Joan of Arc: Hysterical (Witchy Woman)

Yesterday, we discussed in brief one of the more interesting characters in The First Part of Henry the Sixth: Joan la Pucelle, or Joan of Arc, and in that blog entry, we dealt mainly with the historical data, facts that are not in much dispute.  Today and tomorrow, let’s take a look at how Shakespeare depicts her.

As an Englishman writing about a French figure of some renown, Shakespeare–as we would expect–doesn’t do Joan’s memory any favors.  In fact, save for the undisputed facts of her martial victories, Shakespeare gives her no credit at all, attacking her ability to bring about these victories, and then attacking her character as well.  Today, let’s begin with how Shakespeare explains her battlefield triumphs: she’s a witch.

Within two lines of her first appearance in the play, Joan has deflected an attempted prank by the Dauphin (I.iii.44); he tries to pass off Rene as the Dauphin, but Joan does not fall for the joke.  “Though (she has) never seen (him) before” (I.iii.46), she knows that the Dauphin is hiding.  How can she know this?  She, by any natural means, cannot; therefore, she must be using un- or super-natural means.  This supernatural assistance then prevails over the Dauphin in a moment of single combat, a trial by fire (Joan attributes her assistance as coming from “Christ’s mother” [I.iii.85]).

When the English warrior Talbot meets Joan on the field of battle, he calls out to her:

Devil or devil's dam, I'll conjure thee:
Blood will I draw on thee, thou art a witch,
And straightway give thy soul to him thou servest.

— I.vii.5-7

Talbot leaves no doubt as to how he sees Joan: she is either the devil himself, or the devils’ mother; she is a witch, and as such much be sent to hell (back to Satan).  And when Talbot is unable to defeat Joan in combat, and she escapes, he can only conclude that a “witch, by fear, not force, like Hannibal, // Drives back our troops and conquers as she lists” (I.vii.21-22).  He cannot believe that his men can be defeated by the French naturally; they must be defeated only by a witch’s wishes (Joan’s “lists”).  Later, again on the battlefield, the English refer to Joan as demonically supernatural: she is “that witch, that damned sorceress,” a “vile fiend,” and a “railing Hecate” (III.iv.3, III.v.5 and 24, respectively).

Interesting that Shakespeare equates the poetic power of expression with witchcraft… so was he the Harry Potter of his age?

Later, Burgundy is called forth with a parley with Joan and the Dauphin, and when she calls for him, in a very poetic passage (“Look on thy country, look on fertile France…And wash away thy country’s stained spots” [III.vii.44-57]), to “return” (III.vii.56) to the French side.  Burgundy begins to waver, and can only conclude that she has “bewitched” (III.vii.58) him.

If it isn’t enough for coincidence (the deflected prank), an effeminate prince (the defeat of the Dauphin in combat), and righteous English commentary, to prove Joan’s witchcraft, then Shakespeare plays his trump card in Act Five, Scene Three.  Not only does she call forth her “choice spirits” (V.iii.3), but in a “thunder(ous)” response, the “Fiends” appear, “walk” about the stage, “hang their heads,” “shake their heads,” and “depart” (V.iii.4, 7, 12, 17, 19, and 23 s.d., respectively).  By having Joan produce demons, Shakespeare makes her witchcraft real.

This “reality” allows for and supports the play’s remaining epithets at the hands of the English: “ugly witch,” “Fell banning hag, enchantress,” “miscreant,” “sorceress,” and “foul accursed minister of hell” (V.iv.5, 13, 15, and, and 93, respectively).  In her final speech, she “leaves (her) curse” (, giving the English characters in the play itself the evidence they need to send her off “to the stake” where she is “condemned to burn” (V.iv.15 and, respectively).

So from start to finish, Shakespeare toes the company, er, English line in regards to Joan:  She was a witch.  She was tried for it.  She was convicted for it.  She was executed for it.  In that respect, he’s got “facts” on his side.  And to then extend the claim that one extra step (from the sublime to the ridiculous) to where her witchcraft is the only possible explanation as to why the French could defeat and drive out the English forces, ultimately winning the Hundred Years War… well, it’s a pretty easy logical jump for Shakespeare to make.  He knew the audience for whom he was writing (or wrought-ing) his plays.

But this is a history play, supposedly a pageant of events depicting the facts.  The witchcraft angle is already sketchy at best, but at least it could be, possibly, defended by the historical–as written by the English (and here Shakespeare hews pretty close to Holinshed, who focused on the “French campaigns and the doings of La Pucelle” (Patterson, Annabel. Reading Holinshed’s Chronicles. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1994)–record.

But what Shakespeare does to impugn her character is indefensible and reprehensible.  But that, my friends, is tomorrow’s entry.