Left: Queen Elizabeth I, portrayed by Cate Blanchett. Right: Joan of Arc (15th century portrait)
Shakespeare was brave. He seemed unafraid of mocking people, and really important people at that. In Hamlet, Polonius is the windbag who counsels King Claudius and Gertrude. He’s widely regarded as a parody of William Cecil, secretary to Queen Elizabeth I. Cecil was the most powerful man in England for most of the 16th century.
The most important person during Shakespeare’s lifetime was the queen. She, too, appears to have been one of his targets. Feminist writer Hannah Betts sees the queen reflected as the over-sexed Venus in Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis. Marc Shell, in The End of Kinship, a book Harold Bloom calls the best full-length study of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, believes the playwright mirrored Elizabeth in the play’s heroine Isabella, a chaste woman caught up in a drama that has a strong theme of incest.
In a recent talk at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Georgianna Zeigler, the library’s Associate Librarian and Head of Reference, said Elizabeth might be seen in Shakespeare’s powerful (and, one can add, significantly flawed) female characters such as Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth. Other commentators believe the queen is represented as Gertrude in Hamlet, Portia in Merchant of Venice, and Titania in A Midsummer’s Night Dream.
I think another character Shakespeare intended to mirror Elizabeth can be added to the list: Joan of Arc in Henry the Sixth, Part One.
Joan of Arc: Queen Elizabeth’s Reflection
Category: Heroines. The answer is: Known as a virgin who had a special relationship with the French Duke of Alençon, this celebrated woman rallied forces to defend her country against foreign invaders.
If you hit the buzzer and said, “Who is Joan of Arc?” you would be correct. If you hit the buzzer and said, “Who is Queen Elizabeth the First?” you would also be correct.
How did Shakespeare link Elizabeth to Joan of Arc in his history play, Henry the Sixth, Part One? And why would he run roughshod over his historical source to do so?
A Woman with the Heart and Stomach of a Man
Henry the Sixth, Part One is a story of the battle for France late in the Hundred Years’ War, which lasted into the mid-15th century. The play also depicts the origins of the War of the Roses among England’s nobility. Historical records show that the play was well-received by audiences in 1592.
Joan of Arc dominates the play as France’s warrior-heroine. In Act One, she challenges the King of France to a fight: “My courage try by combat, if thou darest, And thou shalt find that I exceed my sex.” After winning the fight, she goes on to help rally the French forces against the English.
Queen Elizabeth, too, fits the picture of a strong female leader in wartime. In 1588, in a famous speech to her troops in Tilbury during England’s battle against the Spanish Armada, she famously said, “… I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too…I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.”
A female leader in wartime is one of several traits shared by Joan of Arc and Elizabeth. Though Shakespeare did not invent that parallel, an Elizabethan audience would not have missed it, especially as Henry the Sixth, Part One includes more such parallels.
Joan the Virgin, and the Virgin Queen
In the play, the French heroine is called ‘Joan la Pucelle.’ Pucelle is French for ‘maid’ or ‘virgin.’ After Joan has beaten the King, he woos her, and she tells him, “I must not yield to any rites of love, for my profession’s sacred from above: When I have chased all thy foes from hence, then will I think upon a recompense.” For Joan of Arc, duty to country rises above any desire to marry, even if it’s a king who’s wooing her.
Elizabeth was idolized as the Virgin Queen and she, too, claimed a similar duty to country. Although scholars speculate about whether the ‘virgin’ part of the ‘Virgin Queen’ was a myth, there’s no doubt she never married ─ married a man, that is. She told Parliament: “I have already joined myself in marriage to a husband, namely the kingdom of England.” Like Joan of Arc, Elizabeth refused to marry in the traditional sense, answering to a higher calling.
Joan, Elizabeth, and the Duke
A third link between Joan of Arc and Queen Elizabeth is the Duke of Alençon. In Henry the Sixth, Part One, which spans the years 1429-1431, John II, Duke of Alençon, fights alongside Joan, a comrade-in-arms.
Hercule François de France, who became Duke of Alençon in 1566, was the last of Queen Elizabeth’s serious marriage suitors. In her biography of the queen, Alison Weir writes that when Alençon visited the queen in 1579, “there was no mistaking the sexual chemistry between the royal lovers” and the queen “hated being apart from him.” After the English nobility nixed the idea of Protestant Elizabeth marrying the Catholic Alençon, the queen wrote a touching love poem to the duke to bid him farewell.
Shakespeare departed from Holinshed’s Chronicles, his main source for the play, in depicting Joan’s relationship with Alençon. In the final act of the play, Joan is captured by the English and put on trial. Desperate to have her life spared, she pleads that she’s “with child,” which follows Holinshed’s account of the trial. Holinshed describes how the judges imprison Joan for nine months, after which they examine her. They conclude she had been lying and wasn’t pregnant.
But Holinshed doesn’t identify the man Joan claims she became pregnant by. Shakespeare does. “It was Alençon that enjoy’d my love,” he has her say in the play. She then frantically alters her story and claims it was someone else.
Nowhere does Holinshed suggest the relationship between Joan and Alençon was anything but one of co-fighters against a foreign enemy. Alençon was married. According to the historical record, Joan (who was only sixteen years old at the time) promised Alençon’s wife that he would survive the war to see her again. Joan criticized soldiers for swearing, and she expressed displeasure about the prostitutes who followed the army. Shakespeare’s promiscuous Joan doesn’t fit this chaste image.
Shakespeare’s other source for Henry the Sixth, Part One was Edward Hall’s The union of the two noble families of Lancaster and York. Having not examined that work, I don’t know if Hall described Joan’s trial as Holinshed did. In any case, Shakespeare included another reference that all but confirms he was linking the play’s Duke of Alençon to the one of Elizabeth’s love life.
After Joan claims she’s pregnant by Alençon, Shakespere has another character remark: “Alençon! that notorious Machiavel.” Machiavelli, who was not yet born during Joan of Arc’s lifetime, was well known in the Elizabethan era. Three of Shakespeare’s plays include a reference to him. Machiavelli was associated with Catherine de Medici, the wife King Henry II of France and widely blamed for a massacre of Protestants in Paris in 1571. He dedicated his seminal work, The Prince, to Catherine de Medici’s grandmother.
Hercule François, the youngest son of Catherine de Medici and Henry II, and the Alençon whom Queen Elizabeth knew, played lead roles in major political events in France and the Netherlands in the 1570’s and 1580’s that involved the kind of secret treaties and deceit that would earn somebody the title of ‘Machiavel.’ By so labeling the play’s duke, nobles in the audience easily would have made the connection to the duke who courted Elizabeth, thus associating her with Joan of Arc.
In the scene of Joan’s trial, a character calls Joan a “strumpet,” another word for whore (which, of course, is the opposite of a virgin). Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, was also the target of verbal abuse. Reportedly, a parson in open church once called her a whore. Shakespeare, albeit subtly, seems to have done so as well in Henry the Sixth, Part One.
Of course, one would be wise to be subtle in dissing the Queen of England. In his study of Measure for Measure, Shell observes: “One cannot make an airtight case for Isabella’s being modeled on Queen Elizabeth; were that possible on the basis of what is said in [the play], Shakespeare might have been open to charges of treason.” The same would hold true of any work that mocked the queen.
Why would Shakespeare insult the queen? According to Shell, “Shakespeare apparently was not a great admirer of Elizabeth. Unlike most English poets of the age, for example, he did not write a word of direct mourning on her death.” Shell thinks that Shakespeare’s association with pro-Catholic forces may explain his negative disposition towards the Protestant queen.
That may be fine as far as explaining the playwright’s general attitude about Elizabeth, but one feels that something more personal is at work in Henry the Sixth, Part One. Calling the queen a whore (and adulterer) by associating her with Joan of Arc and identifying her sexual partner by name sounds more like an act of personal revenge ─ by a jilted lover for instance ─ than a missive launched by someone with a religious agenda.
The centuries-old traditional view of Shakespeare as a commoner from Stratford-upon-Avon doesn’t fit the jilted lover explanation. That doesn’t make the explanation wrong. Rather, it suggests that Shakespeare’s unflattering depictions of the queen involving sex call for a reexamination of the traditional view of him.