restricted access The Politics of French Language in Shakespeare's History Plays
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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.2 (2002) 317-334

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The Politics of French Language in Shakespeare's History Plays

David Steinsaltz

Amid his arduous and apparently superfluous wooing of Princess Katherine of France, Shakespeare's King Henry V exclaims, "It is as easy for me, Kate, to conquer the kingdom as to speak so much more French." 1 Since he has just conquered the kingdom this is no idle boast, but why does he speak so much French? And why is an entire scene of the same play conducted in French, save for a few words of comically mispronounced English? Why are French words and phrases sprinkled liberally through the speeches of French and English alike? While it is not quite true, as George Watson has suggested, that Shakespeare is "the only Elizabethan dramatist to write at length in a foreign language"—Thomas Kyd's "language of Babel" in The Spanish Tragedy is a well-known counterexample—these French passages are too prominent and unconventional, even disruptive for those spectators not conversant in French, to pass unremarked. 2 At the same time, unlike Thomas Middleton who passed off a kind of pidgin English as Dutch for comic effect in No Wit, No Help Like a Woman's, Shakespeare did write essentially correct French, relying on its familiarity to much of his audience.

This final act of Henry V has been knocked about for centuries by shifting currents of critical fashion. One line of critics, tracing descent from Samuel Johnson, has dismissed act V outright as an ill-conceived and inapposite sequel. 3 In recent years, though, as the play has, in the words of Katherine Eggert, "assumed a surprisingly prominent place not only in Shakespeare criticism, but [also] in wider critical debates over the relations [End Page 317] between literature and hegemonic political power," the two French scenes have begun to come into focus. 4 A consensus has developed that these scenes—the courtship scene in particular—are no mere comic interludes or superficial nods to romantic convention. They may, in fact, be the keystone in the play's dramatic structure, and in the sociopolitical project of the entire tetralogy.

What exactly this structure and this project are, though, and why exactly the French scenes are so crucial, have occasioned rather less consensus. Do they consummate the personal developments of Hal-Henry, 5 or demonstrate the public "lesson of harmonious marriage" 6 that unites and pacifies the warring nations? While the bilingual singularity of the French scenes of Henry V is no longer ignored, as it often was in earlier work, the language is often relegated to a sideshow for political, social, and sexual conflicts. 7 Eggert, for instance, extending an observation of Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore, relates the princess's English lesson to the Archbishop's disqusition on the arcana of Salic law, another scene which criticism has traditionally disparaged or ignored, and to anxieties about the potency and legitimacy of a female monarch, ever more salient in the last decade of Elizabeth's reign. 8

The French language is not, however, an arbitrary sign for something foreign or feminine. J. M. Maguin points out that Shakespeare in Henry V "presents the French language in a ridiculous light," and, more significantly, that "the national epic is a co-exalting of the virtues of the hero and the virtues of the tongue." 9 These ideas deserve further exploration. There is a scheme of linguistic antagonism that pervades the histories, something more precise than the "sort of delayed revenge for the Norman Conquest" that Watson has espied there. 10 As the English nation is perpetually at war with the French, so must their languages be at war. In particular, the gender cleansing that Eggert described is portrayed, enacted, and consummated in its linguistic incarnation. As the Englishmen are virile, rugged, honest, and virtuous, so must be their language, in opposition to the womanish, effete, deceptive, and perfidious language of the French. Contrary to Watson's suggestion, this linguistic ethnicity rooted in the...