Henry VI, Part 1 | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry VI, Part 1 | Act 5, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

York and Warwick are bringing Joan la Pucelle to the stake under armed guard. A French shepherd who claims to be Joan's father follows the procession, but Joan spurns him and insists that she is of noble parentage. After unsuccessfully pleading with Joan to recognize him as her father, the shepherd curses his offspring and leaves the stage.

Joan, in a final attempt to save herself, now denies dabbling in sorcery: she insists that she is a holy virgin, not a witch. When this fails to move York or Warwick, she changes tack and "confesses" that she is pregnant, hoping this will spare her from execution. She says first that the Duke of Alanson is the father, but when the two Englishmen scoff at this, she backpedals and says the child is Reignier's. For York and Warwick, the admission is just further proof of Joan's wickedness; even if it is true (which they seem to doubt), neither man is willing to spare Joan so that a French "brat" may live. The guards escort Joan offstage to her death.

Next Winchester enters to announce that a French delegation has come seeking a truce. York deplores the idea of an "effeminate peace," but Warwick argues that the English will have the advantage in the negotiations. Charles the Dauphin enters, accompanied by Alanson, the Bastard of Orleance, and Reignier. He asks the English for their terms, and Winchester replies that the French king must become a viceroy (a subordinate) of the English crown. The Dauphin balks at this suggestion, but his counselors draw him aside and tell him to accept the truce now, then break it when it suits him. The Dauphin agrees, and the French swear allegiance to Henry.

Analysis

In earlier scenes, Joan is an ambivalent character: she is fighting for the "wrong" side from an Elizabethan English point of view, but she also has moments of genuine heroism and does not seem to deserve the contemptuous treatment she receives from her enemies. In Act 5, however, Shakespeare works overtime to present Joan as almost purely villainous. Her denial of her father is cruel and haughty ("Peasant, avaunt!"), and her claims of noble lineage directly contradict her earlier statement that she is "by birth a shepherd's daughter" (Act 1, Scene 2). Likewise, her assertion that "I never had to do with wicked spirits" is plainly a lie, since she summoned demons (albeit uncooperative ones) in the previous scene (Act 5, Scene 3). Finally, in "pleading her belly" to escape the stake, Joan makes a pathetic mockery of her reputation as a virgin saint.

According to the list of characters at the beginning of the play, the shepherd really is Joan's father, making her rejection of him that much more galling. He appears only in this scene and adds a rather jarring bit of comedy to the moments before Joan is killed offstage. Like many "rustic" characters in Shakespeare, the shepherd gets his words mixed up, calling Joan "obstacle" when he means "obstinate." He casually and perhaps unintentionally suggests that Joan was born out of wedlock ("the first fruit of my bach'lorship"), then tosses out a few other jokes and insults before leaving the stage. Combined with Joan's outrageous lies, the shepherd's speeches serve to deflate the horror of the moment when Joan realizes that she is about to be burned alive. Whether or not Joan is in league with the devil, this is a terrible fate, and Shakespeare uses comedy to blunt its impact on the audience.

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