Radical Change-Makers: Heroic or Mad?

by Ellen Peltz

  Jeanne d'Arc au Siège d'Orléans by Jules Eugène Lenepveu, painted 1886–1890. Currently housed at Panthéon de Paris in France.

The narrative of the heroic individual standing up against the establishment is enjoying a heyday right now. It is – at least in part - why we love Alexander Hamilton1 and not Aaron Burr, why Bernie Sanders gained such a strong following and, arguably, why Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election.  It is also an incredibly compelling element of the narratives of both Saint Joan and Hamlet: two individuals, one standing against her church and her state, the other against his kingdom and his king. Both accused of madness. Both claiming heroism. In our current political moment, the question of whether radical change-makers should be lauded or feared deserves some attention.

As a commoner and a woman, Joan challenges power and privilege from an outsider’s position. Historically, the most effective change in both the church and the state has been instigated by outsiders: the suffragettes who fought an all-male political system to gain the right for women to vote, for example, or the Dutch Reformed Mission Church (a segregated black church in South Africa) which produced the Belhar Confession2 in 1982 as a protest against apartheid.  Moreover, Joan’s anti-establishment mission is both selfless and large-scale. She is willing to sacrifice herself for a complete overhaul of France’s political situation from the very beginning of her play (“she really doesn’t seem to be afraid of anything” says the Steward in the first scene).

Hamlet, on the other hand, challenges the authority of King Claudius and the Danish government from the inside, a la Francis Underwood in House of Cards or Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. His crusade is limited to his family and is, arguably, entirely self-focused. Unlike Joan, who is eager to engage from her first entrance, Hamlet mopes through roughly two thirds of his narrative before arriving at place of action. These key differences between anti-establishment approaches might be enough in and of themselves to damn Hamlet to the role of madman and elevate Joan to heroine.

  Fourteen Suffragettes holding banners in front of the White House, 1917. From Women of Protest: Photographs from the Records of the National Woman's Party, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

However, the two also share one notable similarity that complicates a clean verdict. Both Joan and Hamlet back their actions with authority that is arguably subjective. Their anti-establishment mentalities are individualistic only in so much as they – as individuals – are the only ones who can validate the authority upon which they act.

Joan claims the authority of God, communicated to her through voices of Saints that only she can hear. While she does manage to gain the loyalty and admiration of the French people, which allows her to conduct a successful military campaign, she fails to deliver a source of authority for her actions beyond her popular appeal that the establishment will legitimize.
Hamlet’s actions are motivated by the information he learns from the ghost of his father who, although witnessed by several of Hamlet’s friends, speaks only to Hamlet.  While the small scale of Hamlet’s cause limits his following to just Horatio, his lack of verifiable authority is what leaves his actions open to criticism.

In the end, the question of hero versus madman boils down to perspective. At the time of their rise to fame, the anti-establishment heroes of history – Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Edward R. Murrow – were all considered to be heroic by some and mad (or, at the very least, misguided) by others. They are celebrated today because they took a stand on the right side of history; they challenged the establishment on a point and at a time in which it needed to be challenged and, ultimately, changed. This is not always the case. Establishments, at their finest, are intended to protect and to provide stability to the individuals they serve and of which they are composed. An individual stance against a healthy institution is madness; against an unhealthy institution, it’s heroism.

  Ingolf Schanche as Hamlet, 1920. Photo by Anders Beer Wilse (1865-1949) from the collection of the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History.

In the theater, the audience gets to play the determining role of perspective. Did King Claudius really represent a corrupt establishment? Was Joan truly acting on a higher authority? Depending on each individual’s experience of the play – combined with the choices made by the productions’ artistic teams – these questions could be answered either way. Bernard Shaw scholar Eric Bently writes of Saint Joan, “Shaw is not writing an ‘individualist’ defense of Joan; or a ‘collectivist’ defense of social order. He depicts the clash3.” The same might be said of Shakespeare and Hamlet.

The possibility that it is the clash itself– and the not the individual or establishment responsible for the clash – that functions as the most compelling aspect of an anti-establishment narrative should lead to both hope and cause for concern. Hope, because this proves that there is something deep within us that resonates with and affirms the need for change; clashes will continue. Concern, because this challenge can come from heroes and madmen alike, and because all too often, it is difficult to tell one from the other.


1. "Why 'Hamilton' Became a Phenomenon." CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2016.
2. https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/theologyandworship/pdfs/belhar.pdf
3. Bentley, Eric. Bernard Shaw. New York: Applause Theater & Cinema, 2002. Print.

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