Saint Joan : The Trial Scene

English Literature

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G.B. Shaw is the father of comedy of ideas. His saint Joan is considered to be the best play. Intellectually and emotionally, its trial scene is one of the most effective scenes. In this scene Joan is tried for heresy. This scene is the most romantic and thrilling part of the play. It has contributed much to its popularity. Its artistic excellence and beauty received high praise.

The sixth scene of the play is the great trial scene. It is the best scene of the play. Joan is captured and tried for heresy in the castle of Rouen. Cauchon, the presiding judge at the trial, the promoter and many others are present. In the beginning of the scene Earl of Warwick warns them to be quicker with the trial. When Warwick points out the political necessity of burning the maid, Cauchon becomes fierce and says that the church does not recognize any political necessity. But the Inquisitor points to him that the maid herself appears determined to be burnt. After this Warwick leaves the court and the trial begins.

Joan is brought in. Many questions are asked to her. She is called a heretic. She is surprised at this accusation. She calls the Inquisitor a fool. Cauchon warns Joan and says that such a rude manner would not help her. She is informed that the Executioner is ready to carry out the orders for burning her and the stake is ready in the market place. But if she agrees to recant, the church will be merciful to her. Joan is afraid of death. Thus she agrees to recant. The recantation is drafted and she signs it. The Inquisitor then pronounces she is sentenced to solitary confinement for the rest of her life. She is shocked to learn that she will not be set free. She tears up her incantation and prefers death by burning to imprisonment. She is then pronounced a relapsed heretic and is led away through the courtyard to the stake.

The justice to Joan has been questioned. In his preface to the play Shaw has tried to establish that Joan received a fairer trial than many a culprit gets in a modern secular court. The judges might have committed an error of judgment but certainly they did not act out of malice or enmity. There can be no question of their being corrupt or hostile. Their sincerity is above doubt. It is another matter that they committed an error in sending Joan to the stake. This assertion has been hotly debated.

Some critics are of the view that Joan did not receive fair trial. They mention a lot of evidence. They say that Cauchon is the personal enemy of Joan. He is in league with the English Earl of Warwick who regards Joan as an enemy of feudalism. All the judges are appointed by Cauchon. Thus they are guided not by sincere love of truth and religion. The case against her is not explained to her. She is not allowed to see evidence against her. Questions put to her are ambiguous. She is threatened with torture. These are against all judicial procedure.

Some other critics are of the view that Shaw has tried to establish the honesty and sincerity of Bishop Cauchon. He is entirely uninfluenced by the political enemy of Joan. He really believes that the girl is heretic and the church is in danger from her. But her burning is not a political necessity for him. During the trial he has been shown as completely impartial, just and fair. He permits Joan’s trial only on grounds of heresy and brushes aside all types of charges. He does not permit torture and gives her ample opportunity to recant. But Joan is ultimately convicted. She herself does much harm to her own case because her behavior is often rude and insulting. Thus Joan’s murder is a judicial murder, a pious murder, a murder that is not committed by murderers. Joan’s judges are not villains but honest men guided by best of intentions.

 Thus it may be said that Joan is given a fair trial. The artistic merits of the scene are also beyond question. Its intellectual eminence is generally recognized. The scene is also emotionally satisfying.


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