Joan in Combat

This paper offers some suggestions for the moments of combat that Joan of arc is involved in.

Shakespeare’s depiction of Joan of Arc offers a unique puzzle in the cannon. Joan is the only woman that engages in combat in the entire Shakespeare cannon. Of course some of Shakespeare’s women do get involved in more comedic fights, such as the “argument” between Kate and Petruccio, but Joan is the only woman in the cannon to pick up a sword and engage in real combat. Joan, along with the other French nobles in the play, is presented as a comic character, a mockery of the historical Joan, and as a tactical commander who cannot hold onto the cities she takes. Joan’s combat ability in the play should in fact reflect her character, and the text does in fact support a Joan who is not well versed in combat, who wins either by luck, of infernal inspiration.

Joan is involved in two, or three, fights on stage. In her first fight she bests Charles and so proved her combat worth to him. In the second she fights the English general Talbot, however the outcome of this fight is uncertain. Joan halts the battle and departs, neither Joan, nor Talbot, are wounded in the battle. The last fight may or may not happen. Joan is captured by York, however in the Folio no stage direction exists to indicate how. Editors commonly add in a fight between Joan and York just before her capture. Shakespeare is careful to offer the audience depictions of Charles, Talbot, and York in combat so the audience can compare Joan’s combat ability to the two or three men she fights on stage.

Joan’s first fight takes place in 1.3, after she has been introduced by the Bastard of Orleans, and has seen through a ruse the Dauphin and Reignier concoct to test her. Joan pulls Charles aside and dares him to test her courage in combat. Charles does so, and “Here they fight and JOAN LA PUCELLE overcomes” (1.3.82 SD ). The stage direction leaves no question as to who wins this battle; however, Charles’ other fights demonstrate just how poor of a combatant he is. Just before Joan and Talbot fight the stage direction reads: “TALBOT pursueth the Dauphin and driveth him” (1.7.0 SD). In the fight with Joan, Charles “has literally been overpowered by Joan's skill with the sword, and he metaphorically proclaims his ‘thralldom’ to her love… Earlier he had been defeated by a superior English army and had shown himself a coward by running away” (Guitierrez 188). Charles is shown running from several other fights, including at the mere mention of Talbot’s name. None of Charles’ military exploits in this play go favorably for him.

Like the other French nobles, Charles is a comic character, and a mockery of a king in war. He cannot win in combat, unlike the English captain, Talbot. Talbot nearly always wins in combat. The one exception may in fact be with Joan. Joan enters and after some talk the stage direction reads: “Here they fight” (1.7.8 SD). The combatants take a break and Talbot exclaims:

Heavens, can you suffer hell so to prevail?
My breast I’ll burst with straining of my courage
And from my shoulders crack my arms asunder
But I will chastise this high-minded strumpet. (1.7.9-12)

A stage direction follows that reads: “They fight again” (1.7.12 SD). Joan then stops the fight and bids Talbot farewell declaring: “Thy hour has not yet come” and she leaves to help the French reinforce Orleans (1.7.13). Neither Talbot, nor Joan has won, or lost, the fight according to the text, or stage directions. On stage the audience sees Talbot drive the Dauphin and later run onstage to find his son surrounded by French and then jump into the fray and save his son. They are told about many other of Talbot’s exploits in the battles depicted on stage, and those that came before the play opens. Talbot dies at the end of act 4, but his death appears to be out of grief for his dead son, not wounds from the French. Talbot’s last words “My spirit can no longer bear these harms. | Soldiers, adieu. I have what I would have, | Now my old arms are young John Talbot’s grave” show that Talbot dies of a broken heart, not from a French inflicted wound. (4.7.30-32). Talbot is the play’s best fighter, if Joan is able to best him, this gives her a superiority that no Frenchman in the play has.

Talbot’s death leaves York as England’s only hope in the battle for Bordeaux. The audience only sees York fight once, according to the stage direction. 5.4 opens with the stage direction: “Excursions, BURGUNDY and YORK fight hand to hand. French fly” (5.4.0 SD). Shakespeare gives no direct outcome for the fight, the scene opens with York and Joan. The cue “French fly” most likely relates to Burgundy as well, meaning that York wins his fight against Burgundy. A director can, of course, opt for a different interpretation of the stage direction. Perhaps Burgundy is killed, or perhaps Burgundy is winning before a retreat is sounded and he leaves only to rally his troops again. Whatever interpretation a director chooses, this fight between York and Burgundy can have a great impact on the possible fight between York and Joan.

Figure 1
Figure 1

The stage direction quoted above is the only stage direction for the top of 5.4, which opens with Joan and York, whose first line is “Damsel of France, I think I have you fast” (5.4.1). Either York exited to drive the French off, and returned with Joan in tow, or he captures her on stage. Joan may give up and allow herself to be captured at this moment, as her infernal power has abandoned her, but her lines in the scene are lines of defiance, suggesting that she would in fact fight York. The editorial addition of a fight between York and Joan is so common that in an article describing Shakespeare’s, Shiller’s and Shaw’s depiction of Joan, Frederick S. Boas states: “In a hand-to-hand fight with the Duke of York she [Joan] is taken prisoner” (38). Boas does not note the fact that the existing Folio text has no stage direction for this scene. To him it is accepted that the fight between York and Joan exists. Whether there is a fight between Joan and York, or not a director still has to decide what happens in the scene. A fight on stage following York’s defeat of Burgundy would show York as a superior fighter, and able to bring down Joan. If York lost to Burgundy however, the fight would show how bad of a fighter Joan is without her infernal inspiration, which she lost in scene 5.3.York capturing Joan without a fight would highlight Joan’s loss of infernal power even more.

Even with all the textual clues, there are many interpretations a director can choose for Joan’s fights. My interpretation, which follows, I believe makes good use of the available text, and the episodic nature of the play. “Henry VI, Part 1 offers opportunities for comic stage spectacle” (McNeir 48), and Joan’s fights are certainly a good place to stage comic spectacle. When Joan challenges the Dauphin she cannot, of course, draw blood in the fight; that would be treason against her king. She can disarm him. The fight should be quick, Charles can make a few attacks that Joan defends easily, and then easily disarm him, such as Figure 1, an example from Fiore Dei Liberi’s Flos Duellatorum , written around 1410, some 20 years before Joan actually lived. The move should take Charles completely by surprise, leading to his complete belief in Joan’s abilities. To play up the infernal inspiration that Joan is supposed to have Joan should seem inspired just before the disarm move, as if the infernal power is taking over.

This disarm maneuver can come into play again in the fight with Talbot. As Talbot and Joan enter into combat the first time Joan should again seem like the infernal power enters her and the fight should then be a fair match. After the pause, when Talbot calls upon the powers of heaven the fight should seem to be tipping toward Joan, when she then uses the disarm maneuver. This maneuver should not work, Talbot should find a way to keep his sword and use the maneuver to gain some advantage on Joan. When Joan’s special move does not work is the moment when she decides she must go and resupply Orleans, and leaves Talbot. Her comment about his hour not yet coming can easily be seen as a bluff, and a threat to put off Talbot and allow her to escape.

For the last fight York should beat Burgundy, and as he is driving the French off stage Joan enters. What follows is a parody of the first fight Joan has with Charles. Joan, now devoid of her infernal powers, attacks York wildly, though he easily blocks the blows. Finally he uses the same disarm maneuver on Joan, and thereby captures her. The fight should always be York’s from start to finish. Joan should know going into the fight that she will loose. The fight may not be in the Folio stage directions, but this gives a clear picture to the audience of the totality of Joan’s fall, now she is bested by her special signature move.

By using the same disarm maneuver in all three fights Joan becomes a one trick pony, who is easily flustered when her special move does not work. When she is defeated by her own maneuver her defeat is complete. The arc of the three fights keeps Joan from moving out of the comic depiction of the French, she becomes as inept as they are in combat, only her infernal disarm maneuver allows her, early in the play, to best Charles, and live through a fight with Talbot.

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