The Life and Death of King John

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Shakespeare, William. The Life and Death of King John (1594-96; Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 529-94).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed “King John” | Historical Figures 

Historical Gloss Regarding King John: John’s reign is significant not only for his forced signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 (whereby angry feudal nobles wanted to check some of his arbitrary powers), but also because his loss of most of England’s French territories helped to set the stage for Europe’s Hundred Years War from 1337-1453 – mainly a struggle between the French kings of the House of Valois and England’s Plantagenet rulers, who claimed the right to France after the death of the last direct ruler in the French Capetian line.  What John lost, subsequent English kings, such as Edward III and Henry V, tried to get back, culminating in the loss of nearly everything in France by Henry V’s son, the hapless Henry VI, whose reign saw the English Wars of the Roses that ran for a few decades beginning in the mid-1450s.  This English struggle, then, dovetails with the Hundred Years War: Henry VI’s incompetence, it’s reasonable to infer, contributed to the English nobility’s dissatisfaction and determination to replace him with someone more capable (and of course of their own faction).  In Shakespearean terms, the heroic Henry V successfully reversed the misfortunes of John, only to find his son (of I, II, and III Henry VI) throwing it all away; from thence it’s a short step to the territory covered by Richard III, in which play the Yorkist King Edward IV has already taken out his Lancastrian predecessor and is to be succeeded by his younger brother Richard of Gloucester, who as Richard III is soon toppled by Henry Tudor.  This Henry VII (Tudor) founds the line culminating in the long, illustrious reign of Shakespeare’s own Queen Elizabeth.  In a sense, the French victory in the Hundred Years War proved hollow – the conflict was fought mainly on French soil and devastated the population, while England prospered in spite of all the violence, giving it an advantage as the early modern period in Europe began.

Act 1, Scene 1

538.  At the outset of the play we find Queen Eleanor (i.e. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II’s widowed queen) immediately undercutting King John’s claim to the throne he already holds.  It is not that she wants him to give up the crown, but rather that she is trying to shape his understanding of his position.  It is not about “right” but rather about “strong possession” (40).  That is the only thing keeping young Arthur and his mother Constance from succeeding (Constance, Duchess of Brittainy is the widow of Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany – this man was John’s elder brother, as was Richard the Lionheart).  Queen Eleanor is a Machiavellian before Machiavelli.

539.  Enter Philip the Bastard, who is mentioned only once or twice in the Holinshed Chronicles but who Shakespeare decides to make a major character in his own play, one that as A. R. Braunmuller points out in his essay “King John and Historiography” (ELH 55, 1988: 309-32), is invented almost whole cloth and steps out boldly but then fades into near irrelevance to suit Shakespeare’s interests.  The younger Falconbridge lays claim to what should logically be Philip’s inheritance from Robert Falconbridge, and Philip’s manner of defending his patrimony rises to genuine comedy.  Philip simply compares his own personal appearance to that of his unattractive younger brother, and insinuates and then states outright that he is indeed the illegitimate offspring of King Richard I.  Queen Eleanor and King John can see “perfect Richard” (89) in the face of this saucy man, and they hear the departed King in his voice and manner.  King John goes along with Philip rather than his younger brother: it does not matter whether or not Philip is legitimate, it only matters that he was born while his mother was married to Robert Falconbridge. 

540-41.  But that isn’t what Queen Eleanor is interested in, and neither is it Philip’s real concern: she asks him point blank whether he would rather inherit his Falconbridge patrimony or be considered “the reputed son of Coeur-de-lion, / Lord of thy presence, and no land beside” (136).  Philip is invited to follow Queen Eleanor since she is “a soldier and now bound to France” (150).  The play is not very historical, although as Braunmuller says, it should be noted that the original Chronicles themselves are re-imaginings of earlier historical records and serve the needs of the present, like a work of drama.  But this reimagining of Queen Eleanor strikes me as accurate in spirit: she was a martial character, a strong woman and capable politician who was always up to something regarding her husband King Henry II, at one point even encouraging her sons to rebel against him and ending up in custody because Henry did not trust her.  (She died in 1204, though the play makes it seem as if she passed away shortly before her son King John falls mortally sick in 1216.)  Well, Philip makes the stronger choice and is told by John, “Arise Sir Richard and Plantagenet” (162).  It is better to be the grandson of Eleanor of Aquitaine than to be the legitimate son of a nobleman.  It’s clear that he and Eleanor agree in political matters: “have is have, however men do catch” (173).  And with this observation they are off for France.

542.  They do not depart, however, before Philip makes a number of witty observations on the transformation he has just undergone.  He now has the power to transform others, he tells us – he can make an ordinary Joan a lady, and join in the flattering and deception that he calls “worshipful society” (205).  He may be illegitimate, but he is not, as he points out, “a bastard to the time” 207).  There is a big difference between Philip and someone like Paroles in All’s Well That Ends Well.  The latter character understands nothing but flattery and fashion, but Philip is savvy, and he knows these things are merely tools: though you use them, you must not be taken in by them yourself.  That’s the sort of advice Machiavelli gives the Medici: know the difference between your public and private qualities and behavior.  We can see this when he says, “though I will not practice to deceive, / Yet to avoid deceit I mean to learn; / For it shall strew the footsteps of my rising” (214ff).  In his essay “Of Great Place,” Sir Francis Bacon writes the following: “All rising to great place is by a winding stair; and if there be factions, it is good to side a man’s self whilst he is in the rising, and to balance himself when he is placed.”  Philip doesn’t need to be told this since he already knows it.

543-44.  Philip’s next task is to square things with his mother, which involves getting her to admit she bore a child by a man not her husband.  Since the man in question was a king, this proves not to be too difficult a task.  Philip makes his mother’s admission a chivalric cause: “If thou hadst said him nay, it had been sin. / Who says it was, he lies: I say ’twas not” (275).  Oscar Wilde has a character in one of his plays insist that there are some temptations one must give in to or risk being diminished, and it seems that both Philip and his mother agree.

One thing worth noting about the entire first act is that not very much of it is about King John.  At times, he does not even seem like the most important character in the play.  This is not necessarily a flaw in Shakespeare’s dramatic art, but may rather be a statement about the turgid nature of the historical era Shakespeare is covering.  The Chronicles from which he borrows often give confusing, difficult reasons for historical events, and the monarchy was by no means as centralized in feudal times as it would become later on in the Early Modern Age.  King John “Lackland” (so-called as the youngest of Henry II’s sons) set the stage for a few centuries of English history thanks to his losses in France, losses that subsequent kings of England would try to erase.

Act 2, Scene 1

544.  The beginning of the first scene is taken up with the stale set-piece rhetoric of the French party.  King Philip and Austria make bold claims about how they’re going to help Constance and her young son Arthur, and it is announced that King John, Queen Eleanor and her granddaughter Blanche and “all the unsettled humours of the land” (545, 66) are on the way to Angers.

546.  King John and King Philip trade contentious claims, King Philip describing Arthur’s face as if it were a text in which is read the ruin of King John.  Queen Eleanor rails away at Constance, and Philip the Bastard mocks Austria, whom he will later kill during a battle.  Poor Arthur understands what the fuss is about, but the boy is modest and just wishes he were back home and not the pawn in an argument between two mighty kings. 

548.  The Citizen spokesman of Angers insists that the town is loyal, but it will prove loyal only to the man who demonstrates the greater military capacity (550, 270ff).  In other words, Angers values what Queen Eleanor called “strong possession,” not necessarily legitimate right.  In this play, de facto trumps de jure any day.  Without wanting to run afoul of the censors over at the Revels Office, Shakespeare seems always to have had a keen understanding of this basic fact of European history; he didn’t need Chairman Mao to tell him that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun” (or a spear, or cannon, or whatever).

550.  A battle follows, and the only clear thing is that it isn’t clear who won.  Philip’s rhetoric at the bottom of 551 does nothing to change this.  He revels in battle, but the two kings desperately want the matter clarified.  It seems at first as if they are going to accept his advice: “Be friends a while, and both conjointly bend / Your sharpest deeds of malice on this town” (379).  However, the Citizen promptly undercuts Philip by proposing a match between Queen Eleanor’s granddaughter Blanche and the Dauphin.  They do not seem particularly impressed with all the high rhetoric that has passed from the kings’ lips to their battlements, and in fact Philip is impressed with the Citizen (554, 467-68).  So much for King Philip’s statements such as, “shall your city call us lord / In that behalf which we have challenged it, / Or shall we give the signal to our rage, / And stalk in blood to our possession?”  (549, 263ff) This in itself is a pale matchup with similar threats in Henry V.  I am thinking of Act 3, Scene 3, lines 104-20 of that play (page 795 in Norton Histories); the initial lines run, “Therefore, you men of Harfleur, / Take pity of your town and of your people, / Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command …” (3.3.104-06)

556.  Anyway, the Citizen’s plan strikes both King John and King Philip as excellent, and the promise is made.  Philip the Bastard is bemused by it all, how easily these great men turn to something very like wrangling over the price of some object: “Mad world, mad kings, mad composition! / John, to stop Arthur’s title in the whole, / Hath willingly departed with a part…” (562).  He puts it all down to “Commodity, the bias of the world” (575).  His only reason for being scandalized, he admits, is simply that his turn has not yet come to turn a buck.  Situational ethics is all the rage.  As Philip puts it, “whiles I am a beggar I will rail, / And say there is no sin but to be rich, / And being rich, my virtue then shall be / To say there is no vice but beggary” (594ff).  Up to this point, Philip’s character is consistent; it is that of an ambitious joker but also a man of considerable bravery.  He livens up a play that is after all heavy with conventional dialogue and light on action.  The most interesting character isn’t John but Philip, and indeed his supposed father Richard the Lionheart (famous for his participation in the Third Crusade with King Philip of France against Saladin) may have had some illegitimate offspring, but there’s no evidence Philip existed aside from a few passing mentions in the Holinshed Chronicles.  

Act 2, Scene 2

557.  In the brief second scene, Constance can hardly believe the deal that has just been struck at her expense, and as so many royal characters do, she blames the messenger, who in this case is Salisbury.  She sounds to me a bit like Richard II, Shakespeare’s poet king who likes to “sit upon the ground, / And tell sad stories of the death of kings” (499, 3.2.151ff).  Constance complains, “Here I and sorrows sit; / Here is my throne; bid kings come bow to it” (558, 73-74).

Act 3, Scene 1

559-60.  In the first scene, Constance gets in a few good digs at Austria, seconded by Philip the Bastard at line 55.  But it is with Pandolf that the real troubles begin since he comes from Pope Innocent III demanding that King John install Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury.  John responds as if he doesn’t know the English Reformation of the early 1530s hasn’t happened yet (Martin Luther’s European Protestant Reformation began in 1517), insisting that no earthly force can “task the free breath of a sacred king” (74), and other words to that effect.  John refuses to back down even when threatened with excommunication, but King Philip will bow to the power of the Pope.  Pandolf claims to the perplexed French king that “All form is formless, order orderless, / Save what is opposite to England’s love” (562, 179ff).  Once again, Constance can hardly believe what happens but this time the development is one she welcomes since it places the question of Arthur at center stage again.  In essence, Constance is supporting the Pope for her own personal dynastic reasons.  King John, of course, is infuriated with King Philip for this falling away so soon after a bargain has been struck.  Just as the Norton editors have written, the undermining of almost every determination and action is the recurrent theme of this play.  High words are spoken, arms are taken up, and deals are made, only to be annulled by the next character who walks onto the stage.  We are not exactly being treated to a providential representation of the historical process.

Act 3, Scenes 2-3

564-66.  In the second scene, Philip the Bastard informs us that he has killed Austria.  He has also, he tells King John, rescued his grandmother Queen Eleanor.  Then in the third scene, King John announces that it’s time for Philip to return to England and shake some money out of the stingy Church.  It’s clear that the young man is delighted at the prospect.  He is becoming John’s loyal lieutenant and right-hand man – not bad for a fellow who probably didn’t even exist!  Now comes John’s pitch to “gentle Hubert” (565, 19), whom of course he takes to be anything but gentle.  John’s father Henry II is famous for supposedly having muttered in his anguish over resistance from Thomas à Becket, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”  But King John takes a more direct approach: he tells Hubert that Arthur is “a very serpent in my way” (566, 61), and then makes it even more plain by intoning the word “Death” at line 66.  He sounds more like Richard III informing Buckingham that he wants the sons of Edward IV done away with than Henry II.  It’s chilling to hear him then say to Arthur, “Hubert shall be your man, attend on you / With all true duty” (566, 73).

Act 3, Scene 4

567-68.  In the fourth scene, King Philip is facing the news that the French have lost, though this is not based on historical precedent.  Anyway, Arthur has been taken prisoner, and Constance embraces death with high rhetoric, trying to fire up King Philip.  She unbinds, binds and then undoes her hair again, almost like a madwoman, and King Philip utters the common Shakespearean charge that she is indulging herself in excessive grief.  But Constance insists that the form of her body should mirror the state of her mind: “I will not keep this form upon my head / When there is such disorder in my wit” (569 101ff), and Philip worries that she might do herself violence.

569-70.  Also in the fourth scene, the Dauphin gets a lesson in realpolitik from Pandolf, the legate of Pope Innocent III.  With Arthur out of the way, the Dauphin will be free along with Blanche to make the same claim that Arthur would have made.  Again, this is not historical but rather something Shakespeare adds for dramatic purposes.  The public, explains Pandolf, begins to hate King John, and their belief that he has done away with Arthur will condemn him in their eyes.  Pandolf is making the point that as soon as the French march upon England, John will have to get rid of Arthur.  Furthermore, Pandolf says, Philip the Bastard is infuriating the Church and further alienating them from the king.

Act 4, Scene 1

570-73.  What we get is an idyllic portrait of young Arthur, Duke of Brittany, one that melts the heart of Hubert, who tries without success to be the stony agent of King John’s desires.  I have read (in A.R. Braunmiller’s article mentioned above) that the sheer confusion involved in this representation – namely the idea that the punishment is to put out Arthur’s eyes, whereas we had thought he was to be killed outright – may in fact be a deliberate repetition of the confusion or multiplicity of causes found in Shakespeare’s source material.  This kind of confusion, runs the idea, may have been one way to keep ahead of the Master of the Revels (the Elizabethan/Jacobean censor’s office).  I don’t know if that’s the case, but it’s possible. 

In any case, this scene is interesting for its representation of Hubert’s conscience.  Camille Wells Slights writes well in her essay The conscience of the King: Henry V and the reformed conscience (Philological Quarterly, Winter 2001) that “Conscience was usually defined as the part of practical understanding that applies inherent knowledge of the basic principles of good and evil to particular actions, judging past actions and legislating future ones” and again that with regard to Shakespeare’s histories, “conscience is the nexus where internal self-awareness and external political action, the obligations of obedience and the authority of personal judgment converge.”  These remarks are very appropriate for the scene we are now reading: Arthur’s words awaken Hubert’s “mercy,” which up to now has supposedly been dead inside of him.  The Elizabethans do not have a fully developed language for the internal operations of the self, but what seems to be happening here is that some interior awareness on Hubert’s part awakens his emotions and leads him to disregard the political duty he had sworn to King John.  He keeps trying to treat the action in a mechanical way, referring to the instrument he needs to use, but his cold resolution is no match for the boy’s piteous language, which even bestows a Macbeth-like weirdness to the heated poker that Hubert means to use: “All things that you should use to do me wrong / Deny their office…” (573, 117-18).  In the end, Hubert decides to let Arthur live and disguise his act of mercy from the king – which of course would have been a good thing, if anything ever went as planned in this play.  Just as Lysander of A Midsummer Night’s Dream says about erotic pursuits that “the course of true love never did run smooth,” so the best-laid plans of the characters in King John seem always to go running off in some direction those characters never would have guessed.

Act 4, Scene 2

573-75.  This is a momentous scene, and a tragic setup for the fortunes and spirits of King John.  At its beginning, we find him being re-crowned, much to the displeasure of great lords such as Salisbury and Pembroke, who consider it an excessive gesture, especially since they suspect that he has ordered the murder of Arthur.

576-79.  King John takes the measure of this situation and utters a medieval sententia: “they burn in indignation.  I repent. / There is no sure foundation set on blood, / No certain life achieved by others’ death” (103-05).  Just when he has realized this, the news comes that both Queen Eleanor and Constance are dead.  Historically, this is not accurate since Eleanor of Aquitaine died in 1204, which is nowhere near the end of John’s reign.  But no matter, the scene is dramatic, not historical.  From this point forwards, John will seem adrift, hardly knowing what to do, even though Philip gets him to pull himself together for the moment, if only to hear further bad news.  It seems that the common people are “Possessed with rumors, full of idle dreams, / Not knowing what they fear, but full of fear” (145-46).  John’s answer to this is to order one of their prophets hanged.  The king is still optimistic about the noblemen, at least: “I have a way to win their loves again” (577, 168).

King John is at first angry with Hubert and his conscience troubles him terribly (578-79, 246-49); he believes, of course, that he has carried out his task, but Hubert soon disabuses him of this belief.  In brief, John finds what he did impossible to face; like Macbeth, he is frightened to think of what he has done, and dares not look upon it.  No, John must blame his subordinate instead.  This is not an unusual reaction amongst the powerful – Queen Elizabeth I, for example, basically denied issuing the death warrant that sealed the fate of Mary Queen of Scots (the later James I’s mother), even though there is no doubt that she signed the order because Mary was considered a threat to her continued reign.  Anyway, John is overjoyed to hear that Hubert is not as bad a fellow as he looks and did not do the bloody deed.

Act 4, Scene 3

579-82.  Arthur decides to make an escape attempt, but falls upon the hard pavement and dies.  Salisbury discovers the body, and Philip is as stunned as anyone else: “It is a damned and a bloody work, / The graceless action of a heavy hand – / If that it be the work of any hand” (580, 57-59).  Hubert then shows up and is promptly accused of murdering Arthur, but he vehemently denies it.  The Bastard still suspects him and now says something we might not have expected him to say, given his character for the first three acts or so: “I am amazed, methinks, and lose my way / Among the thorns and dangers of this world” (582, 141-42).  Gone is the flippant and courtly adventurer: Philip is genuinely shocked to see the broken body of little Arthur lying upon the ground.

Act 5, Scene 1

583-84.  Pandolf makes peace with King John in the Pope’s name, ceremonially giving him back his crown.  Now John is confronted with the horrible news that Arthur is in fact dead.  Philip tries to buck up his spirits and urge him to fight the French here on English soil, but John renders that advice irrelevant by pointing out that he has just made peace with the Pope.  The Dauphin no longer presents a threat.  Philip’s response to this is incredulous: “O inglorious league!”  (584, 65) John seems to put the affairs of state into Philip’s hands.

Act 5, Scene 2

584-88.  Salisbury laments that he must draw his sword against his own country (585).  The Dauphin is amazed to hear Pandolf declare that it’s time to pack up and go home because peace has been made with John.  He thinks he is playing with the best hand – why fold now?  On 587, Philip the Bastard is delighted that the young man isn’t listening to Pandolf; Philip is spoiling for a fight, and a fight he will have.  A battle takes place at the end of this scene.

Act 5, Scenes 3-5

588-90.  King John is in no state to manage affairs on the battlefield because he has come down with a fever, and even the news that the enemy’s ships were wrecked does nothing to cheer him up.  The rebellious English lords hear from the dying Count Melun that the Dauphin plans to cut off their heads if he wins, so they desert him and go back to King John.  The Dauphin remains optimistic in spite of his troubles.

Act 5, Scenes 6-7

591-94.  Now we are told on 591 that King John has been poisoned by a monk who was no doubt angry over the virtual ransacking of the Church by Philip.  The Lords have returned with John’s young son Henry, and by the beginning of Scene 7, John is near death: “all my bowels crumble up to dust; / I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen / Upon a parchment, and against this fire / Do I shrink up” (592, 31-34).  There is perhaps something in this of guilt and visions of hellfire, as when John says, “Within me is a hell, and there the poison / Is, as a fiend, confined to tyrannize…” (593, 65-66).  But it’s also possible that the references to writing are a glance in the direction of the confusing historical record itself, as if the truth of King John’s thoughts and his reign burned along with his feverish body.  Philip still believes the main part of the fighting lies ahead after John’s death, but he is quickly informed that such thoughts are unnecessary since the Dauphin is willing to put the whole matter in Pandolf’s hands; the battle is ended.  Philip looks a little like the Superfluous Man at this point since his loyalty to John need no longer take such a martial form as previously.  But now he turns that loyalty to John’s young son, Henry III, and pronounces the play’s final judgment on the events that have passed: “This England never did, nor never shall, / Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror / But when it first did help to wound itself” (594, 112-14).  That judgment doesn’t have the ring of jingoism, even though the obvious primary reference is to the lords who temporarily took the side of the Dauphin against John; as it seems to me Philip indicated earlier, King John himself bore some of the blame for turning those lords away from him thanks to his plot against Arthur, amongst other things.   

Shakespeare’s source for this play seems to have been in part an anonymous work entitled The Troublesome Reign of King John, and that title says much: John’s reign was indeed a troublesome one in difficult, contentious times.  He is not at the end, nor was he ever, anything like the hero of this play, and in fact it makes sense to say that there really are no heroes to be found – not the admittedly strong women Queen Eleanor or Constance, mother of Arthur, not John, not the French royals, not Philip the Bastard, nor Arthur, who suffers such a pitiable fate.  I believe the Norton editors are correct to suggest that if some of Shakespeare’s other plays suggest something like a Tudor Providence, with history pointing towards the accession of the all-important Elizabeth of Shakespeare’s own time, The Life and Death of King John does not include itself in that Providence, but rather gives us a disturbing look at a process that seems at best structured by compounding frustrations and anguish unto death, and at worst random in its movement from one royal event and desire to the next.  John’s nascent Machiavellian craft comes to naught, and we are left with a strange feeling that nothing much has been settled or set up for future times, other than continued bad relations with France.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake