A principal difficulty with the text of Henry VI, Part 1 concerns the sharp difference in the characterization of Pucelle between the first four acts and the fifth. In the first four, her characterization is complex; she is one thing for the French, quite another for the English. In the fifth act, her complexity disappears, and Pucelle is flattened into an embodiment of the insults that the English have hurled at her for the first four acts.
In those first four acts, the division in her characterization is a deep one. For the French she is a “sweet virgin” (3.3.16), a genuinely holy and chaste woman, who is also a great military leader and strategist: “Divinest creature, Astraea’s daughter, . . . glorious prophetess,” in the words of Charles the Dauphin, who says “No longer on Saint Dennis will we cry, / But Joan la Pucelle shall be France’s saint” (1.6.4–8, 28–29). Nothing could be further from the English perception of her. The first Englishman to encounter her is Talbot. He immediately accuses her of being the “Devil or devil’s dam, . . . a witch . . . [and] strumpet” (1.5.5–12). Thus, from the beginning the French and English have opposite views of Pucelle’s spiritual and moral nature.
Of course, this difference of opinion between the English and French about Pucelle also arises regarding other characters. Talbot himself is an example. For Salisbury, Talbot is “my life, my joy” (1.4.23), and, for Henry VI, a “brave captain and victorious lord” (3.4.16). Just as Pucelle claims that her power comes to her from the Virgin Mary, whose “aid . . . promised and assured success” (1.2.83), so Talbot is confident that “God is our fortress” (2.1.28). Yet for the French, Talbot is “a fiend of hell” (2.1.49) and a “bloodthirsty lord” (2.3.35). In the words of the General of Bordeaux, he is the “ominous and fearful owl of death, / Our nation’s terror and their bloody scourge” (4.2.15–16). It is clear that the opposing views of Talbot arise from the difference in national interest between the French and the English, and it would seem reasonable to assume that the two nations’ opposite conceptions of Pucelle have the same origin. Yet Talbot is never flattened into a caricature.
In the fourth act, Talbot dies as a mere mortal, struck down by the French army he has been fighting, but he remains a hero to the English and a hated enemy to the French. In the fifth act, when Pucelle is being taken off to be burned at the stake by the English as a haughty and promiscuous witch, she will not even acknowledge her own father when he visits her before her death. Now the play itself, rather than simply the English in the play, makes her into everything the English have accused her of being. Act 5 has her conjuring up fiends to aid her in defeating the conquering English forces—openly and, to her greater embarrassment, fruitlessly practicing witchcraft among demons who now refuse to abide by her will. She even desperately offers to “lop a member off and give it” to her recalcitrant familiars (5.3.15). When the English capture her and call her “ugly witch” (5.3.34), their words are no longer an insult motivated by nationalism but a statement of what the play has made, within its fiction, fact. In 5.4, the other English insult, “strumpet,” is also validated by the play’s action when Pucelle attempts unsuccessfully to escape her torture and death at the stake by claiming to be pregnant, naming first Alanson and then Reignier as the father of her unborn child. When the English call her “Strumpet” again (5.4.85), they can be heard not so much to insult her as to identify her.
Readers of Henry VI, Part 1 have long been disappointed in its fifth-act transformation of Pucelle from an interesting character into the embodiment of an English slur on a French hero. This transformation has motivated some to want to identify any dramatist other than Shakespeare as writer of those parts of the last act that vilify Pucelle, rather than tarnish so great a dramatist’s reputation by imputing to him such poor drama. The flattening that occurs in the final act, in contrast to the complex rendering of Pucelle’s character earlier in the play, has also been seen as grounds for believing that the play is the work of several different hands, one of whom had a far more hostile vision of Pucelle than did his fellow playwrights.