Questions on Shakespeare’s Histories
Shakespeare, William. The Life and Death of King John (1594-96; Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 529-94).
1. General question for the play as a whole: what kind of king is John — what traits and qualities emerge as Shakespeare develops his portrayal of this medieval ruler? Historians have never been as kind to John (called “Lackland”) as they’ve been to his elder brother the Christian Crusader King Richard I (Coeur de lion, “the lion-hearted,” ruled 1189-99); both were among the five sons of the Plantagenet/Angevin King Henry II of England (ruled 1154-89). But is Shakespeare’s John entirely bad, or is the portrait more mixed than that? Explain.
2. General question for the play as a whole: Henry II’s Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (“Queen Eleanor”) is one of English royalty’s most famous members. What figure does the great lady cut in Shakespeare’s play? How does she drive the action at certain points? Is she in some sense more powerful and stronger than King John himself? Does that power hold up? Explain.
3. In Act 1, Scene 1, what is King John’s situation at the beginning of the play? With what personal quarrel is he immediately presented, and how does he deal with it? More importantly, how does Queen Eleanor overrule her son John and resolve this situation?
4. In Act 1, Scene 1, Philip the Bastard makes his first appearance at Court and we witness his treatment of his legitimate brother. Legitimacy is a common theme in Shakespeare, most notably debated in the wicked person of Edmund in King Lear (“Thou, nature, art my goddess,” etc.). What set of values animates Philip at the outset and what are his thoughts once he has been dubbed Sir Richard Plantagenet, the acknowledged (if illegitimate) son of the late King Richard I?
5. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does Philip handle his mother’s feelings when he forces her (Lady Falconbridge) to admit that Richard I was in fact his father rather than Sir Robert Falconbridge? How much difference does “legitimacy” really make? What is its value here and in the play generally?
6. In Act 2, Scene 1, what is the subject of the argument between the arriving King John and the French King Philip? What principles of succession does each man support, and how do Constance and Queen Eleanor explain their own position regarding young Arthur, Duke of Brittany?
7. In Act 2, Scene 1, how does Shakespeare portray young Arthur? Do a little research and find out what you can regarding what actually happened to this young son of Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany and Constance. How does Shakespeare’s representation of this young man tend to work in favor of King John’s hold on power, at least for a time?
8. In Act 2, Scene 1, the people of Angers seems steadfast in their resistance to the forces of both King Philip and King John. What position does the town’s spokesman adopt towards both sovereigns? How does he propose to resolve the strife between these two kings who threaten the town’s safety? How do the kings receive this proposal at first?
9. In Act 2, Scene 1, what has been Philip the Bastard’s role throughout this negotiation? What has he advocated and what is his reaction when it seems that Blanche and Louis the Dauphin seem about to be united in marriage?
10. In Act 2, Scene 2, and at the beginning of Act 3, Scene 1, the proposed solution to the problems of Kings Philip and John understandably don’t please Arthur’s mother Constance. Consider the course of her lamentation in this scene. How does she process what is happening? Does she seem like a strong figure at this point? What resources, if any, are available to her?
11. In Act 3, Scene 1, the papal legate Pandolf appears. What demand does he make of King John, and in what spirit does the King answer him? Why might this attitude have appealed to Shakespeare’s Protestant audience, even though England’s split from Roman Catholicism did not occur until 1534, with Henry VIII’s Acts of Supremacy?
12. Explain how Act 3, Scene 1 illustrates the Norton editors’ remarks about Shakespeare’s treatment of historical process in this play as more or less devoid of fulfilled patterns and, therefore, of meaning. How does the present action’s playing out undermine what the Kings have already done? Have we already seen this kind of undermining at work in the play? If so, where?
13. In Act 3, Scenes 2 and 3, how does the military situation stand at present, and what plan does King John make going forward to secure himself upon the throne of England? Characterize John’s rhetoric in assailing the conscience of his loyal assistant Hubert: how does he proceed in this initially delicate but ultimately brutal task?
14. In Act 3, Scene 4, we may be reminded of the Norton editors’ suggestion that Queen Eleanor and Constance at least appear to be strong figures in this play, drivers of the action. But consider Shakespeare’s representation of Constance at this point: how does she illustrate the figure of the woman as a victim of war, something we often find in Shakespeare?
15. In Act 3, Scene 4, what Machiavellian counsel does the papal legate Pandolf offer Louis the Dauphin? How might the young heir to the French throne profit from Arthur’s misfortune? What’s in it for Pandolf and the Pope if he does so?
16. In Act 4, Scene 1, why is Hubert unable to carry out his dreadful task against Arthur? How does Shakespeare represent the unfolding operation of conscience in Hubert?
17. In Act 4, Scene 2, King John is confronted with the hostility of great noblemen such as Salisbury and Pembroke, the strange and agitated state of the people as personified by a prophetic commoner, and the death of his mother Queen Eleanor. How does he react to all of this? What, if anything, does he learn? Does he seem to be a changed man, and if so, how?
18. In Act 4, Scene 3, Arthur attempts to escape from his prison but dies in the attempt, breaking his body upon the stones below. Much of the scene centers on the subsequent exchange between Hubert and Philip the Bastard. The Norton editors suggest that the latter character is not really a consistent one but rather that he changes as the play progresses. How does his reaction to the of Arthur illustrate that point? You might also want to consider his reaction in the first scene of Act 5 to the news that King John has made peace with Pandolf.
19. In Act 5, Scene 1, King John hears that Arthur is in fact dead and prepares to fight the French invaders in England. In Act 5, Scene 2, how does Louis the Dauphin respond to Pandolf’s demand that he desist in his preparations for war against England? Furthermore, what is Philip the Bastard’s posture at this point: what role is he playing for the King?
20. In Act 5, Scene 3, King John is by now desperately ill with a fever even as the battle rages, and with the death of the powerful French Count Melun, the English noblemen who had recently opposed King John now return to the English monarch’s side. By Scene 6, King John has apparently been poisoned by a monk who was no doubt resentful of the taxes levied against the clergy earlier in the play. How does King John characterize his own illness and bodily sensations upon being poisoned? Why are they strangely appropriate as harbingers of the end of his reign?
21. In Act 5, Scene 7, what seems to be England’s situation upon the death of King John? What role does Philip the Bastard play at this point, and how does he sum up the sense of nationalism we might expect in a Shakespeare history play? But further, to what extent is this play nationalistic at all: has a meaningful sense of English history at this period emerged from the dialog and action, or do you agree with the Norton editors that it really hasn’t?
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