On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:
Three French hens,
Most Frenchmen in Shakespeare are not the good guys – probably a function of the role of the French in English history. It seems nations nearest geographically, much like siblings closest in age, are most likely to squabble with one another. There are even the typical insults – Shakespeare uses French as a particularly damning epithet repeatedly.
- We’ll e’en to’t like French falconers, fly at anything we see.
- Done like a Frenchman – turn and turn again.
- Submission, Dauphin! ‘Tis a mere French word: We English warriors wot not what it means.
- I had as lief be a list of an English kersey as be pil’d, as thou art pil’d, for a French velvet.
- Your French-crown-colour beard, your perfect yellow.
- French nods and apish courtesy
It doesn’t stop Shakespeare setting some plays there, and not just those sections of various history plays where the relevant British monarch goes off for the military equivalent of giving your brother a Chinese burn. All’s Well That Ends Well features main characters from Rousillon (a border town then in Spain but now in France) and much of the action takes place in Paris. Love’s Labour’s Lost tells of the love between the King of Navarre and the Princess of Aquitaine. It was apparently very popular in Shakespeare’s time, because the four lead male characters – Henry of Navarre, Berowne, Dumain and Longaville – were based on four lead French nobleman. That’s the theatrical version of pulling faces behind your sister’s back…
Not all French characters come off badly (though the ones which aren’t being fought on the field of war usually suffer from – at the very least – comedy accents). I keep coming back to that nameless King of France who married Cordelia in King Lear:
Thy dow’rless daughter, King, thrown to my chance,
Is queen of us, of ours, and our fair France.
Not all the dukes in wat’rish Burgundy
Can buy this unpriz’d precious maid of me.
Bid them farewell, Cordelia, though unkind.
Thou losest here, a better where to find.
I’m pretty sure anyone who’s made the trip across the Channel has their own version of that better where…