The Play’s the Thing: King John, his mother, Elinor, and several of his lords are meeting with an ambassador from France, Chatillon, who is in England on behalf of King Philip of France who is advocating for Arthur Plantagenet, John’s nephew, to be given the throne in England. If John refuses to hand over the crown, Philip has vowed to go to war in order to forcibly take the crown from John. John refuses and sends Chatillon back to France. After Chatillon, two brothers are brought before the King, Robert Falconbridge and his brother, Philip. Robert, the younger brother, complains that despite the fact that Philip is his elder brother, Robert should rightly hold the title to the family land as Philip is a bastard son. When asked whose son Philip actually is, it’s reported that he is the son of Richard Coeur-de-lion (better known as King Richard I, or Richard the Lionheart), John’s deceased brother. John gives Robert the Falconbridge land, accepts Philip as Richard’s bastard, renames him Sir Richard (to avoid confusion I’ll simply call him Bastard for the rest of the summary, as does my copy of the play), and tells Bastard to accompany him to the coming war in France. Bastard is thrilled because while his brother got what he wanted, Bastard has gotten the far better end of the deal.
In front of the walls of Angiers, King Philip of France, Louis the Dauphin, the Archduke of Austria, Arthur, and his mother, Constance, are having a brief meeting. Louis is presenting Austria to Arthur as Austria is responsible for Richard’s death. Arthur grants him pardon as he is joining their cause to remove John from England’s throne. Philip is about to start attacking Angiers (which, while it is in France, actually belongs to the English at this point) when Chatillon arrives to tell him to skip attacking the town and instead prep for war with England as John is hot on his heels with an army of the English. John then shows up himself and tells Philip that if he’ll just recognise John as the rightful monarch, they can avoid the whole war thing. Philip tells him he’s there on behalf of the rightful King of England (Arthur) and that if John will just hand over the crown, then he’ll be willing to skip the whole war thing. Then there’s a bunch of trash talk between John, Philip, Elinor, and Constance, about who should rightfully be King. Elinor and Constance get particularly heated as Constance accuses her of being unnatural in favouring her younger son rather than the heir of her elder son. After lots of arguing, Philip has the brilliant idea to ask the people of Angiers whether they’ll accept John or Arthur as their King. John and Philip make speeches outlining their cases. A representative of the citizens of Angiers says that they won’t pick until there’s clearer signs as to who they should have as their King. Philip and John then have a battle (the stage directions simply say “excursions” so imagine whatever battle scenes you like). Afterwards, a herald from the French comes to the walls of Angiers and tells the citizens that the French are totally winning. He’s quickly followed by an English herald who says the English are totally kicking ass. The citizens of Angiers give the same response as before. John, Philip, and their respective entourages then show up wanting to know what Angiers has decided. They again repeat their response of “We’re hedging our bets for now” which exasperates Bastard, who suggests that everyone ally themselves together to completely wipe out Angiers for being so annoying and then go back to fighting each other. Everyone really likes this plan. Then the spokesman for the citizens of Angiers suggests a different plan that if John will marry his niece, Blanch, to Louis, they’ll then accept him as King. Everybody agrees this is a good deal, John promises to give several of his holdings in France to Blanch as her dowry and everyone heads into Angiers for the wedding.
Back in the French camp, Constance is flipping out over the news that Philip has ditched their cause and allied himself with John. When everyone from the wedding party arrives, she continues to flip out while Philip attempts to mellow her out. Then Pandulph, an emissary from the Pope arrives to scold John for preventing the individual appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury from taking his seat. John basically tells him that he’s King and the Pope can shove it. Pandulph then excommunicates John and tells Philip that he needs to break the newly made truce and go to war with John for his revolt against Rome. Philip verbally sways back and forth for a bit before breaking his alliance with John. John gets really angry and the two go back to war again. We then get more “excursions” in between which, Bastard comes in with the head of Austria. Following that scene and “excursions” we learn John has captured Arthur. John tells Elinor to stay in France and manage the war. Then he sends Bastard back to England to raid the churches for the funds they’ve stored up. Then he entrusts Arthur to his aid, Hubert, and tells Hubert on the sly to murder Arthur to prevent any further issues around John being king. Meanwhile, Philip is having a sad over losing to England. And then he has to deal with Constance who is seriously losing it because her son has been captured and will probably be dead soon. Louis and Pandulph then have a brief conversation where Pandulph convinces Louis to head off to England to continue the war against John, as the people will be more likely to ally themselves with Louis, especially if word gets out that John has murdered Arthur as everyone expects he will. Louis thinks it’s a brilliant idea and heads off to prep.
In merry old England, Hubert is preparing to take out Arthur’s eyes with hot pokers. But on the voyage over, he’s grown fond of the boy, which Arthur uses to his advantage, and Hubert ends up not killing him. Meanwhile, for some inexplicable reason, John has had himself crowned king again, which makes his lords suspicious that he’s killed Arthur. Hubert then shows up, lies to the King that Arthur is dead, and John tells the lords that Arthur has died of an illness. The lords aren’t buying it and disappear. A messenger arrives to bring the news that Louis and an army from France has shown up in England. John is astounded that his mother hasn’t sent him word about this development, only to have the messenger tell him that Elinor died on April first (no foolin’) and that rumour has it Constance died three days before Elinor. John is boggled by all this bad news and it isn’t over as Bastard shows up with Peter Pomfret. Bastard tells John that the people are restless and Pomfret, a purported prophet, was wandering around saying that before noon on Ascension-day, John will hand off his crown. John orders Pomfret kept in prison until the aforementioned date and that when what he foretold doesn’t happen, they’ll execute him. Bastard then tells him there are rumours that the dissatisfied lords will join with Louis in his war against John. John sends Bastard off to attempt to reconcile the lords. He then has a chat with Hubert asking why on earth Hubert actually murdered Arthur. Hubert then tells him that he wasn’t able to do it and Arthur is still alive. John tells Hubert to head off to the lords and tell them this because then everything will be ok. Meanwhile, Arthur in a moment of sheer stupidity decides to jump off the castle walls in an effort to escape. He, of course, dies and is then discovered by the lords, which spurs them to join Louis’ forces. Bastard and Hubert attempt to dissuade them but it doesn’t work.
John has made up with Rome via Pandulph, which involves the whole ceremony of handing over his crown to Pandulph and then getting it back. Pandulph then says that he’ll go and tell Louis that he can skip this whole war thing on this Ascension-day. John realizes that Pomfret’s prediction has come true but that he got his crown back so it’s all good. Bastard then shows up, hears from John that Pandulph is off to convince Louis to pack up and go home, but tells John he should lead his army over to Louis’ just in case. John agrees. Louis is chatting with the lords that ditched John and welcoming them to his side. Pandulph then shows up and delivers his message to Louis that everyone can forget the whole war thing. Louis tells him that while Pandulph may have started this war with a few measly words, it’s going to take a heck of a lot more than that to stop it. Bastard shows up and engages in some verbal one-upmanship with Louis until they head off to war. We have some “alarums” and then see John talking with Hubert, where we learn the battle isn’t going well and that John is feeling ill and is heading off to the abbey near Swinstead. John then gets the good news that the supply ship Louis was expecting was wrecked and won’t be showing up. The lords that ditched John learn Louis plans to kill them all if John loses and so they switch their allegiance back to John. Hubert and Bastard meet in the middle of the night and we learn that John was probably poisoned by a monk and is dying. We also learn that the lords all came back and brought Prince Henry, John’s son, with them. Prince Henry and a lord discuss John’s descent towards death, John is then brought out into the orchard where he talks to his son and hears news from the freshly arrived Bastard about Louis’ movements towards them. Then he dies. We then learn Louis has offered peace and Henry prepares to take on his new role as King Henry III.
Heroes and Villains: As an historical figure, I’ve always been fond of Elinor of Aquitaine, King John’s mother. But in terms of the characters Shakespeare creates out of these individuals, Bastard probably gets some of the most interesting moments, so he wins the favourite character prize this week.
- pell-mell (II.i)
- play fast and loose (III.i)
- bell, book, and candle (III.iii)
- he flatly says (V.ii)
- cold comfort (V.vii)
Speech to Know: I may find Constance more annoying than not, but her speech at the beginning of Act III when she receives word about Philip’s betrayal is quite impressive.
“Gone to be married! gone to swear a peace!
False blood to false blood join’d! gone to be friends!
Shall Louis have Blanch? and Blanch those provinces?
It is not so; thou hast misspoke, misheard;
Be well advis’d, tell o’er thy tale again:
It cannot be; thou dost but say ’tis so:
I trust I may not trust thee; for thy word
Is but the vain breath of a common man:
Believe me, I do not believe thee, man;
I have a king’s oath to the contrary.
Thou shalt be punish’d for thus frighting me,
For I am sick, and capable of fears;
Oppress’d with wrongs, and therefore full of fears;
A widow, husbandless, subject to fears;
A woman, naturally born to fears;
And though thou now confess didst but jest,
With my vex’d spirits I cannot take a truce,
But they will quake and tremble all this day.
What dost thou mean by shaking of thy head?
Why dost thou look so sadly on my son?
What means that hand upon that breast of thine?
Why holds thine eye that lamentable rheum,
Like a proud river peering o’er its bounds?
Be these sad signs confirmers of thy words?
Then speak again, – not all thy former tale,
But this one word, whether thy tale be true.” (III.i)
View from the Pit: Reading King John was an interesting experience for me, at least partially because during my undergrad studies I took a course on “England in the Age of Robin Hood” where I did actually study many of the figures that pop up in this play. Although much of the details are fuzzy now, I was trying to match up many of the figures in this play with what I remembered. If you’re interested in the actual history, I suggest starting with the Wikipedia article on John, which is very well sourced. The other problem, was that the first image that comes to mind when thinking about John as the brother of Richard the Lionheart is this one. However, once I moved past these issues, the play itself is fascinating for a few reasons. One is the railing against the Catholic church by some of the characters, which would have been received well by an Elizabethan audience, but which may not have been quite so public during an age when England was still Catholic. Also of interest are the many digs at the French (some things never change). But the most interesting element of the play is John himself. We are put in the unusual place of having as our protagonist a figure who is technically a usurper of the English throne. While Shakespeare has compressed many elements of John’s reign and ignored others (such as the signing of that little document known as the Magna Carta), we are left to uneasily watch as John’s reign is slowly torn apart by both external forces and his own missteps. As appears in many of Shakespeare’s history plays, fate plays an unkind role in the play and we are left ultimately sympathetic for a King who should not have been king in the first place.