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Directing Henry V: Absence and Implications

The physical absence of Isabel in 5.2 of Henry V has some clear implications; Katherine is left with the brutish Henry and chooses to retreat into silence. Henry’s impatience with Katherine’s incomprehension of the English language grows throughout this scene: in Branagh’s adaptation, he brushes past her with a grimace, pushing her backwards by the arm into a half curtsey. Here, one can identify a corollary between lack of sufficient speech and physical action: Emma Thompson’s Katherine does not answer in the manner which Branagh’s Henry would prefer, and so he forces her into a subservient physical position. Contracted speech (occupying an area between full volubility and silence) is particularly relevant in constituting and altering female characters’ identities. As Petruchio marks his victory over Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew through calling her ‘Kate’ (a term of ownership against which she initially revolts), a similar situation can be identified in Henry V. Approaching the end of 5.2., Henry declares ‘O, Kate, nice customs curtsy to great kings. /Dear Kate, you and I cannot be confined within the weak list ofa country’s fashion’ (5.2.219-20). In eight lines, Henry directly refers to Katherine as ‘Kate’ no fewer than four times. Furthermore, the contraction of Katherina/Katherine to ‘Kate’ turns a multisyllabic name into just one syllable, therefore cutting time for the name to be spoken which hints at the repression of female eloquence. Thompson’s Katherine in Branagh’s production visibly recoils at Henry’s ongoing repetition of ‘Kate’.

Katherine’s (albeit broken) English mutates into silence through the course of 5.2. During the convening of the English and French nobles to discuss terms of the treaty, Henry begins to understand the extent of the language barrier between himself and Katherine: the French Princess responds to Henry’s statement of ownership with ‘I cannot tell vat is dat’ (5.2.154). Whether or not Katherine is truly unable to understand Henry’s sentiments due to their differences in language, the effect of this rather ungracious retort manifests itself as incomprehension of her impending commodification through marriage, rather than a lack of understanding of rhetoric. Branagh’s Henry is noticeably taken aback when Katherine admits she ‘does not speak your England’ (5.2.104); again, the theme of dominant discourse reappears as Henry expects the language of masculine, royal power to transcend class, and even country. Mahoney asserts that ‘Feminist literary critics have recognized that textual silences reveal not only cultural suppression but also, alternatively, women’s deployment of silence as a form of resistance to the dominant discourse’ (1996, 604). Katherine’s inability or refusal to engage in the same speech patterns as Henry indicates such a resistance to the ‘dominant discourse’ ofmasculine, kingly power. In equating silence with power Katherine is a key example, in that while she evidently has capacity for speech, she decides not to speak; Katherine has sought to equip herself with the tools of speech in order to converse with the English Henry. Her silence is a choice, as opposed to the presumed effects of Renaissance suppression alone.

A more significant level of silencing is undertaken in some film adaptations, where female characters are simply removed. Of course, the omission of smaller characters’ parts is sometimes necessary in productions; however, this is not consistent across genders, which makes it particularly noteworthy here. Isabel is omitted from both Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) and the Hollow Crown’s Henry V(2012), yet male characters with fewer lines remain. Isabel has 24 lines in Act 5 of the play but is taken out; the Duke of York, however, is kept in both productions, speaking only two lines. It is certainly ironic that a character who states that ‘Haply a woman’s voice may do some good’ is so silenced and, indeed, the removal of the Royal comment on the betrothal from Isabel (5.2.93). A female character’s eloquent speech is, in this case, identified as an expression of power not suitable near the close of the play. Isabel’s daughter Katherine, conversely, chooses to remain silent. The conquered Katherine is a personification of the subdued France. In The Hollow Crown adaptation (2012), Melanie Thierry’s Princess Katherine presents a dejected figure standing in isolation on the other side of the court room as Henry and her father discuss her ‘ownership’ by the English King. Katherine is rendered uncharacteristically silent following blatant objectification in 5.2, where she is referred to as ‘capital’ (5.2.97) and an ‘article’ (5.2.98) in Henry’s demands. Bamber observes that ‘[Henry] does want to win Katherine of France, but he also knows that he has already won her—at Agincourt’ (1982, 145). She continues, problematically stating that ‘“Strain” and “effort” are precisely what this scene is free of. Henry’s power and desire is wholly unopposed by Katherine, who is a negligible presence in the scene. Henry has all the good lines. [... ] Katherine’s opposition is nonexistent’ (146). Bamber makes a mistake in equating silence or lack of aggressive opposition with compliance; she pushes this further into Katherine reacting positively where Bamber uses her as an example of the feminine ‘Other’, being ‘cheerfully courted, as Katherine is in Henry V (21).

Westmorland informs Henry that ‘The King hath granted every article: /His daughter first, and in the sequel all,/According to their firm proposed natures’ (5.2.324-26). Katherine is, essentially, a commodity (indeed the first and principal object) invested for peaceful and beneficial relations between England and France. Katherine remains on stage for ninety lines, silent, while her father discusses with her betrothed husband the orchestration of her ‘transference’. In both the Branagh and The Hollow Crown productions, this section is significantly cut; the removal of much of this conversation results in the trivialising of this concerning situation, leaving Katherine with no potential to react. This resonance and the unpicking of the implications of Katherine-as-commodity demonstrate the lingering effect of this political decision. In a play where silence, absence, presence and power are four significant recurring and inherently linked themes, that both of the more influential female characters are silenced is indicative of a pattern, perpetuated both by the text and through performance. Bamber locates Henry’s ‘good lines’ and Katherine’s ‘negligible presence’ within a generic formula, rather simplistically reading quantity for quality, and silence for passivity. This relates to the theme of what may be seen as the ‘traditional’ concept of absence, demonstrating how silence and absence can be reconciled with the daughter echoing the mother’s ‘nothingness’ though in speech, as opposed to physical and emotional absence.

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