Today we continue with Act 2 of Henry VI, Part 1. This scene takes us into France to meet the opposition, including Joan of Arc. Let’s just say Shakespeare isn’t super nice to Joan for two reasons: she was a French heroine and a Catholic one. Joan wouldn’t be made a saint until the 1920’s, but even in Shakespeare’s time, she was hailed as a Catholic hero, which a fiercely Protestant audience wouldn’t appreciate or respect.
Let’s start watching the English win their way to losing a war (at least that’s how Shakespeare tells it).
Key Words and Phrases
Towns of any moment: towns of consequence
Olivers and Rowlands: knights of Charlemagne, who had nearly superhuman abilities and so could easily defeat ten men each in single combat
Shrives this woman to her smock: shrive means to confess and be absolved. Smock means her underwear…take from that what you will
Recreants: cowardly, faithless wretch
Saint Martin’s summer: a few warm days after the first frost
Halcyon days: a few calm weeks in December named after a tragic, mythological couple that the Greek gods took pity on and saved
Charles: Charles VII, or the Dauphin, he was disinherited from the French throne by his father.
Duke of Alencon, Reignier, Bastard of Orleans: French nobility that remain loyal to Charles’ cause.
Joan la Pucelle: Joan of Arc, a shepherdess who was inspired by holy visions to help Charles and did until her death at the hands of the English.
The French bask in their good fortune. They are kicking butt and taking names, plus the English are starving. The only one maintaining the siege is Salisbury and he’s crazy, so they decide to go ahead and attack. Of course they lose, because they are French and the English are obviously superior warriors. It’s in their blood. Salisbury in particular wreaks havoc on the French forces. Somehow starving makes them fiercer, like predators. The French can’t fathom how they lost.
Just then, the Bastard of Orleans enters to tell Charles that he has the answer to his prayers, a prophetess. Charles isn’t sure she’s legit, so he has Reignier pretend to be him. Joan does not fall for his shenanigans and dismisses the other lords. She tells her storry and explains how she was rather plain looking before, but with divine inspiration came beauty. Because no one would believe an ugly girl, right? Plus, it’s an obvious sign of witchcraft.
Charles, still not fully convinced, challenges Joan to a fight. She wins this fight and Charles immediately falls in love with her. Of course, in reality it wasn’t quite that easy. Joan had to be confirmed by a council of theologians of her orthodoxy, and some matrons confirmed she was a virgin. This would make for some pretty awkward theater, so they fight instead.
Charles gives Joan his complete support and trust.
Discussion Questions and Activities
- Salisbury is described as fighting like “one weary of his life.” What would that look like?
- How does this scene set up the character of Joan of Arc? Compare this to most historical depictions.
- Choreograph the fight between Charles and Joan.
- How does Shakespeare make Charles’ affection for Joan seem inappropriate, even to his own men?
- Examine the analogies Joan makes with her arrival. What can we draw from the references to brief periods of warmth in winter?