Posted by Hunter Prichard
The story of Joan of Arc, a Catholic saint who was burned for heresy and witchcraft in the mid-15th century, has been told and re-told many times by diverse authors.
One of the more original reimagining's of the story is the 1923 play, Saint Joan, by the renowned Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw. If you are a reader who appreciates drama without seeing it on stage, run to the nearest library. This is one of the best and most interesting plays I have read.
The legend of Saint Joan has an admirable legacy. Joan is a pure and honest female warrior who leads men into battle, a woman who struggles against the powerful Catholic Church, a long-time political symbol for nationalism during the time of Napoleon, a martyr and, at the very core, a saint.
Shaw does not believe in that image and instead originates the character of Joan as an immature girl who is condemned by the Catholic Church and "judiciously burnt" by the English.
Joan's actions were of her own accord and her execution was based on the much practiced law of the society and of the time.
As Shaw states, "There are no villains in the piece . . . they are judicial murders, pious murders . . . the angels may weep at the murder, but the gods laugh at the murders."
The character of Joan is a raw, egotistical and ignorant child. She is not a blasphemer, a harlot or a witch. Still her apparent ‘crimes' would be deemed destructive under 15th century legal proximities and her execution was an appropriate conclusion to her trial.
Although she is respected by a small group of ‘followers,' one must also note how quickly these followers turn on her once she is brought to trial.
One of these followers is an army officer named Dunois with whom Joan becomes colleagues. Joan's relationship to Dunois is important in explaining how the English found it justifiable to execute her.
Although their relationship is strong in spirit, Dunois quickly turns on her when the Church pressures her.
In their first encounter, a raging Joan criticizes Dunois's rulings on battle. This arrogance on the battlefield combined with the disrespect that she shows the fellow officer — who is a senior and more experienced — leads to her capture.
She treats him like an idiot; he treats her in the way that a parent would treat a young, unruly child. They quarrel and eventually become colleagues.
Joan's dismissal of the authority of a commanding officer foreshadows Dunois's own dismissal of Joan when she is brought up in front of the court later in the play. Even with Dunois' loyalty to Joan, he cannot disagree with others on the subject of her immaturity.
Joan lives by her own hand and, in doing so, she dies by another. Although Dunois desires to stand beside her and help, he refuses to do so if she does not improve her arrogant beliefs.
At the end of Scene V, Joan attempts to instate her dominance in front of the court as it turns on her.
Dunois says, "If she fell into the Loire I would jump in, in full armor to fish her out. But if she plays the fool at Compiegne [the trial location] and gets caught, I must leave her to her doom."
Dunois is Joan's most distinguished follower and friend, but even he has no choice but to turn on her.
Thus, Bernard Shaw suggests that Joan's eventual execution is her own doing. It is her foolishness and egotism that gets the people to turn on her and, ultimately, to allow her to burn.
In Act IV, we are introduced to the judges — in other versions of the story, these would be the villains of the story — who order the death of Joan.
These men are not villains; they are people who represent the social and political conscience of the 15th century. Their disagreement with Joan is not written by Shaw as a ridiculous, over calculation of a troubled youth.
Joan is neither villain nor hero, and the reader is not to have ruthless opinions on her accusers.
In turning Joan into this figure, Shaw removes the myth surrounding her and turns her into a less-sympathetic character.
In addition, the men on trial who execute her are not the villains of the story.
The story is not one of good and evil; it is one of process and of the unfortunate conclusion, and distinctive arrogance (on both the part of Joan and the men on trial), which collide to form uncontrollable circumstances.
Hunter Prichard is an English major from Portland, Maine.