The moral of Saint Joan

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 January, 2005, 12:00am

Ha, ha! I was no beauty: I was always a rough one: a regular soldier. I might almost as well have been a man. Pity I wasn't: I should not have bothered you all so much then. But my head was in the skies; and the glory of God was upon me; and, man or woman, I should have bothered you as long as your noses were in the mud. Now tell me what has happened since you wise men knew no better than to make a heap of cinders of me?

Why does Shaw write an epilogue?

An epilogue is an extra piece that happens after the main action of a play or story. This extract is from the epilogue to the play. The main part of the play came to an appropriate climax with the burning of Joan at the stake for being a heretic. Shaw could have ended the play at that point.

However, had that been all that there was to the story of Joan, we would not remember her today in the way that we do.

The whole power of her story is in the reversal of her fortunes. She was burnt at the stake as a witch, but this judgment was then reversed and many centuries later, she was recognised as a Saint.

The epilogue allows Shaw to include all this in the story of Joan.

Joan's character

Joan's character as a ghost is just as it was during her life. She laughs heartily and points out the faults in others without malice or cruelty. She laughs at herself as well as others. Although she has enormous self-assurance, her self-mocking humour shows she is not big-headed or arrogantly blind to her own faults. She recognises that she is plain and not beautiful. Her power over men is the result of her self-assurance, not sexual allure. She is not bothered about her lack of beauty; her mind has always been on higher and more serious matters.

A woman in a man's world

Joan recognises that she would have not have made such an impact had she been a man. Part of the fascination of the story for Shaw was that she succeeded in a society totally dominated by men. The judges are prepared to recognise that Joan was innocent now that she is dead - after all, she can no longer cause them any trouble. Stogumber recognises her power and her ability to challenge the world of men when he says towards the end of the epilogue:

Oh, do not come back: you must not come back. I must die in peace. Give us peace in our time, O Lord!

The repetition of words and phrases here underlines the fervour with which he feels Joan's potential for once again causing trouble.

The Church acted in good faith

It is tempting to view the Church in this play as being corrupt, acting only to serve its own ends. However, we learn in the epilogue that the Archbishop responsible for Joan's death was himself a victim:

They excommunicated my dead body: they dug it up and flung it into the common sewer.

To be 'excommunicated' means to be no longer allowed to be part of the Church. People have changed their minds about Joan, and in the process, have also reversed their view of the Archbishop.

He pleads that he acted in good faith, and both we and Shaw believe him. It is not that he somehow betrayed Joan, but rather that men's judgments about one another are not certain and uncomplicated.

That is why this play and the story of Joan still have relevance today.

Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw (HKCEE)

Powerful force ... a scene fromthe film Joan of Arc. Joan challenged a world dominated by men. Burned at the stake as a heretic, she was later recognised as a saint.