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.
Shaw's exploration of Joan of Arc is so in-depth that there are many themes examined in his play Saint Joan. Some of them are
- genius and saintliness
- mental superiority causing animosity
- visions and visionary method
- gender and gender dressing
- feminism and a man's life
- youthful immaturity and educational ignorance
- science versus religion
The opening of Shaw's play positions Joan as an "upstart" unafraid of men and man's patriarchal authority over women, while simultaneously showing man's fearsome strength (which can easily be seen as weakness). Captain Robert de Baudricourt is raging because his steward can provide no eggs (and no milk the day before). The steward, cowering, explains the loss of food is due to the presence of the maid: "The girl from Lorraine, sir. From Domrémy." According to the steward, the maid is so potent in person, so "positive," that she can influence the hens to stop laying and the cows to stop giving milk. This introduction of Joan sets the stage for Shaw's many themes, such as her genius intellect and her religious faith.
Joan, theme of genius: Shaw, in the Preface to his play, says Joan is an "upstart," one who flies in the face of convention to assert his or her own superiority over established leaders. He explains her achievements as being the result of genius. In presenting this theme in the opening dialogue and character interaction, Shaw draws the picture of Joan as an immature, uneducated, rustic, ignorant, captivating girl who can face down military heroes because her intellect is so superior that she sees deeper and more profoundly than they do: "A genius is a person who, seeing farther and probing deeper than other people, has a different set of ethical valuations from theirs" (Shaw, Preface).
Joan, theme of religious faith: The source of Joan's motivation in life was her religious faith in what she held to be Christian truths. It was her unshakable faith that underpinned all her actions and provided the source for her visionary experiences. Accordingly, Shaw made some of her first words the introduction to her religious faith motivation.
JOAN [bobbing a curtsey] Good morning, captain squire. Captain: you are to give me a horse and armor and some soldiers, and send me to the Dauphin. Those are your orders from my Lord. . . My Lord is the King of Heaven.
Shaw draws a picture of the deep faith that will lead Joan to defy convention, lead military leaders to victory, defeat England, attempt perilous escape from imprisonment, and walk to the stake to be burnt even though her final vision from Saint Catherine led her astray. It is this deep faith, which Shaw presents and examines as a significant theme, that enables Joan to accept the religious visions (in much the same way Emperor Constantine accepted religious vision) that lead her to save France.
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.