Saint Joan: Novel Summary: Scene VI
Two years after Scene V-May 30, 1431-Joan's trial is coming to its close at the castle of Rouen. Cauchon has convened the court. Canon John D'Estivet is the "promoter," or prosecutor; and Brother John Lemaetre is at the proceedings in his capacity as representative of the Inquisition. The Inquisition has only recently become involved in the case, he says, for only recently has the Inquisitor decided that Joan's is "one of the gravest cases of heresy within [his] experience." The Earl of Warwick makes it clear that he is looking forward to a hasty resolution and condemnation of Joan; Cauchon affirms again that Joan shall have a fair hearing, for "[t]he Church is not subject to political necessity." D'Estivet and the Inquisitor, however, remark that Joan has been doing much to condemn herself, every time she has opened her mouth in her previous examinations.
Not all of Joan's opponents are satisfied with the proceedings thus far, however. Chaplain de Stogumber and De Courcelles, a Parisian cleric, arrive and protest that the Inquisitor has reduced the charges against Joan, eliminating a number of what the Inquisitor considers lesser matters-for example, a charge that Joan stole a bishop's horse, or that she dances "round fairy trees with the village children, and praying at haunted wells, and a dozen other things." The Inquisitor is firm: "Heresy, gentlemen, heresy is the charge we have to try." He points out that they cannot leave a door open for Joan to defend herself successfully against lesser charges while the most important charge of heresy remains, inferring that any acquittal Joan might gain, however small, would undercut the case against her. He reminds his hearers that Joan's heresy in particular cannot be overlooked or forgiven, for she is one of many "vain and ignorant persons setting up their own judgment against the Church, and taking it upon themselves to be the interpreters of God's will." He urges the court to remember mercy, but also to insist upon justice and to set aside their natural compassion: "[R]emember that nothing is so cruel in its consequences as the toleration of heresy." Cauchon labels Joan's error the "arch heresy" of "Protestantism," which, if left unchecked, could well bring the "mighty structure of Catholic Christendom" to ruin.
A guard of English soldiers brings Joan, in shackles, before the court. Joan protests her treatment, but is told that nothing else can be done, for she tried to jump out the window of the tower where she was being held. Joan retorts that of course she tried to escape; it was a commonsense action, and her survival of the jump is a sign, not of witchcraft, but the degree to which the tale has grown in the re-telling-the tower's height has been exaggerated. Joan insists that she is neither a witch nor mad: "I am reasonable if you will be reasonable." When talk of making her yet again swear an oath to tell the truth arises, Joan refuses, claiming, "God does not allow the whole truth to be told." She further declares that she will not profess that her voices and visions, and the actions they prompted, spring from any diabolical source: "What God made me do I will never go back on; and what He has commanded or shall command I will not fail to do in spite of any man alive. My voices do not tell me to disobey the Church; but God must be served first."
At length, Joan realizes in horror that the stake is being readied for her even at that moment. Frightened, she says, after prompting from the court officials, that her voices have misled her. In order to avoid excommunication (the spiritual punishment) and execution (the temporal one), Joan makes her mark on a document of recantation. De Stogumber and other English officials are furious when the Inquisitor allows Joan to recant. Her recanting, however, does not last long, for a sentence is still pronounced: Joan must spend the rest of her life in prison, with only bread and water for sustenance. Now understanding that she is not to be set free, Joan tears up the recantation. Now judged as a "relapsed heretic," the Inquisitor and Cauchon solemnly intone the judgment of excommunication, and Joan is led away to the stake. The Inquisitor remarks, "[I]t is a terrible thing to see a young and innocent creature crushed between these mighty forces, the Church and the Law."
After Joan is burnt, de Stogumber, who has witnessed it all, returns to the castle interior, where he seeks consolation from Warwick. He laments, "I did not know what I was doing." He relates how Joan, as she burned, asked for a cross, and a nearby soldier took two sticks and tied them together for her. She clutched the cross until it was snatched from her, and as she died, she warned Ladvenu, another of the court officials, not to get too close to the flames. She thought of another's danger at her own moment of death. "Jesus!" the chaplain cries. "She is in Thy bosom; and I am in hell forevermore." Ladvenu prophesies, "This is not the end for her, but the beginning." And though the executioner reports that there is nothing left of Joan's body-save her heart, which would not burn-Warwick believes that none have heard the last of Joan of Arc.
In the penultimate scene of his drama, Shaw depicts Joan as the proto-Protestant he holds her to be: adamantly insisting upon the privileged position of her individual relationship to God, over and against the Church's magisterial authority to interpret and pronounce God's will; denying that the Church is wiser than she is, simply because the Church claims it is; and affirming her right of conscience to obey God as she understands such obedience. All the arguments that Shaw has been making about Joan throughout the play-her Nationalism, her Protestantism, her Rationalism, her Imagination-come to fruition in this scene. Some readers may feel, ironically, that Shaw, although he has set out to humanize Joan and strip away the "whitewashing" of centuries of legend and piety, he has substituted an equally "mythic" Joan in the former construct's place. On the other hand, readers must remember Shaw's intention, stated in the preface, to dramatize social forces, and to have his characters speak as they never could have in history. To a large extent, this intention accounts for Joan's emergence in Scene VI as virtually the incarnation of the modern spirit-despite her "imagery" (as Shaw called it in the preface) of saints and angels-in the face of the medieval spirit.
Yet Shaw does not let modern audiences rest easy in congratulatory self-satisfaction-another of Shaw's stated intentions. For example, the Inquisitor's lengthy speech justifying the Inquisition and its courts as a kindness gives modern readers pause. We are all too aware that the worst of actions can be justified under the best and most sincere of intentions. Indeed, as the Inquisitor himself states, "Heresy at first seems innocent and even laudable. [Heretics] believe honestly and sincerely that their diabolical inspiration is divine." Shaw unsettles his audience, leading them to wonder, as he does in the preface, if their own cherished "orthodoxies" are no less diabolical. Again, Shaw is dramatizing what he sees as the horror of intolerance. Joan is, in this sense, a martyr to society's need to preserve itself-a legitimate need, but only when not taken too far, as Shaw believes it was in this case and still was in many cases in his own day. He does not offer any easy answers or solutions; his purpose is to confront us with the dilemma, and that purpose has achieved.