Black Widow vs Joan of Arc: William Shakespeare and Modern Hollywood

This year marks the four hundredth anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. And because people like me are morbid, I am celebrating Shakespeare’s death. I wrote several Shakespearean sonnets in April during National Poetry Month. I’m also reading what’s been dubbed the First Tetralogy of Shakespeare’s histories (all three Henry VI plays and Richard III) so that I can watch the BBC adaptation later this month. And this leads me to this post because in Henry VI Part 1 Shakespeare sets his drama against the crusade of Joan of Arc to drive the English out of France. Shakespeare’s treatment of Joan mirrors that of Marvel’s treatment of Black Widow: a highly skilled warrior flattened out into a familiar trope.

The country girl who led a king to victoryThe key moment under examination in Henry VI Part 1 comes in Act 3, scene 3, when the French Duke of Burgundy is convinced to switch sides and aid the French against the English. Up until this scene, Joan has been portrayed a skilled warrior able to best Charles, the French leader, and England’s best warrior, Talbot, in hand-to-hand combat (see the stage directions at 1.2.105 and 1.5.4-18 respectively). Talbot was so dumbfounded by her prowess that he accused her of being a witch (1.5.4-7, 19-21; 3.2.52-7). Henry VI Part 1 introduces the reader/audience to a complex character thriving in a man’s world.

But once the French decide that they must win over Burgundy, Joan of Arc is no longer viewed by the play as a woman skilled in the art of war. When Joan enters into the parley with Burgundy, Charles tells Joan to “enchant” him with her words (3.3.40). Upon hearing her speech, Burgundy observes that he has been “bewitched” by her words, reflecting Talbot’s view of Joan (3.3.58). Once he switches sides, the play fails to recover Joan’s reputation from acting as a witch and sorceress. In Act 5, scene 3 she literally conjures up fiends, possibly Lucifer himself, to aid the French in the battle against England, only to be rejected. She has now become in full what began in Act 3, a witch and sorceress aided by evil spirits. Joan of Arc has been deprived of her place as a skilled warrior.

This characterization, or a “caricature” and the “flattening” of her character, is most unfortunate because the play loses one of its more compelling characters by virtue of her being a woman (Mowat and Werstine 250-2). She is the only female character until the fifth act when Margaret of Anjou, who becomes Henry VI’s wife, is introduced as a bride price to broker peace between England and France. Joan existed in a man’s world, on man’s terms, and succeeded. She could fight in the French army and devise strategies that won victories against the English. She brought shame upon Talbot time and again because he could not defeat a woman. But by the end of the play, she’s exactly who Talbot says she is, a witch and sorceress. She can’t thrive in man’s world without the aid of supernatural evil.

black-widow-marvel-standalone-movie
It is a problem not unlike that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Black Widow, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson. In the 2012 film, The Avengers, Joss Whedon wrote the character to be a highly skilled spy, able to coax even the god of mischief into telling her his plan. In the 2014 film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, she plays a central and critical role in uncovering Hydra’s plot and defeating their plans—exposing her own past to the world to do so. But when 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron comes out, Widow ends up being a damsel in distress in the classic sense, needing her man to rescue her from Ultron’s clutches. In the first film, she only pretended to be a damsel to fool men.  By the third film, she has been flattened out into a familiar character trope, just like Joan of Arc. While Marvel Studios has promised fans that a solo film for Black Widow is being explored, now that there has been a restructuring at the top of the studio, that does not excuse the flattening out of one of the more beloved and complex characters—rivaling Iron Man and Captain America.

Henry VI Part 1 shows how little things have changed in regards to women portrayed as strong characters in Hollywood films. The play reduces Joan of Arc down from a skilled warrior to a witch who conjures demons. Marvel Studios reduced Black Widow down from highly skilled spy to the classic trope of a damsel in distress in need of a man’s rescue. More examples could be explored, such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Rey being labeled a “Mary Sue” because she could learn to use the Force as quickly as she did. Shakespeare continues to be honored as the master of the English language to this day. But his characterizations of women reinforce patriarchal stereotypes that still plague Hollywood in 2016.


Shakespeare, William. Henry VI Part 1. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. The Folger Shakespeare Library. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2008. Print.

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~ by hankimler on June 2, 2016.

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