Shaw’s Notion of Heresy and Importance of Freethinkers in Modern Society
Bernard Shaw’s play St. Joan (1923) tackles with the intricate character of Joan of Arc depicting her distinct traits that comprise of nationalism, individualism, and feminism. In the play, Shaw displays his understanding of the trial of Joan of Arc and his notions on the act of heresy. Saint Joan of Arc serves as a symbol of free thinking in the modern world as she defied societal norms and standards. Shaw depicts her as a martyr who has faith in God and believes in self-expression and having different opinions that contradict the religious doctrines. St. Joan is depicted as having extreme nationalism through her willingness to command an army and challenge their adversaries. Joan expresses feminism by bending the gender restriction by wearing men attire and leading an army to the belief that she will succeed in the endeavor. Shaw identifies her as a pioneer of revolution and change as her notions led to Protestantism. Joan of Arc notion of free thinking led her to heresy, defying the religious norms and glorifying individualism which led to her prosecution and execution. Her martyrdom has inspired a society that expresses free thinking and supports freedom of conscience. Shaw’s account of medieval France shows that modern Ireland would not be any less prejudiced or narrow-minded. In Saint Joan Bernard Shaw regards Joan of Arc as an exceptional and revolutionary individual whose notions represent his philosophy of Life Force and Creative Evolution. The play urges individuals to be independent-minded and challenge authority or institutions that suppress freedom and personal self-worth. He uses the character of Joan to express the need for heresy in the face of adversity. Shaw depicts the importance of heresy in society as free-thinking individuals influence change and progress in history and in the contemporary world.
Shaw expresses his notion of heresy by pointing out its importance to societal progress and development. In the first article, the author asserts Shaw illustrates his philosophy through the character of Joan of Arc that exceptional individuals defy norms and bring forth progress but they also get ridiculed by society for it (Barton 24). In the first scene, Joan’s character is revealed as a strong-minded person who stands by her convictions while Sir Robert is described as an individual with no strong convictions and doubtful. Joan can firmly proclaim her drive in an outspoken and upfront manner. Joan comes to a conclusion because she experiences divine intervention that initiates her to take the challenge. The article states, “She changed the course of European history within the space of a few months in a most remarkable way” (Barton 21). In the play, Joan’s nationalism is portrayed as she became a soldier in spite of the gender and societal norms. The soldiers trusted her, as they believed she is in touch with divine voices from God that guide her. It was important to her that she has an individual perception of her life and not conform to religious customs that go against her conscience perception of life. Shaw’s notion of heresy is expressed by his depiction of Joan’s individualism as an important turning point in the Catholic faith. However, the Church and the king to be Charles did not believe in her spiritual connection, and they become cautious of her ability to become too powerful. The conformity among these characters in opposition of Joan’s heresy is illustrated as being counterproductive.
The characters of Cauchon and Warwick who represent the Church show the extent to which conformity inhibits the development of nationalism and revolutionary ideas. The article From Heresy to Sainthood asserts the world is however not ready for saints, chosen or God’s anointed people even her people cannot reclaim her, as they cannot abide by visions of a newer world (Krzyzaniak 294). Cauchon does not possess individualism and only abide by the opinions of the church; Joan represents the opposition to the level of conformity to doctrine. Moreover, Joan proclaims individuality and connection with God without the intermediation of the Church which Cauchon considered as extreme heresy (Barton 12). Joan’s rectitude and virtue conquered the pretense of the others, even when they complicated matters with religious confrontations her basic reasoning outshined them. She is not familiar with the norms of medieval France and oblivious of the skepticisms of the system. Her belief in the legitimacy of her perception and her denial to submit to the authority of the Church has made her the first Protestant and early feminist.
Shaw describes Joan of Arc as an early feminist as she was the innovator of sensible dressing for women. The article asserts, “Shaw depicted Joan as fighting for her rights as a woman against the prejudice of a narrow-minded medieval Catholic society” (Barton 29). Joan is a strong woman with a desire to pursue career endeavors and grit for rational clothes. She disregards sociopolitical hierarchy, battles in the war denies absurd attire for women and believes in her perception to do the right things by God. Joan refuses to do the norms required from her such as marriage and instead pursue freedom; she defies conventional practices set in the medieval society. The Church did not consider her progressive actions as social reform but as a direct opposition to authority (Krzyzaniak 292). Henceforth she is a forerunner for women’s rights and her willpower to remain strong in a male-dominated society has inspired modern feminism, and her heretic acts revolutionized society in spite of her final demise. Shaw considers the Church’s charge of heresy is not the cause of her execution, but she is punished for her unconventional conduct and extreme opinions.
Shaw established the theory of Life Force and Creative Evolution, where the life force exists in exceptional individuals with progressive ideas that motivate people to advance from the outdated ideas. Shaw attempts to align the conditions of his time with the story and Joan as a symbol of his philosophy. Both his society and the medieval society are ruled by authoritative bodies, with Victorian society by capitalism and the medieval society by the Church. Revolutionary individuals from the subdued groups lead the way for groundbreaking actions of feminism, individualism, and realism to counter the conventional principles. In Saint Joan, Shaw expresses the theory of Life Force with Joan as the symbol of evolution divergent to the traditionalists of order like Cauchon and Warwick. Shaw refers to the philosophy as an evolutionary desire by individuals like Joan to influence social revolution. In the play, authoritative entities like the Church that maintain the status quo never give way to the assessment of societal ideals, so they eliminate the forces of progress. Martyrs such as Joan gave their life for societal progress; they give new life by motivating change. In Shaw’s opinion, Joan is persecuted because all progressive conducts have to seem as heresy and transgression at first.
Joan possesses the ability for exceeding the common concerns of most individuals; she is driven by an evolutionary desire for civilization’s progression to an extent beyond most people. Joan of Arc is a visionary, and her imagination is the source of her drive to challenge herself in every way (Barton 22). References to her imagination in the play are throughout, and we first encounter it in Scene I. To Shaw, Joan is a ‘saint,’ as imagination is the cornerstone of human progress and Joan’s character encapsulates the role perfectly. He depicts Joan as an early nationalist, fighting for medieval France and opposition to the old medieval traditions (Barton 29). She incorporated new war tactics and uplifted the pride and dignity of fellow soldiers and residents. Joan is idealistic and a visionary, whose visions and voices endow her instinctive intelligence. Her imaginations make her persuasive while commanding her way to victory. Shaw shows his melodramatic brilliance through the trial scene presenting Joan as a martyr. He reflects how Joan courageously choose martyrdom and rather than surrender her individual freedom. Shaw gives a dramatization of historical perceptions in his epilogue; he portrays it in a way that the audience will not judge the medieval society too punitively as the modern world is no less irrational and narrow-minded.
In spite of Shaw writing the play Saint Joan in full view of the medieval society and time, the view of the character Joan is sternly modern. In the play, Joan of Arc is defined as an early feminist, protestant idealist and a believer of nationalism (Shaw). She is portrayed as the first Protestant because she challenged the authority of the Church. Joan is also described as a feminist fighting against patriarchy preconception which is directly similar to women fighting for equality in modern Ireland. Joan waived the role of mother or wife in pursuit of an Army profession. She knew both males and females were equal in self-worth before God, she was not trying to ascertain gender equality, but it laid the foundation for future feminists. The Church condemned Joan for dressing in male attire which seems absurd in a modern Ireland but also in the present world the manner one dress specifies their lifestyle and philosophy. Some unconventional clothing and style are condemned in the modern world too in spite of social reforms undergone through the years.
Shaw illustrates the rejection heresies faced in medieval society and how the struggles of free-thinking individuals facilitated the progress of conformist Christian belief. The modern religion owes a lot to heretics who believed in free-thinking as most doctrine progress was formulated due to their actions. Shaw mentions cruel and harsh penalties present in modern Ireland too because an individual who criticizes authority will still face punishment like Joan of Arc did in the medieval society. Modern Ireland would still be skeptical to accept a heresy, genius and freethinking individual even though the society now is molded by the actions of past heresies.
Free thinking individuals are important to a progressive society as they are the ones who motivate social reforms that challenge outdated ideas. In society, a freethinker is an individual who reaches to conclusions based on independent reasoning and critical thinking regardless of dominant authoritative institutions (Russell 3). Freethinkers both in history and in the modern world do not conform to the societal norms particularly religious dogmas but believe in self-expression. They arrive at a conclusion through their own rational reasoning in contrast with other individuals in society. Freethinkers question the general meaning of life and take on a nonconformist mode of thinking, and each personal canons vary significantly. In modern society, a freethinker is one who holds that any claim is challengeable and can be acknowledged or disapproved through logic and scientific proof on the foundation of its influence on societal freedom and welfare.
In history, freethinking individuals from different eras have expressed their opinions and skepticism depending on the issues of their time. The individuals who are notable are those who made their unconventional outlook and views known and challenged authority and customs directly. Freethinkers do not deny the societal norms because they are outdated or merely because authority sanctions the ideals (Russell 11). Rather, freethinkers hold their own ideas based on logic and reasoning, a freethinker like Joan of Arc was acquainted and appreciated the religious norms in medieval society even though she was against the Church’s ideals. Embracing free thinking is not merely separating from societal principles, but it involves principles that give people the liberty to be different. Freethinkers are important to a progressive society even though they are always criticized for their beliefs.
Shaw depicts both the importance and consequence of heresy in his play through his characters mainly Joan of Arc. He recognizes Joan of Arc as a forerunner of revolution. Joan ideas steered in the era of Protestantism, and she personified the revival spirit that was starting to take over. Joan’s courage during her death is transfigured into victory as she denied to surrender her freedom of individualism. Joan’s ideas are seen in modern Ireland and the world in general such as the diversity in religious dogmas, gender equality and feminism, nationalism and war heroism through history, freedom of conscience and individualism. The play expresses the importance of freethinkers in a progressive society as they challenge the status quo maintained by feudal institutions. Freethinkers embody individual intellectual freedom and do not pursue to minimize other people’s intellectual and human freedoms. They strive for more diversity in outlooks and perceptive as individuals should not be confined to a uniform viewpoint. They influence human progress by encouraging independent logic and reasoning that ripples through future societies.
Works CitedBarton, Dennis. “St. Joan of Arc.” ChurchinHistory (2006): 3-32. Online. 25 March 2017.
Krzyzaniak, Dagmara. From Heresy To Sainthood. Joan Of Arc’s Quest For Identity In Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Research. Poznań: Adam Mickiewicz University, 2005. Online. 25 March 2017.
Russell, Bertrand. “How to Become a Truth-Seeker and Break the Chains of Mental Slavery.” The Value of Free Thought (1944): 3-24. Online. 25 March 2017.
Shaw, George Bernard. Saint Joan. Web Edition. Adelaide: [email protected], 1923. Online. 25 March 2017.
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