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Shakespeare, Foxe, pregnancy, Early Modern England


When the character Joan La Pucelle has been captured and is brought before Warwick and York to be condemned at the end of Shakespeare's 1 Henry VI, she at first denies her shepherd father and proclaims both her noble birth and her virginity. She claims that she is issue “from the progeny of kings; virtuous and holy,” and adds proudly, “Joan of Arc hath been a virgin from her tender infancy,/ Chaste and immaculate in very thought” (5.4.38–39, 50–51). These assertions do not, however, impress York and Warwick, who order her to be taken away to her execution. At this point Joan, panicked at the thought of her imminent death, completely changes her demeanor and makes a very different claim. Arguing that it is “warrente[d] by law...[as a] privilege,” Joan admits, “I am with child, ye bloody homicides: Murder not then the fruit within my womb” (63–65). But York and Warwick refuse to listen, damning the child for each of its potential fathers as the desperate Joan names one man after another—the Dauphin, Alençon, Reignier. Joan is sent away to be burned, and her last words on stage are her curse to the English. It is important to be explicit that this is Shakespeare’s character Joan, not the historic fifteenth-century person, and Shakespeare has this character Joan place saving her life, an attempt that proves futile, above honor and historical glory.