King John

King John (John) – the lost history play. While the histories were immensely popular in the late 16th century and were responsible for propelling Shakespeare’s initial successes, they have largely fallen by the wayside in favour of the high tragedies and comedies. The York tetralogy (1 Henry VI, 2 Henry VI, 3 Henry VI, Richard III) is carried today solely by the efforts of Richard III, despite the fact that 3 Henry VI is the best play in this series. The Henriad (Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, Henry V) fairs better in the 21st century, due to the monument that is John Falstaff. Prince Hal/Henry V is also a strong presence who has survived the test of time. John is wedged between these two tetralogies and often overlooked. Incidentally, the tenth history play is Henry VIII but I won’t be touching that for some time.

So, John….what have we got here? One reason why it has fallen out of popularity is because it does not have the sustainable character we look for in a Shakespeare play. The Bastard, Phillip Faulconbridge, is the heart of this play and the central focus of pretty much every analysis of this play. I will give him his dues here. But I will stop this thought here before I leave you with the impression that this is a bad play. It’s not. I really enjoy this play, and for more reasons than the Bastard Faulconbridge.

This play is the most episodic of Shakespeare’s plays (that I have read): the five acts are very neatly divided and each act deals with its own subject. This makes it very easy to dissect this play.

The play opens with King John and his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine (otherwise known as Katharine Hepburn) discussing with a messenger that King Phillip II of France is contesting John’s legitimacy. We don’t get much of the back-story in this play and the audience needs some familiarity with English history to understand what is happening at the start. In brief: Richard I (Richard Plantagenet) dies, but before he does he names his younger brother, John, his heir. Arthur, the son of John’s elder brother Geoffrey, had the better claim to the throne but Richard passed him over saying that he was too young and too influenced by France. This did not sit well with many of the English nobles, nor with France. As John opens, Katharine Hepburn informs us that Arthur’s mother, Constance, is urging France to war in order to install her son on the throne. John dismisses this claim saying “if France wants a war, he’s got one.” What is really interesting about the brief opening is that the French messenger refers to King John as the “borrowed majesty” to which Katharine Hepburn replies: “a strange beginning: ‘borrowed majesty’.” Hepburn is foreshadowing what is to come. As soon as the business with the messenger is done, Essex appears and states:

My liege, here is the strangest controversy
Come from country to be judged by you,
That e’er I heard: shall I produce the men? (I.i)

This “strangest controversy” is also concerned with borrowed titles, or rather, illegitimate claims. So even before the Bastard Faulconbridge is ushered in with his brother Robert, the audience is given the seeds of a connection between King John and the Bastard, both accused of illegitimacy. The crux of the issue is that Robert Faulconbridge is spreading word that Phillip is a Bastard so that he may claim Phillip’s lands, inherited from their father Sir Robert Faulconbridge. The case is brought forth and Eleanor immediately recognizes in Phillip traces of her son, Richard I. King John agrees. Phillip continues to press that he is indeed Sir Robert’s son and legitimate heir to his lands. But then Eleanor says that if he abandons this claim and joins her, he will be made a knight and given the name of this real father, Richard. So Phillip immediately tosses aside his claim for land and accepts the title and his service, expressing himself thusly:

A foot of honour better than I was;
But many a many foot of land the worse.
Well, now can I make any Joan a lady.
‘Good den, sir Richard!’–‘God-a-mercy, fellow!’–
And if his name be George, I’ll call him Peter;
For new-made honour doth forget men’s names;
‘Tis too respective and too sociable
For your conversion. Now your traveller,
He and his toothpick at my worship’s mess,
And when my knightly stomach is sufficed,
Why then I suck my teeth and catechise
My picked man of countries: ‘My dear sir,’
Thus, leaning on mine elbow, I begin,
‘I shall beseech you’–that is question now;
And then comes answer like an Absey book:
‘O sir,’ says answer, ‘at your best command;
At your employment; at your service, sir;’
‘No, sir,’ says question, ‘I, sweet sir, at yours:’
And so, ere answer knows what question would,
Saving in dialogue of compliment,
And talking of the Alps and Apennines,
The Pyrenean and the river Po,
It draws toward supper in conclusion so.
But this is worshipful society
And fits the mounting spirit like myself,
For he is but a bastard to the time
That doth not smack of observation;
And so am I, whether I smack or no;
And not alone in habit and device,
Exterior form, outward accoutrement,
But from the inward motion to deliver
Sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age’s tooth:
Which, though I will not practise to deceive,
Yet, to avoid deceit, I mean to learn;
For it shall strew the footsteps of my rising.
But who comes in such haste in riding-robes?

The irony of this speech is that despite his rise in titular fortune, he continues to be known as the Bastard. Also, this soliloquy further strengthens the parallels between the Bastard and King John: the idea of “a foot of honour better than I was; but many a many a foot of land the worse” is integral to this play. The question of giving up something to gain something else comes up time and time again. So really, this dispute between the Faulconbridge Brothers is a synecdoche of the play as a whole. But for now – let’s go to France!

Act II shifts the focus to France, where King John and his followers meet King Phillip and his followers outside the city of Angiers. Phillip has with him Arthur, the “rightful heir”, Arthur’s mother, and the Duke of Austria, who killed Arthur’s father, Richard I (who is also the Bastard’s father), but Arthur forgave Austria and now Austria serves him. After a bit of initial bickering between the parties and a battle of words between Katharine Hepburn and Constance, Hubert arrives. Hubert is the spokesperson for the people of Angiers who King John and King Phillip (in the name of Arthur) must woo. Both want to gain Angier’s support for their causes and they deliver not-so-inspiring rhetorical speeches. Hubert realizes that he is the belle of the ball and responds as such: “Oh, you are both so big and strong, I don’t know who I want to date. Maybe you should fight for my affection.” And the two parties, not being so bright, do just that. Everyone goes off to fight – but poor Shakespeare probably didn’t have the budget for a battle and so he leaves Hubert and some citizens on stage while battle noise is heard off-stage. If I was directing this I would either play this is two ways: 1. Have a long drawn out battle with many comical sounds while Hubert and the other men stand centre-stage, smiling stupidly. Or 2, have Hubert and his men provide excited commentary about how awesome this off-stage battle is and pitying anyone (the audience) who is not currently watching this battle. Either way, this whole affair is a farce.

The two parties re-enter, none more victorious than the other. So Hubert continues his shtick.

Blood hath bought blood and blows have answered blows;
Strength match’d with strength, and power confronted power:
Both are alike; and both alike we like.
One must prove greatest: while they weigh so even,
We hold our town for neither, yet for both. (2.1)

Eventually the Bastard gets tired of this and says: “look guys, why are you trying to woo this man? Sack the town and then the two of you could fight it out later.” Both kings like this idea and poor Hubert is not so pretty anymore. Here we begin to see the Bastard taking on his dark form. King John decides he will attack Angiers from the west; Austria will attack from the north and King Phillip from the south. The Bastard tells us: “O prudent discipline! From north to south: Austria and France shoot in each other’s mouth: I’ll stir them to it” (2.1). The Bastard has just manipulated the situation to not only destroy Angiers but France and Austria as well. This is the Machiavellian tactics that audiences witnessed in Richard III and will come to see in Iago and Edmund the Bastard. The Bastard Faulconbridge, so I thought when reading this act, seems a transitional point between the earlier villain, Richard III, and the later villains, Iago and Edmund. A cunning man who creates chaos by manipulating the weak.

Anyway, Hubert also manages to manipulate the situation and before the attack could happen he gives a not-too-inspiring speech suggesting that the two kings should marry Phillip’s son Lewis (otherwise known as Louis VIII) to John’s niece Blanche. The Bastard tries to dispel this notion but Katharine Hepburn urges it on and so it goes through. Angiers is spared and the kings are reconciled: all is well. King John agrees to give Phillip all his land in Continental Europe, with the exception of Angiers: we see here a revisit to the idea of giving up land to gain honour. At the end of the act with are left with another Bastard soliloquy:

Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!
John, to stop Arthur’s title in the whole,
Hath willingly departed with a part,
And France, whose armour conscience buckled on,
Whom zeal and charity brought to the field
As God’s own soldier, rounded in the ear
With that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,
That broker, that still breaks the pate of faith,
That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,
Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids,
Who, having no external thing to lose
But the word ‘maid,’ cheats the poor maid of that,
That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity,
Commodity, the bias of the world,
The world, who of itself is peised well,
Made to run even upon even ground,
Till this advantage, this vile-drawing bias,
This sway of motion, this Commodity,
Makes it take head from all indifferency,
From all direction, purpose, course, intent:
And this same bias, this Commodity,
This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word,
Clapp’d on the outward eye of fickle France,
Hath drawn him from his own determined aid,
From a resolved and honourable war,
To a most base and vile-concluded peace.
And why rail I on this Commodity?
But for because he hath not woo’d me yet:
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand,
When his fair angels would salute my palm;
But for my hand, as unattempted yet,
Like a poor beggar, raileth on the rich.
Well, 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.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.

The Bastard’s anger at John’s decision is interesting, given that he recently made a very similar decision: giving up his land in favour of a title. Nonetheless, he forswears the kings in favour of gain. This speech is suitable for a Shakespearean villain that the Bastard seems to be becoming. Will he spend the rest of the play trying to ruin all around him for his own profit? Sadly no. this speech is actually very incongruent with the rest of the play. It seems as if Shakespeare wrote this, edited the play severely (it has been suggested this is what he did with this play) but retained this speech which no longer fit. The Bastard does not rise to be Iago or Edmund but from this point assumes the position of faithful lackey to King John. Beyond that little blp, th rest of the play offers enough to sustain itself.

What about Arthur and Constance? Remember Arthur? The boy who was being held up as the rightful king? Well he has now been abandoned. In their reconciliation, Phillip ended up with the English lands that are part of Continental Europe and recognized John’s rights to England and Ireland – Arthur has been shut out of the deal. In the following scene, he is on stage but says nothing. It is his mother who speaks for him; railing at all around her about the decision. She cries: “War, war! No peace!” (III.i) and lashes out at Phillip and Austria for abandoning her son. This scene devolves into a low-brow debate between the Bastard and Austria and is quickly interrupted by the entrance of Pandulph, the Legate of the Pope. Another feature common in this play is the quickly changing events and the interruption of one event in favour of the other. As with Act 1 when the subject of Arthur was quickly dropped in favour of the Faulconbridge debate, so here is the subject of Arthur dropped in favour of the religion debate. Apparently King John as been spurning the church and not recognizing the men chosen by the Pope to be Archbishop. He wants to be an absolute ruler, free of Rome’s control. Without the historic context this piece of information come out of left-field but completely disrupts the play. Pandulph excommunicates John in the name of the Pope and demands that Phillip, as part of Christendom, rise up against King John. Suddenly everyone is put in a bind. Austria easily sides with Rome, and Constance seizes upon her opportunity for revenge and spurs Phillip on to side with Rome. Eleanor calmly suggests that Phillip side with John, and John does the same. Lewis tells his father not to displease the Pope and Blanche wails about how she is now torn between loyalty to her uncle (John) and her new husband (Lewis). The Bastard continues to chide Austria, who he really hates for no other reason than Austria killed the man the Bastard just found out was his father. Phillip finally gives in to Pandulph and the respective parties are either elated or angered and go prepare for war…again.

From here the action moves rapidly. In the next scene the Bastard enters with Austria’s head and the King enters with Arthur, instructing Hubert to keep him locked up. He then instructs Hubert to secretly kill Arthur. The action involving Arthur – previously set aside every time his case was brought up – becomes the most interesting part of the play, while the war with France fades into the background. Hubert comes to kill Arthur by putting out his eyes with hot irons. Arthur, the epitome of innocence in this play, finally manages to melt Hubert’s hard heart and so Hubert says for Arthur to hide and he will report that he had killed the boy. Word reaches England that Arthur is dead and John’s generals turn against their king. John gets mad at Hubert for killing Arthur and when Hubert protests, saying he was following orders, John pulls out the “yeah, I know I told you to kill him, but I didn’t mean kill him!” Here we see who John really is. It is important to know that the English never liked him and that Shakespeare is appealing to popular sentiment by not portraying King John as a good king. John is constantly changing, trying to grasp on to favour and honour however he can and always going back on what he says. Katharine Hepburn accuses the French of this very fault when Phillip sides with Pandulph, but fails to recognize this quality in her son, John.

Of course, while all this revolting is happening, we are well aware that Arthur is not dead and that this was a lie. Hubert finally admits this and John is really happy and orders him to spread this news to his dejected men in order to bring them back. All is well again! Yay! Immediately after this revelation we get this:

Enter ARTHUR, on the walls


The wall is high, and yet will I leap down:
Good ground, be pitiful and hurt me not!
There’s few or none do know me: if they did,
This ship-boy’s semblance hath disguised me quite.
I am afraid; and yet I’ll venture it.
If I get down, and do not break my limbs,
I’ll find a thousand shifts to get away:
As good to die and go, as die and stay.

Leaps down

O me! my uncle’s spirit is in these stones:
Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones!


If I was directing this play I would definitely intertwine the above scene with Hubert’s revelation that Arthur is not dead. It is a beautiful moment of comedy-tragedy.

And with the death of the innocent boy, the play begins to falter and fall. John’s lords come across Arthur’s body and confirms that he is dead. They flee to France and fight against John. Eventually they are told that Phillip will kill them all once he has gained complete control and they defect again, returning to John. They turn the tide of war and all is well! Yay! No. King John decided, when he was losing, that he would retreat to an abbey. The man angers everyone in the church and retreats to an abbey? What? That’s like Ned Stark trusting the Lannisters!  So of course he is poisoned by a monk and dies. And that’s about it…

This play certainly has cracks in it. But between the Bastard Faulconbridge (at least in the first two acts) and the theme of rapid changeability and giving up something to gain something else – both reflected in the content and structure of the play itself – this play has enough quality to rest on. It seems that Shakespeare did not realize the potential of the Bastard, or the two major females. Katherine Hepburn and Constance are both strong figures. Constance even has a bit of Cleopatra in her but is not given the chance to put her fury into action. She dies offstage and it is reported to John at some point. Hepburn also dies and John has a Macbeth-like moment in which he wants to mourn for his mother but does not have the time. If he had kept these three characters as strong in the second half as they were in the first half of the play, John would have fared better than it did in terms of reception.

The final lines are a bit ironic, but once again demand knowledge of English history:

O, let us pay the time but needful woe,
Since it hath been beforehand with our griefs.
This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true. (V.vii)

Would you guess that these lines are spoken by the Bastard? This is not the same Bastard who we come to like in Act 2! Either way, the irony here lies in the fact that immediately after John’s death the crown was passed to Louis VIII and England (for a few months at least) is conquered by France.

Copyright ©; 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved


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Filed under Histories, Pre-Hamlet

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