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)
...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.
...you 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)
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!
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.)
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