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MonkeyNotes-Henry VI, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

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Joan La Pucelle

In a play largely devoted to the celebration of Talbot, there
could be no place for anything like a modern reading of Joan of
Arc. She is accordingly shown in a grotesquely unfavorable
light, as devil-inspired lecherous and consumed by vanity. A
character of lowly birth, she is utterly confident of her high
destiny, she is a challenge to the play’s patriotic values, with
her pungent contempt for pomposity and the fanaticism of her
belief in the French cause.

She is a witch and derives her power from the forces of hell.
She uses this power to humble the English, and consequently
Shakespeare’s attitude to her - on the surface - is one of simple
enmity. But she is also a peasant girl, with a sharp tongue and a
simple direct attitude towards the overblown nobility with
whom she has to cooperate. The result is a tug-of-war, which
Shakespeare fails to arbitrate. Jane, in the final analysis is
shown as evil: the alliance of political misrule with witchcraft.
She provides relief from the surrounding boredom and
barbarism.

She is shown as a comic figure, pretending to be a heroine.
After she leads France in victory what Charles delivers is
nothing but a parody of magnificence. "All the priests and
friars in my realm. Pucelle shall be France’s saint." This speech
insinuates that heroism without ethical sanctions merely
becomes another corrupt secular religion. As the representative
of that religion Joan suggests charlatans and imposters.

Beneath these postures, Joan is generically an imposter created
only to exhibit the ornate theatrical facade, as well as the policy
and "stratagems" by which aspirant baseness masquerades as
nobility. Hence, the scenes in which she is exposed and burnt
as a witch serve a formal expository purpose that supersedes
any need for a controlled, sequacious plot. The presence of
"fiends" substantiates the fact that her powers are evilly
inspired. These are followed by the shepherd, who underscores
the real baseness of her origins with his unvarnished testimony
that "she was the first fruit of my bachelorhood." Finally, the
reiterated innuendo of sexual misconduct is made utterly
explicit in her confession that Charles (or Alecon or Reignier)
has left her with a child.

And yet, the picture painted of her is not wholly black.
Occasionally, there are moments of depth. This is notably
apparent in the surprisingly eloquent tone of the lament, which
she utters over her country’s ruin, "Look on thy
country...malady of France." She is scornful of the dreary
routines of practical men and also has the peasant’s dislike of
fancy talk and high-flown titles. She turns this scorn on the
English mobility. When Lucy comes to inquire about Talbot’s
body her savage banter seems curiously sympathetic.

Her character sketch, drawn by the playwright is two
dimensional and stiff. But once this is understood and accepted
it is possible to feel her as a vivid presence.

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MonkeyNotes-Henry VI, Part 1 by William Shakespeare
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