History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

06 May 2009

We few, we happy few…We happily married couples in the Shakespearean canon.

Warkworth Castle, home of Harry Percy ["Hotspur"] (1364/66-1403)

I’ve been watching the “Age of Kings” BBC-TV telecasts from 1960-62—truncated productions of the histories, which are well worth the Netflix rental. Despite the language which sounds high flown to most contemporary ears, the clarity is excellent, something all too rare in contemporary productions. Shakespeare's histories tend to be some of the least accessible of his plays because of all the facts being thrown at the audience and the interrelationships between myriad courtiers can be downright confusing. But the actors make every word, every intention, crystalline. It's a clinic in performance that 21st century Shakespeare companies should study with the intensity of NFL teams reviewing their upcoming Sunday rival's game tapes.

Perhaps it’s a fact of also being an actress, but the scenes I invariably find the most compelling are those between a man and a woman—and they are few and far between in the history plays. If you only know the young Sean Connery’s work as 007, his performance (in 1960) as Harry Percy, better known as Hotspur, arrives as a delight. I hadn’t realized he was in the series. What a treat it was to see him performing Shakespeare with such tremendous comprehension and élan.

One of my favorite Shakespearean scenes ever, comes in Henry IV, Part 1, (Act II, scene 3) where Harry Percy tells his wife Kate that he must leave her—without exactly telling her where he’s going. In addition to tension and anxiety, the scene is replete with playful banter. The actual Harry Hotspur was married to Elizabeth Mortimer, but Shakespeare rarely let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Although the number of years is never stated in the text, through the way they relate to each other, we can guess that Kate and Hotspur have enjoyed a happy marriage of some duration, although they do have their issues: Kate feels neglected in the boudoir and in making her disappointment known to her husband, urges him to explain why he hasn’t wanted to make love lately. Her mention of this subject is a clue to the kind of relationship they have: this couple usually enjoys terrific (and frequent) sex. Kate realizes that something must be desperately troubling; and she's confident enough in their love to realize that the problem doesn't stem from domestic issues within the marriage, but as a result of outside pressures. As a full partner in their marriage, she demands to know the cause.

We meet the Percys in the middle of their marriage. Their courtship and wedding are long past by the time we see them. The tension and conflict in the scene does not come from the fact that they are a mismatched pair of lovers as we see in so many of Shakespeare’s comedies (and which Tracy so marvelously blogged about last week); but from the violent events that surround them and threaten (successfully, as it turns out) to tear them apart. Rebellion is in the air and Hotspur has been called to the latest front.

Kate wants to know where her husband is off to in such a hurry in the middle of the night. To protect her (as well as to keep his enterprise a secret), Hotspur refuses to tell her. The scene becomes a game to wheedle the information out of him. Kate wants to obtain it; Hostspur wants to withhold it. The couple tease, cajole, and (if it’s staged by a director who understands the text), spar with double entendres that can become sexy and physical.

HOTSPUR: What say'st thou, my lady?

LADY: What is it carries you away?

HOTSPUR: Why, my horse, my love, my horse.

LADY: Out, you mad-headed ape!
A weasel hath not such a deal of spleen
As you are toss'd with. In faith,
I'll know your business, Harry, that I will.
I fear my brother Mortimer doth stir
About his title, and hath sent for you
To line his enterprise: but if you go,--

HOTSPUR: So far a-foot, I shall be weary, love.

LADY: Come, come, you paraquito, answer me
Directly to this question that I ask:
In faith, I'll break thy little finger, Harry,
An if thou wilt not tell me true.

Away, you trifler! Love? I love thee not,
I care not for thee, Kate: this is no world
To play with mammets and to tilt with lips:
We must have bloody noses and crack'd crowns,
And pass them current too. . .

Kate then tries pouting:

LADY: Do you not love me? do you not indeed?
Well, do not, then; for, since you love me not,
I will not love myself. Do you not love me?
Nay, tell me if you speak in jest or no.

HOTSPUR: Come, wilt thou see me ride?
And when I am o' horseback, I will swear
I love thee infinitely. But hark you, Kate
I must not have you henceforth question me
Whither I go, nor reason whereabout:
Whither I must, I must; and, to conclude,
This evening must I leave you, gentle Kate.
I know you wise; but yet no further wise
Than Harry Percy's wife; constant you are;
But yet a woman: and, for secrecy,
No lady closer; for I well believe
Thou wilt not utter what thou dost not know;
And so far will I trust thee, gentle Kate.

And then, we get another moment of physicality, which should be so sexy that we feel like we’re intruding on a private moment between the spouses.

LADY: How! so far?

HOTSPUR: Not an inch further.

Hotspur then promises Kate that she will set forth the following day and join him. The genuine love and passion they share is palpable, rare for one of Shakespeare’s warriors. Theirs is no political marriage. They tease, they tickle, they touch. Kate adores her husband, and when he is killed by Prince Hal (Harry Monmouth, the future Henry V), she is utterly bereft, and furious with her father-in-law, the Earl of Northumberland, for failing to support his son in the field, and when he finally sees the light, it is too little and far too late. The widowed Lady Percy's tirade against Northumberland in Act II, Scene 3 of Henry IV, Part 2 (remember where Lady Percy’s first big scene was in HIV Part 1!) is such a loving homage to her late husband that it breaks your heart.


. . . by his light
Did all the chivalry of England move
To do brave acts: he was indeed the glass
Wherein the noble youth did dress themselves:
. . . so that in speech, in gait,
In diet, in affections of delight,
In military rules, humours of blood,
He was the mark and glass, copy and book,
That fashion’d others.
. . . Never, O never, do his ghost the wrong
To hold your honour more precise and nice
With others than with him! let them alone:
The marshal and the archbishop are strong:
Had my sweet Harry had but half their numbers,
To-day might I, hanging on Hotspur’s neck,
Have talk’d of Monmouth's grave.

19th c. engraving depicting Hotspur's death

William Shakespeare’s own marriage might not have been a happy one. He was eighteen in November, 1582 when he wed the twenty-six-year-old Anne Hathaway. He’d made her pregnant. The fact that he went down to London to seek his fortune and therefore lived apart from Anne is not necessarily proof of marital unhappiness; yet on the other hand, Shakespeare was the shrewdest observer of humanity, and, like every writer, he may very well have infused his writing with his own experiences. Should we be surprised that there are so few happy marriages in his plays?

What other examples of happy marriages from the Shakespearean canon come to mind?


Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

YESSSS!!! I haven't even read the post yet -- skipped ahead to find out if indeed it was Hotspur and Kate you had in mind. Thanks for the memories, Amanda, of this light and inspiration of my youth. I'll be back after I actually read it.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Gosh, were the MacBeth's a happily married couple? I've always thought they were until a little murder came between them.

7:54 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

You're very welcome, Pam!

Elizabeth, I've always wondered about the Mackers. She was married before (historically/factually, yes, where she had a kid by her first husband, but it's also buried in the text where she reveals that she has known what it is to give suck to a babe) and I've often thought that perhaps she was a bit older than Macbeth -- or not, since women were wed for the first time in their early teens back then.

But theirs is an unequal partnership, even though I think they have a strong sexual relationship. She's definitely the one prodding him to reach his potential.

8:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, they say that it's hard for a writer to keep himself completely out of his writing, so if Shakespeard did indeed have an unhappy marriage, it would make sense that it would be hard for him to write about happy ones. Maybe he was having a passionate affair when he wrote about Hotspur and Kate! (OK, that was just rumor-mongering.)

11:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sheakespeard? How about Shakespeare?

11:56 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Christine, you could claim that it was not a typo, but the actual spelling of the bard's true name -- that of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford's body servant Ned's second cousin twice removed --who really wrote all those brilliant plays. :)

12:04 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for all the lovely quotes, Amanda. I don't know Shakespeare nearly as well as you and Tracy, but another good marriage is clearly the Macduffs, all [his] pretty chickens and their dam.

2:21 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Absolutely, Pam. Though we don't see much of them, that quote you cite does give us a clue that the marriage is at the very least a fertile one!

2:31 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a fabulous post, Amanda! I love the histories and Henry IV part I is one of my favorites. I've always loved the Kate/Hotspur relationship. You get such a wonderful sense of the depth and richness of their marriage. I love their later scene just before the battle as well.

Portia and Brutus also have a strong and interesting marriage (in which again, the issue we come in on is him not confiding in her and her sense that something is wrong). And the Pages in Merry Wives have an affectionate marriage.

I heard a fascinating interview on NPR recently with Germaine Greer, who has written a book about Anne Hathaway with the thesis that she was more complex and her marriage to Shakespeare perhaps less unhappy, than is usually theorized.

As a side note, I introduced a friends six and nine-year-olds to Shakespeare by taking them to Henry IV -I at the California Shakespeare Theater in the Bay Area. They were enthralled (more by the Hal/Hotspur battle than by Hotspur and Kate). The next year, Cal Shakes did Henry V, which they also enjoyed. But they were very annoyed that they didn't get to see Henry IV - II. One of them said "it's like going for the Star Wars to the Return of the Jedi and skipping the Empire Strikes back."

6:14 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

LOL, Tracy! The good thing about "The Age of Kings" is that you get the history plays strung together in chronological order beginning with Henry VI (there are three episodes per disk and five disks) and taking you all the way through Richard III.

And you nailed two of the other happy marriages I was thinking of when I wrote the post: Portia and Brutus and the Pages.

I was initially interested in the Germaine Greer book; then I read the NY Times Book Review section's review which found it (unsurpringly, given the author) heavy on agendism and lighter on factual research to back up her assertions.

6:37 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

"The Age of Kings" sounds great. I originally saw the histories on the British television versions that aired in the 80s, so I saw them in order, fairly close together.

Cal Shakes later did Henry IV-II. The older of my friends two sons was at college, but I took the younger and his sister.

Re: happy Shakespearean marriages, there's also Paulina and her husband (who's killed by the bear) in Winter's Tale. What do you think about Richard II and his Queen and Coriolanus and Virgilia? Those marriage might be called happy, but I think they're less equal than the others discussed and have more cracks.

6:55 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

We don't see much of Richard II and his queen (who Shakespeare doesn't even bother to name). In the play her lines are preceded simply by "Queen". But it was an arranged political marriage and although they may have been tolerably happy as far as a political marriage can be, he was gay, (asexual in the play), so their onstage relationship lacks the sort of spark we see from couples who are clearly each other's match sexually, such as the Macbeths and Hotspur and Lady Percy. Richard's queen feels his pain, but I'm not sure I'd qualify theirs as a happy marriage.

I forgot about Paulina. I'll have to revisit the play to see what the text reveals about their marital relationship. And it's been years since I'd read Coriolanus, so I'll take your word for it!

7:21 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I wrote a paper in college arguing that there's text evidence that Shakespeare meant Richard's Queen to be very young (historically, Isabel was a child bride). I agree, even when she's played as older, there isn't the spark of couples who are a sexual and intellectual match.

Coriolanus calls Virgilia "my gracious silence." He obviously cares about her, but the most important relationship he has with a woman (with anyone) is with his mother. The most recent production I saw made it clear how much she's shut out of his life (which, imo, is definitely in the text).

8:22 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Coriolanus calls Virgilia "my gracious silence." He obviously cares about her, but the most important relationship he has with a woman (with anyone) is with his mother. The most recent production I saw made it clear how much she's shut out of his life.Doesn't sound like a very happy marriage to me!

I've always been struck by the doppelganger where-are-you-going-and-why-won't-you-tell-me? scenes between Hotspur and Kate and Brutus and Portia. Anyone wonder whether this scene ever played out domestically between William and Anne?

4:56 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Of course, it's the unhappy Shakespearean marriages that fascinate us most, especially the ones we have to surmise. I'm thinking here that King Lear was doubtless as awful a husband as he was a father (as Ian McKellen plays him, and as the brilliant Christopher Moore extrapolates in his recent novel Fool).

7:37 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great point, Amanda--the Hotspur/Kate and Portia/Brutus scenes are wonderful parallels. Does make one wonder if Shakespeare was writing from experience...

Pam, I saw a Lear production once which implied, through casting, that the three daughters had three different mothers, which added another layer to the tensions.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Tracy and Pam, that's a very interesting take on Lear and a justifiable one, via the play's subtext as well as basic history of Medieval (and pre-Medieval) royalty (and even into the Renaissance) where the girls usually married for the first time when they were in their early teens, and the incidence of dying in childbirth was high. It might also explain why the daughters are so different from one another (though that would be more of a Brothers Grimm justification, or even Perrault -- i.e. his Cinderella, -- or a Disneyfication, where there was a mother who was the love of the father's life and her daughter is the "good" and beloved" one, whereas the children of the unhappy, political, or marriage of convenience are the problem children.

True, some of the unhappy marriages in the Shakespeare canon are some of the most compelling, but I decided to write about the happy marriages in Shakespeare because they're so rare! Also, the sense of the happy marriage being an equal partnership strikes me (and perhaps some of you) as being astonishingly "modern."

9:48 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

I love the way these relationships show that marriage being an equal partnership isn't a 20th century invention! And I'm fascinated by the dynamics in happy marriages. Mick LaSalle, the SF Chronicle movie critic, said in an article a while ago that, contrary to what Tolstoy wrote, happy marriages aren't all the same. In each, there's a unique dynamic that makes it work for those two people (it was an intro to an article on movies about happy marriages).

10:11 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

...Which now has me thinking about children in Shakespearean marriages. The passion we see between Kate and Percy, and the coequal dynamic between them, and between Portia and Brutus, is absent the presence of their children -- if they have any. The fact that we don't see them (and we do know the Macduffs have a brood of them, in contrast) does give us another clue about the happy marriages we're discussing. It's all about the marriage and not about the family.

I saw novelist and now memoirist Ayelet Waldman interviewed on the Today show this morning. She's written a book titled "Bad Mom" which is a response to something she "confessed" to a while back (and of course this is a paraphrase): that she loves her husband more than her kids -- and that she could survive the death of one of her children and move on, but if she lost her husband it would utterly be the end of her world. Modern moms jumped on her like a trampoline for daring to voice that admission.

And yet, Ms. Waldman is in good, even royal, company. Queen Victoria said the same thing, even to her children, directly to their faces, and in her correspondence to them. And, although I don't have kids (and won't be), I can't imagine anyone rocking my world more than my husband does.

And this brings me back to the happy (and seemingly childless, or at least the kids are wayyyy offstage) marriages in Shakespeare. I don't think he wrote the scenes we've been discussing they way he did just because casting kids might have been difficult!

Any thoughts from my esteemed colleagues on this?

10:27 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Amanda, what a fabulous post! I suppose happy families make for bad drama-- when you do see children in Shakespeare, you know they're bound to come to a bad end in some way (I always think of Mamillus in "The Winter's Tale" or Macduff's slaughtered brood).

The "early modern children were expendable" crowd (not a school of family history to which I subscribe) would probably argue that the dearth of happy families with children in Shakespeare's plays is because children weren't seen as individuals or actors in their own right, and that Shakespeare's plays are reflecting contemporary attitudes in bringing them in only as pawns in alliances, heirs to thrones, or means of wreaking revenge, rather than players within the familial domestic space. I'm not sure I buy this, especially since we have plenty of contemporary journals (Ralph Josselin's is a little late, but close enough to the period) that reflect a more "modern" family life in which the children are very much part of the domestic scene. You do see glimpses of that in Shakespeare-- in the relationship between Hero and her father, or Prospero and Miranda-- but only after the child is grown.

The lack of happy children in these plays might reflect Shakespeare's own experience, since he lived apart from his own children and probably had little experience of the day to day with them (hard to write what you don't know sometimes) or have something to do with the constraints of the genre in which he was writing.

12:18 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

A very meaty and well reasoned reply, Lauren! And you can add Banquo to that list as well. And the two young sons of Edward IV ("the princes in the tower.") Certainly in the histories and tragedies the [literal] death of innocence/sweetness (even with Cordelia, who is at least a teenager, as she's marriageable) is a key theme.

I could do a whole 'nother post on the relationship between fathers and daughters in Shakespeare (hate to say it, but just like in the Disney flicks -- where are the moms??) ... but that's a tale for another time.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

One of my professors in college gave a lecture on "the missing mother" in Shakespeare-- but I have to confess that I don't remember what the punchline was! When you do see them, they're either woefully ineffectual (like what's-her-name in Winter's Tale who comes back pretending to be a statue or Gertrude in "Hamlet") or dragon queens (Coriolanus' mum and, to a lesser extent, Lady Capulet). It would be fascinating to go through and make a list of all the mothers, placing them into types....

12:42 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

An appropriate Mother's Day post for someone, maybe? : )

12:42 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Your comment about Disney heroines brings up something else-- my pet peeve with the Disney movies was always the heroine's lack of female friends. Is "Pocahontas" the first one where she finally has a buddy her own age, rather than elderly fairies, dwarves and the like?

You have to give Shakespeare props for doing female friendships well. I always think of Hero and Beatrice, so different in temperament, but obviously so used to navigating one another within those constraints, or the Queen of France and her entourage in "Love's Labours Lost", who provide such a warm and supportive example of female friendship.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I love all your points, Lauren. There are several well drawn relationships between young(ish) females in Shakespeare; some loving,some competitive, some a bit of both -- and as you say, so different in temperament: in addition to those you just mentioned, we have Hermia and Helena; Rosalind and Celia; and of course the fiercely competitive Kate and Bianca, which reminds me more of my relationship with my kid sister, especially during our youth, than any other portrait of two sisters ever has.

I always liked Hermione in The Winter's Tale. But that's because I relate to her (see her fabulous monologue where she publicly defends her honor and reputation from her husband's scurrilous accusations of adultery). I frankly never considered her as a mother; it was off my radar screen. I always saw her as The Wronged Wife.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful points, Amanda and Lauren! To me, the lack of children in the Hotspur/Kate and Brutus/Portia scenes doesn't signify a lot one way or another, as those are not conversations the most loving and devoted parents would have had in front of their children. I wrote a scene in "Beneath a Silent Moon" that references the Portia/Brutus scene. Charles & Mel don't, I think, discuss their children at all in that scene, though their children are certainly a vital part of their lives.

I don't subscribe to the "early modern children were expendable" school of thought either, and I think there's plenty of textev in Shakespeare's plays that he understood the pain of losing a child (perhpas because he'd lost one himself) and understand the impact the death of a child would have on his audience.

For a positive mother image, there's Bertram's mother in All's Well. Bertram himself is another story...

1:39 PM  

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