Hotspur's Fear of Femininity

by Marvin Krims

December 15, 2000


In this essay, I argue that study of Hotspur offers an opportunity to examine the paradoxical quality of phallocentricity: Hotspur, the knight who helped defeat a king and usurp a kingdom, is nervous with his wife. Close reading of his words helps to resolve the paradox by revealing underlying terrors of being the gentle woman, the babe at the breast and the victim. I try to show that while Hotspur's defenses against these anxieties produces appropriate, perhaps even necessary, behavior in a fight, these same defenses impose serious limitations on him in marriage, friendship, and pleasure in the arts.


    In creating the Hotspur of 1 Henry IV, Shakespeare retained the impetuous and courageous quality of the historic Sir Henry Percy. However, the phallocentric attitudes the fictive Hotspur displays are entirely the author's creation. Although these attitudes may in part reflect the cultural bias of early modern England and perhaps even Shakespeare's own bias, it is the purpose of this paper to show that Shakespeare's words also represent the unconscious structures underlying phallocentricity--Hotspur's and men like him. By disclosing these unconscious structures in the subtext, Shakespeare challenges and thereby undermines phallocentricity even as he represents it on the surface of the text.

* * *

    Hotspur reveals his attitude toward women when his wife, Kate, first appears (2.3.1-35--my line references are to The Riverside Shakespeare). Kate suspects that he has been neglecting her because he is preoccupied with insurrection and she wants to restore their loving relationship. As she approaches him now, he is fuming over the defection of a fellow conspirator. Instead of confiding in her, Hotspur pushes her away with:

I know you wise, but yet no farther 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,
So far will I trust thee, gentle Kate.

Three times in six lines, he equivocates: he knows Kate is wise, but no wiser than a wife can be; she is constant and reliable but a woman and therefore inconstant; she is close with a secret, but as a lady, apt to utter what she knows. Only so far can gentle Kate be trusted; she is but yet a woman.

     Hotspur demonstrates this ambivalent attitude about women and femininity throughout the text. He seems drawn to women (certainly he loves Kate) but yet he patronizes and devalues them. Of course, his insensitivity and gender prejudice reflect the cultural influences of the times and he reacts to the world around him (for example, now he may be unsure of Kate because of her brother, Mortimer). But, I argue, Shakespeare's intuitive capacity transcends cultural influences, enabling him to go beyond the culturally dominant view and disclose in the subtext the inner conflicts which contribute to Hotspur's ambivalence.

    Hotspur's style of devaluation and misrepresentation of women in Shakespeare's texts has been a focus for feminist psychoanalytic criticism (see Gohlke 1980, Kahn 1981, Traub 1989, Neely 1988, 1989, for examples). These critics suggest that this misperception of women reflects both Renaissance tradition (Neely 1988) and a style of masculinity that requires suppression of women for its maintenance (Kahn 1981, Traub 1989). These two factors, cultural and intrapsychic, interacting with each other, informed the writings of Shakespeare and the expectations of his mostly male audience. These influences then resulted in distortion of gender representation, with overestimation of masculinity and reciprocal suppression of the feminine voice. The present inquiry attempts to apply this understanding to the text and to search for still other possible unconscious conflicts that cause men like Hotspur to suppress women.

    What we would regard today as gender prejudice is a presence in the histories. Most of these texts display a heavy emphasis on masculine aggression and male prerogatives, with a reciprocal stifling of femininity. This biased attitude is reflected in the minor and often negative roles assigned women. Traub (1989) considers the histories "a `seminal' point for an examination of the construction and maintenance of phallocentric ideology" (p. 458). She observes that the histories "do not merely exclude women; they stage the exclusion of women from the historical process  . . . thus exhibiting the kinds of repression a phallocentric culture requires" (p. 459). Further, Traub states that "Shakespearean drama and psychoanalytic theory share in a cultural estimation of the female body as  . . . grotesque  . . . and consequently repress this figure in their narratives" (p. 496) The reason for this repression, she speculates, was men's "fear of being turned back into women" (p. 457), from a Renaissance belief that both sexes were originally female. In this regard, her observations are not far from Freud's (1940): the man's "mental structure least accessible to influence  . . . [is his] feminine attitude toward his own sex, a precondition of which, of course would be the loss of his penis" (p. 194).

    Kahn's (1981) study of Shakespeare's texts also suggests that men need to maintain masculine orientation through repression of their feminine aspects. Kahn, however, emphasizes the pregenital issues of individuation and self-differentiation, pointing out that "men know woman as the matrix of all satisfaction, from which they struggle to differentiate themselves in order to be men." In this context, Kahn interprets men's aggression and suppression of woman as a defense against primitive merger with the maternal figure. It is interesting to note in this connection that infants of upper class early modern families were routinely sent off to be wet-nursed for the first twelve to eighteen months of life, increasing the probability of fixation in conflicts about separation-individuation.

    In what follows, I intend to explore how the tensions postulated by these observers are evident in Hotspur's words and thus undermine the gender misrepresentation of Hotspur, this "whirlwind that rages through the nation," (as Cohen calls him [1985, p. 84]).

* * *

    The violent world that Hotspur inhabits should have taught him not to identify inconstancy as a feminine trait. Just a few lines before he devalues Kate (and all women), he was fuming over the defection of an erstwhile ally--a man, of course--who had shown himself to be anything but constant. And Hotspur himself is far from constant; he now is plotting an insurrection against his king whom he had helped to depose another king (Richard II). Why is it then that it is women who are not to be trusted?

    Hotspur persists in this curious lack of awareness of the possible unreliability of men. Even as he reads the letter from the defecting ally, he insists on the trustworthiness of the conspirators--he even uses the word "constant": "By the Lord, our plot is a good plot as ever was laid, our friends true and constant: a good plot, and full of expectation; an excellent plot, very good friends. What a frosty-spirited rogue is this!" (2.3.16-20). Three times in a single line of prose, in counterpoint with his triple devaluation of women with Kate, he reiterates, with rising certainty, the reliability of men. He seems to be trying to assure himself that his fellow conspirators are true and constant and it is the women who are, well, but yet women. He denies clear evidence of the unreliability of men, including himself, and attributes it instead to women. In denying men's unreliability and projecting it onto women, Hotspur's attitude is an emblematic representation of gender prejudice. This raises the question: What are the unconscious sources of his prejudice against women?

* * *

    Hotspur is first introduced to the reader after his bloody victory over the Scots at Holmedon. Here, he is presented as a glorious standard of masculinity, a phallic symbol of the manhood that Henry IV wishes for his son, Prince Hal:

A son who is the theme of honor's tongue,
Among a grove the very straightest plant,
Who is sweet Fortune's minion and her pride,

Soon this "very straightest plant" is locked in bitter contention with his erstwhile ally, Glendower, over how to divide the spoils of war--Henry's kingdom. It is only after Glendower capitulates that Hotspur discloses the driven nature of his own belligerent behavior.

I do not care. I'll give thrice so much land
To any well-deserving friend;
But in the way of bargain, mark ye me,
I'll cavil on the ninth part of a hair.

Hotspur reveals that he not only chooses to be contentious; he cannot be otherwise. Later, when Mortimer chides him for his truculent behavior, he openly admits "I cannot choose." 146. The straightest plant must "cavil on the ninth part of a hair." This trait compels him to be the perpetual warrior, who gives freely to a friend but can yield him or her nothing. Hotspur must dominate those with whom he seeks to bond--even at the expense of his own interests.

    Thus the text presents a Hotspur who is threatened by compromise or yielding to another, and therefore rigidly maintains an aggressive stance toward the world. He is most confident while mounted on his horse. "That roan shall be my throne," he rhymes to his wife and servant (2.3.70). His drive for domination, honored by the king he seeks to dethrone and the society he seeks to rule, makes him a staunch ally in a fight--and a difficult husband for Kate.

    This presentation of Hotspur's character structure on the surface of the text can be read as a statement of a problem to be investigated and therefore the first stage in a process of disclosure. This process is similar to psychoanalysis where neurotic structures may first present themselves in the transference; analysis of associations to the transference then clarifies the nature of the underlying unconscious conflicts. Similarly, close reading of Hotspur's words associated with women and femininity can clarify the nature of his unconscious conflicts.

    These conflicts are evident in his first appearance in the text (1.3.43-58). While trying to explain his refusal to surrender his prisoners to the king, Hotspur disingenuously tries to justify his refusal by focusing on the persona of the king's messenger:

And as the soldiers bore dead bodies by,
He called them untaught knaves, unmannerly,
To bring a slovenly and unhandsome corse
Betwixt the wind and his nobility.
With many holiday and lady terms
He questioned me, amongst the rest demanded
My prisoners in your Majesty's behalf.
I then, all smarting with my wounds being cold,
To be so bothered with a popinjay,
Out of my grief and impatience
Answer'd neglectingly, I know not what--
He should, or he should not--for he made me mad
To see him shine so brisk and smell so sweet,
And talk so like a waiting-gentlewoman
Of guns, and drums, and wounds, God save the mark!
And telling me the sovereignest thing on earth
Was parmaciti for an inward bruise.

Hotspur considers his reaction to the messenger sufficient justification for defiance: after all, any real man would react exactly as he did to such an insufferable person. There seems to be a gentleman's agreement that any warrior man would react as Hotspur had to such a "popinjay" (read here as a talkative and conceited person) for the king and the other men have no reservations about this explanation. Interestingly, no one seems to notice that Hotspur himself qualifies as a popinjay.

    As soon as the king and his retinue leaves, Hotspur announces: "And if the devil himself come and roar for them / I will not send them" (125). The messenger--if he existed at all outside of Hotspur's imagination--was merely a convenient excuse to conceal his own habitual defiance. It is the subtext of Hotspur's rant about the messenger that reveals what lies beneath this defiance--an unconscious truth Hotspur conceals from himself.

    He not only had encountered a popinjay, he had encountered an androgynous popinjay. The messenger "talks so like a waiting-gentlewoman . . . with many holiday and lady terms"--words and mannerisms that "made me mad" ("mad" is read here in its original sense as "crazed" or "demented"). The messenger exhibits--perhaps even flaunts--his femininity. The messenger conveys an unconscious message Hotspur finds intolerable: man is part woman. Hotspur then dismisses the messenger ("Answer'd neglectingly, I know not what-- / He should, or he should not") reflecting his dismissal of femininity in men--and therefore, the femininity in himself.

    In this interpretation, Hotspur's intolerance for a man who is "so like a waiting gentlewoman" reflects his inability to tolerate the gentle woman, waiting, repressed, within himself. When he recognizes femininity in another man, it must be repudiated so as to disown its existence within himself. Accordingly, his dismissal of the messenger mirrors Hotspur's inner dynamics. It is this dynamic that leads him to the "construction and maintenance of a phallocentric ideology" (Traub 1989). Hotspur's phallocentricity denies his androgyny.

    Further reading of the encounter with the messenger reveals more of what threatens Hotspur. The messenger tells him that a soldier is an "untaught knave, unmannerly," undermining a cornerstone of Hotspur's masculine identity. Further, the messenger "demanded the prisoners on your Majesty's behalf." Hotspur must now yield to the demands of the patriarch--perhaps like a waiting-gentlewoman. Finally, the messenger recommends "parmaciti" (a salve thought to contain whale sperm) for his "inward bruise." Hotspur's "God save the mark!" (God forbid!) reflects his fear of impregnation.

    Without pause, Hotspur's rant mocks the messenger's ill-concealed fearfulness:

And it was a great pity, so it was,
This villainous saltpetre should be digg'd
Out the bowels of the harmless earth,
Which many a good tall fellow had destroyed
So cowardly, and but for these vile guns
He himself would be a soldier.

Hotspur is contemptuous of the messenger's fear of "these vile guns  . . . which many a good tall fellow had destroyed"--and nearly Hotspur as well! But Hotspur does not refer to his own fears here or elsewhere in the text: therefore he must repress his anxiety, disowning it when he finds it reflected in another man, exactly as he disowns his femininity. For him, fearfulness is associated with femininity and can therefore be no part of his identity. Hotspur is afraid to be afraid.

    Hotspur's anxiety about "his feminine attitude toward his own sex" and his fear of reversion (Traub) leave him no choice; he must be the defiant man-at-arms rather than the "cowardly" gentle-woman.

    Yet despite this disclosure in the subtext, a vexing question remains. Since loss of the penis and reversion to an original female state are only fantasies, why can't Hotspur (and men like him) accept inner femininity and take some compensatory comfort--perhaps even pleasure--in feminine identity? There must be still other, deeper, conflict areas that can interfere with the acceptance and enjoyment of inner femininity in such men. The scene (2.3) of Hotspur's first encounter with Kate sheds light on these areas.

    Hotspur is now reacting to the letter from a defecting ally: "Zounds, and I were now by this rascal, I could brain him with his lady's fan" and "you are a shallow cowardly hind . . . a dish of skimmed milk " (2.3.22). Once again, he associates fearfulness with femininity (thereby disassociating it from himself) but now, his "dish of skimmed milk" makes reference to the mother-infant dyad, with possible resonance to the messenger's "parmaciti for an inward bruise." Only women and babies are fearful and need comforting, according to Hotspur.

    Enter his lady, Kate, and Hotspur promptly announces that he must leave within a few hours. But Kate wants to know why he distances himself from her:

O my good lord, why are thou thus alone?
For what offense have I this fortnight been
A banish'd woman from my Harry's bed?
Tell me, sweet lord, what is't that takes from thee
Thy stomach, pleasure, and thy golden sleep?
Why dost thou bend thine eyes upon the earth,
And start so often when thou sit'st alone?
Why hast thou lost the fresh blood in thy cheeks,
And given my treasures and my rights of thee
To thick-ey'd musing and curst melancholy?

For a fortnight now, Hotspur has not made love with her but rather he seems troubled and preoccupied with his own thoughts. Kate feels rejected and tries to talk with him but Hotspur only calls for his horse. Now Kate will try anything to cajole him into confiding what she has already guessed about his plans for insurrection:

Come, come, you paraquito, answer me
Directly unto this question that I ask.
In faith, I'll break thy little finger, Harry,
And if thou will not tell me all things true.

She suggests that they play-fight ("In faith, I'll break thy little finger, Harry."), intuitively selecting the abrasive contact Hotspur prefers. She misses their intimacy and perhaps seeks "parmaciti for an inward bruise."

    But Hotspur distances her, just as he distanced the messenger:

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 cracked crowns,
And pass them current too. God's me, my horse!

    Hotspur indirectly answers Kate's question about why has she been banished from his bed. But it cannot simply be his preoccupation with insurrection, as Hotspur seems to believe; soldiers need not avoid love-making a fortnight before combat. His aviodance is could be another manifestation of his difficulty with women.

    His "This is no time to play with mammets" indicates that Hotspur associates love-making with playing with mammets--literally "dolls," but also possibly Hotspur's bawdy word-play on "mammas," Elizabethan slang, taken from Latin, for women's breasts.

    A literal reading "mammets" as "dolls" indicates that Hotspur associates making love with children playing with dolls. He could tolerate the thought of playing toy soldiers, but love-play with Kate now evokes imagery of doll-play--feminine in Elizabethan convention. Considered in light of his aversion to feminine identification in a man (as revealed with the messenger), playing with dolls is a distinct threat.

    Doll play is usually doll family play, often baby and mother, and this intersects with the punning reading of "mammets" as "mammas" for breasts. The onomatopoetic quality of both "mammets" and "mammas" also echo the almost universal instinctive "ma" signifier for mother. Thus, both the literal and punning readings of "mammets" lead back to mother, her breast, the baby at her breast, and--most regressed--a fused, undifferentiated state. "To tilt with lips" also can be read as "to tilt with labia," another reference to the threat of identification with the woman and fusion with her imago, the mother, now during the actual process of genital union. Horney (1933) and Chasseguet-Smirgel (1974) describe this type of anxiety.

     This interpretation of Hotspur's avoidance of Kate matches Kahn's (1981) concept that "men know women as the matrix of all satisfaction, from which they struggle to differentiate themselves" (p. 11). Hotspur must guard his boundaries to differentiate himself in these perilous times; his world is no world to play with mammets--dolls or breasts. The intensity of his struggle against this regressive imagery associated with women can be measured by Hotspur's thrice repeated distancing of Kate: "Away you, trifler! Love, I love thee not, \ I care not for thee, Kate." (Hotspur seems to express strong feelings with triplets.)

* * *

    Thus far, Hotspur's difficulties have been examined only in the context of relationships, but he has problems in another important area: he cannot enjoy literature or the arts . He tells Glendower:

I had rather be a kitten and cry mew
Than one of these same metre ballet-mongers.
I had rather hear a brazen canstick turn'd,
Or a dry wheel grate on the axle-tree,
And that would set my teeth nothing on edge,
Nothing so much as mincing poetry.
'Tis like the forced gait of a shuffling nag.

Hotspur associates listening to songs with being "a kitten and cry[ing] mew" and poetry is "like the forced gait of a shuffling nag"--once again the fear of infantile helplessness and passive submission. Because the arts have assumed this conflict-laden meaning, he finds attending to them an ordeal: "I had rather hear a brazen canstick turn'd,/ Or a dry wheel grate on the axle-tree." Accordingly, he reacts to the arts as he had to the messenger and Kate, dismissing them all for similar reasons.

    Toward the end of the scene, Hotspur underscores his linkage of helplessness and submission with femininity. Now, he is lying with his head in Kate's lap, trying not to listen to Mortimer's wife sing:

Kate: Lie still, ye thief, and listen to the lady sing.
Hotspur: I had rather hear Lady, my branch, howl in Irish.
Kate: Would'st thou have thy head broken?
Hotspur: No.
Kate: Then be still.

Neither, 'tis a woman's fault.

Hotspur tersely sums it up: `tis a woman's fault to enjoy the arts.

* * *

    In the privacy of the Percys' bedroom, we learn of Hotspur's dreams, as reported by Kate:

In thy faint slumbers I have by thee watch'd'
And heard thee murmur tales of iron wars,
Speak terms of manage to thy bounding steed,
Cry "Courage! to the field!" And thou hast talk'd
Of sallies and retires, of trenches, tents,
Of pallisadoes, frontiers, parapets,
Of basiliks, of cannon, culverin,
Of prisoner's ransom, of soldiers slain,
And all the currents of a heady fight;
Thy spirit within thee hath been so at war,
And thus has so bestirr'd thee in thy sleep.

The manifest content of the dreams reflects Hotspur's familiar characterological armament: the military trappings of the warrior parading about the text.

    Dreams, however, like the waking behavior of the dreamer, disguise unconscious contents and the latent content of his dreams could supplement what has already been disclosed and might reveal additional information. All that is needed now to uncover the latent content of Hotspur's dreams is his free associations. Here, of course, conventional dream interpretation founders: literary characters do not associate to their dreams--at least not in Shakespeare's time. But Hotspur's unconscious is the same, awake or asleep, and what we already have learned about it from his waking life also applies to his dreams.

    In his sleep, Hotspur cries out "Courage, to the field!"--manifestly Hotspur is encouraging his soldiers to overcome their fears and take to the field. But his encounter with the messenger and his reaction to the frightened ally suggest that Hotspur is afraid to be afraid and therefore represses his own Fears. The timid soldiers might represent his own repressed fears, dream disguises for Hotspur himself,.

    Similarly, he must repress wishes to yield and be taken care of--that is only for women and babies. Accordingly, his dreaming "of prisoners' ransom" may contain a reference to himself, his own wish to surrender and yield himself to the enemy. Emergence of this wish into dream content carries with it all the anxiety of living it out on the battlefield. No wonder Hotspur's slumbers have been faint.

    But Hotspur's life--awake and dreaming--is suffused with aggression; he is "the whirlwind that rages through the nation." The lesson of Shakespeare's histories--and of history itself--suggests that interpreting aggression simply as defense is not sufficient to account for the intensity of aggression that men like Hotspur exhibit. Aggression itself, as an independent factor must play a central role.

    On the surface, Hotspur is comfortable--too comfortable--with his aggression: "We must have bloody noses and crack'd crowns," he told Kate earlier. But note the plural "we": Hotspur includes himself among the possible casualties. The plural "we" might indicate that Hotspur also turns his aggression on himself because of unconscious anxiety about its destructive consequences.

    According to this interpretation, self-destructive wishes are hidden within the latent content of his dreams, and therefore beneath his manifest belligerence while awake: wishes to be managed, taken prisoner, pierced, and finally, the soldier slain. Hotspur finally lives out these wishes when, despite (or because of) defections within his ranks, he joins battle at Shrewsbury and is pierced and slain by Prince Hal. Hotspur's "We must have bloody noses and crack'd crowns" does, in fact, ultimately include himself.

    Thus, Hotspur's battle dreams contain anxiety about aggression, directed both at others and himself. This anxiety reinforces and is reinforced by fears of inner femininity and fusion with mother. Thus, multiple layers of conflict are hidden beneath the cloak of this military man. Perhaps deepest of all, Hotspur is the mirror-image of the messenger whose aggression is obscured by feminine tapestry. Hotspur flaunts his aggression to conceal his femininity, fearfulness, and self-destructiveness, concealing it all beneath the banner "of basiliks, of cannon, culverin."

* * *

    Study of Hotspur offers us an opportunity to examine how Shakespeare discloses the paradoxical quality of phallocentricity. Hotspur, the knight who helped defeat a king and usurp a kingdom, is nervous with his wife. The subtext helps to resolve the paradox by revealing underlying terrors of the gentle woman, the babe at the breast and self-destructiveness. Hotspur's defenses against these anxieties produces appropriate, perhaps even necessary, behavior in a fight but these same defenses impose serious limitations in marriage, friendship, and pleasure in the arts.


A earlier version of this essay appeared in Literature and Psychology 40 (1993): 118-132.

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Galenson, Eleanor, and Herman Roiphe (1976). Some Suggested Revisions Concerning Early Female Development. Journal of of the American Psychoanalytic Association 24(5): 29-57.

Gohlke (Sprengnether), Madelon (1980). "I Wooed Thee With My Sword"; Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms. In The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, eds. Carolyn Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol T. Neely. Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press.

Horney, Karen (1933). The Dread of Women. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 13: 348-360.

Kahn, Coppélia (1981). Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kris, Ernst (1948). Prince Hal's Conflict. In Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art. New York: International Universities Press, 1962.

McDougall, Joyce (1980). Plea for a Measure of Abnormality. New York: International Universities Press.

Neely, Carol T. (1988). Constructing the Subject: Femininist Practice and the New Renaissance Discourses. ELR 18: 5-18.

----- (1989). Shakespeare's Women: Historical Facts and Dramatic Representations. In Shakespeare's Personality, eds. Norman Holland, Sidney Homan, and Bernard Paris. Berkeley; University of California Press.

The Riverside Shakespeare (1974). Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Traub, Valerie (1989). Prince Hal's Falstaff; Positioning Psychoanalysis and the Female Reproductive Body. Shakespeare Quarterly 40: 456-474.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Marvin Krims "Hotspur's Fear of Femininity". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: November 29, 2000, Published: December 15, 2000. Copyright © 2000 Marvin Krims