Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 291
In the world of Saint Joan, several values collide. The church is jealous of its world-controlling power. England (Warwick) and France (Charles) are jealous of their nationalistic power, and Joan’s project is a nationalistic one, though her act is essentially an individualistic or Protestant one. She stands for the liberty of the individual to define God as she chooses. In this historical instance, France is the fortuitous recipient of the caprice of Joan’s warrior genius. A subtext of the play is that in the world, that is, Joan’s world, there is no hospitality for love or charity. At best, the Roman Catholic Church and the English and French politicians are about slippery abstractions—morality and patriotism, and posturing. The Inquisitor says, “I would go to the stake myself. . . .”
In Shaw’s dispensation, Joan is the ultimate Protestant as doomed superwoman. She is a brilliant military leader. He gives her an attractive personality in spite of her being an architect of the violence of warfare. Her nationalistic cause is not a Shavian one. For Shaw, by their natures, neither church nor state can be ethically admirable. He thought the meaning of the Joan story was not optimistic for humanity as it is. A common modern reading of Saint Joan is as a report of medieval political chicanery by civil and religious authorities to neutralize or remove individuals who have become inconvenient or expensive obstacles to vested powers. Remarkably, Shaw’s treatment of the Joan story is the most faithful to the historical record of the many versions of it that have been written. Shaw’s optimism projects beyond history in his hypothesis that for human destiny, a “life force” drives a process of creative evolution ultimately to transcendental consciousness.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 749
Treatment of Geniuses and Saints
What the play seems to demonstrate is that the world is not very accepting of exceptional people like Joan. Joan has accomplished great things: won the battle of Orléans and several other battles, inspired the French troops, put courage into Charles and gotten him crowned as king, and so forth. And yet she encounters resentment from those she helps and is eventually condemned to death as a heretic for refusing to accept the absolute authority of the Church. Her mystical connection to the saints in Heaven might have been regarded as something admirable, but instead she is killed for it. When she is safely dead, people worship her, but those same people flee in horror at the suggestion that she might come back to life, just as her supporters fled in her lifetime when she proposed to push past a certain point. The point seems to be that we are uncomfortable with exceptional individuals; we may tolerate them for a while, but in the end we wish to be rid of them—though once we are rid of them, we find it safe to speak admiringly of them.
Individualism Versus Authority
The play poses difficult questions about the relation of individualism and authority. On the one hand, there is the supreme individualist, Joan, who follows her private judgment in defiance of the authorities. Joan is such a charismatic figure in the play that it is hard not to side with her and then to want to side with the individualist, rebellious approach to life. Shaw does say in his Preface that individual geniuses see more than others and are of a higher caliber than the leaders of organizations. On the other hand, in the same Preface, discussing the characters of William Shakespeare, he associates individualism with selfishness and irresponsibility. And in the play itself (in Scene IV), Bishop Cauchon warns that Joan’s doctrine of individual judgment will lead to the triumph of ‘‘every ignorant laborer or dairymaid’’ over ‘‘The Church’s accumulated wisdom and knowledge and experience, its councils of learned, venerable pious men.’’ Perhaps individual judgment is to be respected only when it is the judgment of an exceptional individual like Joan, when it is the judgment of a genius or a saint, but, as Cauchon says in the Epilogue, human beings cannot distinguish saints from heretics.
Nationalism and War
Joan is associated with the doctrine of nationalism several times, especially with the idea that France should be for the French, England for the English, and so forth. She is also associated with modern approaches to warfare, renouncing the old, feudal ways in which ransoms were sought, in favor of a more serious, dedicated approach, in which soldiers fight to the death for a cause such as nationalism. Because of Joan’s charismatic appeal, the temptation is to support what she supports: these new attitudes to nations and war. On the other hand, the other highly nationalist character in the play, Stogumber, is portrayed as a dangerous extremist. And Bishop Cauchon, in Scene IV, says that nationalism leads to war and destruction. Again, it is hard to know which side Shaw wants his audience to be on.
One of the charges against Joan is that she dresses in men’s clothes and engages in traditional male pursuits, notably soldiering. Shaw in his Preface is dismissive of historians who do not think women capable of genius in the ‘‘traditional masculine departments,’’ and the play seems to speak in favor of a woman’s right to pursue whatever career and lifestyle she chooses and not to be bound by traditional notions of women’s roles.
Miracles, Faith, and Sainthood
The miracles in the play are all capable of rational explanation: hens stop and start laying eggs for a variety of reasons; natural causes can explain the shift in the wind; and as the Archbishop says, Joan’s ability to distinguish Charles from Bluebeard may merely mean that she has heard them described. But whether they have a supernatural basis or not, Joan’s miracles do inspire faith and win her followers. It is Joan’s ability to inspire that is perhaps her most miraculous power; putting enough courage into Charles so that he lets himself be crowned king is a large-scale miracle, as Joan says herself. It seems that what is truly miraculous is the inner power of a genius like Joan, who can move men and change the course of history.