Grounding One’s Language in the Authority of Woman


Unknown artist, Illustration to Henry IV, Part 1, Act 2, Scene 4, c. 1840

by Albert Rolls

When Hal asks Francis if he has ever considered running from his indenture, Francis begins to answer, saying if he “could find [it] in [his] heart” (2.4.50), but he is interrupted by Poins before he has a chance to complete his answer. In the subsequent exchange between the prince and the drawer, Hal displays the characteristics of the world outside the indentureship and the qualities one must possess to survive in that world. After Francis answers Poins and returns to his conversation with Hal, the prince brings up another subject, purposefully ignoring the issue of the indenture. Thereafter, Hal changes subjects each time Poins interrupts, until the sugar, which Hal has received from Francis off-stage, becomes the topic of conversation.

Prince. I will give thee for it a thousand pounds—ask me
when thou wilt, and thou shalt have it.

Poins.  [Within] Francis!

Francis.  Anon, anon.

Pri.  Anon, Francis? No, Francis, but tomorrow,
Francis; or, Francis, a-Thursday; or indeed, Francis,
when thou wilt. But Francis!

Fran.  My lord?

Pri.  Wilt thou rob this leathern-jerkin, crystal-button,
non-pated, agate-ring, puke-stocking, caddis-garter,
smooth-tongue Spanish pouch?

Fran.  O Lord, sir, who do you mean?

Pri.  Why then your brown bastard is your only drink:
for look you, Francis, your white canvas doublet will
sully. In Barbary, sir, it cannot come to so much.

Fran. What, sir?                             (2.4.60−75)

After Hal offers to give Francis a thousand pounds when he asks for it, Poins again interrupts, and Francis again answers “anon.” As he has been doing all along, Francis utters “anon” to answer Poins, so Francis intends to mean “in a moment.” Hal appropriates the word into the dialogue that he is having with Francis. Hal has just told the drawer that he will give him a thousand pounds when he asks for it, so “anon” becomes an answer to Hal’s query regarding when Francis wants the thousand pounds. The word now signifies “give me the thousand pounds immediately” as well as “in a moment” or “later.”

“Anon” takes on the ability to contain contrary significations because it comes to participate in two contexts or systems of exchange, the one informing the dialogue between Poins and Francis and the one informing the dialogue between Hal and Francis. Francis’ confusion is initially caused by his inability to realise that the signifier “anon” is participating in more than one context, but more is happening at this point. The two contexts do not exist side by side; they overlap at the point from which Francis speaks, so Francis, just like the word “anon,” is participating in the two contexts simultaneously. This feature of Francis’ situation is made apparent just after Hal appropriates “anon” into his and the drawer’s conversation. The prince repeats Francis’ name six times as he is denying the thousand pounds, mocking, through repetition, Francis’ notion of a stable identity—which Francis had earlier revealed when he designated his heart as the source of his desire to run—but this mockery is used for reasons other than comic effect. As Hal mocks, he establishes Francis’ status as a signifier inscribed within a context and intimates that France’s identity would be transformed if he became inscribed within another context. At this point, Hal brings up the topic of running from the indenture again.

Hal first changed subjects, the play suggests, because Francis had appealed to his heart and signalled that he didn’t aspire to be other than what he thinks he is. As Francis can only understand “anon” if the word is allowed to participate in one context at a time, his identity, as far as he is concerned, can only be situated in one context. He cannot imagine functioning simultaneously in more than one, and does not understand that the context which he inhabits has endowed him with his identity. If he runs from his indenture, he will find himself within a different world and will no longer be what he is. Hal, recalling Henry IV’s mastery of his horse during his coronation pageant, calls this alternative world “Barbary,” a place of noise and confusion or a context that has not been given cohesion by any particular system. If it had cohesion, Francis might get along, since he would only be required to manage within a single system. One’s ability to survive in Barbary depends on one’s ability to manipulate the various signs of a number of discourses and give cohesion to what appears inchoate to perception. To break free of the bonds of his indentureship, Hal implies, Francis must make his voice the principle of authority generating the system that defines who he is. This is not a call for the creation of an original system. The elements to be manipulated are always already there. Hal’s contribution to the conversation is anything but original: he has been manipulating the language of Poins and Francis just as, in the larger action of the play, he manipulates the language of others, most notably Henry IV and Falstaff.

Francis does not understand Hal’s manipulation of language, nor does he make the connection between it and running. Hal is being too subtle, so by the time he utters the Barbary speech that Greenblatt and others have argued is meant to confuse Francis with its mystifying language, Francis is already confused. The function of the Barbary speech is not to confuse Francis but to show him what Barbary is like and tell him what would become of him there. The mystifying speech leads Francis further into the confusion to be found outside the well-defined world of his indentureship, and his reaction to these words and their meaning signify that Francis probably cannot become the principle of authority behind his language or that he will not be able to become his own “master.” He does not have the linguistic know-how to do so, as he has just shown, for he can only manipulate one linguistic system and so can only inhabit one language at a time, which is that of a “pewter swiller” at the moment. Because one needs to be able to manipulate the disjointed language of Barbary, Francis proves himself inadequate to the situation awaiting him outside the confines of his indenture. For Francis, “your brown bastard is your only drink: for . . . your white canvas doublet will sully” (2.4.72−74), which I take to mean that the drawer must continue in his present occupation because although he can run, he cannot change the appointments signifying his identity as easily.

This is the context in which we should understand Hal’s gibe “That ever this fellow should have fewer words/ than a parrot, and yet the son of a woman!” (2.4.96−97). A parrot can only reiterate words and phrases it has learned from its master without ever mastering the langue to produce proper speech. Francis, Hal hyperbolically suggests, hasn’t even achieved an adequate reproduction. What is more interesting about Hal’s remark is its characterisation of the idea of Woman. Francis’ inability to achieve mastery is a consequence of his lack of femininity. The phrase “yet the son of a woman” registers Hal’s astonishment that one could be born of a woman without retaining any of her characteristics, and while there is a gibe on women’s volubility here, the more significant aspect of Hal’s remark is that it attributes one’s ability to use language effectively to one’s origin with a woman. Femininity is being defined as the principle that makes mastery possible. If Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, as Fineman argues, denies the possibility of voicing “a language, whether of man or of woman, that does not speak, sooner or later, self-consciously or unconsciously, for the order and authority of man” (“The Turn,” 120), Hal seems to be denying the possibility of authorising a language, or of transforming oneself into an authority, without grounding that language in the authority of Woman.

All the pretenders to authority within the play, Henry IV included, inadvertently expose their femininity and consciously attempt to conceal it. Hal, by contrast, embraces the voice of Woman with as much ardour as the subjects of Henry IV’s England believe he has embraced Falstaff.  Even Hal’s admitted reliance on theatricality effeminises him, for the charge of theatricality was a common element of sixteenth-century misogyny. Hal’s ability to assert his superiority comes from his ability to align himself with the voice of Woman. This aspect of Hal’s character, more than anything else, differentiates his mode of discourse from those positioned against him, most notably Hotspur, for Hal distinguishes himself from his rival by projecting the stability associated with masculinity onto him.

This element of Hal’s discourse becomes manifest in the same tavern scene in which Francis appears, in fact, in the very speech in which Hal associates Francis’ voice with a parrot’s. The prince makes a startling transition from his representation of the drawer to a consideration of Hotspur. The change of subjects is slightly confusing, but it has the effect of associating Francis with Hotspur, and the drawer’s linguistic dearth comes to be equated with Hotspur’s limited form of expression, as is further evidenced by the portrait Hal draws of the valiant knight. “I am not yet of Percy’s mind” (2.4.99), the Prince remarks,

he . . . kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, “Fie upon this quiet life, I want work.” “O my sweet Harry,” says she, “how many hast thou killed today?”. . . [H]e . . . answers “Some fourteen,” an hour after; “a trifle, a trifle.”


By reducing Hotspur’s forms of expression to battle and almost complete silence, Hal does more than associate the knight with the drawer. If Hal is comparing the two with reference to their linguistic ability, Percy has been relegated to a position below the drawer’s. The language Hal endows Hotspur with is, like Francis’s, parrot-like, consisting of one complete sentence, a two-word answer to his wife’s question regarding the number he has killed in battle, and the repetition of two words denying the value of his achievement. The hour separating the answer from the consideration of its value drains from his remark any sense it may have had and illustrates Percy’s linguistic dearth. Seemingly pondering his answer for an hour, Hotspur can figure out nothing more profound to say than “a trifle,” and by then, his wife will most likely have forgotten what he is talking about. The comment has been severed from its context altogether. If Francis cannot fully function within more than one context at a time, Hotspur, as Hal presents him, isn’t even aware of the need for establishing a context. Things mean what they mean whenever they are uttered, so everyone, it is implied, is inscribed in one and only one context.

Hal’s portrait is obviously inaccurate. Hotspur’s main difficulty, as we have seen, is keeping quiet, yet Hal’s view of Hotspur does bear striking similarities to the ideal to which Hotspur’s friends want him to conform. In the third scene of the first act and the first scene of the third act, Hotspur’s silence would be welcome, and in drawing Hotspur’s attention to his need to be silent, his friends are trying to purge him of his “woman’s mood” (1.3.234) or to make him purely masculine. Likewise, Hal’s portrait drains the femininity out of Percy and presents a comic version of a Hotspur who has been confined to “the form . . . he should attend” (1.3.208). All that is needed to turn Hal’s representation of Hotspur into a portrait of an ideal Hotspur is to change the tone of Hal’s remarks, as Hotspur does when he deprecates linguistic mastery: “I had rather be a kitten and cry ‘mew,’” Percy informs us, “Than one of these same metre ballad-mongers” (3.1.123−24). (This is, by the way, his characterisation of poets at the English court, not some elitist dismissal of popular verse.)

In Henry V, there is a similar denial of the value of woman, but the move comes to be associated with the French, not the English aristocracy. Henry V relies, like Hal before him, on the category “Woman” to validate his claim to a crown. The legitimacy of Henry V’s claim to the French throne is based on his female, not his male, ancestry, whereas the French king’s denial of Henry’s claim is based on the patriarchal law of Pharamond. This law decrees that “‘no woman shall succeed in Salic land’:/ Which . . . the French unjustly gloze/ To be the realm of France” (1.2.39−41), yet even the French king’s position, according to the Cardinal, is held “in right and title of the female” (1.2.89). We have here a physical analogue to Hotspur’s “woman’s mood,” which produces both his greatness and his faults, for although his lawful authority comes from a woman, the French king must deny that such is the case and ascribe to himself a purely patriarchal origin in order to deny the legitimacy of another’s authority, which has been openly traced to a woman.


This is an adapted section of the fifth chapter of Renaissance Incorporations: Negotiating the Theory of the King’s Two Bodies (2015), a book originally published in 2000 under a different title. An earlier section of the chapter argues that the myself/condition binarism that Henry IV relies on in the speech in which he observes “I will from henceforth rather be myself,/ Mighty, and to be fear’d, than my condition” (1.3.5−6) internalises the dynamic between the masculine and the feminine orders—categories established drawing on Lacanian theory in the first section of the chapter—in the very moment that Henry IV attempts to externalise that dynamic and assume for himself the masculine position, while attempting to fix the rebellious nobles in the feminine position.

About the Author:

Albert Rolls is presently adjuncting. His Thomas Pynchon: The Demon in the Text was published in 2019, and he is presently working on a study of the representation of revolution, or resistance, in Thomas Pynchon’s early fiction.

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