In performance, Act One, Scene Three of The First Part of Henry the Sixth is crucial; it’s the first scene that drives the plot forward and does not depend on its expository nature (the funeral of Henry V, news from France; the French nobles prepare for the assault). Here, we see the first French defeat of the play (in a play filled with battlefield momentum swings), and we have the introduction of one of the main characters of the play: Joan la Pucelle.
The question, then, is how do we play the scene?
It’s such a weird scene… It begins with a wacky sight gag: after the French nobles (led by their self-crowned king, Charles the Dauphin) leave the stage to take the fight to the English, they re-enter the stage, completely defeated and over-run, left to mutter about English bravery and superiority. Into this pity party arrives the Bastard of Orleans to tell them of his find: a “holy maid” (I.iii.30) who can “drive the English forth the bounds of France” (I.iii.33). The Dauphin then attempts to “test” Joan, by hiding behind Rene, the Duke of Anjou, who will pretend he is the king. But the trick doesn’t work; Joan calls for the Dauphin to “come from behind” (I.iii.45).
the first plays up Joan’s witchcraft, which–depending on how we approach her “spirits” scene in Act Five–could be very important; the second keeps the Anglo-centric/Franco-phobic comedy coming
How do we play this? Do we play up the supernatural aspect of Joan? Or do we have her see the Dauphin hide behind Rene, thus continuing the depiction of French foolishness?
When she first begins to introduce herself to the Dauphin, she says that she is “by birth a shepherd’s daughter” (I.iii.51). Denotatively, it’s straightforward; connotatively, however, it takes on a more religious bent, making her either the daughter of God or of “the Good Shepherd” Jesus–either of which would be blasphemy.
does this get played up in performance? and if so, what is the French–Catholic–response to such?
Throughout Joan’s verbal then physical bout with the Dauphin, there is a weirdly sexualized dialogue (which we’ll discuss more in a later entry), but one that could most definitely be played up in performance.
but to what end? to layer sluttishness atop witchcraft?
By the way, there is an interesting piece of casting/makeup direction in Joan’s long introductory speech to the Dauphin:
God's mother deigned to appear to me ...
In complete glory she reveal'd herself;
And, whereas I was black and swart before,
With those clear rays which she infused on me
That beauty am I bless'd with which you see.
I guess Brenda Blethyn’s peroxide blonde dye-job (in the BBC Complete Works production) was on-the-mark, after all…
is this comic, with the Dauphin simply inept with a sword? or is it more serious, maybe even frightening, with Joan being some kind of agent of doom–either a French Talbot in martial skill or a demonic hell-raiser?
Another piece of stage direction comes at the end of the fight, when the Dauphin begs Joan to “look gracious on (her) prostrate thrall” (I.iii.96); not only does Joan “overcome” (I.iii.82 s.d.) Charles, but she kicks his butt so badly, he’s left laying on the ground, a French king now a virtual slave to Joan.
When Charles gives in to Joan’s demands for a command, his verbiage is so over-the-top, so grandiose–bordering on delusional, drawing parallels to Muhammad, Saint Helena, Saint Philip, and (even) Venus–that it cannot be played straight.
or can it? is Charles delusional? is it Joan’s witchcraft that has made him so?
Obviously, the scene can be played many ways: comic, terrifying, serious, ironic, with Joan as witch, harlot, demon, warrior princess (sorry, Xena). But whatever way it’s played, it sets the tone for the rest of the play.