Act 2, scene 3
The Countess of Avergne enters and reminds her servant of the order she has given him. In a soliloquy, she reveals that she has laid a plot against Talbot, adding that if it comes off, she will be famous.
Talbot is shown in, The Countess says she cannot believe that this is Talbot, as she was expecting an impressive, strong man, whereas Talbot is small and puny-looking. Talbot goes to leave, but she calls him back. When he confirms that he is indeed Talbot, she declares that he is her prisoner. Talbot laughs and says that what she sees before her is only a tiny part of him. If the whole were there, it would not fit into her castle. The Countess is mystified. Talbot sounds a horn, and English soldiers enter. Talbot explains that his men form the rest of him. The Countess apologizes, admitting that he lives up to his great reputation. Talbot insists that he is not offended and asks in recompense only that she feed him and his soldiers.
The Countess of Auvergne is shown as treacherous, violating the laws of hospitality by seeking to entrap the invited guest Talbot at her castle under guise of offering admiration and respect. Just as Joan is surrounded with the imagery of witchcraft and devilry, so the Countess seems to suggest that she has long practiced witchcraft against Talbot through the portrait she keeps of him. It was a traditional practice of witches to keep a picture, waxen image, or other representation of their intended victim, to torture. The idea was that through supernatural influence, the person would suffer the same torture that the witch practiced on the image. The effect of all this imagery is to suggest that the French cannot win their battles by honest force but must resort to underhand and sinister methods.
In contrast with the Countess, Talbot, the embodiment of English heroism, is shown as noble and generous in spirit, forgiving the Countess for her treatment of him and asking only for his men to be fed in recompense.
Any endorsement of a man’s heroism that comes from his enemy is particularly powerful. Thus for the Countess, a French noblewoman, to pronounce Talbot “so great a warrior” (line 81) is a persuasive tactic on Shakespeare’s part.
The key to Talbot’s greatness is the way in which he sees himself as but a small part of the great body that is his men. This is the aristocratic ideal that, the play shows, has so tragically declined in English society. Its nobles now act out of self-interest rather than in service of the state as a whole. Talbot is a link to the old aristocratic ideal. He, however, is just one man, and with his demise will come the end of an era of honor and chivalry.