“Strident and shrewish, she gets results, and being burned for a witch by English brutes is not calculated to bring out the best in anyone.”

Henry VI, Part One

Act Five

By Dennis Abrams


Act Five:  A deal for peace is made between England and France, on the condition that Henry agrees to marry the Earl of Armagnac’s daughter.  But before that can take place, Suffolk woos the beautiful Margaret of Anjou for the King, plotting to keep her as his mistress and use her to control Henry.  Paris rebels against the Dauphin and Joan, allowing Joan to be captured by York and condemned to death.  The play ends with Henry accepting Margaret as his wife in the face of bitter opposition from everyone except Suffolk:  her dowry is nonexistent, and England must give up French territory as part of the deal.


It seems to me that the focus here is on Joan and her departure and the arrival (as it were) of Margaret.

Obviously, the portrayal of Joan in Act Five is of the most interest.  Is she a witch?  Why does she betray her father?  Why does she seem to be desperately pleading for her life by claiming to be pregnant?

Here’s one possible interpretation:  As I understand it, Joan did claim to have visions and hear voices urging her to liberate France from English rule – therefore, her pleading the case to them in Scene Three isn’t that far off the mark.  (Of course Shakespeare being English would present them on stage as “fiends.”)    What struck me when reading the scene of her pleading for life by claiming to be pregnant was this:  Instead of “pleading,” I saw it as anger, along the lines of “They call me a whore, fine…I’ll give them a whore, a pregnant whore at that, and here’s the long list of possible fathers of my child…”  Does that make any sense?  Did anyone else read it like that?

What also struck me regarding Shakespeare’s view of Joan is this:  The men in the play who condemn her, Richard, Duke of York, and Warwick, are not particularly sympathetic characters.  And in Joan’s speech, Scene Three, 36-52, her defense is pretty much exactly how the world sees her today:

First let me tell you whom you have condemned:

Not one begotten of a shepherd swain

But issued from the progeny of kings;

Virtuous and holy, chosen from above

By inspiration of celestial grace

To work exceeding miracles on earth.

I never had to do with wicked spirits;

But you that are polluted with your lusts,

Stained with the guiltless blood of innocents,

Corrupt and tainted with a thousand vices –

Because you want the grace that others have,

You judge it straight a thing impossible

To compass wonders but by help of devils.

No, misconceived Joan of Arc hath been

A virgin from her tender infancy.

Chaste and immaculate in every thought,

Whose maiden blood thus rigorously effused

Will cry for vengeance at the gates of heaven.

Your thoughts?


A continuation of Tony Tanner’s discussion of Shakespeare’s use of triads in the play:

“The third male encounter with a French female – again, Shakespeare’s invention – takes place in the last Act between Suffolk and Margaret.  Suffolk enters holding Margaret’s hand and gazing at her, even as the other captured French female, Joan, is led off.  It is immediately clear that he has been entirely captivated by her beauty and charm.  And she uses no (obvious) seductive arts:  in this play she is passive and decorous throughout her appearances.  Suffolk, desperate somehow to keep Margaret close to him, conceives the plan of persuading Henry to take her as his bride.  In this, he is successful, and the last lines of the play see him happily setting off for France again, to bring Margaret to England.  The lines could hardly be more ominous.

Thus Suffolk hath prevailed, and thus he goes,

As did the youthful Paris once to Greece,

With hope to find the like event in love,

But prospect better than the Trojan did.

Margaret shall now be queen, and rule the king;

But I will rule both her, the king, and realm…

Since Britain was, mythically, descended from Troy, the proposed importation of a second Helen into the realm presages an interminable period of disaster.

Can anything legitimately be made of these recurrent triads?  Not, certainly, anything to do with whatever mystic properties might be thought to be associated with the number three.  I think it has to do with that ‘patterning’ which the dramatist has to impose on his material.  Historically, things happen just once.  But if, in a representation of it, things seem to come in threes, you get the sense that perhaps there are echoes, recurrencies, repetitions, symmetries which, while you live through the actual day, you never notice.  As Philip Brockbank well says, Shakespeare’s Histories ‘give us the sense of being close to the event together with a sense of knowing its consequences…The rhythm between pattern and process is maintained; the play like the history must be both reflected upon and lived through, its moral shape apprehended but its clamor and hurly-burly wracking the nerves.’  This is why we are afforded long backward – and forward-looking vistas, from Mortimer’s long genealogical speech tracing the succession from Edward III, to the many speeches of foreboding and prophecy which Shakespeare inserts, often at the end of a scene.  One example:  the Temple Garden scene – again, completely Shakespeare’s invention – serves in an almost heraldic way to give a sharp and highlighted beginning to the Wars of the Roses proper (this is nothing like so clear in the Chronicles).  Warwick declares:

And here I prophesy:  this brawl today,

Grown to this faction in the Temple garden,

Shall send, between the red rose and the white,

A thousand souls to death and deadly night.

(II, iv, 124-8)

Shakespeare uses prophecies, and later curses and dreams, not just to relate and bind together the three parts of the trilogy, but to suggest that English history does have a perceptible pattern.  Albeit, for a while it is a pattern of accelerating disaster.”

And his take on Joan:

“In the early part of the play, she is allowed some speeches of (from the French point of view) impeccable patriotism, which Shakespeare could only have approved.  But he is soon allowing an equivocation on ‘Pucelle or pussel’ (virgin or whore).  He allows her a scorching indictment of English hypocrisy, but also portrays her in converse with evil spirits.  She – damnably – denies her peasant father, and finally loses all credibility and dignity as she casts around, admitting to any sexual liaison, to avoid the stake.  There are, of course, English and French versions of Joan, and Shakespeare finally endorses an English one.  But the English are in no point exempted from the chaos they have caused, the deteriorations they have permitted.  Concerning a final judgment of Joan, I prefer the humane exhortation of Holinshed – ‘cast your opinions as ye have cause.’

At the death of Talbot, Lucy gives a long commemorative speech which spells out all his titles:

Valient Lord Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury,

Created, for his rare success in arms,

Great Earl of Washford, Waterford, and Valence,

Lord Talbot of Goodrig and Urchinfield,

Lord Strange of Blackmere, Lord Verdun of Alton,

Lord Cromwell of Wingfield, Lord Furnival of Sheffield,

The thrice victorious Lord of Falconbridge,

Knight of the noble order of Saint George,

Worthy Saint Michael, and the Golden Fleece,

Great Marshal to Henry the Sixth

Of all his wars within the realm of France.

To which Joan comments:

Here’s a silly stately style indeed!

The Turk, that two and fifty kingdoms  hath,

Writes not so tedious a style as this.

Him that you magnifi’st with all these titles

Stinking and fly-blown lies here at our feet.

[MY NOTE:  I loved that take-down]

Interestingly, it has been established that Lucy’s words are taken from an actual historical monument, Talbot’s tomb at Rouen.  A lapidary speech indeed – words of stone, words in stone.  The true identity – ‘substance’ – of the man is asserted to exist and persist in his name and fame.  Look for the man in the monument.  Joan, the woman, concentrates on the rotting physical body (rotting rather quickly, as has been pointed out:  Shakespeare wants the stark contrast of the male/female attitudes).  Joan is defeated, and Talbot’s name lives on.  But her mockery of the male ‘silly stately style’ leaves its mark, sows its doubt.  Leaving monuments to the English heroes who die in France is very important in this play.  And one result of the disastrous marriage between Henry and Margaret is that all historical records and monuments may well be lost.  As Gloucester says to his fellow nobles at the beginning of the next play:

Fatal this marriage, canceling your fame,

Blessing your names from books of memory,

Razing the characters of your renown,

Defacing monuments of conquered France,

Undoing all, as all had never been.

The whole record and celebration of heroic England is under threat of erasure.  That would be Joan’s revenge indeed.  History is just corpses.


From Maurice Charney:

“To the English Joan is a trull, a whore, and a strumpet.  In her final scene she tries to escape burning by pleading that she is with child.  The English nobles make satirical capital of this admission.  York exclaims sarcastically, ‘Now heaven fortend!  The holy maid with child! Which is picked up by Warwick.  ‘The greatest miracle that e’er ye wrought/Is all your strict preciseness come to this?’  Preciseness, or overscrupulousness and excessive literalness in religion, was a word specifically applied to Puritans or those who think like Puritans, as the Duke says of Angelo in Measure for Measure:  ‘Lord Angelo is precise.’  In reference to Joan, ‘preciseness’ indicates Catholic hypocrisy, and is part of a large anti-Catholic reference in the Minor Tetraology.  The Pucelle keeps shifting the putative father of her unborn child but she makes no impression on the moralistic English lords.  York condemns her finally as a ‘strumpet.’  It is interesting how strong a rhetorical effort is needed in the play to put down Joan of Arc, La Pucelle.  She is an Amazonian warrior who has sold her soul to the devil, denied her own father and parentage, and strumpeted her body to a whole succession of perfidious French nobles.  Shakespeare mounts a kind of overkill for Joan.

In the final scenes of the play, Margaret of Anjou is set up as a successor to Joan, and she will continue to flourish in the next three parts of the tetralogy.  The scene with Suffolk is strangely courtly and unhistorical, as if it properly belonged in one of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies.  ‘With Margaret in his hand,’ as his prisoner, Suffolk falls in love at first sight and ‘Gazes on her.’  Love enters through the eye, and Suffolk speaks as one smitten:

O fairest beauty, do not fear nor fly!

For I will touch thee but with reverent hands;

I kiss these fingers for eternal peace

And lay them gently on thy tender side.

In many amorous asides, Suffolk wonders at his own condition.  He speaks as conversational lover, and it is interesting that one of his lines is almost exactly echoed by Demetrius in Titus Andronicus:

Suffolk: She’s beautiful and therefore to be wooed;

She is a woman, therefore to be won.

Demetrius:        She is a woman, therefore may be wooed,

She is a woman, therefore may be won…

The married Suffolk finally arranges to woo Margaret as a wife for Henry VI, but also to keep her as his paramour.

Margaret plays a strange role in this scene.  She utters the conventional platitudes of a young virgin, but she also seems to consent completely to Suffolk’s arrangement.  Her response to Suffolk’s amorous asides is to play coy.  ‘He talks at random, sure, the man is made.’  In the next round, she seems to overhear Suffolk’s aside that he will win Lady Margaret for his king.  ‘Tush, that’s a wooden thing!’  She answers oddly:  ‘He talks of wood:  it is some carpenter.’  Clearly she knows, from his armor alone no less than from his speech, that Suffolk is not a carpenter.  When he ventures to kiss her before parting, we are reminded of Cressida being kissed all around by the officers in the Greek camp (Troilus and Cressida) ‘And this withal,’ and Margaret answers:  ‘that for thyself, I will not so presume/To send such peevish tokens to a king.’  There is something ominous about this scene.  Margaret is not one of the ‘daughters of the game,’ as Ulysses calls Cressida, but she is definitely one of the ‘sluttish spoils of opportunity,’  (Troilus and Cressida)  in this context of the fortunes of war.  As a captured French princess she may be a spoil of war, but she knows how to make use of her opportunity.”


From Harold Bloom:

“Shakespeare’s Joan is notoriously a Falstaffian wench rather than a breath of Indian summer.  Bawdy and unpleasant in certain scenes, courageous and direct in others, this version of Joan of Arc defeats criticism.  Shakespeare does not render her consistent, perhaps that was beyond his powers at that moment in his development.  Still, it is dangerous to undervalue even the novice Shakespeare, and Joan, though rather confusing, is quirkily memorable.  Why should she not be both a diabolic whore and a political-military leader of peasant genius?  Strident and shrewish, she gets results, and being burned for a witch by English brutes is not calculated to bring out the best in anyone.  As a roaring girl, she has her own rancid charm, and is certainly preferable to Shakespeare’s protagonist, the brave and tiresome Talbot.  Joan is a virago, a warrior far more cunning than the bully boy Talbot, and properly played she still has great appeal.  Who would want her to be as pompously virtuous as the current Amazons who gratify male sadomasochism on television?  Shakespeare is not so much ambivalent toward his Joan as exploitative of her:  she wants to win, and whether victory comes in bed or on the battlefield is secondary.  Moral judgments, always foreign to Shakespeare’s dramatic vision, are exposed by Henry VI, Part One as mere national prejudices.  The French regard Joan as the second coming of the biblical prophetess-warrior Deborah, while the English consider her as a Circe.  What matter, Shakespeare pragmatically implies, since either guise is incredibly potent, eclipsing every male personage, Talbot included.  I differ considerably here from Leslie Fielder, who wrote that ‘everything about Joan enrages Shakespeare.’  Even near his start, Shakespeare manifests no hostility toward any of his characters:  his Joan is uneasily comic yet essentially funny, and sometimes she effectively satirizes male military vainglory.  Her irony can be crude, even cruel, and yet dramatically it always works, and though she is terribly burned by the furious English, it is her spirit and not brave Talbot’s that triumphs.  We never can quite catch up with Shakespeare’s ironies, his Joan is a smudgy cartoon compared with the human magnificence of his Falstaff, and yet she anticipates something of Falstaff’s grand contempt for his time and the state.”


And finally, from Marjorie Garber:

“Margaret’s ‘manliness’ may seem far less overt and threatening than Joan’s.  Her outer appearance is repeatedly described as feminine and beautiful.  But Suffolk describes her to Henry as possessing a ‘valiant courage and undaunted spirit,/More than in women commonly is seen,’ and he also tells us, in an aside, that he confidently expects her to ‘rule the King.’  The theatrical juxtaposition in 1 Henry VI is striking:  York enjoins Joan, ‘Fell banning hag, enchantress, hold thy tongue,’ and leads her off to be burned at the stake.  No sooner have they left the stage than Suffolk enters ‘with Margaret in hand,’ as the stage-direction says, and importunes her to speak; he himself is silenced by her ‘gorgeous beauty’ (‘Fain would I woo her, yet I dare not speak.’)  The overt danger posed by Joan can be identified, vilified, and by the end of the play, effectively purged.  The more covert danger posed by the conventionally feminine Margaret has more lasting effects.  It will linger throughout the entire series of plays, and throughout English history, till it, too, is finally matched and overcome by the triumphant reign of another martial virgin, the English monarch Elizabeth, a rightful ruler, both feminine and powerful, who is herself both queen and king.

The unifying role of Elizabeth Tudor, the descendant of the ‘Union of the Two Families of Lancaster and York,’ the daughter of the mingled white and red, is thus itself predicted by this play, which provides negative examples of ‘bad’ manly woman as her antitypes.  But the type for Elizabeth in this play is, of course, neither Joan nor Margaret, but the two heroic male figures, the dead and much-lamented Henry V (whose ‘deeds exceed all speech’) and the character who comes closest to a central persona, the figure who announces himself at the gates of Bordeaux as ‘English John Talbot.’…

The discrediting of Joan, and the peculiar scene in which she summons her fiends by ‘charming spells and periapts,’ written incantations wrapped about the body, follows immediately upon the death of Talbot, as Joan is explicitly labeled a ‘witch,’ a ‘sorceress,’ and a ‘Circe’ who bewitches man and transforms them into beasts.  As we have seen, Joan’s fall is linked dramaturgically as well as thematically to the rise of Margaret…Thus in the course of just a few scenes Talbot is vanquished by Joan, and Joan is replaced by Margaret of Anjou.  The conquest of the English by the French is moved from the battlefield to the court, from open warfare to covert seduction, from ‘external’ war to internal or civil war.  And as always in the history plays, the state of the nation is twinned with the state of the monarch, Henry, ‘perplexed with a thousand cares,’ as he waits for his ‘faithful and anointed queen’ to cross the sea to English, is already vulnerable.  So even in the moment of apparent victory another defeat looms; Suffolk’s comparison of himself to the Trojan prince Paris, who tried to kidnap Helen from her husband, Menelaus, makes it clear that Margaret herself is a Trojan horse, a treacherous and dangerous gift.”


So what did you all think of the play?  Of Shakespeare’s treatment of Joan?  Your comments and questions are welcome.

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning:  A look at Shakespeare’s Sonnet #30

Enjoy your weekend.

And as an added bonus, for those who want a quick recap of the real history of King Henry VI:

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10 Responses to “Strident and shrewish, she gets results, and being burned for a witch by English brutes is not calculated to bring out the best in anyone.”

  1. Eddie Chism says:

    I haven’t had a chance to read the entire entry for Act V yet, but here are the two things I wanted to note for this section:
    (1) I thought it was interesting how the section with Talbot and his son switched to all rhyming lines, and I wonder what was the reason for that.
    (2) I also was intrigued by the section where Somerset woos of Margaret as a wife for the already betrothed young king instead of himself because he is already married!

    • Eddie:

      On your first question, I’m not entirely certain — I think the reason is that it gives the whole scene a very contained power. Garber writes that the scene “demonstrates the ways in which an earlier writing style, more rhymed and end-stopped than the familiar blank verse of Shakespeare’s later plays, can carry its own considerable burden of expressive emotion. Indeed, the restraint and orderliness of the couplet form seem in a way to mirror the older man’s attempt to hold his own emotions in check — as well as the curious and quietly agonized joy with which he accepts his son’s profession of nobility and fatality.’

      As to your second — he wants her for himself, but by giving her to the king as his wife, he can have her as his mistress while at the same time use her to control Henry.

      Does that help?


      • Eddie Chism says:

        Thanks, Dennis. On (1), now that I’ve actually read your entry, I see where that was discussed, LOL. As for (2), I understood what was happening and Somerset’s motivations in doing so. I was just saying I thought it was a really interesting development in the play, and I’m curious how it will play out in parts 2 and 3, not to mention I just thought it was an interesting note to end the play on thematically. The introduction in the Pelican edition also has some interesting discussion of the Margaret sequence:
        “Typically, the play suggests the further darkening of Henry’s involvement by linking York’s capture of Joan to Suffolk’s of Margaret. These two women are led to very different fates: one must be burned alive, the other will be married to a king. Joan struggles to avoid her death, denying her peasant origins… Margaret, on the other hand, complies easily with Suffolk’s wishes, agrees to marry Henry, and implicity accepts an extramarital attachment as part of the bargain…Shakespeare’s method of juxtaposition sets up implied comparisons between the two pairs. The audience is invited to compare Joan with Margaret and to doubt the honesty of both. Similarly, Suffolk’s tainted motives reflect on those of York. By turning his fury on Joan, York disguises his own responsibility for the English defeat in France. By advancing Margaret to the throne of England, Suffolk fashions her into a continuation by other means of the military threat once posed by Joan. Like the boy king himself, Joan and Margaret are pawns, treated not according to the standards of chivalry, but according to the needs and ambitions of the men who control them. The dramatization of Henry’s marriage to Margaret does not end at the close of 1 Henvry VI, but continues until Henry’s death in 3 Henry VI. Shakespeare even extends Margaret’s role past the end of 3 Henry Vi by haveing hier appear, unhistorically, in Richard III.”

  2. GGG says:

    While I was reading this play, I was imagining it in performance with someone walking across the stage with a placard saying “five years later…in France” then “two years later…in England.” A lot of time passes!

    The portrayal of Joan is very interesting. Even the French king and lords are not sure how to treat her, although grateful for her success, and certainly don’t come to her defense/rescue when she is captured and tried by the British. Is she truly a witch? The scene where she invokes the “fiends” yet they refuse to help her doesn’t really lean the portrayal one way or the other, even with the play being written from the standpoint of the English, and the Tudor English as well. Why didn’t Shakespeare have her successfully getting assistance from the fiends, if he wanted her to be completely evil?

    Her statement that she is pregnant quickly becomes an exercise in desperate wordplay, i thought too, rather than that she was really saying she was pregnant. (What about that as a parallel–always fun–the fiends won’t help, and neither will the real-life fiends she names at the end…Charles or Alencon…)

    Joan’s speech to Burgundy, that convinces him to defect to Charles, lays out the misery of the French people under the unending military campaigns of the English and commanders like Talbot. This speech puts a different twist on the “heroics” of Talbot–are we about to become sympathetic to the French? I didn’t find too many characters other than Talbot and his son for whom I felt sympathy.

    One wonders if Shakespeare had had the freedom to write a play about Joan of Arc, without worrying about political pitfalls, how she would have been portrayed.

    I enjoyed the part where Joan (brave warrior and clever commander) is going up the siege ladder–seems comical to us now, but must have been thrilling to the audience then. I know the stage had several levels–upper and lower stages. To me this play showed how effectively these levels could have been used–imagine the French boy aiming at the Dukes standing with Talbot, while the audience gasped in anticipation and apprehension!

    • GGG: Excellent points all the way around. What occurred to me when you said “even the French king and lord are not sure how to treat her,” was that even today, we don’t know quite how to take her. Look at Shaw’s treatment, or Twain’s — was she a crackpot religious zealot hearing voices? Was she hearing the voices of God? Saint? How do we even begin to understand a young peasant mystic/general?

      And you’re right about how thrilling it must have been on stage. As I think I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, it seems likely that one of the reasons Shakespeare wrote the play as he did was to take advantage of the theatricality of the battles and to show off just what he could do on a stage.

  3. MaryKay says:

    Dennis, Could you please resend the last posting with the discussion of Sonnet 30. Somehow I managed to delete it before I read it! Thank you, MaryKay

  4. Joe Simon says:

    A couple thoughts. First, Shakespeare’s Globe produced the Henry VI plays this past summer, outdoors, on actual Henty VI battlefields. Part I was available for free streaming for a while and may be again next year. One thing they did that was very striking was the actor playing Henry was on stage for the entire first section of the play. Reading. Only barely taking an interest in what was going on around him.

    This business of three: three can represent both extreme balance (tripod) and extreme imbalance (three legged chair). Also, in improv comedy I learned the “rule of three”. Things are funnier if you make two setups before the joke. I figured using a geometric analogy that one point establishes nothing but two establishes a line, and thus, audience anticipation. The third point off the line is unexpected and thus funny in comedy. But it can be just as well surprising in history or even tragedy, keeping the audience not quite knowing what will happen next.

    • Joe: Interesting. And I’m jealous — I doubt I’ll ever get to see a live production of the Henry VI plays…what did you think of the production? How did it work vs. as a read play?

  5. Joe Simon says:

    I have to admit I haven’t read the Henry VI plays. The battlefield production I thought worked well but I wanted to rematch it after reading this. Our local professional Shakespeare company did something interesting a few years ago. They combined all three Henry VI plays into one play, which they called Blood Royal. I saw it three times but I know I missed a lot. I was in three consecutive plays directed by cast members of Blood Royal.

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