Shakespeare and the Maid
The great bard's view of the woman who conquered his countrymen is exposed, indecently enough, in several scenes of "Henry VI" (Part I), one of the
so-called historical plays. Nothing could be less historical, in fact. The whole account of Jeanne is absurdly false and reveals an immense ignorance of the subject. It seems to have been written of purpose to glut the ears of the British groundlings. Yet this drama was produced 160 years after the death of Jeanne, 140 after the Rehabilitation. Shakespeare could hardly have been ignorant that he was writing monstrous foolishness, as well as the basest kind of slander—that of the dead!
Therefore, several critics have sought to clear Shakespeare on the ground that he probably did not write this play but only retouched it. This is mere conjecture and it cannot be urged as a valid plea. I must say that the voice we hear behind the puppets in "Henry VI" (Part I) sounds in my ear very like the authentic voice of the Honorable William Shakespeare and no other. I give a sample and allow the reader to judge for himself. But he will note that there is not one word of possible truth in it from beginning to end as regards the Maid, save a passage of five lines which I have italicized; that the scene of her execution is placed in the camp of the Duke of York at Anjou—no doubt one of the bard's historical flashes; while the mention of "Reignier, King of Naples" by the Maid climaxes the absurdity of the whole.
I quote the scene entire, because it is to be feared that people are not much in the habit of reading Shakespeare nowadays—at least the "historical" plays—save perhaps at the British Museum.
ACT V, SCENE IV. Camp of the DUKE OF YORK in Anjou.
Enter YORK, WARWICK, and others.
YORK. Bring forth that sorceress, condemn'd to burn.
Enter LA PUCELLE, guarded, and a Shepherd.
SHEPHERD. Ah, Joan, this kills thy father's heart outright!
Have I sought every country far and near,
And, now it is my chance to find thee out,
Must I behold thy timeless cruel death?
Ah, Joan, sweet daughter Joan, I'll die with thee!
PUCELLE. Decrepit miser! base ignoble wretch!
I am descended of a gentler blood;
Thou art no father nor no friend of mine.
SHEPHERD. Out, out!—My lords, an please you, 'tis not so;
I did beget her, all the parish knows;
Her mother liveth yet, can testify
She was the first fruit of my bachelorship.
WARWICK. Graceless! wilt thou deny thy parentage?
YORK. This argues what her kind of life hash been,
Wicked and vile; and so her death concludes.
SHEPHERD. Fie, Joan, that thou wilt be so obstacle! (Meant for "obstinate," we suppose.)
God knows thou art a collop of my flesh,
And for thy sake have I shed many a tear;
Deny me not, I prithee, gentle Joan!
PUCELLE. Peasant, avaunt!— you (Addressing the English.)
have suborn'd this man,
Of purpose to obscure my noble birth.
SHEPHERD. 'Tis true, I gave a noble to the priest
The morn that I was wedded to her mother.—
Kneel down and take my blessing, good my girl.
Wilt thou not stoop?
Now cursed be the time
Of thy nativity! I would the milk
Thy mother gave thee when thou suck'dst her breast.
Had been a little ratsbane for thy sake!
Dost thou deny thy father, cursed drab?—
O burn her, burn her! hanging is too good. [Exit]
YORK. Take her away; for she hath lived too long,
To fill the world with vicious qualities.
PUCELLE. First, let me tell you whom you have condemn'd
Not me b of n 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,
Stain'd 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 bath been
A virgin from her tender infancy,
Chaste and immaculate in very thought,
Whose maiden blood, thus rigorously effused,
Will cry for vengeance at the gates of heavens
(Gabriel Hanotaux has complimented Shakespeare upon these five lines, but the scene as a whole witnesses that Shakespeare had no idea of complimenting the Maid. Still, he might have written these five lines for himself!)
YORK. Ay, ay.—Away with her to execution!
WARWICK. And hark ye, sirs: because she is a maid,
Spare for no fagots, let there be enow;
Place barrels of pitch upon the fatal stake,
That so her torture may be shortened.
PUCELLE. Will nothing turn your unrelenting hearts?
Then, Joan, discover thine infirmity,
That warranteth by law to be thy privilege.—
I am with child, ye bloody homicides;
Murder not then the fruit within my womb,
Although ye hale me to a violent death.
YORK. Now heaven forfend! the holy maid with child!
WARWICK. The greatest miracle that e'er ye wrought!
Is all your strict preciseness come to this?
YORK. She and the Dauphin have been juggling;
I did imagine what would be her refuge.
WARWICK. Well, go to; we'll have no bastards live,
Especially since Charles must father it.
PUCELLE. You are deceived; my child is none of his.
It was Alen4on that enjoy'd my love.
YORK. Alencon! that notorious Machiavel!
It dies, an if it had a thousand lives.
PUCELLE.O, give me leave, I have deluded you;
'Twas neither Charles nor yet the duke I named,
But Reignier, King of Naples, that prevail'd.
WARWICK. A married man! that's most intolerable., (A fine touch of the inescapable British moralist.)
YORK. Why, here's a girl! I think she knows not well,
There were so many, whom she may accuse.
WARWICK. It's sign she hath been liberal and free.
YORK. And yet, forsooth, she is a virgin pure.—
Strumpet, thy words condemn thy brat and thee;
Use no entreaty, for it is in vain.
PUCELLE. Then lead me hence; with whom I leave my curse:
May never glorious sun reflex his beams
Upon the country where you make abode,
But darkness and the gloomy shade of death
Environ you, ect [exutm gyarded]
YORK. Break thou in pieces and consume to ashes,
Thou foul accursed minister of hell!
Shakespeare is declared to have been the greatest creator and interpreter of human character that the stage of literature has known. Therefore, we shall not deny that Jeanne's enemies in this scene speak like genuine Englishmen of the fifteenth century, and to that extent the noble bard has "held the mirror up to nature." The rest is a hideous libel, without the least poetical or literary merit to redeem it. I wish this play might be fathered on somebody else, but, alas! Shakespeare has given an infallible proof of its authorship in making York mention Machiavel (Machiavelli), who was not born until thirty years after the death of Jeanne d'Arc! (The patent rights of this critical discovery have been applied for; trespassers will take notice.)
As for that masterpiece, "Reignier, King of Naples," I suppose the bard, groping through the legend, stumbled upon the name of Regnault de Chartres and achieved the rest with that genius which was "not for a day but for all time."