This post is part of our Shakespeare’s Women series in partnership with the collections team over at Finding Shakespeare. On flickr we have created a collection portraying these wonderful ladies.
Picture the scene. A disarmingly down-to-earth peasant girl, who has just been heralded the French people’s champion, stands before the dead body of England’s greatest warrior Lord Talbot. She listens patiently as the fallen soldier’s comrade questions whether such a renowned warrior could indeed cease to be. Sir William Lucy lists his dead friend’s many honours and titles to emphasize the loss to the world. In a 12 line speech Sir Lucy refers to this warrior as – Valiant Lord Talbot – Earl of Shrewsbury – Great Earl of Wexford – Lord Talbot of Goodrich and Urchinfield – Lord Strange of Blackmere – Lord Verdun of Alton – Lord Cromwell of Wingfield- Lord Furnival of Sheffield – thrice victorious lord of Falconbridge – Knight of the noble order of Saint George- Worthy Saint Michael and the Golden Fleece – and Great Maréchal to Henry the Sixth. In tart response Joan la Pucelle quips:
Here’s a silly, stately style indeed.
The Turk, that two-and-fifty kingdoms hath,
Writes not so tedious a style as this.
Him that thou magnifi’st with all these titles
Stinking and flyblown lies here at our feet.
(Henry VI p.1, 4.7.60 -76)
Joan la Pucelle shows a healthy and rather bracing disregard for mankind’s inflated sense of self-importance. What matter the many magnified titles bestowed upon England’s hero Talbot, when he lies dead and flyblown at her feet? Joan’s response is of course knowingly discourteous and barbarously blunt, but no less pertinent all the same. Joan is not alone in her indecorous directness. There are many characters in the Shakespeare Canon who, when faced with a similar tableau of death, would be prompted to a frank and sardonic summation of the situation. “Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?” Hamlet might inquire. Macbeth would add helpfully that life is but “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing”. And Sir John Falstaff would round Talbot’s memorial off nicely by questioning the foundations upon which his reputation was made in the first place: “What is in that word ‘honour’? What is that ‘honour’? Air. A trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. […]Honour is a mere scutcheon”. These four characters share a belligerent quality – they ask awkward questions and posit answers that will ruffle feathers. They have strong opinions, and are ready to trim down to size pretension of any kind.
Joan becomes the scourge of the English in ‘Henry VI’ (part 1), and she goes to her death committed to her cause, whipping her adversaries with words to the last: “May never glorious sun reflex his beams /Upon the country where you make abode, /But darkness and the gloomy shade of death/ Environ you till mischief and despair /Drive you to break your necks or hang yourselves”. Joan’s clamorous voice sets Shakespeare’s play afire, and her commanding characterization made her a natural feminist icon for the women’s campaign for universal suffrage before the First World War. Gilbert Pownall’s painting of Joan in our current exhibition shows Alice Maud Mary Arncliffe Sennett (stage name – Miss Mary Kingsley) in the role. Sennett was an active suffragette in London from 1906, and was the author of ‘Women’s Suffrage and Parliamentary Morals’. She was also President of the National Men’s Federation for Women’s Suffrage. Could there ever have been a more fitting, and politically resonant casting of this role! Two daring and courageous women captured in a single portrait.