What are the themes in the play Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw?

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bullgatortail's profile pic

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George Bernard Shaw's play deals with the complex character of the teenage saint and martyr, St. Joan of Arc. Shaw's play examines the themes of individualism, faith and even feminism. Joan possesses all of these traits: Her extreme individualism leads her to many victories and wins her many followers, but it can also be viewed as egocentric and imprudent. Joan's faith in her God never wavers, and she inspires faith in others through her miracles. She also takes a nationalistic approach politically, believing that people should be willing to give their lives for their native land. The fact that Joan crosses traditional gender boundaries by leading men in battle despite dressing in male garb shows that she possesses the belief that a woman can succeed at any pursuit she may choose.

thanatassa's profile pic

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Your first step in understanding any play by George Bernard Shaw is to read the Preface to that play carefully. One distinct and quite unusual feature of Shaw as a playwright is that he writes elaborate prefaces in which he articulates the main ideas of his plays and the points he is making in them very clearly. St. Joan is no exception to this.

The first theme in the play is feminist, and quite strongly so; Shaw uses the term feminism in his Preface. He argues that Joan was not just a genius, but a powerful woman of action who was regarded as sexless by her contemporaries because:

... like most women of her hardy managing type she seemed neutral in the conflict of sex because men were too much afraid of her to fall in love with her. She herself was not sexless.... But marriage, with its preliminary of the attraction, pursuit, and capture of a husband, was not her business ...

Thus a major theme of the play is the issue of gender roles.

Another major theme is that of the individual outsider versus established institutions. Shaw thinks that Joan was not just a strong and intelligent individual, but one who like Socrates was martyred in part for seeing more clearly and acting more decisively than her contemporaries and challenging ossified hierarchical structures. 

The final theme is the nature of the visionary. For Shaw, the history of Joan of Arc is not one of a madwoman or a fanatic, but one in which visions were the medium through which Joan exercised her own insight and genius into military affairs. 


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