Defending Joan of Arc

A new reader wants to talk about Joan of Arc’s portrayal in Henry VI.  Specifically, she (I am guessing she from a Twitter image) feels that Shakespeare “insulted Joan, obviously” and that “he disgraced himself.”

For reference see also this recent comment in the “Why Do You Hate Shakespeare?” thread, which I must assume (though have not proven) comes from the same person:

I really, really hate him.
I was very shocked when read [Henry 6 part 1]. She wasn’t a witch, a whore, an immoral girl, and a femme fatale! T.T How could the hack insulted her? stupid!

Truthfully I have no opinion on the subject, at all, having only the most passing knowledge of this particular play.  But I promised that I would put it out there for discussion.  Any of my history buffs want to jump in with why exactly Shakespeare might have painted Ms. D’Arc in such a negative light, relative to the playwright’s own religion / location / time period?

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13 thoughts on “Defending Joan of Arc

  1. Joan was French. The French and English were fighting each other.
    Joan thought voices from the saints were speaking directly to her, thus she claimed to have a direct connection to God. She heard these voices in defense of the French, and battled the English in *their* name. She was burned at the stake for her pains, accused of being a witch.
    Interesting that she was sold to the English by Burgundians and sentenced to her fate by a pro-English FRENCH bishop at Rouen. The Dauphin, later Charles VII, whom she helped to make King of France, did nothing in her defense. 25 years later, the Catholic Church saw the "error of its ways" and canonized her. Pretty simple, really, given the times.
    Shakespeare took his history cues from "Holinshed's Chronicles" almost exclusively, but also possibly borrowed from more 'colorful' accounts: "Edward Hall's The Union of the two noble and illustre famelies of Lancastre and Yorke, written in 1550 and "Robert Fabyan's The New Chronicle of England and of France, written in 1516.
    Shakespeare was, as in many other instances, compressing history and merely reflecting the sentiment of his time. Scholars are not sure whether Shakespeare was solely responsible for the play. However, the act of any author making Joan a hero and not speaking of her in the basest of terms would have probably consigned them to more than dirty looks from the establishment, to say nothing of the negative opinion it would have garnered from his audience. She was thought to be a witch and was, for a while, the scourge of English troops. Again, the explanation is pretty simple, given the time.
    It is ignorant to believe the partisan, dramatic embellishment of her legend to be simply driven by pure hate, and to be merely the ravings of a drug-addled "swindler".

    Given the quality of this individuals "criticism", it's possible that they recently saw the film "Anonymous', and feel as though they now 'know' some deep, dark secrets about Shakespeare–and, strangely, Thomas Carlyle as well.

  2. Hello. I am the Anonymous.
    First, I am sorry about the coarse expressions in the last time. I was upset at the moment. altough I don't give up my thought yet.

    Do you think criticism of Joan of Arc is wise, but criticism of Shakespeare is ignorant?
    About Joan of Arc, was it a sin to defend her homeland?
    Morin and JM, you are an american, right?
    What if an English writer portrayed George Washington as a satan or villain?

    I am from Korea.
    There are two figures similar to Joan in Korea.
    One is Yi Sun-Sin.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yi_Sun-sin
    Although he was a man. ^^;; but Joan and the admiral have something in common.
    First, they saved their nations and peoples from invader on impossible situation.
    Second, they were betrayed by ungrateful Kings and disloyal subjects.
    Finally, they died a heroic death.

    Another is Yu Gwan-sun.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yu_Gwan-sun
    She was known for read biography of Joan, impressed and admired her. Joan was her idol.

    Although Korea-Japan relationship is not friendly than England-France or England-Ireland, I have never heard that Japanese writers insulted them for all ages.
    Of course, I don't hate Japan. ^^

    In 18-19th century, France was the big enemy of England and Germany.
    Nevertheless, English Robert Southey and German Friedrich von Schiller admired Joan of Arc. they read Shakespeare's work, but respected Joan of Arc. ^^

    in those days, an English theatre audience protested at a scene depicting Joan of Arc carried off by devils, so they changed it to having her carried off by angels.
    Why the English audience protested? because they knew already Joan of Arc wasn't a witch but a Saintess. they were brave! ^^

    Anyway, may I ask you a question point-blank?
    What do you think of Joan of Arc? do you really think Joan of Arc as a witch? your lovable writer said that Joan was a witch. Let us be candid.
    If you don't think that, at least, should be ashamed about the portrayal in the play and feel sorry for her or honor the memory of her.
    I believe you don't agree his insulting portrayal of Joan of Arc. if praise it….. I don't want to say about that.
    There is a friend of mine, her patron saint is Joan of Arc. because of the play, she is sorrowful and traumatized now. so, I am very sad. T.T

    You may think Korea was uncivilized in literature. nope!

    Kim Jong-jik(1431–1492, he was born in the year Joan of Arc was burnt to death and died in the year Columbus landed in America.) criticized the usurpation of King Sejo(1417–1468, he was like claudius of Hamlet.) through his poem.

    Kim Si-seup(1434–1493) wrote some novel, including weepy love story like Romeo and Juliet. King Sejo promised him that give government position and wealth and honor, but refused loyalty to the King.

    Heo Gyun(1569–1618, he was contemporary with Shakespeare) insisted the abolition of the caste system through his work, Tale of Hong Gildong. and his sister Heo Nanseolheon(1563–1589) was a female poet.

    Nam Gon(1471 – 10 March 1527) was known for a wordsmith of the day, but unfortunately most of his works are lost to history. by political blunders, he killed his junior, Jo Gwang-jo. he regretted bitterly about that. so, He willed that burn his works.
    He knew conscience and shame.

    Kim Manjung(1637–1692) satired the royal family through his novel. and wrote a fantasy novel like the film, Inception.

    Jeong cheol(1536–1593, he was contemporary with Shakespeare, too.) was best wordsmith in Korean ancient literature. he was Korean Shakespeare.
    Korean student must read and study his work.
    But, korean don't admire and like him. because he was a flatterer and a model of prostitution of learning.

    Shakespeare was a realist like Jeong cheol. he agreed ardently the witch-hunt in King Henry IV, Part I and supported the persecution of Jewish people in The Merchant of Venice.

    I very respect German people. because they don't hide and don't excuse their gloomy history like holocaust.
    We must learn from history.

    Thank you for reading my opinion. ^^ I am not good in English. ^^;;;;;
    Cheers!

  3. Well I really don't know how to defend Joan on this one. I mean she may have been only doing what she believed was right but that did involve going to do battle with England for 4 years and I don't thing a Englishman like Shakespeare will write good things about a French woman who beat England in battle over and over again.

    England went to war with France every chance they got, we would joint wars that don't concern us just to fight France.

    but we did, eventually, stop hating France and put our past behind us. For example I'm British and I'm very interested in Joan of Arc because of what she did, I don't care who she fought.

  4. Anonymous wrote: "What if an English writer portrayed George Washington as a satan or villain?"

    –I'm sure some of the British did something like that during our Revolutionary war. It is, however, just as ridiculous as portraying Washington as a saint, or Joan of Arc as someone who hears voices, or as a witch possessed by demons. YET people seriously believed BOTH. In fact, ghosts, witches, and demons were a *very* real thing to the people of Shakespeare's time, as were sprites,fairies, and the Fates.

    Would you blame one man for the common beliefs, prejudices, patriotism and superstitions of his time–for writing about what would amount to common knowledge and belief within the constructs of his society; his whole world? If so, you have plenty of other authors, secular and religious, to add to the list. In fact, add EVERY author who ever put pen to paper.

    Or, here's a thought: Let's then condemn everyone today who is superstitious enough to think that Joan had back and forth conversations with God. Isn't that what 'saints' do?
    What's your opinion of Catholics; those of Hebrew beliefs; Quakers; Islam? They were far more responsible for real hate and persecution than some playwright echoing the thoughts of his day. The Catholics who champion Joan, for example, as you do, gave us the Inquisition. What hateful, prejudiced *idiots* THEY must have been, no? Whose *side* will you take–NOW, TODAY?

    You see, this discussion is much more complicated in its roots than to be easily solved by simply hating a 16th century dramatist for a common opinion he happened to *dramatize*. Yet you do–and vehemently so.

    Why is it that you seem to have such major problems with sorting out historical context?

    By the way, you really should read The Merchant of Venice more closely.

  5. PS Anonymous,

    I apologize for my sarcasm about the English language in my response to you on the other thread, "Why do you hate Shakespeare? What do you hate about Shakespeare?"
    Knowing what I now know, you do worlds better with it than I could even imagine doing with Korean in my wildest dreams. Kudos.

  6. Hello, JM.
    Contrary to your expectation, I don't believe in any particular religion. I like all, whether Jesus or Buddha, or Muhammad or Confucius. every religion has their miracle. Joan's case was one of it.
    And I don't like both Catholic and France. because they killed Joan with English. they owes much to her.

    Yes, some people may, can believe or say Joan of Arc was a witch. but where is the evidence? she never killed anyone, and comforted wounded soldiers of enemy.
    Finally, she was canonized in 1920. anyone can not be a saint. because the examination is very strict. the examiners should collect objections. she passed it.
    You said Joan of Arc as a witch possessed by demons. yet people seriously believed it.
    I'm sorry to dare tell you this, maybe, are you one of the people believed it? if you aren't, pardon me.

    By comparison, Shakespeare insulted her, obviously.
    You might think I'm harsh for saying this but… he violated her with his pen.
    Judging from the work's beginning, he knew she was innocent already. I could understand him rather he portrayed her as a witch from the beginning.
    He wrote a title "All's Well That Ends Well", but he contradicted himself.

    I hope that you, who attended a good school, don't around the bush to a small person in the small country.
    Is you are a teacher? then, when teach about Joan of Arc, will you say she can be a witch to kids? or have you ever said that already? if there is a whose patron saint is Joan of Arc? what can you do? kids may think she was really a witch while reading or watching the work. it is dangerous indoctrinate wrong facts, to kids.
    I wish and believe you have never did or won't do it.
    I don't think that you may understand and support Shakespeare's everything whatever he did.

    At least, as I say, should be ashamed about the portrayal in the play and feel sorry for her or honor the memory of her. at least, we have to emulate Nam Gon. admit an error is not hard.

    I wanna give a korean poem you and Shakespeare.

    Your divine plans have plumbed the heavens;
    Your subtle reckoning has spanned the earth.
    You win every battle, your military merit is great.
    Why then not be content and stop the war?
    -Eulji Mundeok

    And I wanna give another poem for Joan.

    Though I die and die again a hundred times,
    That my bones turn to dust, whether my soul remains or not,
    Ever loyal to my Lord, how can this red heart ever fade away?
    -Jeong Mong-ju

    Thank you for reading my opinion again.
    Cheers!

  7. Someone sent me an email about this discussion so I thought I would give you some more information that might help. In the introduction to the play Henry VI Part 1 at MaidOfHeaven.com is posted:
    "Shakespeare's Henry VI Part 1 is one of the earliest plays attributed to him and was thought to have been written around 1590. There has always been controversy over whether or not Shakespeare actually wrote all or any of the play. Henry VI Part 1 has been harshly criticized over the years for the inaccurate portrayal of Joan of Arc as a witch and a whore. Shakespeare undoubtedly used the prevailing English propaganda of his day however his inability to more accurately depict Saint Joan has been troubling to scholars past and present."
    Anyone wanting a more indepth discussion of this play in terms of St. Joan of Arc should visit this page: http://www.maidofheaven.com/joanofarc_henryvi_review_lang.asp

  8. Ben D. Kennedy quoted: "Shakespeare undoubtedly used the prevailing English propaganda of his day however his inability to more accurately depict Saint Joan has been troubling to scholars past and present."

    Ben,
    The same could be (and has been) said of his portrayal of his own countryman, Richard III. There are lots of discrepancies in the "History" plays, as there are in the "histories" he drew them from, as there must certainly be in the "histories" of Joan of Arc (in her case you might even sometimes read "histories" as "legend"). If we look at Shakespeare as "historian", perhaps a severe condemnation might be warranted. He was, however, first and foremost, a Dramatist.

    Thanks for the link. It seems to be mainly a treatise for Joan's sainthood. It's only sensible to assume that those who believe in such things would have a greater problem with Shakespeare's depiction of her (if in fact he did actually write the portions under scrutiny,which we can't be sure of). What was he actually thinking? In that regard, as with all of his work, the puzzle remains.

  9. Interesting that tempers become so heated around this discussion. With the exception of maybe Richard III, I don't know of any other historical character whose portrayal (or misportrayal) by Shakespeare would raise so much ire. Yet, by my count, more than half of Shakespeare's plays depict historical personages, and Shakespeare ALWAYS takes liberties in depicting them, heightening, caricaturing, or altering details of their lives. It's a necessity of drama.

    For many figures in Shakespeare, his portrayal of them has become the dominant one in popular culture — think of Julius Caesar, King Lear, Henry V. Joan of Arc is a relatively rare exception. Contra anonymous, there's no reason to believe Shakespeare knew "the facts" about Joan, since he (and his probable collaborators) were using English sources. It's in bad faith to fault Shakespeare here for libelous writing when in fact the Joan we remember had yet to be invented (or discovered) by later, sympathetic historians. "Joan la Pucelle," as Shakespeare names her, is a formidable, unbalanced, charismatic spitfire aided by demonic forces. She makes for a great character, but not for a faithful depiction of her historical counterpart — though can't we say that of most figures in Shakespeare's plays?

  10. I read well your comments.
    Dear fan of Shakespeare, do you mind if I ask you some point-blank questions?
    In conclusion, do you agree with the portrayal of Joan of Arc in Henry VI now? or do you think Joan of Arc was a really witch not a Saint now?
    I want you to answer sincerely.

    Herge, a belgian comics writer, was known for Tintin.
    When he was young, he drew "Tintin in the Congo".
    But It was criticized for the portrayal of africans. in fact, he had a bias against africans in those days.
    Later, he said "the sin of my youth." about that.
    Although Shakespeare was already dead hundreds of years ago, at least, as I say, his fans should be ashamed about the portrayal in the play and feel sorry for her or honor the memory of her.

    Cheers!

  11. Put this up quite a while ago, a week or more before Alexi's post–have no idea why it didn't get posted. Maybe a glitch? Anyway, it has much in common with what Alexi wrote.

    Ben,
    The same could be (and has been) said of his portrayal of his own countryman, Richard III. There are lots of discrepancies in the "History" plays, as there are in the "histories" he drew them from, as there must certainly be in the "histories" of Joan of Arc (in her case you might even sometimes read "histories" as "legend"). If we look at Shakespeare as "historian", perhaps a severe condemnation might be warranted. He was, however, first and foremost, a Dramatist.

    Thanks for the link. It seems to be mainly a treatise for Joan's sainthood. It's only sensible to assume that those who believe in such things would have a greater problem with Shakespeare's depiction of her (if in fact he did actually write the portions under scrutiny,which we can't be sure of). What was he actually thinking? In that regard, as with all of his work, the puzzle remains.

  12. Sorry J – that one got left behind in the spam filter. I wish the controls were a bit better and that I was able to bless certain contributors as never spam, but unfortunately for all posts once they get past a certain age all comments go into the approval bucket, and sometimes I miss the single email that I'm sent telling me to go approve them.

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