Act 1, scene 2
Scene 2 opens in the French forces’ camp near the British-occupied town of Orléans. Charles the Dauphin marches in with the Duke of Alençon and Reignier, Duke of Anjou. Charles says that the stars (here he is referring to astrology) previously favored the English, but now they seem to be on the French side. The English, weakened from famine, are only launching a short siege on the French forces once a month. Reignier is confident, as Talbot has been taken prisoner.
Charles vows never to retreat before the English and launches an assault on them. Immediately, however, the French are beaten back by the English forces. Reignier says that the Earl of Salisbury is fighting with desperate determination. Alençon praises the bravery of the English. Charles plans to retreat from Orléans and wait until famine has further weakened the English before taking them on.
The Bastard of Orléans enters and tells Charles to cheer up, as he has brought with him a “holy maid” who is ordained by heaven to drive the English out of France. She has miraculous powers, being able to know the past and future. Charles decides to test her by having Reignier pretend to be him. Joan is brought in and immediately knows who the true Dauphin is. She asks to talk with Charles privately.
Joan tells Charles that she is a humble shepherd’s daughter. One day, the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared to her and gave her a vision showing that it was her destiny to liberate her country. She promises that Charles will benefit if he accepts her help in fighting the English and adds that Charles may try her skill in combat. Charles agrees to hand-to-hand combat. They fight, and Joan overcomes Charles. She insists that her strength comes from the Virgin Mary. Charles, enraptured, says he will be her servant. Joan replies that she will not enter into any love relationship until she has chased the English out of France. Reignier and Alençon comment on what they see as a sexual charge between Charles and Joan.
Joan tells the men that they must not give up Orléans to the English, but fight for it. She will protect them. She announces that she will lead the siege of Orléans that very night. Charles praises her in terms of reverence and adoration normally reserved for God.
This play has a strong propagandistic purpose. The French are portrayed as braver in words than in deed. At line 20, Charles the Dauphin vows never to retreat, and then immediately flees from the oncoming English. The French decision to starve out the English before fighting them again would have been viewed as particularly cowardly and dishonorable.
Moreover, Shakespeare has England’s enemies, the French, praise the courage and valor of their English foes. Alençon describes the English in battle as “none but Samson and Goliases” (line 33), after the legendary Biblical strong-men, Samson and Goliath, even when they are outnumbered by the French by ten to one. Charles adds his own praise: “Of old I know them; rather with their teeth/The walls they’ll tear down than forsake the siege” (lines 39–40).
These images typify a long-lasting trend of pro-English propaganda to portray the nation’s armed forces as poorly resourced and desperately outnumbered, but as being sustained by the exceptional courage and tenacity of the emblematic British bulldog. To an extent, the propaganda does match the historical accounts of such battles as Agincourt (1415) and, from Shakespeare’s own time, the fight against the Spanish Armada (1588), as well as the more recent events of the Anglo-Zulu War in South Africa (1879) and the Battle of Britain in World War II (1940).
Shakespeare’s presentation of Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc, a historical heroine of France who took up arms and led the army against the English) is famously inconsistent and baffling. This has reinforced the impression that Henry VI, Part One was not authored only by Shakespeare but was a collaborative effort. Here, Joan is shown as the French see her, a holy maid (virgin) with the God-given gift of prophecy and privileged knowledge. However, even at this early stage, Shakespeare introduces pagan images to raise doubts in his audience’s mind about her claims to be inspired by the Christian God. He has the Bastard of Orléans compare her with the sibyls (prophetesses) of ancient Rome, which was a pagan and pre-Christian society.
Shakespeare also uses the character of Joan to satirize Roman Catholicism. At the period when the play is set, England, like France, was a Catholic nation. By Shakespeare’s time, England was officially a Protestant nation, though many people from all classes of society secretly retained their Catholic faith. Shakespeare reflects the concerns of the Protestant ruling classes of his own age when he presents Joan’s Catholicism as an aspect of her suspect nature. Similarly, Charles addresses her (line 145) in terms of a worship which Protestantism reserved for God and Jesus Christ, but which Catholics applied also to the Virgin Mary. In this case, the royal heir to the throne is applying such worship to the unknown shepherd girl Joan. Shakespeare is thus not only satirizing the weak French leadership but also Catholicism.
Later in the play, Shakespeare suggests that Joan’s powers come not from God but from the devil, typifying a Protestant tendency to equate Catholicism and the Pope with Satanic activity.
Shakespeare also undermines Joan’s claim of divine inspiration and spiritual authority by repeatedly surrounding her with the imagery of carnality and sex. In her long speech to Charles beginning at line 72, she draws attention to her physical beauty, insists that she will “exceed my sex” in hand-to-hand combat, and invites him to “receive me for thy warlike mate”. All this has a valid non-sexual meaning, but it is clear that Charles picks up on the sexual undertones when he replies in kind: “In single combat thou shalt buckle with me” (line 95). After the fight, he talks again to Joan in sexualized terms: “Impatiently I burn with thy desire” (line 108). On the surface level, he means that he has taken on Joan’s desire to drive out the English, but only the tiny word “thy” saves his comment from overt sexual meaning. Joan in turn understands Charles’s sexual meaning, as she insists that she cannot yield to “rites of love” out of respect to her divine calling. As if the sexual loadedness of the interchange were not sufficiently made clear, Alençon underlines it by making the suggestive comment, “Doubtless he shrives this woman to her smock”, perhaps implying that Charles is mentally stripping Joan of her clothes.
Joan is also de-spiritualized by her comment that she got her sword “Out of a great deal of old iron” (line 101). Swords carried heavy symbolic weight in European mythology and were often seen as sacred and of divine origin, as with King Arthur’s sword Excalibur. This implied that any deeds of blood carried out using such a sword had divine approval. But Joan found her sword in the sordid environment of a scrapheap in a churchyard, casting symbolic doubt on any of the deeds she will do using it. The image of the scrapheap may carry an additional reference to Catholicism, which the English Protestant Church had consigned to the metaphorical scrapheap.
After Joan overcomes Charles in a trial of her skill in combat, his offer to prostrate himself at Joan’s feet and be her servant would have produced unease in a conservative Elizabethan audience. Charles is the heir to the throne and Joan is an unknown shepherd’s daughter with a strange sexual power. It is inappropriate for him to abase himself in this way. Shakespeare saw disruptions of the social order, such as royalty acting in a weak or servile way, as omens of disorder in the state.