This scene is set in the English camp, as the nobleman Richard de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick (called simply Warwick) discusses the recent series of unbelievable French victories with his chaplain, de Stogumber. The defeats can be accounted for only by "witchcraft and sorcery." No simple girl could possibly have defeated the English forces unless she were "an accursed witch." Warwick reveals that he is ready to pay a large ransom for the witch so as to burn her.
A page announces the arrival of the Bishop of Beauvais, Peter Cauchon. After Warwick acknowledges that The Maid has now arranged to have Charles crowned at Rheims and that the English are helpless, Warwick offers his view that The Maid is a sorceress who should be denounced to the Inquisition.
De Stogumber is more adamant in his condemnation, citing the numerous victories which Joan has had over the English and her miraculous survivals on the battlefield. Cauchon is not wholly convinced that the French victories were caused by witchcraft: He subtly suggests that some "little of the credit" be given to French leadership, and he cites examples. However, he agrees that The Maid has supernatural powers, but he attributes these powers to the Devil; the Devil, he says, is employing Joan to strike at the very basis of the Catholic Church: ". . . it is as one of the instruments of that design that . . . this girl is inspired, but diabolically inspired." Thus, Joan is not a witch, but, instead, she is a heretic. Cauchon does not believe her accomplishments (her victories) to be miracles but simply that Joan "has a better head on her shoulders" than do the blustering English generals whom she has defeated. However, it is the duty of the Church to save souls, which Cauchon hopes to do: "The soul of this village girl is of equal value with yours or your king's before the throne of God; and my first duty is to save it."
Cauchon, then, in a long diatribe, explains Joan's condemnation. Joan, he says, totally ignores the Church and, furthermore, presumes to bring messages directly from God; likewise, she, and not the Church, will crown Charles. All of her actions are performed without consulting the Church; in short, she acts as though she were the Church, This is heresy in its worst form, and, Cauchon says, it must be "stamped out, burnt out." Cauchon then catalogues a history of heretics from Mahomet down to Joan — heretics, he says, because they listened to their own personal voices and visions instead of listening to the collected wisdom of the Church. What would happen to the Church if all individuals listened to their own consciences rather than to the Church? Cauchon vows to destroy all such heretics.
Warwick, however, is not impressed by these theological arguments. He is not frightened that Joan might become another Mahomet and create another great schism in the Church; instead, he sees a greater danger, one that involves the very basis of the social structure of all Europe. Joan's views would do away with the feudal hierarchy of the aristocracy, a system in which the king is merely first among his peers; she would, instead, create a system in which the king would be responsible to God, ruling "as God's bailiff" and dismissing the rest of the nobility. Under this system, all of the nobility would have to surrender their lands to the king, who would then present them to God (the Church); thus, the king would be ruled by the Church. In addition, the power of the feudal lords now comes from the allegiance of the common people; Joan's new system of social reform would shift that allegiance from the feudal lord directly to the king, leaving the lords without any power. Interestingly, Cauchon, as a churchman, does not find this idea unacceptable.
Cauchon sees that Warwick is not concerned with Joan's effect on the Church but only with the nobility, yet he listens as Warwick points out that Joan's ideas about the peerage (the nobility) and the Church are, to Warwick, basically identical. In both cases, Warwick says, Joan would do away with any person who stood between the average person and that person's allegiance to his God or to his king: "It is the protest of the individual soul against the interference of priest or peer between the private man and his God." Warwick labels this as "Protestantism." Cauchon then extends the analogy to something which he calls "Nationalism." That is, The Maid is trying to instill a sense of national pride into the common people toward their national origins: "France for the French, England for the English, Italy for the Italians . . . and so forth"; this is contrary to the current state of affairs in which the Church's rule is a universal rule-one realm — one kingdom of Christ — and not several divided nations with different rulers and different allegiances.
De Stogumber has been thoroughly confused by this discussion of "Protestant and Nationalist" and simply says that The Maid rebels against nature (by wearing men's clothes), against the Church (by listening to her voices instead of the Church's), and against God (by aligning herself with Satan in witchcraft). Even though de Stogumber has missed the crux of Warwick's and Couchon's arguments, all agree that The Maid must "die for the people."
Shaw once said that Saint Joan, as a drama, begins with this fourth scene and that the early scenes were merely "theater." Shaw's statements, of course, must always be taken both seriously and skeptically. As theater, the first three scenes are absolutely essential to setting up the dramatic conflicts on the most basic level. But with this scene, the more complex drama of ideas is introduced, and the conflicts from here to the end of the drama will be the dramatic confrontations of different ideas.
Basically, in this scene, Shaw is again emphasizing Joan's supernatural tendencies. For de Stogumber (who is called a simpleton because the entire discussion about Protestantism and Nationalism is over his head and the final words of the Bishop is to bless de Stogumber as a simpleton: "Sancta simplicitas!"), the English have been defeated over and over again in battles, and thus he can only assume that their defeats are due to the witchcraft of The Maid. The more people who cry "Witch," and the more often the cry is repeated, then the more often it will be believed without judging the validity of the accusation. And it should be firmly noted that Bishop Cauchon does not believe that Joan is a witch; instead, he believes that Joan is something much more dangerous, theologically — that is, she is a heretic.
In reading a drama of ideas such as Saint Joan, an accurate summary of the action is, in itself, a comment or explanation of the meaning of the play. After all, the essence of this act is found in the philosophical, theological, and sociological debate between the representative of the peerage (Warwick) and the representative of the Church (Cauchon). Thus, their arguments (or the argumentation) between them become the dramatic action of this scene, and it is for this reason that Shaw slyly calls this scene the real beginning of Saint Joan.
To restate the arguments as Shaw presents them: Warwick represents the argument for all of the feudal lords — that is, he, Warwick, is the representative for medieval political and social feudalism. In other words, the feudal system was based upon the common people pledging their total allegiance to their immediate lords and then the lords would, in turn, deal with the king. Joan, however, is espousing a concept that the common people should pledge their allegiance directly to the king, thus threatening the existence of the feudal lords. Thus, Warwick, as the representative of feudalism, wants The Maid destroyed so as to preserve the status quo of the feudal system. In other words, it is either destroy Joan the Maid or have Warwick's social system be destroyed by her.
Likewise, Cauchon is the representative of the Universal Church, and the hierarchy of the Church is on a parallel with that of the feudal lords (in medieval times, they were referred to as the Lords Spiritual and the Lords Temporal). As a bishop in the Church, Cauchon interprets for the common people — that is, he acts as an intercessory between the people and God. If The Maid has her way, then the common people would be able to talk directly to God and would therefore render the Church useless. Furthermore, if The Maid has her way, the common people would begin to give their allegiance to nations — rather than yielding themselves to the Universal Church; once allegiances are split, then the Church loses much of its power.
The irony here is that neither Cauchon nor Warwick is sympathetic for the other's reasons for wanting Joan destroyed, but since Joan represents a threat to both the existence of feudalism and to the authority of the Church, they both agree, separately, that she must be destroyed. On the comic level, de Stogumber simply wants her destroyed without understanding any of the philosophical reasons for the necessity of her death.