George Bernard Shaw

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Stanley J. Solomon (essay date February 1964)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5689

SOURCE: Solomon, Stanley J. “Saint Joan as Epic Tragedy.” Modern Drama 6, no. 4 (February 1964): 437-49.

[In the following essay, Solomon explores the consequences of synthesizing epic and tragic elements in Saint Joan.]

Several of the critical problems related to Saint Joan stem from the unusual nature of the play—unusual, that is, for Shaw, for in no other Shaw play do we have a predominantly tragic tone.1 In the numerous commentaries on the play, we find three key questions frequently recurring: 1) Is Joan a tragic heroine with a tragic flaw or an innocent victim of circumstances? 2) Although Joan has our sympathies throughout, why does Shaw go to such elaborate lengths to align us intellectually on the side of her opposition? and 3) If the play is a tragedy, what is the purpose of the epilogue? In dealing with the above questions, I propose to consider Saint Joan as indeed a tragedy, but a special kind of tragedy, one that encompasses an epic design. The play is as consistently tragic in tone (at least from the first third of it to the end), as it is epic in structure. We may speculate on Shaw's reasons for not using the conventional tragic structure for Joan's story, but it is perhaps more rewarding to concern ourselves with the effects that Shaw achieves by coordinating epic and tragic elements.


The significant structural feature of epic drama is that emphasis is placed on important incidents in the history of an event or in the life of a hero. Naturally, the epic play is essentially dramatic, and therefore conflicts must arise, but the play does not raise the central issue of conflict as quickly as is done in tragedies. In the development of the action, long periods of time often elapse between scenes.2 Epic drama is related to epic poetry in the sense that both strive for an heroic representation of character: the contending parties are never merely involved in a personal conflict, but rather one nation against nation, or one hero against a representation of evil, such as Ulysses against Polyphemus or Beowulf against the dragon. The greatness of the hero is measured by the strength of his opposition. The chronicle structure becomes necessary to the epic play in order to build up both forces of contention to formidable size, not just to increase the hero's reputation. Thus, Shaw keeps Joan off-stage for an entire scene in which he depicts the coalescence of Joan's three opposing forces: the feudal system (Warwick), the Catholic Church (Cauchon), and, the least formidable, the English nation (de Stogumber).

The scope of the material handled in the epic play is generally of greater social significance than that of the tragedy, which is concerned with the fall of a single person. The fall of Joan is tragic in itself, but the focus of the play is often on the social significance of the conflict between the established order of the Church and the feudal system on the one hand, and society's disruptor, the heretical saint, on the other. Therefore, because of the scope of epic drama, the playwright requires more than a single dramatic situation to develop the ideas and the conflicts at the heart of the play. The action of such plays usually necessitates the use of more scenes than ordinary plays have. We can readily see that the dramatist's technical ability is severely tested, inasmuch as the artistic harmony and unity of the play depend upon the theme and the repetition of patterns of action or the development of character. The two key patterns that are found in Saint Joan are the repeated demonstrations of Joan's pride and the several anticipations of future events. Both patterns will be discussed later.

Since each force in the epic conflict represents great, if not equal, power, the dramatic form might naturally tend to allow the decision of the conflict to be determined by the circumstances of the clash. Not so with Saint Joan; the failure of Joan lies in herself, not in her environment. The seemingly unsolvable problem of Saint Joan—that Joan's voices make her a saint and a dangerous heretic at the same time—is not, as we will see, the reason for her misfortunes. The play is not nearly as pessimistic in its conclusion as Joan is in hers: “O God, that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive thy Saints? How long, O Lord, how long?”3 Contrary to a good deal of critical opinion,4 Joan is not defeated—though she may think so—by forces beyond her control.5 Shaw portrays a willful Joan who continually provokes those forces which later become her enemies, but which at the beginning neither care about nor are conscious of her existence. Furthermore, the epic structure of the play impresses us not so much with the unsolvable conflict of church and state versus the individual, but with the possibility that such a conflict arises from the weakness of the two great opponents, both of whom would be greater than they are if they had the understanding necessary to surmount the conflict.

Shaw spends about four-fifths of the play highlighting Joan's character and the character of her enemy, Established Order (collectively), particularly to impress upon us the flaws in the two clashing points of view. It has become a cliché of criticism to mention that Shaw balances the argument for the Church and for Joan in the fairest manner imaginable.6 Some critics even believe that Shaw's true sympathy was on the side of the Church, and the dialectic may indeed be slanted in favor of the intellectuals, Cauchon and the Inquisitor (as it is earlier in the case of the Archbishop). But it is not Shaw's intention to engage in an apologetic for either side. Both sides are wrong, and to stress this Shaw develops two parallel lines of action in the play. The first demonstrates the rise of Joan, the nature of her challenge to the mores of society, her traits of innocence and conviction which attract followers, and her passionate self-absorption (that is, her pride) which destroys her ability to comprehend any point of view other than her own. The second line of action shows us the crystallization of the challenged forces—the feudal system, the Church, and the English state—into a unified opposition.

The first developing action reaches its climax in the fifth scene. Here Joan discovers that neither Dunois (representing the army), the Archbishop (the Church), nor Charles (the political arm of the state) will support her because—and this she does not understand—the barrier that her obstinacy sets up between her and her potential supporters cannot be crossed by tact or compromise. Nevertheless, at the climactic moment she determines to continue in her course of action, heedless of the warnings about her pride. The predictable fall that follows an outburst of a tragic hero's pride comes quickly, as the next scene opens on the day of her trial.

The second development of the plot in Saint Joan concerns the coming together of the three forces in opposition to Joan. She is the natural enemy of the Church, since she not only believes in her Voices but cannot resist proudly publicizing her direct communication with the divine. The English nation, of course, hates her for her military achievements. The aristocracy of feudal lords condemns her for her nationalism which represents a direct threat to their sovereignty. Joan would have the King supersede the feudal lords in a strong centralized government and have the people owe allegiance primarily to the King. All three forces are not simply opposed to the symbol which the Maid has established for herself, but they are also opposed to one another. The dislike each has for the other's views, as expressed by the antagonism among de Stogumber (the voice of the common man and of the rising bourgeois spirit of nationalism), Cauchon, and Warwick reveals an animosity toward each other as bitter as that shown toward the Maid. The vital difference is that while the Church, the aristocracy, and the nationalists are in the midst of a slow-moving dispute that is to last hundreds of years, the threat posed to them by Joan is immediately dangerous. They intuitively recognize this, and in the climax of this part of the plot (scene four), they form a temporary coalition for the purpose of destroying a mutual enemy.7 At the end of this scene, we are made aware of what will happen to Joan should her enemies triumph.

The primary action of Joan's rise and fall is developed in several stages, corresponding to the development of her characteristic traits. In the first scene at the castle of Caucouleurs, Joan performs her earliest significant action when Robert de Baudricourt is persuaded to give her a horse and armor and an escort to the Dauphin at Chinon. Her attractive traits of enthusiasm and determination serve her well here, as she is able to win over de Poulengey. Similarly, in scene two the same traits attract such men as Charles and La Hire. Another attraction of Joan is her innocence which springs from her basically good nature; it is this trait that originally gains her the favor of Dunois and the Archbishop. Above all, perhaps, is her persuasive ability, which is a shrewd mixture of flattery and sincerity. The rise of Joan is not, however, portrayed in a simple pattern of continual success. She meets several obstacles—represented by the skepticism of such men as Robert, the Archbishop, and Charles—and only partially overcomes them. Her later fall is prepared for by her inability to gain the complete support of all her allies.

One of the numerous levels of irony underlying the play concerns Joan's reactions to her early successes, and these reactions point up the development of her pride. She believes that the miracles spoken of as having been performed by her should be performed by her; that is, she feels that God has favored her in the past and that she can count on miracles in the future. Now the question of whether the incidents in which the hens lay eggs, the wind over the Loire shifts, and the English are defeated at Orléans are really miracles or merely luck is irrelevant to the fundamental matters of the play. Certainly, for the purposes of Saint Joan, Shaw intends for the audience to accept the proposal that St. Catherine and St. Margaret have spoken to the Maid, regardless of whether one can accept the Voices of the historical Joan. Nevertheless, although we cannot blame her for believing in the miracles, we can still condemn her arrogance in demanding more miracles for the future (and a miracle would be required to take Compiègne), and for demanding that everyone else expect the miracles to occur. Despite a good deal of intelligence, Joan is an anti-intellectual who, with the impatience typical of very active and enthusiastic people, despises—or at best tolerates—the theoreticians on war (Dunois), politics (Charles), and religion (the Archbishop). What Joan cannot understand is why these men will readily grant her previous miracles and yet have no faith in her ability to command future help from her sources of inspiration.


In writing a play about a newly canonized saint, Shaw was faced with an unusual additional difficulty. He wanted to make Joan a tragic figure only three years after the Catholic Church had proclaimed her a saint, a proclamation which, in effect, ruled out the possibility of her own shortcomings around the time of her trial. Yet Shaw wished to avoid the debunking play like Caesar and Cleopatra, which is more suitable to comedy. The task that Shaw attempted would be comparable to a late eighteenth-century American playwright's attempt to depict George Washington as a tragic figure suffering from hubris and falling victim to nemesis.

How in such a situation does a playwright portray a victim of pride without either antagonizing the audience or being too subtle to be understood or too obvious to be artistic? Shaw solved his problem by trying out a new technique which allowed him to present his story sympathetically from the point of view of Joan, without alienating his audience with iconoclasm. Of course, Shaw is almost fully sympathetic to Joan as a fellow mystic and an individualistic woman, but this is not artistically to the point. The technique which Shaw here adopts is the use of anticipatory discussions. Formerly, as in Getting Married and Man and Superman, Shaw's characters discussed the situations they participated in, basing their comments on observed facts. But in Saint Joan, Shaw tries out predictive exposition, and thereby completely eliminates melodramatic surprises.

Aside from eliminating melodramatic incidents, the technique of having a character anticipate the actions (and influence) of Joan serves at least two other important functions in the play. First, it achieves the effect of revealing Joan's alienation from her environment. She is an emotionally impulsive person acting on inspired decisions in an environment where other characters are making intellectual—or at least rational—decisions. Aware of alternatives and possible dangers that Joan refuses to consider, these other characters can analyze situations and make calm predictions about the outcome of Joan's actions. Secondly, this technique helps to account for the plane of reality on which one level of the plot moves in contrast to the spiritual and personal level on which the tragic movement of Joan takes place. In other words, the rise and fall of Joan, all her actions, are explained on both the level of the miraculous and that of the natural. We are not to choose one level and reject the other. Warwick, Cauchon, Joan, the Inquisitor, all do reject one level of the plot movement and thereby reveal a “tragic” limitation.

The first example of the anticipation of an action occurs in scene one. Robert de Baudricourt, after listening to Joan's impetuous speech against the English, says to Poulengey:

This may be all rot, Polly; but the troops might swallow it, though nothing that we can say seems able to put any fight into them. Even the Dauphin might swallow it. And if she can put fight into him, she can put it into anybody.

(p. 69)

Thus, the realistic movement of the action is carefully delineated. The military miracles that Joan is to achieve are explained in an offhand but natural manner. Of course, Robert's explanation, even if reiterated after the victories, does not in the least way invalidate the supernatural explanation advanced throughout by Joan. The purpose of the parallel movement of the two levels is to have the spiritual explanation exist side by side with the natural and to produce a constant tension between the believers on each extreme—but given the dialectic of the play, we cannot prove or disprove either viewpoint.

The second anticipation occurs in the next scene. Before Joan presents herself to the Dauphin, Captain La Hire suggests the miracle which is later attributed to Joan. The French army under Dunois has been attempting to raise the siege at Orléans, but the wind across the river Loire is against the French. La Hire, addressing the court of Charles proposes support for the Maid:

What he [Dunois] needs is a miracle. You tell me that what the girl did to Foul Mouthed Frank [whose death Joan predicted] was no miracle. No matter: it finished Frank. If she changes the wind for Dunois, that may not be a miracle either; but it may finish the English. What harm is there in trying.

(p. 77)

Like Robert, La Hire is a practical, though desperate, soldier. Again, the realistic and the supernatural elements surrounding the reputation of Joan merge, and a third attitude is expressed—that of the disinterested party concerned not with the means but the ends.

A more interesting example of an action of Joan's which is anticipated by a realist occurs immediately before Joan enters into the presence of the Dauphin. The courtiers have decided to test Joan's ability to pick out the Dauphin, who is to change places with Gilles de Rais for the purpose of the experiment. With only the Lord Chamberlain, La Tremouille, on stage, the Archbishop calmly predicts that Joan will discover Charles because “she will know what everybody in Chinon knows: that the Dauphin is the meanest-looking and worst-dressed figure in the Court, and that the man with the blue beard is Gilles de Rais.” (pp. 77-78) The Archbishop then claims that Joan's picking out the Dauphin from among the courtiers will nonetheless be a miracle, which is defined as an event that causes belief on the part of witnesses.

This brief scene symbolizes the basic matter of the play: the essential ambiguity of the line that divides the supernaturally inspired from the natural. The Archbishop in this scene represents the possible synthesis of the contending points of view which arise later in the play. He has the intellectual perception necessary to see on both sides of the line. The miraculous and the real are, for him, coexistent:

Parables are not lies because they describe events that have never happened. Miracles are not frauds because they are often—I do not say always—very simple and innocent contrivances by which the priest fortifies the faith of his flock. When this girl picks out the Dauphin among his courtiers, it will not be a miracle for me, because I shall know how it has been done, and my faith will not be increased. But as for the others, if they feel the thrill of the supernatural, and forget their sinful clay in a sudden sense of the glory of God, it will be a miracle and a blessed one. And you will find that the girl herself will be more affected than anyone else. She will forget how she really picked him out. So, perhaps, will you.

(pp. 78-79)

Shaw might have thought “and so, perhaps, will the audience,” for when Joan does discover Charles, the illusion of the theater can be powerful enough to catch up the audience in Joan's enthusiastic belief. The scene concludes on a sublime theatrical underscoring (which certainly defies paraphrase) of the theme:

If I were a simple monk, and had not to rule men, I should seek peace for my spirit with Aristotle and Pythagoras rather than with the saints and their miracles.
LA Tremouille:
And who the deuce was Pythagoras?
A sage who held that the earth is round, and that it moves around the sun.
LA Tremouille:
What an utter fool! Couldn't he use his eyes?

(p. 79)


Since the opposing forces of church and state do not enter until scene four, the episodic development of Joan's story requires some early indications of the trouble that lies ahead. Otherwise, we would have a play in which the main character's sudden fall comes about either through no fault of her own or through an error of judgment not related to an important flaw in her personality. Shaw prepares us for the defeat of Joan by tracing the development of her character from self-conviction to pride. Joan's extreme belief in herself at the very outset is, of course, a form of pride, but it is balanced by the innocence and humility of a yet unproven country girl. With each success, Joan becomes more confident of herself and her Voices. We cannot, obviously, blame her for this natural reaction to her peculiar situation. However, her increased pride is accompanied by an increasingly blurred vision of what is occurring in the world. She chooses to see all events in terms of her own predicament. After succeeding in her audiences with Robert de Baudricourt and with the courtiers of the Dauphin, she is able to put her case to Charles in such terms as, “Art for or against me?” (p. 86) In other words, she quickly goes a little beyond the original intention of her divine mission by initiating the personal standard of “for me” or “against me,” rather than “for France and God” or “against France and God.”8 The spiritual lesson that Joan needs desperately to learn is told to her by Dunois:

I think that God was on your side; for I have not forgotten how the wind changed, and how our hearts changed when you came; and by my faith I shall never deny that it was in your sign that we conquered. But I tell you as a soldier that God is no man's daily drudge, and no maid's either. If you are worthy of it He will sometimes snatch you out of the jaws of death and set you on your feet again; but that is all: once on your feet you must fight with all your might and all your craft. For He has to be fair to your enemy too; don't forget that. Well He set us on our feet through you at Orleans; and the glory of it has carried us through a few good battles here to the coronation. But if we presume on it further, and trust to God to do the work we should do ourselves, we shall be defeated; and serve us right!

(p. 114)

Joan is not completely blinded by her egotism for she is sensitive to the fact that she is not beloved by her countrymen. “I have brought them luck and victory … why do they not love me?” she asks of Dunois. (pp. 108-109) Nevertheless, she makes no attempt to better her relationships with her allies. Joan's trouble is that she cannot hide a somewhat contemptuous attitude toward authority. The Archbishop speaking on religion and Dunois on war can hardly hold her attention. Joan as a rebel against the established order of society appears to be too obviously impatient with men who act from the lessons of their experience (i.e., men who do not act from enthusiasm or inspiration). If she were simply impatient and yet able to control her emotional reactions, perhaps she could have avoided the animosities that spring up around her.

Scene five, the climax, presents the final breach between Joan and her supporters. Toward the beginning of the scene, they are becoming intolerant of her pride. In a short exchange of dialogue among the King, Joan, and the Archbishop, Shaw telescopes the development of Joan's tragedy, once more predicting the course of events:

(sternly) Maid: the king addressed himself to me, not to you. You forget yourself. You very often forget yourself.
(unabashed and rather roughly) Then speak you; and tell him that it is not God's will that he should take his hand from the plough.
If I am not so glib with the name of God as you are, it is because I interpret His will with the authority of the Church and of my sacred office. When you first came you respected it, and would not have dared to speak as you are now speaking. You came clothed with the virtue of humility; and because God blessed your enterprises accordingly, you have stained yourself with the sin of pride. The old Greek tragedy is rising among us. It is the chastisement of hubris.
Yes: she thinks she knows better than everyone else.
(distressed, but naively incapable of seeing the effect she is producing) But I do know better than any of you seem to. And I am not proud: I never speak unless I know I am right.

(p. 112)

Partially, we can attribute her plight to her immaturity, but youthful inexperience alone would not completely alienate her supporters. It has been said that the play's theme is “the homelessness of genius,”9 but Joan is hardly a genius in the usual sense of the word, unless we allow her a genius for offending people.

She turns next to Charles and demands that he take Compiègne, for his throne is of doubtful value while the English hold French territory. Then Joan presses her attack on Dunois, accusing him of being an ineffective general: “You don't know how to begin a battle; and you don't know how to use your cannons and I do.” (p. 113) Dunois defends himself, arguing as a shrewd and successful military man who is trying to explain a difficult strategic problem to a novice. Joan will not consider his arguments, but instead advances her own Her arrogant remarks against conventional warfare prompt Gilles de Rais's comment, “Not content with being Pope Joan, you must be Caesar and Alexander as well,” and the Archbishop adds sententiously, “Pride will have a fall, Joan.” (p. 115)

Immediately after portraying the height of Joan's folly, Shaw constructs a climax out of the three key reactions to her exhibition of pride. First Dunois, supremely eloquent, turns from her:

And now tell me, all of you, which of you will lift a finger to save Joan once the English have got her? I speak first, for the army. The day after she has been dragged from her horse by a goddam as a Burgundian, and he is not struck dead: the day after she is locked in a dungeon, and the bars and bolts do not fly open at the touch of St. Peter's angel: the day when the enemy finds out that she is vulnerable as I am and not a bit invincible, she will not be worth the life of a single soldier to us; and I will not risk that life, much as I cherish her as a companion-in-arms.

(p. 116)

Then Charles, pleading poverty, admits that he too will not try to save her once she is captured. Joan, as a last resort, puts her future safety in the hands of the Archbishop. He is powerless to oppose the Bishop of Beauvais, but he cannot even be in sympathy with the Maid while she remains proud and, to his way of thinking, disobedient. As soon as he pronounces his decision, he hardens his heart against her. Now she is alone. Her capture, her imprisonment, her eventual solitary position, and her burning have all been predicted. We are not to be surprised by the development of the future events, and we know that once she determines on her course, friendless and impotent, she will be destroyed. Joan goes from them recognizing her uniqueness, the superiority of her personal insight, which, since it is mystical, cannot be fully appreciated by others.

The next scene, the trial of Joan, takes place almost two years after the climax. The epic structure of Saint Joan permits the author a wide choice of scenes to include, and significantly enough, Shaw omits Joan's capture and imprisonment. The omission is certainly justified by the structure which has already predicted the facts of her downfall. By the time of the trial, we are convinced that Joan cannot be saved. Since she has never before shown much respect for the opinions of intellectuals, we do not expect her to agree with the brilliant logicians, Cauchon and the Inquisitor. The outcome of this scene, too, has been well prepared for. When Joan momentarily loses faith in herself and recants, we have what at first appears to be an anti-climax. However, this reversal of plot is itself quickly reversed, and the play proceeds according to the plan of Joan's opponents.

Because the dialectical arguments of the play seem to be so well balanced between the Maid and her persecutors, the trial situation has sometimes been felt to be an inextricable problem.10 Both sides seem to be right. Of course, an audience is predisposed to favor the historic Joan, and surely the great actresses from Sybil Thorndike to Siobhan McKenna who have played her are likely to influence the audience further. Nevertheless, the fact is that Shaw does strengthen the case for the Church, and not merely for the sake of fairness, either. It is not enough that both sides are right and self-justified from their own points of view. If it were enough, then we would indeed have an unsolvable problem, and all that we would be left with at the end of the play would be a depressing sense of the paradoxical in life. But Shaw is mainly aiming at the narrowmindedness of both sides. Joan, the individualist, the rebel against Established Order, sees nothing significant in the orderly way in which some institutions of society function; instead she sees only the spiritual movement of her own life. The Church and the aristocracy, representing the intellectual segments of society, no longer really understand the religious spirit, their business is only with the orderly institutions of this world. Would the clash between the inspired idealist and the intelligent defenders of an institution be unavoidable if both a Joan and a Cauchon had an enlarged world-view which took in opinions other than their own? The failing seems to be in human nature more than in situation, and Shaw wrote an epilogue to point up these human failings.


One of the critical problems associated with the play concerns the necessity for the epilogue. William Irvine is representative of a large segment of critical opinion in denouncing the epilogue, which he calls “a vulgarization and a lengthy elucidation of the obvious.”11 Shaw's preface contains a feeble three-sentence defense of the epilogue:

As to the epilogue, I could hardly be expected to stultify myself by implying that Joan's history in the world ended unhappily with her execution, instead of beginning there. It was necessary by hook or crook to shew the canonized Joan as well as the incinerated one; for many a woman has got herself burnt by carelessly whisking a muslin skirt into the drawing room fireplace, but getting canonized is a different matter, and a more important one. So I am afraid the epilogue must stand.

(pp. 52-53)

Actually, the structure of the play demands an epilogue or the meaning as well as the story would be incomplete. We must remember that Saint Joan is not merely the tragedy of the main character. It is also the story (perhaps equally tragic) of her opposition. Joan herself understands this, and in the last scene, bemoans our civilization for not welcoming saints. Therefore, it becomes structurally necessary for Shaw to give us an epilogue that will demonstrate how both sides suffered and continue to suffer from an inability to comprehend more than their own level of existence. The inquisition scene brought out Joan's failure to understand the position into which she had forced the Church. Another scene is needed to equalize the criticism which the play directs toward all the characters. After Joan has been canonized and has received the praises of such as Cauchon, Dunois, Warwick, de Stogumber, Charles, and the Inquisitor, all the characters who formerly opposed or deserted her turn in horror from the thought that Joan might return to the world. Their previous errors, pointed out to them and admitted by them, still do not increase their ability to realize another kind of existence. Where would they place Joan? She has not changed; there is no place for her in their society.

In a practical sense, these men are right once more to deny Joan (who has not changed either). Yet the moral is clear enough. By having an inadequate understanding, they are condemning themselves, and their souls are in jeopardy. Nonetheless, when Joan cries, “O God that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?” (p. 163), she has only expressed half of the problem. A more cynical playwright than Shaw might have added another speech to the ending, one spoken in unison by Cauchon and Warwick: “O God, when will Thy saints be ready to accept Thy less understanding people?” To avoid such tragic situations as that of Saint Joan, perhaps the future saints, as well as the apologists for Established Order, must be more understanding.


  1. For a discussion of the problem of Christian tragedy in regard to Saint Joan, see Louis L. Martz, “The Saint as Tragic Hero: Saint Joan and Murder in the Cathedral,Tragic Themes in Western Literature, ed. Cleanth Brooks (New Haven, 1955), pp. 150-177.

  2. e.g., Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra, and Brecht's Mother Courage.

  3. Saint Joan: A Chronicle, and The Apple Cart: A Political Extravaganza (London, 1953), p. 163. All subsequent references to the play are incorporated in the text.

  4. e.g., see the contention of H. Lüdeke, “Some Remarks on Shaw's History Plays,” English Studies, XXXVI (October, 1955), p. 245.

  5. Only in Shaw's earliest and, curiously, last plays do we find “victims of circumstances” such as Trench and Mrs. Warren and some characters in The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles.

  6. Alick West, George Bernard Shaw: “A Good Man Fallen Among Fabians” (New York, 1950), p. 164; Eric Bentley, Bernard Shaw (Norfolk, 1957), p. 171.

  7. It has been frequently noted that this scene is one of the great moments in epic drama, and Shaw is at his best in drawing the forces together. To do this, he makes use of what critics have called a “symphonic structure.” Cf. William Irvine, The Universe of G. B. S. (New York, 1949), p. 324; Arthur Mizener, “Poetic Drama and the Well-made Play,” English Institute Essays, 1949 (New York, 1950), pp. 47-48; E. J. West, “Saint Joan: A Modern Classic Reconsidered,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, XL (October, 1954), p. 257.

  8. Her first attempt to rally public support right after winning over Charles is “Who is for God and his Maid?” (p. 86).

  9. Eric Bentley, The Playwright as Thinker (New York, 1955), p. 119.

  10. e.g., Eric Bentley, in Bernard Shaw, p. 169, refers to the play as the only one “in which Shaw essays what … he called a tragic conflict—that is, an irreconcilable conflict.” I think that historically, from Aristotle to Shaw, the words “tragic” and “irreconcilable” have been understood more as antonyms than as synonyms.

  11. Op. cit., p. 325. Cf. St. John Ervine, Bernard Shaw, His Life, Work and Friends (New York, 1956), p. 498; Archibald Henderson, George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century (New York, 1956), p. 600.

John L. Gribben (essay date winter 1965)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7168

SOURCE: Gribben, John L. “Shaw's Saint Joan: A Tragic Heroine.” Thought: A Review of Culture and Idea 40, no. 159 (winter 1965): 549-66.

[In the following essay, Gribben discusses the character of Joan in Saint Joan as a genuine tragic figure.]

When George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan was presented for the first time, at the Garrick Theatre in New York on December 28, 1923, it was acclaimed by critics of all shades of competence, from Hugh Walpole and Heywood Broun to Lord Beaverbrook, as one of the finest plays the world had seen, the finest play written in the English language of our day.1 The playbill described it as “a chronicle play.” This was an audacious misrepresentation since the play was, in fact, a thesis, and the Anglo-American intelligentsia of the Twenties, with its limited knowledge of Joan of Arc could no more recognize its chronicle character than they could distinguish genuine Haig and Haig from its Hoboken substitute. They might well have known the Joan of Arc of Mark Twain or Andrew Lang, or perhaps even Die Jungfrau von Orleans of Schiller or the La Pucelle of Voltaire. They might even have been able to account for the oddly unbalanced Pucelle of Shakespeare's Henry VI, but it is scarcely credible that even the ladies from Bryn Mawr or the gentlemen from Wilson's Princeton would have been acquainted with T. Douglas Murray's Jeanne D'Arc, or with Quicherat's report, published in 1841, of Joan's trial and rehabilitation.

Consequently, those who might have expected a chronicle play depicting Joan as they were apt to know her, were deprived of a chronicle melodrama and were not enlightened as to what they actually saw until Shaw wrote his Preface to Saint Joan in May, 1924. Perhaps they looked for Twain's Joan, “skirted to the ground, and with as many petticoats as Noah's wife in a toy ark, an attempt to combine Bayard with Esther Summerson from Bleak House into an unimpeachable American school teacher in armor.”2 The audiences of the early 1920's may have accepted Shaw's Saint Joan enthusiastically because of the magnificence of her structure, although Louis L. Martz explains their acceptance, and ours as well, by pointing out that the dramaturgy of the play “is based upon a deliberate manipulation of the elements of religious skepticism or uncertainty in the audience.”3

Martz is, of course, piqued or puzzled, or perhaps even mordantly gleeful over the failure of modern tragedy to adjust the ancient Aeschylean symbol of a secret cause with the modern human sufferer. He is specifically concerned over his inability to accept positively the saint or martyr as a tragic figure. In discussing T. S. Eliot's Becket and G. B. Shaw's Joan, Martz claims that Shaw and Eliot “seem to be assuming that the least touch of theology in their plays will serve—to raise a question.”4

And so the saint may become a figure well adapted to arouse something very close to a tragic experience; for here the words sacred, glorious, sacrifice, and the expression in vain may become once more appropriate; while at the same time the uncertainty of the audience's attitude—and to some extent the dramatist's own—may enable him to deal also with the painful and pitiful aspects of experience that form the other side of the tragic tension.5

It seems a little underhanded to propose a double vision based on an assumed uncertainty in audience reaction in order to bolster a set theory. However, critics have generally agreed, using S. H. Butcher as the ultimate authority, that neither a saint nor a martyr can be a truly tragic hero, a subject for true tragedy. Butcher asserts that blameless goodness has seldom the quality needed to make it dramatically interesting. Dramatic character implies some self-assertive energy. It realizes itself within a limited sphere, and presses forward passionately in a single direction, prodded on by a touch of egoism, by which it exercises a controlling influence over circumstances or over the wills of minor characters that are grouped around it.

Goodness, on the other hand, with its unselfish, self-effacing tendency, is apt to be immobile and uncombative. In refusing to strike back it brings the action to a standstill. Even where it has no lack of strong initiative, its impersonal ardour in the cause of right has not the same dramatic fascination as the spectacle of human weakness or passion doing battle with the fate it has brought upon itself.6

Butcher feels that the death of the martyr presents to us not the defeat but the victory of the individual; the issue of a conflict in which the individual is ranged on the same side as the higher powers allows the sense of suffering consequently to be lost in that of moral triumph.7 He conceives the martyr as the hero who leads a forlorn hope, or as the benefactor of mankind who bears suffering with unflinching fortitude and who, through suffering, achieves moral victory. However, these are the stereotyped saints and martyrs presenting themselves to us in stained glass windows or civic monuments, the finished products of civic or religious canonization. They are saints or martyrs or heroes because we can see what they have done, why they have done it, and a little bit of the cost expended in their deeds.

We cannot remove the tragic element from saints or martyrs because we know that their deaths crowned their living. It must be considered that they were flesh and blood, not plaster of Paris and that their deaths were a dying and not an anesthetized transformation from this world to the next. Perhaps we have to extend ourselves to feel pity or terror for St. Agnes, the virgin martyr, as she is presented to us by the ancient hagiographers. A thirteen-year-old girl who spurns the honorable advances of a young nobleman with the words “Away from me, food of death, for I have already found another lover,”8 certainly does not demand pity or terror no matter what happens to her subsequently. She has placed herself in the same category as the insufferable Cecelia of Chaucer's tale. But Agnes, the young schoolgirl, convinced of her right to preserve her virginity for Christ, had to support her conviction with something beyond stubborn priggishness, especially when she was confined to a house of ill-fame, thrown on a flaming pyre and confronted with the flashing of an executioner's sword. The process of development which enabled St. Agnes to endure these things was not static. Her terror must have been real and can evoke an echoing terror and pity in our own sentiments. Impersonal ardor belongs to monuments and to cathedral windows, not to human beings. If this is not so, we are left with zombies and automatons, not with heroes and martyrs. The crown is separate from the action and no matter whose side the individual may be on, the issue of a conflict is immediately subordinate to the hic et nunc suffering—the pincers, the hot coals, the rack, the gibbet, the lions, the battlefield—made endurable by the very vital principles which brought the actor to the point where these things had to be endured.

Butcher knew his saints from Bunyan, Fox and Butler, well-organized hagiographers more concerned with a cause than with the men and women who lived and died for the cause. Their saints were designed to inspire, and they functioned well in the Restoration and Victorian eras. However, we are more inclined to view the saints for what they were—flesh and blood subjected to fire and sword, rack and rope, not questioning the cause but concerned with their ability to live and die for it. We are aware that real fortitude is never unflinching and that in the matter of hope, any possible qualification like “forlorn” removes it from the virtues and places it in the category of rashness or foolishness.

Perhaps an extreme modern explication of a martyr is to be found in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, in which the priest is hero enough to work in a hostile country in constant danger of capture and death and at the same time too weak to face ultimate martyrdom without being fortified with brandy. The explication is extreme, but the basic principle is sound. No one is born a saint or a hero or a martyr, nor is anyone determined, in a fatalistic sense, to heroism or saintliness or martyrdom. The true hero becomes a hero through a very active process involving his intellect and will as well as the external magnitude of his actions and attitudes. The saint becomes a saint by adapting his intellect and will to the recognized attitudes of God, but with much cost to himself. The agere contra, necessary for fallen man, is an extremely active process which is constant in operation and violent in character. The kingdom of heaven, in Christian asceticism, is carried away by those who do violence to themselves. Ultimately, the ability of a free creature to conform itself to the expressed will of its Creator is less static than the indomitable will of the Attic gods and to allow mobility and combativeness to one is to concede it to the other.

We must, therefore, admit mobility and violence in the process of development which led Francis of Assisi to stand stripped of all but his hair shirt in the village square declaring to the world, “Up to now I have said ‘My father, Peter Bernadone.’ From now on I will say only, ‘Our Father Who art in heaven.’” We will admit pity for Madame Jane Frances Fremiot de Chantal whose son barred her entrance to a convent with his own body, forcing her to walk over him into the life of perfection which she saw as her duty to God and to herself, and our pity is based on our acknowledgment of this same mobility and violence. Finally, if the least touch of any theology which has a compensating Heaven to offer the tragic hero is fatal to the tragic effect, as I. A. Richards maintains,9 into what category will we place the Christ of Gethsemane who, faced with the prospect of the Crucifixion and the concomitant knowledge that so many men would not allow themselves to benefit from His death, experienced an agony which caused a bloody sweat? Certainly in this case there was more than a touch of what even Richards will acknowledge as theology, and we cannot withhold our pity and fear from the spectacle even when we allow ourselves to be aware of the risen Christ or of Christ in glory.

This is no mere sectarian position, even though it urges a special point of view. If we grant saints and martyrs only a blameless goodness, unselfish, self-effacing and lacking in self-assertive energy, we find little to inspire dramatic interest or to provide matter for tragedy. Allowing the glory of the crown to dim the luster of the struggle, we can lose the sense of suffering in a sense of moral triumph. However, in limiting our concepts of saints and martyrs to painted or sculptured figures, to saints and martyrs as we think they should be, we are eliminating the flesh and blood saints of reality and placing them in a frame of reference similar to that which allows us to prefer Milton's Satan to Milton's Christ in Paradise Lost.

Even if we do not allow our saints and martyrs an outright tragic flaw, we can see in their attitudes something resembling a built-in capacity for personal disaster, with overtones of their greatest good being their greatest evil. If the nature of the Aristotelian tragic flaw is so tenuous we surely may extend it to cover circumstances which Aristotle certainly could not foresee or even possibly understand. The saints or martyrs face a hostile world convinced of the righteousness of their cause not only for themselves but for all mankind as well. Proposing their cause for acceptance they are unable to see any reason for its rejection, and yet the expectation of rejection is almost inevitable, not from the nature of the proposition but from the ignorance or malice or active indifference of those to whom the good is proposed. The insistence on their proposition and their becoming an emblem of its validity is their greatest good and results in their greatest evil, their death. This death is evil only in the relative sense in which all death is evil, especially since with tragic heroes death is the least of all evil effects, the least of all circumstances to be feared. Yet it maintains its tragic character even in the glow of the moral triumph which it implies since it remains a protest and it leaves unaffected, at least immediately and on the surface, the world it is designed to save or to influence.

If, with all this, the Aristotelian definition of tragedy cannot apply to saints and martyrs, we must postulate a defect in the Aristotelian definition of tragedy. The defect is not in Aristotle but in the circumstances which directed his definition of tragedy. If the tragic spectacles viewed by Aristotle and analyzed by him presented tragedy as a departure from the normal, involving a moral aberration for which the tragic character is personally responsible and through which his own downfall as well as the downfall of others is encompassed, Aristotle is not to be considered as limited because his vision and the vision of his tragic artists had to be circumscribed by their own experiences. We might well ask what Aristotle would have to say about tragic action and tragic stature had he been acquainted with Christian heroes, Christian saints and martyrs.

We can draw a certain comparison between the Hellenic notion of honor and the notion of honor as it developed through the ages. For the Greek, honor was individualistic and self-centered because Hellenic society made it that way. Consequently, the ideal hero of Greek epic is proud, selfish, egotistical and stubborn, hardly an appealing figure for the modern. The Roman ideal of heroism tended to subordinate the individual to society and the State, marking the heroism of Rome with devotion to duty and to the ideal expressed by Virgil in his Aeneid—“To ordain the law of peace, to be merciful to the conquered and beat the haughty down.” The Christian ideal of honor is based on the dignity of the individual as a child of God, limited in his strivings only by his dependence on God, by his duty to his fellow men and by his eternal destiny. Based on these concepts, our ideas of heroism have grown from the proud Achilles to the pius Aeneas and from Aeneas to the Adam of Paradise Lost and Christ of Paradise Regained. Milton's Adam would have given Aristotle pause; and while he would have understood that “honour is flashed off exploit” the Stagirite would have understood it in an entirely different sense than that meant by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Our notion of honor has changed from Aristotle's time to the present. Has our idea of tragedy remained static? We have examined the great dramatic works of all ages and too often we have watched the artists try to fit their masterpieces into a Procrustean bed—or we have tried to do it for them. The sad part about all this frenzied activity is that the bed is of our own making. We can argue, perhaps speciously, that given a broader view and wider experience, Aristotle might not have placed such disconcerting limitations on his basic definition of tragedy. We can argue with much more force from the teleological principle on which all Aristotelian observation is based, that the nature of anything is best revealed by a study of its end or purpose. If tragedy is designed primarily to excite pity and fear in such a way that these emotions are properly purged, the essence of tragedy is to be found in a spectacle exciting pity and fear, presented so as to effect the proper purgation of these emotions. The character and quality of this essential element is maintained by the seriousness, completeness and magnitude of the action which is imitated, as well as by the language embellishing the action.

This places the burden of judgment on the spectator, where it belongs. Eliminating any subjectivism which might arise from national pride, religious affiliation, or sentimental personal identification, any relatively universal audience reaction which includes pity, fear and purgation should be sufficient to raise to the status of tragedy a drama which otherwise cannot be classified strictly according to Aristotelian principles. We can certainly, then, allow the possibility of finding in a drama dealing with a saint or martyr the realization of this canon set forth by Butcher:

The spectator who is brought face to face with grander suffering than his own experiences a sympathetic ecstasy, or lifting out of himself. It is precisely in this transport of feeling, which carries a man beyond his individual self, that the distinctive tragic pleasure resides. Pity and fear are purged of the impure element which clings to them in life. In the glow of tragic excitement these feeling are so transformed that the net result is a noble emotional satisfaction.10

The question whether religious tragedy has been written remains to be examined. If art is free and disinterested, we can eliminate the propaganda pieces that are so often obvious and embarrassing, as well as the sickly pietistic or even the inspiringly pious productions which have appeared from time to time. Little Plays of St. Francis by Lawrence Housman are merely little plays of St. Francis, and The Trial of Jesus by John Masefield is really not much more than that. Although Ibsen's The Master Builder can be discussed without reference to its religious significance, The Dybbuk contains strong elements of a religious tragedy. However, our present concern is with saints and martyrs as tragic heroes. How have they been treated by writers of drama? Perhaps the religious skepticism and uncertainty in both audience and playwrights have resulted in a certain shyness in presenting or in accepting saints and martyrs as tragic figures. Perhaps our satisfaction with “objectless beliefs” makes saints and martyrs unnecessary or even a little disconcerting. However, if we examine the two dramas discussed by Louis L. Martz in his essay “The Saint as Tragic Hero,” we can find some reason for accepting both St. Thomas of Canterbury and St. Joan of Arc as tragic figures. Since our preoccupation is with George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, we will consider it at length, after a brief evaluation of T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral.

Through the poetry of what is a combination of Greek and Elizabethan tragedy, medieval morality play and modern problem play, Eliot presents us with Archbishop Thomas Becket in conflict with his king, with his own supporters, with the spirit of the world and with his own weakness. We find moral savor in the three temptations which Thomas expected because they were from his past, a past which he has transcended despite the fact that “the impossible is still temptation.” Pleasure, kingly rule and “rule of men beneath a king” are all twenty years too late for this worldly Chancellor turned principled Churchman. However, there is agony in the soul of Thomas with the fourth temptation, the one he carried within himself without acknowledging its presence or its power. He cries in terror,

Is there no way, in my soul's sickness,
Does not lead to damnation in pride?
I know well that these temptations
Mean present vanity and future torment.
Can sinful pride be driven out
Only by more sinful? Can I neither act nor suffer
Without perdition?

The agony of doubt and uncertainty is heightened in the response of the Tempter echoing Thomas' own judgment of the Chorus of Women:

You know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer.
You know and do not know, that acting is suffering,
And suffering action.

Our pity for Becket at this point can be intense. If Becket himself removes the motive for pity in his Christmas sermon, in which he plays the theme of mourning and rejoicing at the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross and intertwines this theme with that of the peace of Christ being different from the peace that the world strives for, we are aware that this is the resolution of a conflict within the soul of the man who has already decried the last temptation as the greatest treason—“To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” We are aware, too, that the proud man who brought himself to the brink of dissolution through his pride, has transmuted what could have been his tragic flaw into a saving virtue.

However, if our pity is stayed and exalted, our horror is intensified in the death of Thomas. Here Thomas accentuates the terrible role of the Church Militant in the Christian order:

This is the sign of the Church always,
The sign of blood. Blood for blood.
His blood given to buy my life,
My blood given to pay for His death,
My death for His death.

Eliot seems to provide a diversion from the exaltation of martyrdom described by Thomas in his Christmas sermon, by having the choir sing the Dies Irae, the sequence common to all Masses for the dead, while the chorus chants its macabre counterpoint:

Not what we call death, but what beyond
death is not death,
We fear, we fear.

It is as if Eliot is extending himself to place the accent on the human side of the event and stress the assassination rather than the martyrdom, while the chorus after the murder places the stress on the effects rather than on the act itself. Yet with all the obvious playing down of Thomas' own motives for and mode of acceptance of his death in these devices, the pity and terror are not qualified or lessened and an audience which can comprehend the totality of the drama through the mystic symbolism of the poetry can experience some species of catharsis, even if it involves the acceptance of the judgment rendered by the murderer-knights that it was expedient that one man should die so that the whole nation should not perish.

If we have to work our way through the complicated symbolisms of Eliot to determine the tragic stature of St. Thomas of Canterbury, no such effort is needed to discover the tragic qualities of George Bernard Shaw's St. Joan of Arc. Shaw the Iconoclast, the Intellectual Attila, the Scourge of Civilization, has actually taken a saint and martyr and rendered her justice as a tragic and saintly heroine. He approached her with reverence, treated her with respect in his drama and explained her with fervor in the Preface which appeared in May, 1924.

According to Archibald Henderson, Shaw's Boswell, Shaw had long entertained the idea of writing a drama about some great religious figure, possibly Mahomet, who created a religion of incalculable influence without officiating as the head of a church.

Another salient figure, which obsessed his imagination, was Joan of Arc; and after reading the report of her trial, he was startled by the discovery that this devout Catholic was, beyond peradventure, an early Protestant, although she lived almost a century before that word took its present meaning. However, he told me the day after the production of Saint Joan in London (March 26, 1924) that he had carried the theme in his head for years without particularly thinking of writing a play about it.11

Shaw being Shaw, it is well that he contemplated his play for years before he actually wrote it. In almost ten years of contemplation, he purified his approach to St. Joan in such a way that he ultimately baffled and, in a way, disappointed some of his more caustic critics. A. B. W. of The Times, anticipating Saint Joan, expressed the hope that the play

will not be disfigured by those blithe anachronisms and incongruities of treatment with which Mr. Bernard Shaw in his quasi-historical plays occasionally delights to criticize the present through the past. That would be like scribbling modern election squibs or journalistic cross-headings on the margin of some illuminated missal.12

Without much consideration, Shaw might have done just that to his play, no matter what his treatment of Joan might have been.

In 1913 Shaw took a motor trip through Domrémy and Orléans to sense the atmosphere and setting of the life of the Maid. On September 8, 1913, he wrote to Mrs. Patrick Campbell from Orléans:

Strangely enough I have never been in Orléans before, though I have been all over the Joan of Arc country. … I shall do a Joan play some day. … I should have God about to damn the English for their share in her betrayal and Joan producing an end of burnt stick in arrest of Judgment (the two sticks tied together to make a crucifix were given Joan by a common English soldier). … That soldier is the only redeeming figure in the whole business. English literature must be saved (by an Irishman, as usual) from the disgrace of having nothing to show concerning Joan except the piffling libel in Henry VI, which reminds me that one of my scenes will be Voltaire and Shakespeare running down by-streets in heaven to avoid meeting Joan.13

With this attitude and declared purpose, Shaw describes his Joan as a village girl from the Vosges, born about 1412, burnt for heresy, witchcraft and sorcery in 1431, rehabilitated after a fashion in 1456, designated venerable in 1904, declared Blessed in 1908 and finally canonized in 1920.

She is the most notable Warrior Saint in the Christian calendar, and the queerest fish among the eccentric worthies of the Middle Ages. Though a professed and a most pious Catholic, and the projector of a Crusade against the Hussites, she was in fact one of the first Protestant martyrs. She was also one of the first apostles of Nationalism, and the first French practitioner of Napoleonic realism in warfare as distinguished from the sporting ransom gambling chivalry of her time. She was the pioneer of rational dressing for women, and, like Queen Christina of Sweden two centuries later, to say nothing of Catalina de Erauso and innumerable obscure heroines who have disguised themselves as men to serve as soldiers and sailors, she refused to accept the specific woman's lot, and dressed and fought and lived as men did.

As she contrived to assert herself in all these ways with such force that she was famous throughout western Europe before she was out of her teens (indeed she never got out of them), it is hardly surprising that she was judicially burnt, ostensibly for a number of capital crimes which we no longer punish as such, but essentially for what we call unwomanly and insufferable presumption.14

In these introductory sentences, Shaw summarizes his entire Preface. The devout French Catholic, or any other Catholic who accepts, as he must, the Roman Catholic implications of the canonization of Joan of Arc, might well object to Shaw's outlined thesis. Although our concern is with Shaw's Joan, not our own, and with Shaw's Joan as a tragic figure not as a historical anomaly, it might be well to point out that Shaw's Protestantism stands for free thought, for the unfettered supremacy of reason and for the law of evolution and change, and that even Protestants might protest at the idea that the Christianity they have preached and practiced and defended for more than four centuries has turned out to be nothing more than free-thinking. Any Church which admits that no official organization of mortal men can keep pace with the private judgment of persons of genius is apt not to be a Church but a debating society. Even Shaw limits his own free thinking and “evolutionary appetite” when he states that “We may prate of toleration as we will; but society must always draw a line somewhere between allowable conduct and insanity or crime, in spite of the risk of mistaking sages for lunatics and saviors for blasphemers.”15 If this is true in the moral order it is true in the intellectual order as well.

Furthermore, Shaw stretches more than one point when he makes his Joan the apostle of Nationalism. Joan was actually more concerned with delivering France from the English and with crowning a legitimate king at Rheims than with upholding the idea of an absolute monarchy or advancing the idea of national autonomy as such. For her, patriotism was enough and even her patriotism had its practical side. Joan would have shrugged off the discussion of Warwick and Cauchon (Scene IV), just as she ignored the explanation offered by Dunois as to why those who benefited by her acts hated her.

Why do all these courtiers and knights and churchmen hate me? What have I done to them? I have asked nothing for myself except that my village shall not be taxed; for we cannot afford war taxes. I have brought them luck and victory: I have set them right when they were doing all sorts of stupid things: I have crowned Charles and made him a real king; and all the honors he is handing out have gone to them. Then why do they not love me?
(rallying her) Sim-ple-ton! Do you expect stupid people to love you for shewing them up? Do blundering old military dug-outs love the successful young captains who supersede them? Do ambitious politicians love the climbers who take the front seats from them? Do archbishops enjoy being played off their own altars, even by saints? Why, I should be jealous of you myself if I were ambitious enough.
You are the pick of the basket here, Jack: the only friend I have among all these nobles. I'll wager your mother was from the country. I'll go back to the farm when I have taken Paris.

(Scene V)

The simple country girl obviously has not understood the content of Jack's reply so she ignores it and concentrates on the tone of raillery and affection to which she does respond. Joan would not have understood Shaw's thesis, or its enunciation by Warwick and Cauchon. It is significant that the Joan who time after time declares her trust in the Church and her submission to the Church, even in Shaw's presentation of her, has only one vaguely Protestant line—“What other judgment can I judge by but my own” (Scene VI). Shaw might well have concentrated on Joan as the first French practitioner of Napoleonic realism in warfare as distinguished from the sporting ransom gambling chivalry of the time. Joan, “a thorough daughter of the soil in her peasantlike matter-of-factness and doggedness”16 could have been portrayed as a heroine who shortened the war, saving countless peasant lives and precious peasant property by calling an abrupt halt to the sporting ransom gambling chivalry which passed for war in her day.

However, this would have made a dull thesis for Shaw and the thesis actually proposed in Saint Joan is Shaw's very own. He absolves Joan from all responsibility in both his Preface and his play, and the very character of the talk between Warwick and Cauchon suggests neither the medieval baron nor the bishop but Shaw himself. Nevertheless, the thesis serves to stress the paradox which is one of the points more important than the bland thesis and just as much open to question. The paradox, as Alan Reynolds Thompson describes it, is that “Joan of Arc was ‘an arch-heretic,’ fairly tried and condemned, as she would be today. But—true saints are all archheretics.”17

With all this and the rest of the preface which Martz calls a long barrage of historicity revealed in the end as a remarkable piece of hoaxing,18 Shaw has given us a genuine tragic figure in his Saint Joan. He begins to cast the tragic aura around Joan in the preface:

But it is not easy for mental giants who neither hate nor intend to injure their fellows to realize that nevertheless their fellows hate mental giants and would like to destroy them, not only enviously because the juxtaposition of a superior wounds their vanity, but quite humbly and honestly because it frightens them. Fear will drive men to any extreme; and the fear inspired by a superior being is a mystery which cannot be reasoned away. Being immeasurable it is unbearable when there is no presumption or guarantee of its benevolence and moral responsibility: in other words, when it has no official status. The legal and conventional superiority of Herod and Pilate, and of Annas and Caiaphas, inspires fear; but the fear, being a reasonable fear of measurable and avoidable consequences which seem salutary and protective, is bearable; whilst the strange superiority of Christ and the fear it inspires elicit a shriek of Crucify Him from all who cannot divine its benevolence. Socrates has to drink the hemlock, Christ to hang on the cross, and Joan to burn at the stake, whilst Napoleon, though he ends in St. Helena, at least dies in his bed there; and many terrifying but quite comprehensible official scoundrels die natural deaths in all the glory of the kingdoms of this world, proving that it is far more dangerous to be a saint than to be a conqueror. Those who have been both, like Mahomet and Joan, have found that it is the conqueror who must save the saint, and that defeat and capture mean martyrdom. Joan was burnt without a hand lifted on her own side to save her. The comrades she had led to victory and the enemies she had disgraced and defeated, the French king she had crowned and the English king whose crown she had kicked into the Loire, were equally glad to be rid of her.19

Joan's “tragic flaw,” then, was her genius and her ingenuity. Shaw maintains that had she been older and wiser and more selfish, she could have manipulated those around her by flattery, or at least by not exposing them outright as dullards and incompetents. She has, in fact, accomplished her own destruction by the end of Scene V and in the grand scene of renunciation she acknowledges this:

Yes: I am alone on earth: I have always been alone. My father told my brothers to drown me if I would not stay to mind his sheep while France was bleeding to death: France might perish if only our lambs were safe. I thought France would have friends at the court of the king of France; and I find only wolves fighting for pieces of her poor torn body. I thought God would have friends everywhere, because He is the friend of everyone; and in my innocence I believed that you who now cast me out would be like strong towers to keep harm from me. But I am wiser now; and nobody is any the worse for being wiser. Do not think you can frighten me by telling me that I am alone. France is alone; and God is alone; and what is my loneliness before the loneliness of my country and my God? I see now that the loneliness of God is His strength: what would He be if he listened to your jealous little counsels? Well, my loneliness shall be my strength too: it is better to be alone with God: His friendship will not fail me, nor His counsel, nor his love. In His strength I will dare, and dare, and dare, until I die. I will go out now to the common people, and let the love in their eyes comfort me for the hate in yours. You will all be glad to see me burnt, but if I go through the fire I shall go through it to their hearts for ever and ever. And so, God be with me.

If, as Shaw suggests, the tragedy of Joan's burning was that it was a judicial burning, a pious murder,20 the tragedy of this first agon is heightened by the judicial, prudent attitude of those who should have been Joan's friends.

You know, the woman is quite impossible. I don't dislike her, really; but what are you to do with such a character?
As God is my judge, if she fell into the Loire I would jump in in full armor to fish her out. But if she plays the fool at Compiègne, and gets caught, I must leave her to her doom.
LA Hire:
Then you had better chain me up; for I could follow her to hell when the spirit rises in her like that.
THE Archbishop:
She disturbs my judgment, too: there is a dangerous power in her outbursts. But the pit is open at her feet; and for good or evil we cannot turn her from it.
If only she would keep quiet, or go home!

All but La Hire have renounced her and all follow her from the cathedral dispiritedly.

In a sense, Joan is explaining her ultimate fate here, and accepting it much as Thomas does in Murder in the Cathedral. However, Eliot makes his Thomas intensely aware of the impending sacrifice and places the accent of tragedy on devices calculated to impose a tragic sense on the audience. Shaw's Joan, exalted as she is, is not aware of the full implications of her loneliness or of the fire. She seems to be more involved with her going through the fire into the hearts of the people for ever and ever than with the fire itself.

Joan, of course, was right. Her second agon was not in the flames but in her inability to make her inquisitors see that her inspiration was real, that there was no heresy, no disobedience, no witchcraft in her voices, that her counsel was of God. Facing death as a self-chosen alternative to imprisonment, Joan again voices a renunciation.

His (God's) ways are not your ways. He wills that I go through the fire to His bosom; for I am His child, and you are not fit that I should live among you. That is my last word to you.

Joan's concern about her freedom, the failure of her voices, the treachery of her friends are nothing in comparison with the agony of futility in which she tries to make herself understood, or in which she tries to understand her enemies and her allies. The hysteria of de Stogumber over Joan's burning does not begin to reflect the agony of Joan's resignation, not to the flames but to her inability to penetrate the sensibilities of her contemporaries. Here, then, is the real tragedy of St. Joan's martyrdom. She might accept the flames, but she had to resign herself to loneliness and to uniqueness. The end of scene five reads like the closing of the gospel account of the Crucifixion.

The Epilogue provides Joan with her third agon, more crushing and more tragic than the other two, and impresses upon the audience the idea that even a saint, with God in her pocket, as Dunois describes her, and her place in the hearts of men, as Joan describes herself, is a saint only because she wants more than this and cannot get it. All the main characters of the play gather in Charles's bedroom, including the English soldier who offered Joan the two crossed sticks at her burning and who enjoys an annual holiday from hell for his good deed. When Joan's canonization has been announced, this Maid of the Broken Sword and Unbroken Soul is praised for the right things in the right way, but still not for the one right thing. When Joan offers to return to life she is again rejected—by Cauchon because the heretic is always better dead, and mortal eyes cannot distinguish the saint from the heretic; by Dunois because “we are not yet good enough for you;” by de Stogumber because he could not endure having his little peace shattered again by this woman he could not grasp. Joan has, for a third time, the answer to her question, “Are none of you ready to receive me?” When the ironic gentleman returns to Rome for fresh instructions—“The possibility of your resurrection was not contemplated in the recent proceedings for your canonization,”—and Charlie has returned to bed, and even the soldier has tiptoed back to hell, St. Joan experiences the last phase of her martyrdom:

O God, that madest this beautiful earth, when will it be ready to receive Thy saints? How long, O Lord, how long?

Alan Reynolds Thompson summarizes the irony and the tragedy in the Epilogue:

After that tremendously moving litany to Joan, what a reversal! The ironic clash is extraordinary. The painful joke is a joke at our expense, a joke on us as human beings who can praise the great dead sonorously but scuttle away at the very thought of having to live with them in the terrible contrast of their greatness to our littleness. Mankind can revere a saint in heaven but not on earth. Could any dramatist but Shaw have conceived this “cold douche of irony” at such a point—in such a play? And yet—how magnificent it is in the way it deflates us to humility and pity and richer understanding! How long, O Lord? … Shaw's daring in writing the whole Epilogue, with its mingling of the sublime and the farcical, has often been noted. This ending justifies it and lifts us again, in a more complete sense than could otherwise be possible, to the height of tragedy.21

Joan is left alone with the same sense of futility she knew in life. “Woe unto me when all men praise me!” Praise is an inexpensive substitute for understanding and when a saint demands understanding the wheels are set in motion for tragedy and a Christ must perish in torment in every age to save those that have no imagination.


  1. Archibald Henderson, George Bernard Shaw: Man of the Century (New York, 1956), p. 599.

  2. Bernard Shaw, Complete Plays With Prefaces (New York, 1962), p. 288.

  3. Louis L. Martz, “The Saint as Tragic Hero,” in Tragic Themes in Western Literature, ed. Cleanth Brooks (New Haven, 1960), p. 156.

  4. Martz, op. cit., p. 157.

  5. Martz, op. cit., pp. 157-158.

  6. S. H. Butcher, Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art (New York, 1951), pp. 310-311.

  7. Butcher, op. cit., p. 312.

  8. The incident and quotation are traditional, probably legendary.

  9. I. A. Richards, Principles of Literary Criticism (New York, 1948), p. 246.

  10. Butcher, op. cit., p. 267.

  11. Henderson, op. cit., p. 598.

  12. Henderson, op. cit., p. 599.

  13. Henderson, op. cit., pp. 598-599.

  14. Shaw, op. cit., p. 265.

  15. Shaw, op. cit., p. 303.

  16. Shaw, op. cit., p. 284.

  17. Alan Reynolds Thompson, The Dry Mock (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1948), p. 116.

  18. Martz, op. cit., p. 161.

  19. Shaw, op. cit., pp. 267-268.

  20. Shaw, op. cit., p. 313.

  21. Thompson, op. cit., pp. 125-126.

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Criticism: Pygmalion (1913)


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