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Shakespeare Takes a Swipe at Joan of Arc

Did you know that there's a pretty nasty portrayal of St. Joan of Arc in one of Shakespeare's plays?

While I was watching the coronations of King Charles III and Queen Camilla, I was thinking about St. Joan of Arc. My hometown, Wichita, Kansas, is a sister city of Orleans, France. The City of Wichita was planning a ceremony at her statue in front of one of our public libraries in honor of the celebration of her great liberation of Orleans from the English siege on May 8, 1429. And I was anticipating a Shakespeare reading group the next Saturday. We were going to read aloud, by assigned parts, Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part One, in which “Jeanne la Pucelle” is a character—not her most favorable dramatic representation.

As I was watching the coronation ritual, with its oaths and prayers and its almost Catholic order of service, I reflected on the English Reformation and how Henry VIII’s crucial break from Rome and its aftermath influenced so much of what was on the screen. The Kyrie (sung in Welsh), the Gloria (using the sixteenth-century Recusant Catholic William Byrd’s setting—in Latin—from his Mass for Four Voices), the Sanctus, the Agnus Dei, the Veni Creator Spiritus, and the Te Deum Laudamus—all are leftovers from when England was Mary’s Dowry and a Catholic country, united with the vicar of Christ in Rome.

Against that Catholic patrimony, of course, were the King’s oaths to uphold the Reformed Protestant religion, the teachings of the Church of England, the rights of the bishops and clergy, and most of all the Protestant succession to the throne of England, which means that no Catholic may become king or queen regnant. (Since a 2015 amendment, a successor may be married to a Catholic and retain his place in line.) Thinking again about Saint Joan of Arc and centuries of English coronations between the Act of Settlement in 1701 and the accession of King George V, Charles III’s great-grandfather, I recalled the anti-Catholic oath several monarchs had taken, in which they swore “that the invocation or adoration of the Virgin Mary or any other saint, and the sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous.”

We must remember that Saint Joan of Arc was captured by the Duke of Burgundy, one of King Charles VII’s rivals in France, and sold to the English in 1430. Rouen in Normandy was the English stronghold in France, and there she was taken for trial with an ecclesiastical court favorable to the English. When I participated in the reading of Henry VI, Part One the next weekend, I read the role of Sir William Lucy, who confronts Joan over the deaths of the heroic Lord Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury and his son John. In that scene and whenever she appears against the English in the play, she is cruel, contemptuous, and crude. To the French, she is their heroine, even when they encounter setbacks, giving them not just hope, but excellent military advice; she is courageous and confident, already hailed as a new patron saint: “No longer on Saint Dennis will we cry / But Joan la Pucelle shall be France’s saint” (Act 1, Scene 6, 28-29).

Mark Twain, on the other hand, thought “she was pure from all spot or baseness,” that there was “no blemish in that rounded and beautiful character,” and that “she is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced” (from the Appendix to the Ignatius Press edition of Twain’s novel, pp. 451-452).

Twain would not recognize Shakespeare’s Joan in the fifth Act. When the English are about to capture her in Act 5, Scene 3, she consorts with Fiends for her safety, not St. Catherine, St. Margaret, or St. Michael the Archangel. In Act 5, Scene 4, when she faces being burned alive at the stake, she denies her father; she lies, connives, and pretends that she’s pregnant by first one, then another, then another; she is without any of the virtues that her Missourian admirer saw.

Whether William Shakespeare, or Thomas Nashe, or some other contributor to the play wrote those scenes—Henry VI, Part One is one of those plays critics think Shakespeare only contributed to, not wrote entirely by himself—he would be shocked that Jeanne la Pucelle has a statue in an Anglican Cathedral.

There is a legend that Henry Beaufort, the cardinal bishop of Gloucester, questioned Joan at her trial for heresy—a famous historical painting by Paul Delaroche depicts the scene—but the trial record does not include him in her questioning or condemnation. He may have witnessed her execution on May 30, 1431, and in the Anglican Cathedral of Winchester, a statue of Saint Joan of Arc stands across the aisle from Beaufort’s tomb. According to a May 14, 2015 article in the Hampshire Chronicle by Duncan Geddes, it was dedicated “by the Dean of Winchester in 1923, three years after her canonization [by Pope Benedict XV in St. Peter’s Basilica] and nearly five centuries after her death.” A leaflet published at the time calls it “slight act of reparation,” demonstrating that “we in England join in the admiration and reverence for her with the great nation which, in her days, was our gallant enemy, but which has now become our trusted friend and heroic ally.”

Not only that, but Joan is a saint on the Church of England’s liturgical calendar, on the day of her execution, May 30, as a visionary (not of Fiends, but of saints!).

For France, England’s erstwhile enemy, Joan of Arc was victorious even after her death. The English were driven out by 1453, with only Calais in their control, later lost during the reign of Mary I. If Joan had not rallied the French to defeat the English in the fifteenth century, the English Reformation of the sixteenth century might have occurred there too.

Saint Joan of Arc, pray for us!

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