Summary and Analysis
Shaw often writes a lengthy preface to his plays for his readers in which he will comment on matters in the play or matters relevant to it. The Preface to Saint Joan is one of Shaw's longer ones and presents again many of his views of the personage of Joan from a more objective point of view. The Preface is divided into forty-one sub-sections, which could be loosely divided into the following categories for discussion:
(A) Sections 1-16: Various Views of the Historical Joan
(B) Sections 17-21: Misrepresentations of Joan in Literature and in Relation to Medieval Society and the Medieval Church
(C) Sections 22-34: The Nature of Joan's Death in Relation to Modern Acts of Inhumanity
(D) Sections 35-41: The Nature of Historical Drama and Saint Joan viewed as a Tragedy
(A): Shaw sees Joan, ironically, as one of the first Protestant martyrs and as a forerunner of equality for women; Joan was burned as a heretic, thus martyred, for two primary reasons: (1) even though Joan never denied the Church and although she constantly turned to it for solace, she was, in essence, the "first Protestant" because she listened to the dictates of her own conscience and her own reasoning rather than to the authority of the Church; (2) she was "the pioneer of rational dressing for women," yet for this so-called unwomanly and, thus, unnatural act, she was burnt at the stake.
Joan was innocent in all things. She was like Socrates in that she was able to humiliate, without intending to do so, all kinds of people in high authority. It is extremely dangerous to publicly expose the ignorance of people in authority, and, for this, Joan and Socrates were put to death. In reality, Joan was a rather unsophisticated country girl who, while uneducated, was far from unintelligent. The fact that she could not read or write (Marie Antoinette could not even spell her own name at Joan's age) does not matter; she did, however, manage to dictate full and comprehensive letters and to understand thoroughly the political and, especially, the military situation in France, and she had the common sense and ability to put her views in action. Since no one would believe that a simple country girl could be so talented, Joan attributed her views to "her voices and visions." To Shaw, "there are people in the world whose imagination is so vivid that when they have an idea it comes to them as an audible voice, sometimes uttered by a visible figure." Thus, Joan is able to intellectually analyze a situation so clearly that her knowledge seems, to her, to come from an outside source when, in reality, it is her own innate, unrecognized genius coming from her intelligence and imagination, tempered by her good common sense, her practical management of military affairs, and her own personal courage and dedication. These are, indeed, the qualities which make for a saint. Ultimately, however, Joan's inability to fathom the complicated structure of the medieval aristocracy or the medieval Church brought about her burning.
(B): Joan has inspired others to write about her and to ascribe to her all sorts of qualities which are not always historically true, and also to interpret her actions in various ways throughout the centuries. Most of these accounts distort both Joan's life and medieval society as well. From Shakespeare through Voltaire, from Schiller to Mark Twain, and from Anatole France and others, Joan and her trials have been the source for writers to interpret her fate, according to the age in which the writer lived. None, however, have depicted her accurately; all writers are victims of their own prejudices because to understand Joan, one must understand her environment. Shaw says: ". . . to see her in her proper perspective, you must understand Christendom and the Catholic Church, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Feudal System as they existed and were understood in the Middle Ages." At that time, there were no "neutral tribunals"; therefore, neither Joan nor anyone could possibly have received an impartial trial — that is, Joan was tried not as a traitor to her country but as a heretic against God and God's Church. Her judges did not recognize national boundaries, only the Universal Church, and the Church could not tolerate Joan's questioning its authority.
(C): Joan's burning at the stake was "just as dozens of less interesting heretics were burnt in her time." Shaw then cites several examples of inhumane and cruel punishments being practiced today. And even though the medieval Church would not tolerate Joan's individualism, the modern world will not tolerate a person who denounces the authority of whoever happens to be in power. The world today is no closer to accepting a genius — or a saint — than was Joan's world. Joan, had she not been captured and burned, would probably have driven the English out of France, and then she would have retired quietly to her country home. However, "the real Joan [has never been] marvelous enough for us," and, therefore, writers have often altered the facts of her life for their own purposes.
(D): The problems and the "stage limits" of writing a historical play are numerous. Shaw compares Shakespeare's methods and efforts of writing historical dramas with his own. Actually, Shakespeare never attempted to deal with the larger forces of the law and religion and patriotism that cause people to act as they do. Shaw has one advantage over other, earlier writers: He is, chronologically, further away and, therefore, is able to have a more complete view of the Middle Ages. Shaw also maintains that his play is a tragedy, not a melodrama; there are no villains in Saint Joan, only characters caught in their historical period. Likewise, the Epilogue is necessary even though it is not historical. If the play showed Joan burned at the stake, then an Epilogue is needed to show her canonized and, more important, to present a balance between "the tragedy of her execution" and "the comedy of the attempts of posterity to make amends."