Saint Joan

Saint Joan

Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw is a cool play about Joan of Arc, a French girl who thought she was hearing voices from saints telling her to help France during the Hundred Years’ War. It’s all about her journey of bravery, faith, and standing up for what she believed in.

Saint Joan

Saint Joan about to be burnt at the stake on charges of heresy.


About the Author

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can.


Verily, Shaw used the medium of theatre to serve the humanity by holding a mirror to the society to show the true nature of its ‘ideas’ and ‘institutions’ which were generally inhuman and suppressive. Born in Dublin, Ireland, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was a Nobel prize and Oscar winning dramatist and critic. He is regarded as the greatest dramatist of Modern age, and his contributions to British Theatre is considered second only to that William Shakespeare. According to of Albert:

After Shakespeare no English dramatist equals Shaw in the variety and vividness of his characters.

Shaw began his Literary Career as a novelist but all his five novels were unsuccessful. However, as a dramatists he is unparalleled. His “ideas”, as he believed, were the most important feature of his plays and he used theatre for their presentation and propagation:

I write plays with the deliberate purpose to convert the nations to my opinion.

He is credited for creating the ‘theatre of ideas’ in which plays explore such issues as sexism, sexual equality, socioeconomic division and the effects of poverty, and philosophical and religious theories. He authored more than sixty plays among which, Man and Superman, Pygmalion and Saint Joan became extremely popular.

About the Play

In 1920, the Roman Catholic Church Canonized ‘Joan of Arc’—nearly five centuries after she was burnt alive for heresy by the same Catholic Church, in 1431. This event inspired Shaw to write “Saint Joan”. Written and performed in 1923, ‘Saint Joan’ chronicles the life of the legendary religious martyr, Joan of Arc. It explores and digs deep into the tragedy of Saint Joan and presents the psychology of each and every person who played a role in Joan’s fate. Though, it may not be the most accurate representation, but it does give a glimpse of the ‘heart’ and ‘mind’ of the people associated with Joan’s tragic death.

Saint Joan as a Tragedy

Different critics have different views about the nature of Shaw’s play. Some regard it as a Comedy, while others consider it a play with both comic and tragic elements. Another group regard it as a tragedy. Thus, Saint Joan is a play with multiple facets—a treasure-house of ideas and perspectives open for different interpretations. Nevertheless, the core of the play, as Shaw puts it in his ‘preface’ is the tragic conflict between an irresistible force in Joan and ‘immovable obstacle’ in the church. It is, therefore, worthwhile to re-examine Saint Joan and try to understand the true nature and scope of the tragedy embedded in the play. It will be, therefore, the most appropriate to review the Salient features of Aristotelian tragedy and examine ‘Saint Joan’ to see if the play measures up to Aristotle’s vision.

Aristotle considered tragedy to be a dramatic representation of serious action, something that matters, done by people who count e.g. King Oedipus’ discovery that he has killed his father and married his mother. At its centre, it has the tragic protagonist who is superior than the average people, due to character and achievement. of the that he which Case was has The Internal cause of the protagonist’s tragic downfall is that he has a tragic flaw (hamartia), which was ‘anger’, and uncontrolled vigour, in case of Oedipus. Hamartia leads to the reversal of fortune (peripeteia) causing suffering or downfall (nemesis) of the protagonist. Before the tragic end, however, the protagonist usually experiences a moment of self-knowledge (anagnorisis). The audience witnessing the tragedy undergoes a therapeutic purging (catharsis) of the emotions of pity and fear.

It is possible to read “Saint Joan” as an example of Aristotelian tragedy and so take Joan as a tragic heroine. Joan was a simple country girl who stands against all the major establishments of the day- English invaders, the Catholic Church, the institution of Feudalism and the male dominated society. She was able to go through all these hurdles because of her ‘honesty’ and ‘faith’ in her voices, that according her were from God. Her faith remains unshaken—except for her brief recantation during her trial—through all her ‘miracles’, victories and ordeals. Ironically, other characters who interact with her accuse her of ‘pride’:

The Archbishop… The old Greek tragedy is rising among us. It is the chastisement of hubris.

Though, Joan is convinced that she is not doing anything wrong. What others think to be her pride is actually which her deep faith in God which provide her with the unshaken confidence she has. Joan’s simple faith challenges all established institutions – the Feudal System (Warwick), the Catholic Church (Couchon) and the English nation (de Stogumber) – who join forces against Joan. They wage war against this teenager girl who is so innocent that she does not sense the evil intentions of her enemies. As Shaw puts it in the Preface:

And she was naive enough to expect them to be obliged to her for setting them right and keeping them out of mischief.

There is an ironic reversal of fortune (peripeteia) in Joan’s life. When, after succeeding in raising the Siege of Orleans and crowing Charles, she want to drive the English out of Paris, everyone condemns and abandons her. So, her greatest moment of victory turns into a bitter defeat. Much later, during her trial, worn out in body and spirit, her faith wavers and she trusts the church over God confessing “to the sin of disobedience, to the sin of pride, and to the sin of heresy”. She expects to be set free. But, she is condemned “to eat the bread of sorrow and drink the water of affliction” and to spend the rest of her life in prison. This is the moment of her recognition of truth (anagnorisis). Outraged, she rises up in protest, tears ou the recantation, realizes the church’s counsel is “of the devil” and reaffirms her faith in God. Not, surprisingly, she is condemned as heretic and burnt at the stake. So, it can be said that Joan’s pride (which does not actually seem to be pride, but is her faith) leads to the ironic reversal of her fortune which brings about her nemesis after anagnorisis. The catastrophic effect is on all those who witness her martyrdom and we, the audience feel pity and fear in our hearts i.e., catharsis.

However, as we watch the conflict between Joan’s simple faith and the worldly power of church and state. We are ‘not’ convinced that Joan ‘was’ guilty of pride. Rather, those who accuse her seem to be on an ego trip. Besides, she is so full of innocence, energy and charm that we are compelled to echo the words of the French captain in the opening scene:

There is something about her… Something…I think the girl herself is a bit of miracle.”

So, we find that the protagonist, Joan, who is better than others around her meets her doom due to her hamartia which causes the catharsis in the audience. We can, therefore, safely consider Shaw’s Saint Joan as a tragedy which contains, most, if not all the features of an Aristotelian tragedy.

If you are looking forward to prepare for UGC NET/JRF, you may find this article useful.




©2024. Md. Rustam Ansari []


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