Joan of Arc: Hysterical, the Sequel (The Whore)

For the last couple of days, we have discussed one of the more interesting characters in The First Part of Henry the Sixth: Joan la Pucelle, or Joan of Arc.  We began two days ago with the historical Joan (the documented events of her life), and yesterday we delved a bit into the way Shakespeare played out to the extreme the most important “fact” about Joan (at least to the British): She was a witch.  The depiction was an overreaching distortion, but at least he could point to historical documents as support.

Today, we’re going to discuss Shakespeare’s complete and utter character assassination of the hysterical Joan.  And here, I take “hysterical” as “characteristic of hysteria,” a disorder “originally thought to be due to a disturbance of the uterus and its functions” and one “usually attended with emotional disturbances and enfeeblement or perversion of the moral and intellectual faculties” (all Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0], emphases mine).  Throughout the play, Shakespeare over-sexualizes Joan and presents her as a whore.

Note: much of the following requires a couple of things from the reader: 1) a willingness to read the same line in multiple meanings; and 2) a certain sophomoric desire to see bawdiness wherever it may (or may not) be found… so those with sensitivities to the profane should probably just move along to tomorrow’s entry…

As we’ve noted before (rather ambiguously) there’s some pretty bizarre sexualized dialogue during Joan and the Dauphin’s interview and single combat in Act One, Scene Three.  Let’s get rid of the ambiguity… Near the end of her introductory speech to the Dauphin, Joan discusses how “God’s mother” had turned Joan from “black and swart” and gave her the “beauty (she is) blest with, which (the Dauphin) may see” (I.iii.57, 63, and 65).  May see?  Does this mean that it’s obvious, or that the beauty is covered up for the moment, and could be, maybe at a later moment, revealed to him?  She then goes on to tell him: “Resolve on this, thou shalt be fortunate, // If thou receive me for thy warlike mate” (I.iii.70-71).  Here, the Dauphin’s “warlike mate” could mean either a “comrade” (clean reading; OED), or “paramour” (not so clean; OED).  The Dauphin responds in a way which can be played either way as well:

In single combat thou shalt buckle with me,
And if thou vanquishest, thy words are true;
Otherwise I renounce all confidence.

— I.iii.74-76

The chaste will hear “buckle” and think “grapple” (as in “swashbuckler”; OED), while the members of the Beavis and Butthead crowd–heh, heh, he said, “BUTT”–thinks “to join closely” (as in to have sex; OED).  Thus, it’s not difficult to see “confidence” as either “trust” or “confidential intimacy” (both OED).

After the Dauphin falls to Joan’s martial skills, he cries out for her assistance:

Impatiently I burn with thy desire;
My heart and hands thou hast at once subdued.
Excellent Pucelle, if thy name be so,
Let me thy servant and not sovereign be:

–I.iii.87-90

The Dauphin has it bad: he burns with desire–either the desire Joan has for defeating the English, or the desire for Joan herself (again, take your pick). He questions her virginity when he asks if “Pucelle” (the maiden or virgin) is truly her name; is this part of some kind of bizarre verbal courting ritual? And “servant”? He could mean an “attendant” for her military mission or her “professed lover” (both OED).  Her response is interesting, a nice piece of playing hard-to-get: “I must not yield to any rites of love” (I.iii.92).  But now she’s TOO hard to get…at least this is how I imagine it, as his nonverbal response forces her to tell him (in a rhymed couplet no less):  “When I have chased all thy foes from hence, // Then will I think upon a recompense” (I.iii.94-95).  It’s a promise to give up “some” after the English are defeated.  And it’s something he’s looking forward to (either English defeat or seeing the inner “beauty” of Joan, take your pick): “Meantime look gracious on thy prostrate thrall” (I.iii.96). He has become her adoring slave (a sex-slave if he had his way… if my sophomoric reading is correct).

Even Alencon and Rene notice the sexual tension (at least in his absence from them):

ALENCON
Doubtless he shrives this woman to her smock;
Else ne'er could he so long protract his speech.

RENE
Shall we disturb him, since he keeps no mean?

ALENCON
He may mean more than we poor men do know:
These women are shrewd tempters with their tongues.

— I.iii.97-102

of course shrive could also mean “to remove, lift” as well… that makes it even more sexual, but that meaning won’t come into common use for another 50 years… but could this be a forerunner?

To shrive Joan could mean “to question” or “to hear the confession of”… of course, to shrive one to her smock would take one a more earthy meaning: “to examine” her to her “woman’s undergarment” (all OED).

When Rene says that Charles “keeps no mean,” he means that the Dauphin is acting immoderately, in some kind of (sexual?) extreme… and I think the women=”shrewd tempters with their tongues” is pretty self-explanatory.

Now, if that doesn’t seem overtly sexual, take a look Joan’s last speech of the scene…

Glory is like a circle in the water,
Which never ceaseth to enlarge itself
Till by broad spreading it disperse to nought.
With Henry's death the English circle ends;
Dispersed are the glories it included.
Now am I like that proud insulting ship
Which Caesar and his fortune bare at once.

— I.iii.112-118

And then take a look at it again with this in mind: circle = pudendum (Partridge, Eric. Shakespeare’s Bawdy. New York: Routledge, 2008; page 99).  And Joan is a new attacking (“insulting” [OED]) ship, creating its own ripple or circle in the water (again, Joan as the “anti-feminine”).

And it seems that every man (or at least every man of power she meets) knows of her sexual appetite, as when Talbot encounters her on the battle field and immediately calls out to her: “I’ll have a bout with thee” (I.vii.4).  Here, “bout” can mean either “a round of fighting” (OED) or an “occasion of physical love” (Shakespeare’s Bawdy: 87).  After this meeting, when Talbot discusses Joan and her lack of femininity with Burgundy, Burgundy states:

Pray God she prove not masculine ere long.
If underneath the standard of the French
She carry armour as she hath begun--

— II.i.22-24

Burgundy first hopes that she will either: turn out to be a man (turn out to be not masculine-acting, but a man herself) or carrying a male child (ironic, given her final bootless plea to Plantagenet at her trial).  He then goes on to discuss Joan’s position under the “standard of the French,” meaning either under the flag of France or under a French penis (Charles’?), where she carries armor–either wearing it herself, or bearing the weight of a armored man on her during sex.  Talbot interrupts Burgundy, though, stating, “Well, let them practice and converse with spirits” (II.i.25), with them being the Frenchmen, Joan being the spirit (witch), and “practice and converse” meaning either to plan and talk, or to have sex.  Not a lot of respect for Joan coming from the English.

And the lack of respect, at least in the world Shakespeare has wrought, is seemingly earned: When the Dauphin and Joan join the other French leaders after an alarm has wakened them, Charles recounts where he has been: “Within her quarter and mine own precinct // I was employed in passing to and fro” (II.i.69-70).  Even the clean-minded out there must see the sexual innuendo there, right?

in her quarter or room, or womb… passing to and fro, moving in and out…

Later in the play, the Dauphin refers to her as “sweeting” (III.vii.21), term of endearment for a lover.  And this relationship, known as it is within the English camp, cannot but raise insults: “the Dauphin and his trull” (II.ii.28) and “shameless courtesan” (III.v.5).  When Talbot again meets Joan on the battlefield, he references her “lustful paramours” (III.v.13; note the plural there), and calls for another “bout” (III.v.16) with her.  This time she responds in kind, asking the warrior, “Are ye so hot, sir?” (III.v.18), which can refer either to his anger or her perception of his lust for her.

Even at the end of Joan’s life, Shakespeare continues the sexual assault on her character.  When she attempts to avoid execution by stating that she is pregnant, Plantagenet is not surprised as she “and the Dauphin have been ingling” (V.vi.68), or “caress”-ing (a euphemism for more intimate acts; OED).  Joan then tries to deny it is Charles’ child, first claiming that it was Alencon then Rene who “enjoyed (her) love” (V.vi.73).  To this “Maury Povich Show“-worthy display of “who da the baby daddy?”, Plantagenet can only say, “Why, here’s a girl! I think she knows not well– // There were so many–whom she may accuse” (V.vi.80-81), to which Warwick can only concur and state the obvious: “It’s sign she hath been liberal and free” (V.vi.82), and by liberal and free, we don’t mean politically on the left and independent.

And that’s the final verdict on Joan’s sexuality: she’s a slut.

But there’s really no historical documentation of Joan’s sexuality.  Since Joan in her day was not called Joan of Arc, but rather “Joan la Pucelle” — Joan the maiden or Joan the virgin–it seems especially overzealous for Shakespeare (or any of his anecdotal historical sources) to impugn her virginity.  It’s not difficult to understand, though, if you think about it this way:  Joan was a woman.  But, on the field of battle, she did not act like a woman; she led and fought men.  That is historical fact.  But Shakespeare wasn’t going to present that positive aspect of anti-feminine behavior… not when he could attack Joan’s femininity in another way.

Was degrading Joan’s virginity and making her a whore Shakespeare’s way of further depicting (and thus degrading) her “unladylike” behavior?

If that’s the case, it’s pretty damn shameful.

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