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The Gender Differences and Rift between the Public and Domestic Realm in Shakespeare’s Henry IV.


By Natalie G.Published 2 years ago 6 min read

Shakespeare in the play Henry IV touches upon several important themes of glory, honor, and legitimate power which are considered masculine themes as they apply only to the men in this play. All the protagonists are men that are usually fighting for power whereas women are barely present in the play. Women are marginalized from any political or public affairs in this patriarchal society that Shakespeare introduces in this play, as they are perceived as overly talkative and not trustworthy bringing to light the deep gender differences that were present in the Elizabethan era. By focusing on the exchanges happening between Hotspur and Lady Percy in Act 2 we come to realize the two distinct realms—the political and the domestic—that exist between man and wife, and how in marriage sometimes these two realms can clash.

Shakespeare represents history solely in a masculine light where there is the fight for power, glory, and honor. Men are the most important factors of history for Shakespeare as he tells the story of England and royalty through solely the men, who fight for power and honor. Shakespeare does this in a few of his plays as we see Bolingbroke fighting for the royal throne, and then we see his son also doing the same in this play, while other male characters such as Hotspur also attempt to gain power. Hotspur is a hot-headed character focused on the military and war. His thirst for power and honor is what leads to his death in Act 5, Scene 4. Hotspur is a character that performs through rushed actions and limited strategy which stem out of his lack of patience. Even his own father says “Why, what a wasp-stung and impatient fool” (1.3.244-245), which only enhances the idea we have of Hotspur being hostile and even destructive to himself and his followers.

When we see Hotspur and his wife come into contact, we learn more about him from his relationship with her as there is a stark distinction between the two characters. For Hotspur, this stems out of their gender difference as he fails to see Kate as his equal. However, Kate is intelligent and strong, as she responds to her husband with a powerful monologue packed with political analogies. She exclaims that she is “A banish’d woman from my Harry’s bed” (2.3.41). The word “banish’d” is a vast political word used by Shakespeare in a deeply personal conversation between Lady Percy and her husband Hotspur. It’s interesting to see the juxtaposition between the emotional fight and the firm political word used since a word that is used by Kings to banish people from their kingdom is not usually used in a conversation between man and wife. By having Shakespeare use this word, the audience grasps the distinction between the political and domestic realm, and how when a woman attempts to assert herself in the political realm, just like Lady Percy, she will be dismissed and ignored by the ‘man of the political realm’.

The word “banished”, in the Oxford English Dictionary, as an adjective means outlawed and put to the ban (“banished, n1"). The second definition is exiled, expatriated, driven away, or dismissed (“banished, n2”). The first definition can be interpreted as a more political word that is used for banished and outlawed people by the sovereign king. The second definition is much like the first but seems more fitting to Lady Percy’s speech as she feels as if her husband has abandoned her. The third verb to “banish” in The Oxford English Dictionary is “to send or drive away, expel, dismiss imperatively” (“banish, v.”) and has been seen in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Pt 2 (1623) whereas the Henry IV took place in 1600, however, all the definitions seem to be representing the same thing and therefore, fit into the context of Lady Percy’s monologue. The word banished in this monologue allows the audience to perceive Lady Percy as an individual who is aware of the political realm, even though she is not allowed to be a part of it because of her gender. Shakespeare introduces the clash between the domestic and public world as even though Lady Percy uses political words in a very personal conversation and attempts to assert herself in her husband’s public relations, she is not allowed a place in the public/political world in which men dominate and control.

Lady Percy’s monologue is so heartbreaking as she exclaims how she feels her husband is slowly abandoning her, and she insists on getting some answers on “why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth And start so often when thou sit’st alone” (2.3.44-45). In addition, she uses similes where her speech becomes beautiful and more enhanced: “That beads of sweat have stood upon thy brow Like bubbles in a late-disturbed stream” (2.3.60-61). Lady Percy attempts to use empathy to reach Hotspur’s heart, but Hotspur is an unsteady character who perceives women, including his wife, as gossips and as if they are unable to keep a secret. Hotspur is obnoxious and responds in a disturbing manner as he tells her “Love, I love thee not. I care not for thee, Kate” (2.3.95). The stark contrast between man and wife here is astounding as we see Kate carefully trying to get close to her husband, to find out what is happening, and this can be perceived as a smart move as she seems to be attempting to ‘trespass’ her husband’s political realm. Hotspur treats his wife solely as a sideline to his life and he brings out a misogynistic mindset as he says, “constant you are, But yet a woman” (2.4.114-115).

Shakespeare highlights the inequality in marital relations during the Renaissance as Hotspur is not the only husband that mistreats his wife and fails to trust her. In addition, Shakespeare presents the irony of Hotspur accusing his wife of gossiping and sharing information she shouldn’t whereas he is the one who shares more than he should while fast asleep. When Hotspur does this in his sleep, it seems like he needs relief and deep down might want to confide in someone, and in this case his wife because she’s sleeping right next to him. However, he denies ever doing so and instructs his wife to mind her own ‘business’ which is to follow the role of being a wife to him and nothing more. This encounter also presents the idea of whether the domestic and public life rely on each other or not, and in this case, Hotspur in his sleep seems to want to connect his two lives by confiding in his wife. However, he would never want his wife to be ahead of him by having knowledge of his political and public matters and therefore, would never allow her to ‘trespass’ these realms and instead chooses to ‘banish’ her. The word banished which Lady Percy used is ideal because she is not only banished from his bed—which are their sexual relations— but also banished from any public or political realm that exists beyond her domestic role.

Shakespeare in the play Henry IV explores the patriarchal society during the Elizabethan times as there is a clear distinction of gender differences as women are ‘banished’ from the political and public realm in which men dominate and thrive in. Men, like Hotspur, do not want their wives to have any knowledge of their political affiliations since they do not wish to ever have them being ahead of them in such matters and instead choose to exclude them. By focusing on the exchanges happening between Hotspur and Lady Percy in Act 2 we come to realize the two distinct realms—the political and the domestic— and how in marriage sometimes these two realms can clash.

Works Cited

"banish, v." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2021, Accessed 12 October 2021.

"banished, adj." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2021, Accessed 12 October 2021.

Shakespeare, William. Henry IV from The Folger Shakespeare. Ed. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine. Folger Shakespeare Library, October 11, 2021.

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