"I will wink on her to consent, my lord"
I’ve referenced the research project I’m currently working on, and I’m so excited to actually share it with all of you this week. It’s called Shakespeare and Consent, and as the title suggests, it considers how the act of consenting to sex and marriage works on the Shakespearean stage, both in Shakespeare’s time and in performance today.
The character we’re looking at today is one I never paid much attention to until a few weeks ago, when I got together with some actors and a director to workshop and discuss some scenes through the lens of consent.
One of the most famous scenes in Henry V is the final scene, or at least part of it. Having won his war against the French, King Henry V has to win a different kind of battle: an attempt to woo Princess Katherine, the daughter of the King of France, who he wishes to marry as part of the peace treaty between their two nations. It’s a weird, funny, and complicated scene we’ll definitely discuss in a future newsletter. It’s bookended by the only appearances of the character I’m actually discussing today: Burgundy. Burgundy gets name-dropped early on in a litany of French lords being mustered to fight against the English, but he doesn’t actually show up until the play’s final scene, where he serves as a peace broker between England and France, negotiating the terms of the treaty. He gives a speech that’s oddly reminiscent of Titania’s speech to Oberon, where she explains all the ways nature’s been knocked out of sync by their marital strife. In Burgundy’s telling, the same thing is happening to France because of Henry and the French king’s conflict:
[L]et it not disgrace me,
If I demand, before this royal view,
What rub or what impediment there is,
Why that the naked, poor and mangled Peace,
Dear nurse of arts and joyful births,
Should not in this best garden of the world
Our fertile France, put up her lovely visage?
Alas, she hath from France too long been chased,
And all her husbandry doth lie on heaps,
Corrupting in its own fertility.
And as our vineyards, fallows, meads and hedges,
Defective in their natures, grow to wildness,
Even so our houses and ourselves and children
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country;
But grow like savages,—as soldiers will
That nothing do but meditate on blood,—
To swearing and stern looks, diffused attire
And every thing that seems unnatural. (5.2.32-63)
Henry’s answer to Burgundy’s lengthily-phrased question— why can’t we have peace?—is blunt: ‘If, Duke of Burgundy, you would the peace, / Whose want gives growth to the imperfections / Which you have cited, you must buy that peace / With full accord to all our just demands’ (5.2.69-72). This, too, is reminiscent of Oberon’s retort to Titania: ‘Do you amend it, then; it lies in you’ (2.1.121). In both cases, the mechanism for restoring the harmony of nature is a marriage—a reaffirmed one, for the fairies, or a new one, for Henry and Katherine. In both cases, the person speaking on behalf of the land itself is told that actually, they’re the one with the power to solve this problem, if only they’d give in to the other’s demands.
The first of Henry’s demands, we learn immediately after this, is that he wants to marry Katherine. But rather than allowing Katherine to be the one to describe the literal and symbolic destruction of her country, to give voice to the wounds that her marriage will now supposedly restore, Shakespeare gives this language to a neutral, outside party.
Burgundy and the other lords, plus Katherine’s mother the queen, leave to negotiate the treaty while Henry attempts to flirt with Katherine. When Burgundy returns with the rest, his tone has changed entirely: instead of slightly accusatory verse, he and Henry banter in prose about how Henry’s wooing went. Things take a turn for the bawdy, as Burgundy riffs on the notion of ‘conjur[ing] up the spirit of love’, noting that conjuring requires a ‘circle’ (that is, a vagina) and that Katherine would naturally be reticent to have a ‘naked blind boy’ like Cupid suddenly appear there. Henry points out that women ‘do wink and yield, as love is blind and enforces,’ and Burgundy agrees that ‘They are then excused, my lord, when they see not what they do’ (5.2.300-315). In other words, women should just pretend they don’t know what’s happening and let Cupid have his way with them— then they can be forgiven, because they can claim they didn’t know what they were doing. The language is both dense and crass, and more startling when you think about the fact that no exit is indicated for Katherine: she’s presumably just standing there, listening to them make dirty puns about the supposed love scene she just played out. It’s not that surprising I’ve never seen a version of Henry V that includes this exchange. It completely undermines any humor or sweetness one might find in the preceding scene with Henry and Katherine.
By bringing Burgundy back into the scene in this completely new register, Shakespeare once again uses the character to speak on Katherine’s behalf—to outsource her consent. Shifting immediately from an apparent wooing to bawdy bantz with the boys without even giving Katherine time to step away, Shakespeare emphasizes the irrelevance of Katherine to the political exchanges that are taking place. The price of peace is her body, as Henry already said. Burgundy, not Katherine, is the character charged with brokering that peace, and thus Henry’s real negotiation is with him. I argue that this is not an accidental neglect of Katherine’s voice and ability to consent, but a deliberate silencing to highlight the powerlessness and impossibility of Katherine’s position.
That’s why Burgundy has to be an entirely new character, rather than one of the French or English lords we’ve previously gotten to know. His position of supposed neutrality—a voice for the land itself, in his first speech—adds weight to the pressures acting on Katherine and forcing her into compliance. He is thus not only the voice of hoped-for peace, but a representative of the cost of peace—not only in terms of dead soldiers and lost land, but who speaks, and who is sacrificed.
This is just a small sample of the kind of thinking I’m trying to do with Shakespeare and Consent. You can learn more about the project at www.shakespeareandconsent.com, which will be updating regularly with information about the project, reviews of productions, thoughts from other scholars and artists, and hopefully a lot more! You can also follow along on Twitter @shaxandconsent.