henry IV (¶14; cf. Stages, pp. 170-74).

     2. Their argument -- that although "re-enactments of 'our forefathers valiant actes' may indeed have provided a contrasting source for the effeminate present . . . it was a present which many women and men must certainly have preferred" -- transvalues Nashe's nostalgic binary opposition between a heroic past and a degenerate, effeminate present, but does not displace it. For Banks and Holderness, the warlike past that Shakespeare found in the chronicles remains "masculine," but it is now "brutal" rather than "heroic"; and the modern pleasures of peace and play remain "effeminate," but are now exemplified by a "romantic scene of warriors and wives" invented by Shakespeare, which "counteracts the grotesque impression of women in the official record of events" (14). It seems to me that there is a good deal more ambivalence both in the historical record and in Shakespeare's history plays than either Nashe or Banks and Holderness allow for and also that the picture becomes more complicated if we look beyond the Shakespearean text.

     3. One reason why modern scholars may have overestimated the degree of women's subordination in the Elizabethan history play is our reliance on printed texts, which cannot reproduce the charismatic theatrical power that female characters such as Glendower's daughter (who has no scripted lines at all) can possess in performance. In the Welsh scene in 1 Henry IV, as in Shakespeare's representations of Joan of Arc and Margaret of Anjou, female characters have a powerful theatrical presence that challenges the dominance of the heroic men who are featured in the represented history. Another reason for the excessively pessimistic estimation of women's place in Shakespeare's world and in the Elizabethan history play may be a too-exclusive attention to Shakespeare's plays and to the historiographic sources he used. The anonymous play Edward III, for instance, suggests not only that the Elizabethan history play could stage positive images of powerful women but also that these images were already available in the historical record. Although some scholars have argued for Shakespeare's authorship, Edward III is strikingly different from the history plays in the First Folio. Drawing upon Froissart's Chronicles as well as Holinshed's and also upon Painter's Palace of Pleasure, it depicts women who are courageous in war and also models of womanly virtue. To be sure, the Countess of Salisbury's defense of Roxborough Castle and Queen Philippa's role at the battle of Newcastle have counterparts in Shakespeare's roughly contemporary Henry VI plays. Shakespeare's Joan leads the French army to repeated victories, and his Margaret is always a better soldier than her husband. But Edward III is the only one of these plays in which female military achievement is never condemned and never characterized as anomalous or inappropriate.

     4. In Shakespeare's version of the English past, a woman warrior is a monstrous anomaly. As York tells Margaret, "Women are soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible;/Thou stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless" (3 Henry VI :I.iv.141-42) Although Joan and her enemies disagree about the source of her martial prowess, they all agree that it sets her apart from other women. Joan invites the Dolphin to try her in combat in order to prove "that I exceed my sex" (I.ii.90). Talbot marvels that his troops are routed by "a woman clad in armor" (I.v.3). In both cases, the only possible explanation is supernatural assistance. Joan claims it comes from "God's Mother" (I.ii.78). Unable to beat Joan in single combat, Talbot concludes that she must be a witch (I.v, 21), a judgment later verified when Joan's familiar spirits appear on stage and she admits that she "was wont to feed [them] with my blood" (V.iii.14).

     5. Shakespeare's women warriors feminize the men for whom they fight, but not the enemies they defeat. Talbot remains a model of heroic masculinity, both in Shakespeare's representation and in Nashe's use of "brave Talbot (the terror of the French)" to exemplify "our forefathers valiant acts . . . revived" on the stage, "than which what can provide a sharper reproofe to these degenerate effeminate days of ours" (Chambers IV:238). The manhood of the Dolphin and the French nobles, by contrast, is always compromised by their dependence upon Joan's military leadership. After the French victory at Orleans, for instance, Alanson gloats, "All France will be replete with mirth and joy,/ When they shall hear how we have play'd the men" (I.vi.15-16). The very terms in which Alanson exults identify French manhood as play-acting. Moreover, the Dolphin immediately reminds him, "Tis Joan, not we, by whom the day is won" (I.vi.17). Margaret's victories over the Yorkists never compromise their masculinity, but they make her a constant threat to her husband's authority, despite the fact that the cause she fights for is the survival of his dynasty.

     6. Moreover, the same qualities that make Margaret "unwomanly" also associate her with a specifically female form of wickedness. "How ill-beseeming is it in thy sex," York protests, "to triumph like an Amazonian trull" (3 Henry VI: I.iv.113-14). Here, as in Shakespeare's emphasis on Margaret's adulterous affair with Suffolk, the masculinity of the female warrior is linked with the sexual promiscuity of the harlot. The same associations color Shakespeare's characterization of Joan, who is both the leader of the Dolphin's army and his "trull" (II.ii.27) and claims at the end of the play to be pregnant by both Alanson and Reignier (V.iv.72-78). Even in her first scene, when she challenges the Dolphin to single combat to prove that she has been empowered by the Virgin Mary, their swordfight is framed by lewd comments from the French courtiers (for an expanded version of this description of women's roles in the Henry VI plays, see Engendering, chapters 5-7).

     7. In Shakespeare's history plays, the binary opposition between heroic masculinity and effeminate weakness produces a double bind for women. Strong women like Joan and Margaret are unchaste and unwomanly; virtuous women, like the weeping queen in Richard II and the lamenting widows in Richard III, are confined to the roles of helpless victims. The female characters can be either womanly or warlike. They can be either virtuous or powerful. But never both. In Edward III, by contrast, there is no trace of the anxiety about powerful, warlike women expressed in Shakespeare's demonization of Joan and Margaret and echoed by recent scholarship as an endlessly circulated "truth" about Elizabethan culture. Both the Queen and the Countess are depicted as paragons of womanly virtue as well as military valor. The two, in fact, are conflated. Instead of threatening their husbands' honor, these women's martial courage supports it.

     8. There are obvious parallels between the Countess of Salisbury's resistance to the Scots King's assault on her castle and her resistance to the English King's assault on her virtue. The literal siege of her castle becomes the metaphorical equivalent for what Lodowick calls "A ling'ring English siege of peevish love" (II.i.23) and the Countess calls the "unnatural besiege" of Edward's courtship. (II.i.412). The summary of the story in Painter's Palace of Pleasure (the chief source for the episode in Edward III) also uses military terms to describe the Countess's resistance to the king's courtship:

seeing her constante forte to be impregnable, after pleasaunte sute and milde requeste, attempteth by undermining to invade, and when with siege prolixe, hee perceiveth no ingenious devise can atchieve that long and painfull worke, he threateth mighte and maine, dire and cruell assaultes, to winne and gette the same (Metz, 108).

Finally, Painter explains, the king relents, impressed by the lady's "womanlye stoutnesse and coragious constancie." Like the playwright, Painter associates the Countess's exemplary chastity with the daring of a courageous warrior: She is "the perfect figure of womanhode," because, "with a curat of honour and weapon of womanhode, and for all his glorious conquests, she durst by singuler combat to give refusall to his face:which singular perseveration in defense of her chastitie inexpugnable esclarisheth to the whole flocke of womankinde the brighte beames of wisedome, vertue and honestie" (Metz, pp. 107-8). To be sure, the comparison of courtship to military siege comes from the conventional repertoire of Renaissance love poets. What is remarkable in Edward III, however, is that the lady is a literal warrior as well as a metaphorical one, defending her husband's castle with the same resolute courage that she subsequently demonstrates in the face of the king's courtship.

     9. Even more remarkable is the report Lacy brings the king from England, which links the Queen's military victory at Newcastle with her impending labor in giving birth:

David of Scotland, lately up in arms,
Thinking, belike, he soonest should prevail,
Your highness being absent from the realm,
Is by the fruitful service of your peers
And painful travel of the queen herself,
That, big with child, was every day in arms,
Vanquish'd, subdu'd, and taken prisoner (IV.ii.40-46)

Lacy's description foregrounds the Queen's pregnant body, emphasizing her necessary role in producing what may very well have been the chief historical legacy of her husband -- his fatherhood of seven sons. Certainly, that is the way he comes to readers of Shakespeare's history plays, but it is worth noting that the same emphasis is also present in the account of Edward's reign in Holinshed's Chronicles. Each section of the Chronicles includes, immediately following the account of the death of the king whose reign it recounts, a summary of the king's achievements and character. Significantly, in the case of Edward III, the summary begins with a paragraph devoted to an enumeration of his progeny, which begins, "He had issue by his wife queene Philip 7 sonnes" (5:706).

     10. The report of Queen Philippa's pregnancy at the Battle of Newcastle seems to be the playwright's invention. Although Froissart's account of the battle is much more detailed, it makes no mention of the Queen's pregnancy. Instead, Froissart relates that the Queen was "great with chylde" when she knelt weeping before her husband to plead for the lives of the burghers of Calais (Metz, 91; cf. Holinshed II:648, who gives essentially the same account). The playwright's transfer of her pregnancy to the Battle of Newcastle seems designed to associate her best-known role in English history, the "fruitful service" she provided as the mother to Edward's famous seven sons, with her service to England at the battle where the Scots king was captured; and the language used in Lacy's report conflates her military triumph with her pregnancy and impending labor in childbirth. The association is most striking in the image of her armed, pregnant body, conveyed in a single line -- "That, big with child, was every day in arms" -- but it is reinforced in the references to the "fruitful service" of the peers and in the description of the Queen's own military efforts as "painful travel." As the Riverside editor notes, the word travel, spelled "travell" in the first Quarto, can also be read as "travail," since the two words were spelled interchangeably, and, as noted in the OED, the term was commonly used to refer to the labor and pain of childbirth.

     11. The military achievements of the women in Edward III are likely to seem exceptional to a modern reader, especially to a reader of Shakespeare's English histories. They are not unusual, however, in the context of medieval history, where, as a recent historian notes,

The participation of armed ladies . . . [in battles] was considered. . . as fairly normal. Ordericus Vitalis mentions Helvise, countess of Evreux in the twelfth century, who rode to war with the horsemen, armed as they were and showing as much ardour as the knights, clothed in their hauberts, and the soldiers carrying spears. During the crusades women fought in the Frankish armies. . . . Froissart described countess Jeanne de Montfort during the Breton succession War, 'armed all over', 'mounted on a fine courser', who 'held a sharp cutting sword upright and fought well with great courage'. At the end of the fourteenth century, Thomas III, marquis of Saluzzo, described in Le Chevalier errant his grandmother, Richarda Visconti, who when her husband was in prison passed her time leading in person `la greigneure guerrre du monde'. (Contamine, 241-42; see also Engendering, 201-6)

Women warriors are also not remarkable in Edward III where the king gives no indication that he finds his wife's presence on the battlefield at all extraordinary. His brief, businesslike response to Percy's account of the battle focuses instead on the Scots king's capture. "Thanks, Percy, for thy news with all my heart," he says, "What was he took him prisoner in the field?" (IV.ii.47-48). Similarly, Froissart's fourteenth-century Chronicle contains no indication that he or anyone else found the Queen's appearance on the battlefield exceptional. In Chapter CXXXVIII, entitled "Of the batayle of Newcastell upon Tyne bytwene the quene of England and the Kyng of Scottes," Froissart gives the following account:

The quene of England, who desyred to defende her contrey, came to Newcastell upon Tyne and there taryed for her men, who came dayly fro all partes. . . . Than the Scottes came and lodged agaynst theym nere togyder: than every man was sette in order of batayle: than the quene came among her men and there was ordayned four batayls, one to ayde another. . . . The quene went fro batayle to batayle desyring them to do their devoyre to defende the honoure of her lorde the kyng of England, and in the name of God every man to be of good hert and courage, promysing them that to her power she wolde remembre theym as well or better as thoughe her lorde the kyng were ther personally. Than the quene departed fro them, recommendyng them to God and to saynt George. (85-86)

     12. The only feature of the Queen's appearance at the battle that might have been regarded as exceptional is the pregnancy that the playwright apparently invented. Given the long history in Western culture of regarding killing and birthing as mutually exclusive alternatives, their linkage in Edward III seems truly extraordinary. However, even the Queen's presence at the battle has seemed extraordinary to subsequent historians. The account of the battle in Holinshed's late sixteenth-century Chronicles is derived from Froissart (marginal citations, 2:644) but it minimizes the Queen's role. In this version, it is the lords who, "perceiving the king of Scots thus boldlie to invade the land . . . assembled an host of all such people as were able to beare armour" to repel the invasion. As for the Queen, the chronicler simply notes that she "was there [i.e. at the battlefield] in person, and went from ranke to ranke, and incouraged hir people in the best manner she could, and that doone, she departed, committing them and their cause to God the giver of all victorie" (2:644). A Victorian editor of Froissart goes even further: In a footnote to Chapter CXXXVIII, he writes,

Froissart supposes that Philippa, the consort of Edward III, was their leader; and in this he has been implicitly followed by the later historians of both nations. A young and comely princess, the mother of heroes, at the head of an army in the absence of her lord, is an ornament to history: yet no English writer of considerable antiquity mentions this circumstance, which, if true, they would not have been omitted. (Johnes I: 178n.)

Froissart, however, was in an excellent position to know what the Queen had done. The Battle of Newcastle was fought in 1346; from 1361 to 1366, Froissart resided at the English court, serving as court chronicler and as secretary to Queen Philippa (Metz 32).

     13. Johnes knew about Froissart's association with Queen Philippa, which is covered in his Introductory "Memoir of the Life of Froissart" (Johnes I: xviii-xxi). Nonetheless, from his vantage point at the end of the nineteenth century, he found Froissart's account of her role at the Battle of Newcastle incredible. Shakespeare's York would probably have agreed.


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Works Cited

Contamine, P. War in the Middle Ages, trans. Michael Jones. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1984.

Froissart, J. Chronicle, translated by Sir John Bourchier, Lord Berners, 1523-1525; ed. William Paton Ker, 1901, reprinted in Metz.

Holinshed, R. Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 2nd ed, l587 (rpt. London: J. Johnson et al., l8O8): 2:644.

Howard, J. and Phyllis Rackin. Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare's English Histories. London: Routledge, 1997.

Johnes, T. ed. and trans. Chronicles of England, France, Spain, and the Adjoining Countries from the Latter Part of the Reign of Edward II, to the Coronation of Henry IV, by Sir John Froissart. 2 vols. London: George Routledge, 1884.

Metz, G. H., ed. Sources of Four Plays Ascribed to Shakespeare: The Reign of King Edward III, Sir Thomas More, The History of Cardenio, The Two Noble Kinsmen. Columbia: Univ Missouri Press, l989.

Nashe, Thomas. Pierce Penilesse his Supplication to the Divell, 1592., in E.K. Chambers. The Elizabethan Stage. Oxford: Clarendon Press l951. 4:238-40.

Painter, W. The Palace of Pleasure (1575), reprinted in Metz.

Rackin, P. Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles. Ithaca: Cornell, 1990.



Form copyright © 2000 Early Modern Culture.

Content copyright © 2000 Phyllis Rackin.