Monday, October 3, 2011

Henry VI Part One She's All That

She's All That
Joan of Arc in Henry the VI Part One

Oh, Will! Why are you so mean to poor Joan? She's a martyr, she's a saint, she's a hero!
Gut reaction to Shakespeare's portrayal of Joan of Arc is, “You can't do this! You can't make her snide, flippant, snide, spineless...” Which, of course, is why I have to explore the question: why did he?
It's not a simple question. Joan is not a simple character: virgin, whore, witch, saint, military leader, patriot, enemy, liar, coward, elocutionist, joker, loser, victor. She's all that. What is Shakespeare telling us?

There are the usual, and relevant, historical answers. At the time Shakespeare wrote the play, England had troops in France supporting the Protestants. England was still in conflict with Spain. There was a need for and an interest in patriotic plays about English military heroes and foreign Catholic bad guys. There was also a wide-spread interest in witchcraft and general bewilderment about how to deal with strong women in power, Elizabeth of course being the prime figure of England's gender quandary. All of this we learn from Jean Howard's introduction to the play, if we didn't know it before. It goes a long way in explaining Shakespeare's portrayal of Joan. With a few adjustments and exaggerations to the legend, she's practically ready-made. But of course, there's more to it than that. Shakespeare never makes things simple. So let's take a look.

In Act One we meet a Joan filled with pert self-confidence. She quickly dispenses with the Dauphin's lame attempt to fool her and proceeds directly to establishing her divine indispensability. No lesser a power than “God's mother” herself has told her to “free my country from calamity”. Not only has God's mother made it impossible for Joan to lose, she has also made her beautiful:

...she infused on me
that beauty am I blest with, which you may see. (Act 1.3)

Joan matter-of-factly puts herself right up there on equal footing with the Dauphin by informing him that

...thou shalt be fortunate,
If thou receive me for thy warlike mate. (Act 1.3)

In case he doesn't realize that he'd be a fool not to, she goes on to explain, after handily proving her superiority with a sword, that she's about to become “the English scourge” and that things have already started going well

Since I have entered into these wars.
Glory is like is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself (Act 1.3)

In other words, Joan strides in and says, “OK, guys, here I am. Now I'm gonna clean up this mess that you wimps can't handle.”

She wastes no time in confronting Talbot, the macho hero of the English, who is valiantly trying to assert his, and feudal England's, “masculine rule and martial values” (Howard, p. 470) in this war. Talbot's character, especially his obsession with his masculinity, is not subject to analysis in this study. But in order to highlight the extremity of Joan's position it is useful, not to mention amusing, to borrow Harold Bloom's take on noble Talbot: “brave and tiresome...bully boy....” full of “male military vainglory” and a hero by which “Shakespeare himself was unmoved” (p. 45-46). (When I agree with Bloom, which in fact I often do, I find him wickedly funny as well as very enlightening. When I don't, I find him, as you know, overbearing and irritating.)

Anyway, it's no news to us that women who challenge men's monopolies are called all kinds of nasty things and Talbot, as he loses the swordplay with Joan, calls her “strumpet” to diminish her and “witch” to demonize her. He can't just congratulate her on a fight well fought and fairly won. No, losing to her really hurts: “The shame hereof will make me hide my head!” (Act 1.8). Poor macho Talbot. And she's just a teen-age girl!

Joan continues to be admirable and persuasive when she addresses Burgundy's patriotism by convincing him to, “Strike those that hurt, and hurt not those that help” (Act 3.7). In this her most eloquent speech Joan clearly shows that Talbot and the English are the aggressors, France the victim, but then when Burgundy allows himself to be “bewitched” by her words, again implying that there's something unnatural about a powerful woman, Joan flippantly negates the high-flown tone she herself has created, in accordance with her saintly image, by tossing off her “turn and turn again,” to show that she doesn't think much of turncoats.

Joan continues her bulldozing against the English and with a delightful disrespect for Talbot's glorious death, she puts him in his place after being glorified by the grieving Lucy's long list of Talbot's grand titles with her sardonic

Here's a silly, stately style indeed.
The Turk, that two-and-fifty kingdoms hath,
Writes not so tedious a style as this.
Him that thou magnifi'st with all these titles
Stinking and flyblown lies here at our feet (Act 4.7).
Poor macho Talbot...

OK, so far we've seen Joan as self-confident to the point of arrogance in her divine cause, eloquent, militarily superior, bluntly realistic. Then all of a sudden she turns into a...witch?! You mean the men were right all along?! And not only a witch but an incompetent failure of a witch, a pathetic witch?!

Something has happened. The French are no longer winning, the Duke of York threatens. The English are finally united. The Mother of God isn't keeping her side of the bargain.

But wait. This isn't so strange. Like many – most – Christians of the time, Joan has another card up her sleeve. Magic. She's clearly knowledgeable and practiced. But to no avail. The friends and familiars desert her.

This is actually the tragedy of the play. Until now Joan has been, as Bloom puts it, bawdy, courageous, direct, “quirkily memorable”, cunning, funny, satirical, ironic, crude – he uses a lot of adjectives for Joan and honors her by comparing her to his own favorite by claiming that she “anticipates something of Falstaff's grand contempt for time and the state” (page 46). In short, we see Joan as strong, independent, disrespectful, a 15th century punk rocker. But now suddenly she is defeated. She is forsaken. “Hell” is suddenly “too strong for” her “to buckle with” (Act 5.3).

This scene demands a lot from the actress but played well it should confirm Joan as the real strength of the play, the strongest and most complex and tragical character. No longer a buffoon but a hero. Defeated yes, but not a loser.

Joan is captured and Richard of York treats her with the same contempt that the macho Englishmen of the play have shown her all along, calling her “ugly witch” and “hag”. As feisty as ever, she curses not only Richard but also Charles the Dauphin, the only indication that she has been betrayed by the French. It's not a bad curse either:

A plaguing mischief light on Charles and thee,
And may ye both be suddenly surprised
By bloody hands in sleeping in your beds (Act 5.4)
Richard would do well to be a little nervous.

The last scene with Joan is a puzzling one. Why is she so mean to her poor old dad? Why does she suddenly claim a noble birth? I'll have to think about the noble birth part awhile but an explanation for the denial of her father leaps to the eye. The old man is awfully quick to turn on her. After only a dozen or so lines his tongue becomes as poisonous as hers. He wishes she had died miserably as a child, fed rat poison or eaten by wolves. A father's true love would surely stick by her to the end, no matter what? But he orders the English, “O burn her! Burn her! Hanging is too good” (Act 5.6). It's not so farfetched to see this kind of treatment at her father's hands throughout her childhood which would be reason enough for Joan's reaction now. Her father seems to be just the first in a long line of vicious men Joan has had to deal with.

And now she has two more, York and Warwick.

Knowing she is about to die, Joan seems to stumble all over herself, using one lie after another to convince them to spare her life. She once again claims to be high born, not only noble but “from the progeny of kings.” She reminds them that she was chosen by “celestial grace”, claims she has never dealt in witchcraft. Above all, she is still a virgin. In the next breath however, when York and Warwick taunt her virginity, she claims to be pregnant, by one man after another.

What?! Has she gone crazy? Very possibly; she's likely been a bit tetched all along. Aside from that however, I see Joan's last stand as an exuberant expressive contempt for her captors. that are polluted with your lusts,
Stained with the guiltless blood of innocents,
Corrupt and tainted with a thousand vices (Act 5.6)
she says to them, and proceeds to taunt them with their own obsessions. She throws their accusations of being a whore back in their faces. She knows it won't save her but she refuses to go out with a whimper. Her spirit is not broken. Exit Joan cursing.

May never glorious sun reflex his beams
Upon the country where you make abode,
But darkness and the gloomy shade of death
Environ you till mischief and despair
Drive you to break your necks or hang yourself (Act 5.6)

And what a curse! Words indeed to chill the hearts of York and Warwick.

So, there, I've succeeded in talking myself out of the image of the sincere, earnest and oh so saintly heroine and martyr created by such literary giants as my other hero, Mark Twain, and fallen for Shakespeare's loud-mouthed, fast-talking warrior.

Shakespeare wins again!

July 2011
September 2011
October 2011

works cited:
The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. 1998.
Howard, Jean. Introduction to Henry VI Part One, Norton edition (see above.)

Movies seen:
BBC, 1983. Directed by Jane Howell. Cast: Joan - Brenda Blethyn; Talbot – Trevor Peacock; York – Bernard Hill; Warwick – Mark Wing-Davey. Brenda Blethyn is great as the arrogant saucy Joan but less convincing as a tragic defiant figure. Trevor Peacock is appropriately macho and frustrated in a fittingly somewhat stupid bullheaded way.
On stage: no


  1. I'm reading your blog in the wrong order (upside down) but regardless, I realize as always how little I know of Shakespeare. Anything of his that I've read I've loved, but still I haven't bothered to go find more. Like this one -- I had no idea he'd written about Joan d'Arc. And she's one of the most interesting people in history, I'd say.

    I may have to go dig this up in the winter break. :)

  2. There is no wrong order for Shakespeare! I wish you a long and happy Shakespeary winter break!

  3. Hello, Ruby. nice to meet you. :)
    excuse me, do you think Shakespeare was right about the portrayal of Joan of Arc not in his days but even now? and what do you think of Joan of Arc? do you think she was a witch, a heretic, and an evil girl? (I have heard that she never killed anyone herself, she comforted a wounded english soldier and prayed for dead english in battle and protect the remnants of the enemy from the massacre bt French) I wonder it. there is a friend of mine, she's baptismal name is Joan of Arc, so she has a lot of sadness since knew about his portrayal of Joan of Arc, and the drama is based the play. so she got illness of the mind. T.T (I am not a Roman Catholic.)
    and another friend from England, she love Joan of Arc more than the French do, and she said that he needed to get history straight, she was not a witch, she was a brave girl who defended her country.

    I have never heard that bardolaters shown regret at her. of course, I like read some his work such as Macbeth, but I think it is hard and sad to admire his portrayal of Joan of Arc even now. although I don't want to blame him and bardolaters, but I wish bardolaters should have express regret at Joan of Arc and revere the memory of her when read the work and see or play the drama on stage or in theatre. :) do you think it is hard? I think it is not shameful, but easy and glad. :)
    sorry, I can't write english well. :)

    Cheers! :)
    From sincerly, a pure fan of Joan of Arc in Korea.

    1. Hello Fan of Joan of Arc in Korea!
      And it’s very nice to meet you! Thank you for your most interesting comment. I really enjoyed it. You’ve raised some very good questions and they’re not so easy to answer. What I think is that probably the historical Joan of Arc was mentally ill, but also very brave and determined. She played an important part in the outcome of the war between England and France but sadly, both sides betrayed her. I think she was a strong and intelligent young girl and she met a tragic end.
      She has been portrayed by many authors and in fact I think Shakespeare gives us the fairest and, really, the most positive picture. As I wrote in “She’s All That” she was a very complex person but just a girl. Not a saint, not a witch, not a slut, but a girl who believed strongly in France and in her hallucinations of being spoken to by the god she (and most everyone back then) believed in. I feel quite sure that Shakespeare liked his Joan very much and was eager to present her as the play’s most interesting and likeable, and tragic, character. But as always with Shakespeare, we have to read carefully. Like you, at first I thought he made Joan not a very good character but with careful reading I saw that he made her a very good and admirable character.
      I hope my comments help you see Shakespeare’s interpretation more positively and that you and your friends are no longer sad about how your idol is represented. I think on the basis of Shakespeare’s portrayal you can be proud of her.
      I’m looking forward to seeing more of your comments on the blog!
      All the best,

    2. Thanks for the your kind reply, ma'am! I am glad when read it. :)
      I think you are very wise and cultured. you don't regard Joan of Arc as a witch or a malefactress. :) but in fact, Joan of Arc is a Saint officially since 1920. I think it was too late. :)

      To tell the truth, however, I can't agree with some part of your opinion. - That is Joan is very good and admirable character in the play.
      obviously, He portrayed her as a witch, an immoral girl and a whore in the latter half more than needs.

      Yes, it can accept in england of his times. but we have to think about this. - can it accept even now without criticism?
      of course, as already mentioned, you are very wise and cultured, so at least you don't see her as a witch or a malefactress.
      but what if the people who never know Joan of Arc, read the work?

      actually, an animation was broadcasted, and the character, "Joan of Arc" was appeared in some part of the work.
      I have ever seen some post and comment about her written by the Kids, had watched the animation. - they thought her as the image in the animation. - giving candy out, and bespectacled Joan!
      then, if kids read "Henry 6 part 1"? what they think of Joan of Arc?
      actually, I have ever seen some kids read the work. we should teach kids correctly.

      In addition, I have ever seen an audience's review post of "Henry 6 part 1" on the Korean stage, the audience said that: "the impressive scene- Joan of Arc sell her soul to devils" and "celebrate burning Joan of Arc~" "celebrate".....? when i read the post, i was very upset, shocked, and sorrowful. the audience thinks Joan of Arc as a witch. T.T

      but an reader of Shakespeare told me, when she(the reader) think about a little girl(Joan) in war, tears fill her eyes. and she is too sad about Joan's fate -burn at stake at a tender age .
      I was happy by her answer. :) i believe that many, and most bardolaters think Joan like you and her. :)

      BTW, have you ever heard a story in a theatre of england?
      According to Robery Sothey, An English theatre audience protested at a scene depicting Joan carried off by devils, so they changed it to having her carried off by angels.(it was late 1700’s and the early 1800’s.) :)

      Anyway, If you want to read about Joan of Arc written by other writers, I recommend Shiller's "the Maid of Orleans", and George Bernard Shaw's 'Saint Joan'. :) (of course, you may have ever read them already.)
      and how about read her trial and retrial record? you can may feel 'real Joan of Arc'. :)

      sorry, I can't write english well again. :)

      Cheers! :)

  4. Well, sadly, i have seen some posts insulting Joan by bardolaters today.
    (It is not individual twitter, but Shakespeare's Globe, a famous organization of bardolater, it is bardolater's official view about her? terrible! )
    (and it is a school for kids's facebook!)

    Frankly speaking, I think they are so rude and shameless unlike ma'am.
    I have never heard that bardolaters even show regret to Joan, let alone apology.
    (Think about Germans saying apology to Jewish people even now about the Holocaust in the Second World War.)

    Even, some Korean bardolaters said Joan of Arc was like Japanese invader in Korean history. she was just a defender, not an invader. :(

    If a foreign writer(from a competing country of Sweden) portrayed disort and insult the hero or the savior of Sweden, how is your feeling?

    I think they must study history, about Joan of Arc and have conscience.
    Of course, I know you are a very kind and wise person, ma'am. :)

    Cheers! :)

  5. Hello again, fan of Joan of Arc in Korea!
    It was fun to get more comments from you. I’ll try to answer some of them here. First of all there are so many versions of the story of Joan of Arc that you, as a fan, are bound to be disappointed by some of them. The truth is we’ll never know what kind of person she was. Also I really don’t think that Bardolators, or the Bard himself, have any reason to apologize! Shakespeare’s version is, as I wrote last time, essentially a positive view. What an interesting person she is here! “Immoral?” “Witch?” “Whore?” Shakespeare didn’t show her as being these, he showed her pretending to be these, because she is so clever. Besides, these are all words that are used and misused to suit the speaker’s purposes, as of course is the word “saint.” I don’t think being made a saint is worth much because frankly, I think it’s a silly system. The same with the word “invader”. To the English Joan was an invader because they regarded France as belonging to England. As it did at the time. As for Sweden, well I guess Zlatan Ibrahimovich is the biggest hero of Sweden today and I’m sure rival football reporters insult him all the time because he’s so good :-) Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, try not to be too upset by different interpretations. Especially not by Shakespeare’s version! And teaching kids to read and study Shakespeare is a very good way to teach them how complicated humans, and the truth, and history are, don’t you think?
    By the way, I’m impressed by your expertise on J of A and by your English. Thanks for the tips on further reading. Have you read Mark Twain’s novel? I think you’d enjoy that.
    All the best,