Henry VI Part 1: Act 5, Scene 3

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Act 5, scene 3

 
The French flee from the forces of Richard, Duke of York. Joan calls upon spells and evil spirits to help her. Evil spirits (“fiends”) enter. Joan reveals that she has made blood sacrifices to them and even offers them her soul in exchange for a French victory, but they leave, unwilling or unable to help her. Joan sees that the time has come when France will fall to the English.
 
Burgundy and Richard, Duke of York fight hand-to-hand. The French enter with Joan and then flee. Richard captures Joan as his prisoner and challenges her to invoke her spirits to set her free. He accuses her of being sexually attracted to Charles. Joan curses both Charles and Richard. Richard says she will have plenty of time to curse when she is burnt at the stake.
 
Analysis
 
Joan goes through many metamorphoses in the play, to the point of seeming inconsistent and incoherent as a character. At various times she claims to be a divinely inspired missionary from God, a holy celibate, and a prophetess. The audience variously sees her as a pragmatist, a precursor of the modern sensibility, and an embodiment of meritocracy. The other characters see her as a seductress, a whore, and as an unnatural creature for failing to conform to what was expected of a woman. This inconsistency in the portrayal of Joan has led many commentators to suppose that more than one author had input into her character.
 
Here, the audience’s credulity must be stretched by her sudden shift into a witch assisted by evil spirits of Lucifer, “the lordly monarch of the north” (line 6). The shift is problematic as nothing has prepared the audience for it or justified the impression that she is in league with the devil. It comes across as a desperate piece of anti-Joan and anti-French propaganda by an author promoting English nationalism and England’s claim to the throne of France.
 
It should not be assumed therefore that Shakespeare did not write this part of the play; he was extremely concerned with promoting English nationalism, as in Henry V and the history plays in general. The lack of subtlety and consistency in the development of the character of Joan may perhaps be attributed to Shakespeare’s youth and lack of maturity when he wrote the play, or to the chaotic effects of collaborative authorship.
 
However, the historical Joan was indeed convicted of heresy and burned at the stake by the English-controlled authorities in 1431. To justify such an action requires that Joan be painted as evil – hence the claims in this scene that she was in league with the devil. In this context, the sudden transformation of Joan into a witch – especially in the light of her eminently practical mood in the previous scene - appears to be a piece of political expediency that fails to convince artistically.
 
Richard, Duke of York continues on his upward trajectory of turning into a sympathetic character. He becomes the English national hero when he captures Joan. Any sympathy for Joan is foiled by the rapid change in her character from courageous heroine to a cursing, devil-worshipping failed witch. At least, this is the intention of the author(s).
 
 

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