Historical Fiction, Plays, Shaw, George Bernard

Joan of Arc: Saint, Traitor, or Heretic?

Saint Joan - New MermaidsThere have been many adaptations of the life of Saint Joan of Arc. Among the many adaptations created were Christine de Pizan’s poem Ditie de Jehanne d’Arc (Song in Honor of Joan of Arc) in 1429, Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Giovanna d’Arco (1845), and Georges Méliès’ silent film Jeanne d’Arc (1900).  The Nazis even made a propaganda film on the life of Joan of Arc: Das Mädchen Johanna (1935). She has been memorialized in countless films, plays, songs, paintings, and sculptures. She is also the patroness of France and the patron saint of soldiers.

 In 1924, four years after the canonization of the maid of Orleans by the Catholic Church, George Bernard Shaw wrote and directed his own play about Joan of Arc: Saint Joan. A year later, Shaw won the Nobel Prize in literature.

 Saint Joan is a more or less historically accurate retelling of the events that led up to the execution of Joan of Arc. It follows the maiden turned warrior from the gates of Captain Robert de Baudricourt to her execution outside of the cathedral of Rheims. Unlike many adaptations that focus on Joan’s miracles or on her maidenhood, Shaw’s play portrays Joan as nothing short of a warrior. She is stubborn and prideful, not afraid to criticize military and ecclesiastical officials to their faces. She is neither beautiful nor gentle. The other characters speak and treat her like a man. Joan leads Jean (called Dunois in the play) and the French army to victory against the British who had laid siege to Orleans. Afterward, she crowns Charles VII (the Dauphin) king of France.

 The focus of the play is not on the nitty-gritty of warfare but on the nature of Joan’s crime. Why was she burned at the stake, and why, after almost four hundred years, was she canonized a saint? Shaw’s Joan is a Christ-like figure. Like Jesus, this Joan puts herself above the political and religious leaders of her time. She claims that the Archangel Michael, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret have given her a mission that she must fulfill at all costs. There is one question that all the leaders struggle to answer: Who is this Joan of Arc? Like Jesus whom some claimed was a prophet, others claimed was the Messiah, and still other claimed was a blasphemer, Joan’s identity is a mystery. The Archbishop Regnault de Chartres thinks Joan is foolishly “in love with religion” (Scene II, line 466). The Nobleman believes that Joan is a witch (Scene IV, line 87) while Cauchon is convinced she is a heretic (Scene IV, line 267). Only Dunois thinks Joan is a saint (Scene III, lines 176-177).

The play analyzes the motivations behind the execution of Joan of Arc. Shaw disagrees that she was killed for dressing like a man or because the Church thought she was a witch. Rather, he believes that her executors were convinced that Joan was a threat to the established political and religious structures in Europe. To Shaw, Joan was one of the first Protestants and Nationalists (he uses the terms rather anachronistically). Bishop Cauchon is outraged by Joan’s lack of reverence toward Church authority. Because she claims an authority over and above that of the Pope, Cauchon labels Joan a heretic.

[Cauchon]: “A faithful daughter of The Church! The pope himself at his proudest dare not presume as this woman presumes. She acts as if she herself were The Church. She brings the message of God to Charles; and The Church must stand aside. She will crown him in the cathedral of Rheims: she, not The  Church! She sends letters to the king of England giving him God’s command through her to return to his island on pain of God’s vengeance, which she will execute. Let me tell you that the writing of such letters were the practice of the accursed Mahomet, the anti-Christ. Has she ever in all her utterances said one word of The Church? Never. It is always God and herself” (Scene IV, lines 369-379).

Richard Beauchamp, the 13th Earl of Warwick, wants Joan killed for a different reason. As a statesman, Joan’s alleged heresy is of little consequence to him. But her role in crowning the Dauphin is inexcusable. She undermines the feudal system by crowning an absolute monarch. Because Warwick has an obvious stake in the current political system, he can’t let Joan get away with what he considers as treason.

 [Warwick to Cauchon]: “My lord: pray get The Church out of your head for a moment; and remember that there are temporal institutions in the world as well as spiritual ones. I and my peers represent the feudal aristocracy as you represent The Church. We are the temporal power. Well, do you not see how this girl’s idea strikes at us?” (Scene IV, lines 470-475).

 In Saint Joan, the eponymous hero is like Jesus, executed for religious and political reasons. While there are many obvious differences between Joan of Arc and Jesus, I find the similarities quite striking. It is no accident that Shaw places the words of Caiaphus in John 11:49 in the mouth of the Chaplain, John de Stogumber: “It is expedient that one woman die for the people” (Scene IV, lines 586-587).

 The play does not paint any of the characters in black and white. Joan may hear messages from God, but she is still human. She doesn’t want to die. By showing her love for life, Shaw repudiates the notion that Joan is a rash or suicidal person. Even Bishop Cauchon and the Inquisitor, Bishop Jean Lemaitre, are not sinister characters. Shaw makes it clear in his Preface that Cauchon and Lemaitre were not essentially different people than ourselves.

 The end of the play was quite enjoyable and included a very interesting commentary on Joan’s legacy. I recommend this play to anyone who enjoys learning about an old hero through the perspective of a modern writer.

4 thoughts on “Joan of Arc: Saint, Traitor, or Heretic?”

  1. I loved this play, and it became one of my favorites. I liked how Shaw characterized Joan. And his cynical sense of humour freshened a little the originally dark theme of the play.

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