Shaw gives all of his characters a fair shake. In his preface he declares that, "There are no villains in the piece." All of the people at Joan's trial end up convicting her for understandable reasons (at least from their point of view). Her former friends who abandon her to death don't lie about it or anything. They tell her straight up that they won't help her if she tries to free Paris on her own. She knows what she's getting into. Then there's Joan, herself. Rather than making her the perfect one dimensional heroine, Shaw draws a rich and complex character. She's brave, proud, funny, sentimental, and faithful. Shaw's refusal to reduce his characters to melodramatic stereotypes elevates the play to the level of high tragedy.
It's a play, so it falls in the category of drama. More specifically, it's a tragedy, because the heroine's choices are the cause of her own destruction. Furthermore, Shaw called it a chronicle play, meaning that he wanted to document the life of Joan. This is just another way of saying that it's a biography. Last but not least, it's historical fiction, or maybe historical drama would be more accurate. In any case it's based on historical people from and past events. Shaw condensed a lot of historical events and personages for dramatic effect, but the core story is still there.
At first this may seem like a question that's not even worth asking. The play is titled Saint Joan. It's about a saint. Her name was Joan. There you go. If you think about it a wee bit longer, though, it becomes pretty clear that Shaw wasn't guilty of lazy titling. The fact is that Joan wasn't recognized as a saint in her lifetime. She had a lot of fans, though. Many admired her courageous leadership and even believed that she'd worked miracles. Unfortunately, her success made her a lot of enemies as well; not the least of which was the Catholic Church.
One of great ironies of Joan's story is that she was branded a heretic and burnt alive by the very same organization that would recognize her as a saint over 400 years later. In his book, Contradictory Characters, Albert Bermel suggests that the title itself is ironic. He says, "The play asks a riddle: When is a saint not a saint? The answer is: when she's alive." Is Bermel right? Did Shaw title his play Saint Joan to point out this irony? Was he suggesting that the world may never be able to accept extraordinary people like Joan while they're alive? The last line of the play would seem to support this theory. Joan appeals to God saying, "O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?" (E.170)
Saint Joan ends with an epilogue, in which a good number of the characters materialize in a dream and discuss Joan's legacy on earth. In it we learn how King Charles had Joan's name cleared twenty-five years after he let her be executed. Also, a guy shows up from the future (1920) to tell them all that the Church has recognized Joan as a saint. The ending is a big shift in tone for the play. We go from high tragedy to high comedy. We go from straightforward realism to not-so-straightforward surrealism. What gives, Shaw? Why would you do such a thing?
It turns out that a lot of people were asking that question when the play was first produced. So much so, that he felt the need to defend it in his preface. He writes, "It was necessary by hook or crook to shew the canonized Joan as well as the incinerated one" (source). Shaw felt that if he didn't address in some way the fact that Joan was later recognized as a saint, he hadn't really done the job of chronicling Joan's story. She was one of those rare people whose death had just as large an effect on the world as her life.
He also felt it was very important to express his opinion that, if Joan were to come back to life today, she would just be executed all over again. He makes this point pretty darn clear in the play's very last moments. The characters all praise Joan after they find out she's been canonized. She's like, "Awe shucks, does this mean I should come back to Earth as a living person?" Everybody's like, "Uhh, not so much," and they disappear. In the end, Joan is left alone in pool of light asking, "O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive thy saints?" (E.170). Read it. Decide what you think. Is Shaw's epilogue heavy handed? Or is it the work of pure genius?
During Joan's time, France was a mess and had been for a while. The Hundred Years War had been going on since 1337. It was an extended conflict made up of lots of smaller wars. Basically, you had two families with claims to the French throne – the House of Valois and the House of Plantagenet. The Valois thought they should rule France, while the Plantagenets claimed both France and England. To make things even harder to sort out, both had legitimate claims, depending on how you looked at it. The families and their various allies wreaked havoc on the land for years and years.
Before Joan showed up, our buddy the Dauphin, Charles of Valois, was in pretty bad shape. He was surrounded by enemies. First there were the Burgundians. Charles had tried a couple times to make peace with their Duke, John the Fearless. Guess John shouldn't have been so fearless, though, because at the second "peace talk" Charles's men rose up and assassinated him. It's unclear as to whether Charles knew about this beforehand. Whatever the case, it was a pretty bad idea. The Burgundians were understandably kind of mad about the whole their-leader-getting-butchered thing. John's son, Philip the Good, allied Burgundy with Charles's big dog enemies, the English.
Things got worse for Charles when his mother, Isabella, who had committed adultery, and his father, Charles VI, who suffered from schizophrenia, disinherited him. There were rumors buzzing around that Charles wasn't the legitimate heir. People thought he might be the product of one of his mother's affairs. In any case, his parents signed the Treaty of Troyes, with King Henry V of England. This document declared that the English heir, Henry VI, would take the throne after Charles's father died. Luckily for Charles, his father and Henry V both died really soon after the treaty was signed. Henry VI was just a baby and so was more concerned with his bahbah than conquest. Still, a huge chunk of northern France, including Paris, was occupied by the English. Charles didn't really take any decisive action to kick them out, even though he had more soldiers. Why? We don't know.
By the time Joan arrived at Charles's court in 1429, France was in total chaos – so much so, that most people didn't even think of themselves as French. Shaw recognizes the country's general state of disarray by having La Hire say, "She has made her way from Champagne with half a dozen men through the thick of everything: Burgundians, Goddams [English], deserters, robbers, and Lord knows who" (2.20). La Hire also describes her as "An angel dressed like a soldier" (2.18). This description turns out to be pretty accurate. It's Joan's influence that inspires Charles to rise up and take control of the country. By 1453 he's expelled the English and united France under his rule.
The specific places where Shaw chooses to set the actual scenes are remarkable for the fact that they're pretty unremarkable. Let's do a rundown: we've some rooms in castles, the bank of a river, a room in a cathedral, and a bedroom. Shaw chooses theses places in a play where giant crazy battles, a grand coronation, and a massive public execution take place. Of course, all these events happen offstage.
Shaw says in his preface to Saint Joan that grander settings would be a mistake. He seems to have no patience for spectacle. He writes that building the "elaborate scenery" that would be required by having Joan burnt on stage, and having an "obviously sham fight" for the bridge across the Loire would be a waste of time. He says that audiences would go home cursing him "for writing such inordinately long and intolerably dreary and meaningless plays." That's the key word here – "meaningless." It seems that fancy sets were far less important to Shaw than giving audiences something to really think about. The simple settings he chooses provide a forum for his intellectual discussions to take place.
Shaw was such a respected playwright that the critics gave him his very own adjective: Shavian. The word is still used today to compare other pieces of literature to Shaw's work. Saint Joan bears all of Shaw's trademarks. Many of the characters are hyper articulate. They're able to understand complex concepts and enjoy debating them passionately, sometimes at great length and detail. You get plenty of this in Saint Joan. In Joan's trial, it's Joan's beliefs vs. Church doctrine. Another good example is Warwick and Cauchon's discussions of Nationalism and Protestantism.
If a play is described as Shavian it usually means that it turns the stage into a forum for ideas. Another hallmark of Shavian style is wittiness. Shaw punctuated his intellectual discussions with a sharp sense of humor. As soon as the play is in danger of getting bogged down, he keeps us engaged with some witty observation. Once again, Joan's trial is a good example. All the long debates are peppered with sassy comebacks from our heroine.
When the wind changes directions on the banks of the Loire, Dunois is convinced that it's a miracle. He's sure that Joan has been sent by God. To him it's symbolic of God's blessing on Joan. It could also be seen as having a greater symbolism. Joan's presence will change the direction the war is going. It's also a change for Joan herself. She goes from talking about taking back France to actually doing something about it. When the wind changes, so will her life, so will France, so will history.
The fact that Joan's heart doesn't burn can be seen as symbolic. The undamaged heart could represent her eternal spirit, which doesn't die along with her body. Her memory lives on to inspire many more generations to come. The play recognizes this in the epilogue, when the Gentleman comes from the future to tell us that Joan has been made a saint. Like Christ, Joan is resurrected in a sense by her canonization. Of course, this is a Shavian play, so no triumph comes without a twist of irony. The epilogue hypothesizes that, if she did come back to life literally, as is said of Jesus, that she would just be burnt all over again. Perhaps, the spirit that her unburned heart symbolizes is all the world ever really needed or wanted from her.
The very first scene starts off with Robert de Baudricourt brow beating his poor Steward because there aren't any eggs. We can understand. We also get grumpy when there's no breakfast. The hens haven't been laying ever since Robert refused to see Joan. The scene ends with Robert giving in and supplying Joan with the soldiers and supplies she needs to go see the Dauphin. Immediately, the hens start laying again. Is this just complete randomness on Shaw's part or is it incredibly symbolic? Let us examine:
Eggs are an ancient symbol of birth and renewal. It seems pretty logical, right? Eggs=little baby birds=birth. This symbolism goes all the way back before the Romans and Greeks.
It's so old that nobody even knows where it came from. Ever heard of an Easter egg? Ever wondered what they have to do with Jesus being resurrected? It comes from when the Catholic Church was going around converting all the pagans. "Pagan" is the term Catholics made up for any and all of the indigenous religions they came into contact with. Pagan basically meant you weren't Catholic. Anyway, the pagans had lots of holiday traditions that they were pretty reluctant to give up – one of which was celebrating the spring equinox with eggs. Get it? Eggs=little baby birds=birth=spring.
The Catholic priests found that it was a lot easier to convert people if they let them hold on to a few of their old traditions. They were like: "OK, you can still have your spring festival and your symbolic eggs, but we're going to celebrate Jesus' resurrection now instead of the renewal of the earth." (Incidentally the word Easter comes from the Saxon goddess Eastre.) The pagans were cool with this switcharoo. So, now we have: eggs=little baby birds=birth=Jesus' resurrection. (You can learn more about Easter here.)
When Robert decides to help Joan begin her quest, it's a birth of a sort. Only, instead of a fuzzy little chick, a saint is born. The symbolism is doubly meaningful because Joan is a Christ figure. She ends up being martyred just like Jesus and even resurrected in a way when she is made into a saint. OK, so the final equation is: eggs=little baby birds=birth=Jesus' resurrection=Saint Joan of Arc.
You may ask, what is this Nationalism of which you speak? We'll let Bishop Cauchon explain: "I can express it only by such phrases as France for the French, England for the English, Italy for the Italians, Spain for the Spanish, and so forth" (4.120).
This may not seem like such a radical idea today, but back then it was crazy talk. During Joan's time, people that mostly spoke French and lived in a land referred to as France didn't necessarily call themselves French. If you zoomed back in time and asked your average French speaking peasant where they came from, they might say Normandy or Aquitaine, but never France. The land was divided among lots of smaller duchies and fiefs. People were more loyal to their feudal lord than the king. In Shaw's play we see Joan burst onto the scene with a new philosophy. She thinks that all these people going around speaking French ought to be united under a strong French king.
Joan comes to symbolize this new Nationalism, and as a result she terrifies the feudal lords, French and English alike. The Earl of Warwick will elucidate us as to why: "Men cannot serve two masters. If this cant of serving their country once takes hold of them, goodbye to the authority of their feudal lords" (4.19). He goes on to say, " If the people's thoughts and hearts were turned to the king, and their lords became only the king's servants in their eyes, the king could break us across his knee one by one; and then what should we be but liveried courtiers in his halls?" (4.112).
This is exactly what happens in the future. If you want a good example, watch Henry VIII on The Tudors; you'll see the absolute power that future monarchs hold. Eventually the feudal lords become exactly what Warwick describes, only the king's servants. When Warwick orchestrates Joan's execution, in his mind, he's burning a symbol of this new Nationalism that threatens his power.
Note: It should be recognized that Shaw's use of the word Nationalism, is anachronistic, meaning that it is out of place in this time period. The term didn't come into use for several centuries after Joan's death. Shaw says in his preface that he chose to do this to better help modern audiences understand the play.
At Joan's trial, Bishop Cauchon tells everybody that, "The mighty structure of Catholic Christendom […] may be […] brought to barbarous ruin and desolation, by this arch heresy […] Protestantism" (6.74). But what exactly is Protestantism and why is it so dangerous to the Church? Warwick gives a good definition, saying "It is the protest of the individual soul against the interference of priest or peer between the private man and his God" (4.117).
Basically, Protestants in this novel believe that they should be able to talk to God themselves rather than having a priest do it for them. You can probably understand why the priests might not be fans of this idea. If everybody goes around communing with God on their own, won't all the clergy lose their job? Cauchon and his peers feel this is very dangerous because your average everyday Joe doesn't know enough to interpret God's will. They think it takes a trained and educated Churchman to get it right. For example, how is a layman supposed to know the difference between God's voice and Satan's?
Joan, of course, thinks she has every right to commune with higher powers on her own. She claims to the very end that her voices are sent from God, despite the fact that the Church tells her that they're demonic in origin. Joan even goes so far as to say, "I know that your counsel is of the devil, and that mine is of God" (6.233). Whoa, that's a harsh accusation. Not only is she claiming their interpretation is wrong, but also that it's been influenced by the Devil.
What's ironic is that Joan doesn't start out as a rebel against the Church at all. When she first meets the Archbishop at Charles's court she is extremely reverent, so much so that the nobles make fun of her. Even for most of her trial she is generally respectful of the Church as an institution. Nevertheless, her faith in her own interpretation of her voices over the Church's brands her as a heretic. The Church sends her to the flames because they can't allow this symbol of Protestantism to survive.
Note: Once again we have an anachronism. The word "Protestant" didn't come into popular use until Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. Shaw, of course, is well aware of this, and chose to include the term its modern implications.
Though all works of literature present the author's point of view, they don't all have a narrator or a narrative voice that ties together and presents the story. This particular piece of literature does not have a narrator through whose eyes or voice we learn the story.
Joan shows up at the Castle of Vaucouleurs full of determination. She wastes no time in making her goals clear to Robert de Baudricourt and his soldiers. God has given her a mandate to unite France under Charles and give the English the boot. At the end of this stage she's off to the Dauphin, Charles, to make her dreams a reality.
Everything is looking good for Joan. She impresses the Archbishop, inspires Charles, and convinces the less jaded members of the court that she has been sent by God. Charles grants her command of the army, and she heads to Orleans. There she gains Dunois' respect with her courage. When the wind changes in a favorable direction for his ships, he's convinced that God is on her side. As the stage comes to a close, Joan and Dunois charge off to glorious battle.
Good things never last, at least in tragedies. In scene four, Warwick, the Chaplain, and Cauchon plot to try Joan for heresy. Her friends all give her the cold shoulder in scene five. Charles has been crowned and they're all ready to stop the fighting, even though France is not yet united. Joan, true to her mission, can't rest until the job gets finished. Charles, the Archbishop, and even Dunois all tell her that they'll do nothing to help her if she gets captured. Ultimately, Joan sticks to her guns and goes it alone.
True to the tragic structure, it is Joan who causes her own destruction in the end. She's given a chance to repent over and over again. For a brief moment, it seems like she will. She signs a confession saying that her voices were demons and that she was a bad, bad girl. When she learns that the Church is going to lock her up for life, she rips up the confession and chooses to be executed. Joan dies a firm believer in herself and God. In the epilogue, Shaw highlights the even greater tragedy of Joan. He uses a dream sequence to hypothesize that she wouldn't be accepted even if she came back to life as a saint.
The first scene does a great job of establishing Joan's character. Her charm, courage, and faith are on full display as she sways Robert and his soldiers to her side. The scene also establishes the generally unstately state of France. By the end of it we've got a good idea of who our protagonist is and the world she lives in. The stage is set for her to sally forth and kick some English butt.
Once Joan wins over Charles and gets control of the army, she can really get down to business. Her goals aren't small. She wants to raise the siege at Orleans, crown Charles at Rheims Cathedral, and expel the English out of France for good. The main conflict of the play is crystal clear.
In Scene Four, we see the Earl of Warwick and the Chaplain de Stogumber forming plans to take Joan down. They enlist the help of Cauchon, the Bishop of Beauvais, who agrees to try her for heresy. By the end of this scene, we know better than Joan the barriers that are standing in her way.
After Charles gets crowned at Rheims, Joan's buddies want to sit back and relax. Joan, however, demands they get off their lazy butts and keep the fight going. The English aren't all gone. Paris isn't under French control. Tempers flare when her allies refuse to help her and accuse her of being prideful.
Joan's friends warn her that if she continues the fight and gets captured, they won't lift a finger to help her escape. Perhaps foolishly, perhaps bravely, she swears to trust in her voices and continue the fight without them.
The action of the play begins to resolve as the captured Joan is convicted of heresy and is burnt at the stake.
Shaw ends the play with a dream sequence. We learn that, after Joan was executed, her name was cleared and she was made a saint. A bunch of characters, show up and tell Joan they're sorry that they dissed her back in the day. However, when Joan asks them if she should come back to Earth, they all freak out and leave. Joan ends the play by asking God if the world will ever be ready for saints.
Scenes One through Three make up the first act. Basically, we watch Joan convince everybody that she's legit. She starts with Captain Robert de Baudricourt, moves on to Charles and the Archbishop, and ends with Dunois. One by one she convinces these guys that she is the lady with the plan. By the end of scene three she's got everything she needs to fulfill the tasks that her voices have given her.
In the second act Joan's good fortunes begin to erode. Scene Four shows Warwick and the Chaplain plotting against her. When they team up with the well-intentioned (but perhaps incredibly misguided) Bishop Cauchon, we know that Joan is in some serious trouble. Oh, but her friends will help her out right? Nope. In Scene Five, King Charles and company give her the cold shoulder, telling her that, if she gets captured, she's on her own.
The play builds to its final peak and resolution in the third act. Scene Six gives us a glimpse into Joan's trial. Cauchon and the Inquisitor do their best to convince Joan to say she was wrong about the whole voices thing. In the end, Joan goes to her death for her beliefs. Shaw ends the play with an epilogue. This dream sequence lets us know that Joan was eventually made a saint by the same organization (the Church) that burned her for a heretic over 400 years earlier. The play ends with Joan asking God when the world will be ready for His saints.
Note: Joan hears the voices of Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret, and the Archangel Michael. These are referenced quite often throughout the play. God, Jesus Christ, and Satan are also referenced consistently.
Note: This play is based on historical events and people. As such nearly every character is a historical shout out. Below we've documented references to people that would've been historical to the characters in the play.