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Welcome to Episode #171 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

In Henry VI Part I, William Shakespeare presents one of history’s most famous characters, a woman, named Joan La Pucelle, known today as Joan of Arc. For the French, she was a truly holy woman, chaste, and pure. She was also a brilliant military strategist and a force to be reckoned with in battle. Nicknamed “the Maid of Orleans,” the real Joan of Arc was a heroine for France during the Hundred Years’ War and would be canonized as a saint. The depiction of Joan La Pucelle in Shakespeare’s play is an intriguing investigation because as Shakespeare was depicting this famous heroine on the 16th century stage, the Hundred Years’ War would have been recent history for the audience, and at the time it was presented, England was not friends with France. In the play, Shakespeare leaves us a pile of cultural realities to unpack with his depiction of Joan La Pucelle, with not only her overt military leadership in a society where women were not called upon to lead armies, but she is also involved in the occult, consulting demons prior to battle, and she claims she is both pregnant as well as a virgin during her trial. Our guest this week, Carole Levin, is an expert in the history of Joan La Pucelle and the depiction of her for Shakespeare’s lifetime. She joins us today to explore false pregnancy claims in early modern England and to compare the real history of Joan of Arc with Shakespeare’s fictional presentation of her. 


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Carole Levin is Willa Cather Professor of History at the University of Nebraska where she specializes in early modern English cultural and women’s history. She is the author or editor of nineteen books, including The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power (2nd edn., 2013) and the co-authored (with John Watkins), Shakespeare’s Foreign Worlds (2009). She is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and was a Fulbright Scholar the University of York in 2015.  She is also the author of the one woman, one act play, Elizabeth I in Her Own Words, most recently performed at part of the 2019 United Solo Theatre Festival, New York City, October 2019. Her current research projects on royal women during in the late medieval and early modern England. 


In this episode, I’ll be asking Carole Levin about :

  • Why does Shakespeare call her Joan La Pucelle instead of Joan of Arc?

  • If she was a successful military leader, why was she vilified to the point of being executed?

  • In Henry VI Part I, the character Talbot uses the phrase “Pucelle or Puzzel” ACt I Scene 4 (This same character later accuses Joan of being a witch). Talbot calls attention to how similar the words sound in spoken English, but Carole, is he also calling attention to the kind of enigma presented by Joan herself? Were the English of Shakespeare’s lifetime uncertain about whether to consider Joan a good asset or a dangerous sorceress?
  • … and more!
Advance our waving colours on the walls; Rescued is Orleans from the English Thus Joan la Pucelle hath perform’d her word.
Joan La Pucelle

Henry VI Part I (I.6)

Siege of Orléans in 1428 (Vigiles de Charles VII, 15th century). Philippe Contamine, Olivier Bouzy et Xavier Hélary, Jeanne d’Arc. Histoire et dictionnaire, Paris, Robert Laffont, coll. « Bouquins », 2012, (ISBN 978-2-221-10929-8), p. 88. Public Domain. Source

Joan La Pucelle was an Incredible Military Leader

Claiming to have been directed by the voices of the Saints, Joan La Pucelle went to the King of France to lead the army. More impressively, she was successful in this role in a world where women did not hold military positions. 

No, [it was] incredibly hard [for a woman to hold a military position.]

From the time she was a child, she was hearing the voices of St. Michael, the Archangel, saying Catherine of Alexandria, debated 50 learned pagan theologians, won, and then was executed, St. Maragret of Antioch, stood up to those in power and was executed. She saw them, but she especially heard their voices, and they told her it was her duty to save France. France was under the Hundred Years War (including Paris) when she was [a teenager] she visited her cousin, a soldier was in command, she went to him and asked him to send her to the Dauphin Charles, so she could tell him what her voices had told her. First he laughed at her, told her cousin that she should be whipped for her behavior. She went home, [then in] 1429, the City of Orleans was under seige and her voices told her it was imperative she do this. She went back, and she’s 17 at this time, she convinced the soldier to give her the escort. She cut off her hair, dressed in male clothes, and had a sword. She was such a commanding presence the escort was at first cynical, and after they arrived [over the course of the journey], they were totally on her side. Joan La Pucelle was important as a name, because Charles heard she was coming and he decided to do a trap/test to see if she did have the voices of the saints and angels, and he put a different person on the throne, to fool her, but she went directly to him in the audience and addressed him directly. That was impressive [she’d never seen him in person].

She then lead Charles to Rheim where the Dauphin was crowned King of France. It was remarkable. Absolutely remarkable, great support of the French people, and not quite so much support from Charles, he didn’t want to take Paris, and he refused. Joan did not then attempt to take Paris but when she heard another town was being besieged, she stole away to try and help them, and she was captured by the Burgundians (Duke of Burgundy was in alliance with the English).


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Joan, not we, by whom the day is won;
For which I will divide my crown with her,
And all the priests and friars in my realm
Shall in procession sing her endless praise.
A statelier pyramis to her I’ll rear
Than Rhodope’s or Memphis’ ever was:
In memory of her when she is dead,
Her ashes, in an urn more precious
Than the rich-jewel’d of Darius,
Transported shall be at high festivals
Before the kings and queens of France.
No longer on Saint Denis will we cry,
But Joan la Pucelle shall be France’s saint.
Come in, and let us banquet royally,
After this golden day of victory.


Henry VI Part I (I.6)

Joan of Arc’s Death at the Stake, by Hermann Stilke (1843) | Right-Hand Part of The Life of Joan of Arc Triptych | Winter Palace, 1925 | Housed at The Hermitage Museum in The General Staff Building Room 350 | Public Domain Image | Original Source

Joan La Pucelle was not adored by the English

At the time Shakespeare is writing about the successful military leader of France, Joan La Pucelle, she is already a major figure in stories around Europe. Professionally speaking, her story was highly marketable. However, the state of relations between England and France was not friendly at this time. The English were so opposed to the French that they were even banning the import of French goods (despite French goods having the same luxury/elite reputation many French items have today). As a result, when Shakespeare writes about Joan of Arc, he walks this fine line between including her in the story and not being too pro-French in doing it.

The french adore her but the English are horrified by her. Joan with her voices, not voices of angels and saints, but demons. The burgundians sell her to the English and Charles, the French King and his court do nothing to try and save her. She is then taken to Rouen, the head of where the English controlled in normandy. She was put on  trial, not as a prisoner of war, but as heresy/blasphemy/sorceress. Charges against her was the blasphemy of her wearing male clothing, and then her hearing voices. 

In Shakespeare’s version of her story, the King of France, Charles I, is greatly upset by her death and threatens the English over her execution. In reality, the real King Charles was glad to have her gone and would not, until 25 years later, even consider her case again. And only then as a result of political pressure and requests of her family. Joan of Arc herself would not be canonized as a saint until the 20th century. So why was she executed to start with? Carole explains, 

At first on trial she stands firm, they take her to be burned, and who can blame her–she’s so afraid, she recants and says “I was wrong to wear male clothing, you’re right these are not hte voices of the angels and saints.” She’s supposed to be kept in prison then, but the Duke of Bedford wanted her dead, and there are alot of questions about why but joan then does resume wearing male clothing, tears up her confession and is burned in the stake .Charles doesn’t do much about it until 25 years later, when the Hundred Years War is over, he calls a new trial to have her character rehabilitated.

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It irks his heart he cannot be revenged.
Frenchmen, I’ll be a Salisbury to you:
Pucelle or puzzel, dolphin or dogfish,570
Your hearts I’ll stamp out with my horse’s heels,
And make a quagmire of your mingled brains.
Convey me Salisbury into his tent,
And then we’ll try what these dastard Frenchmen dare.

Lord Talbot

Henry VI Part I (I.4)

Cropped detail of Thomas Killigrew, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (died 1641). Thomas Killigrew was Master of the Revels from 1673-1677. Original is housed at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Public Domain. Original Source

For the play & history Joan La Pucelle was a Puzzle

In Henry VI Part I, the character Talbot uses the phrase “Pucelle or Puzzel” in Act I Scene 4 (This same character later accuses Joan of being a witch). Talbot calls attention to how similar the words sound in spoken English, but the phrase hear calls attention to the kind of enigma presented by Joan herself to the English audience Shakespeare was writing for in his play. The English of Shakespeare’s lifetime were uncertain about whether to consider Joan a good asset or a dangerous sorceress.

The English had been fighting the French for centuries and then the Hundred Years War which went on for more than 100 years. There were many English that felt if the French had defeated them they needed demonic help. But some English thought of Joan as an impressive figure. Some chronicles describe her as demonic, a shrew, or claim that she had had a number of love affairs, actually was pregnant at the time she was burned. And Shakespeare picks up on these stories. As the French are losing, she calls on her demons to help her (in Shakespeare’s version) and typical of Shakespeare, there are moments when she is impressive in the paly as well, so absolutely, she may see Pucelle as being “pure” but “puzzle” is a great term for how the English thought about Joan.

No hope to have redress? My body shall Pay recompense, if you will grant my suit. [They shake their heads] Cannot my body nor blood-sacrifice Entreat you to your wonted furtherance? Then take my soul, my body, soul and all, Before that England give the French the foil. [They depart] See, they forsake me! Now the time is come That France must vail her lofty-plumed crest And let her head fall into England’s lap. My ancient incantations are too weak, And hell too strong for me to buckle with: Now, France, thy glory droopeth to the dust.
Joan La Pucelle

Henry VI Part I (IV.3)

The keep of the castle of Rouen, surviving remnant of the fortress where Joan was imprisoned during her trial. It has since become known as the “Joan of Arc Tower”. | Unknown artist – Library of Congress, Photochrom Print Collection Catalog: http://lccn.loc.gov/2001698690 | Joan of Arc’s Tower, Rouen, France. Published by Photochrom Zürich. No. 6761. | Public Domain | Source


Joan of Arc did not claim pregnancy

In Shakespeare’s version of Joan of Arc’s death, the play Henry VI Part I has Joan of Arc try to avoid execution when she first claims that she is a virgin, and then claims that she was pregnant. There are numerous cases of women in this time period in England being spared the death penalty on claims of pregnancy, so the presentation is a legitimate creative license taken by Shakespeare (many women thus sentenced would have made such a claim) but as Carole points out, for Joan of Arc, we know this portrayal to be an anachronism or outright falsehood.

There is a comparison in that she does confess and then reverse course, but she never claims to be pregnant. Apparently, and some of this information comes in the trial 25 years later, but it does seem quite possible that at the end when Joan had assumed English clothing, she may have been gang raped to break her spirit. There is evidence to suggest, ironically enough, that she might have been pregnant at the time of her execution. [But Joan herself did not make this claim to try and escape her sentence.]


Joan La Pucelle was captured by the group known as the Burgundians, who made an alliance with the English for the English to keep Joan (a result of her having made several escape attempts in the Burgundian care). This bit of her history can be confusing, because Joan of Arc was under English imprisonment but her prison was in Rouen, France. In Shakespeare’s version of her life, Joan La Pucelle is burned at the stake by the English. Carole explains why that punishment is significant. I thought that burned at the stake was a punishment for witches, but Carole sets me straight here and says that while there were specific punishments for being a witch, Joan of Arc was accused of being a heretic. Heretics were burned at the stake: 

The real Joan of Arc was absolutely burned at the stake. In England, witches were hung, not burned at the stake. Only women who were burned was witches who murdered their husbands. On the continent (America) they were burned more often, but in England and Salem, they were hung. BUrned at the stake was for heretics. She recanted, destroyed her recantation, and as a result she was burned at the stake. She was burned to death and the excutioner said afterwards, “woe to me, because I have burned a saint.  She was not actually canonized until 1920 after WW1. That was hundreds of years after her death in 1430.

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