Friends, we’re back in the histories with King John. I have to admit, I’m liking the histories far more than I thought I would (for shame, I’d never read one before this year). However, I’d never heard of this play before preparing for this project.
King John is set during the time of The Lion in Winter and most Robin Hood tales. In short: this is my jam. Seriously. I’m a medievalist, and I tie my interest in the Middle Ages to my childhood obsession with all things Robin Hood. I watched the Disney animated movie multiple times per day (my poor family) and read every adaptation I could find. When I couldn’t find more adaptations I moved on to different stories set in the Middle Ages. This set the course of my entire life: going to Bryn Mawr College to major in medieval studies (which didn’t happen, long story), specializing in rare books librarianship at Indiana University, and later getting my M.Phil. in Medieval Language, Literature, and Culture at Trinity College in Dublin.
All this because of an animated fox.
But, back to the play. My thoughts? I was…underwhelmed. Bored, really. This play was written after Richard II, which was so fiery. Why was this so lackluster? I didn’t feel anything for any of the characters, neither love nor hate, so I wasn’t really invested in the story. Sad.
With that in mind, onto the play!
Once again, England is having issues with France. (Sensing a theme?) King John currently sits on the English throne. (At this point Richard is dead.) France has sent an emissary to England demanding that John give up the principalities he holds in France, step down, and acquiesce the throne to his nephew, Arthur, whom the French King Philip believes to be the true heir to the English throne. If John doesn’t step down then there will be war. Of course, John doesn’t give up his title.
Directly after the emissary leaves Robert Falconbridge and his older brother Philip enter to have their dispute settled. Robert claims that Philip is a bastard and not his father’s rightful son; thus, Philip is not the rightful heir to the Falconbridge lands. John and his mother Eleanor notice that Philip looks distinctly like King Richard I. Eleanor offers to knight Philip if he renounce the Falconbridge name and claim his illegitimacy, which Philip does. Eleanor knights him and renames him Richard. Philip then confronts his mother about his real father and she admits that Richard was indeed his father.
Meanwhile in France the French are threatening Angiers, which is under the rule of England. King Philip of France demands that they denounce John of England and instead support Arthur as the true king. The inhabitants have themselves well-fortified and deflect the attack. Then the English arrive. Austria (a man’s name, not the country) stands in support of the French King (it’s believed that he [Austria] killed King Richard, which means the Bastard hates him on principle). Eleanor and Constance, Arthur’s mother, insult each other a bit before both King Philip and King John state their claims to the people of Angiers, who support “the rightful king”. When pressed further, they announce that they don’t know who the rightful king is and that England and France must fight for the title.
The two sides fight and then the heralds on both sides come to the gates and announce that their respective sides have won. The town announces that they observed the fighting and that there’s no clear victor. They’ll continue to hold the town until the two sides decide who the rightful King of England is.
The Bastard feels that the people of Angiers are being a bit uppity with their “prove yourself” attitude and suggests that France and England join to attack the city in retaliation. The citizens of Angiers don’t want this, of course, so they propose Option B: Louis, the Dauphin, marries Blanche, John’s niece, thus joining England and France in marriage. In addition, this would strengthen John’s claim to the throne and give Louis more territory in France. The two are wed. Constance, of course, is not happy about this; she views this as a betrayal against her by the French crown; King Philip has essentially abandoned Arthur.
Just after the marriage Cardinal Pandolf arrives with a missive from the Pope. John has apparently appointed someone other than the Pope’s chosen as archbishop. John refuses to acquiesce to the Pope’s demands and so Pandolf excommunicates him. Further, Pandolf supports Arthur’s claim to the English throne and gives King Philip a choice: turn against England or become excommunicated himself. Philip and Louis both decide to turn against England, much to Blanche and John’s distress. Constance, meanwhile, is loving this turn of events.
The two sides go to war. The Bastard beheads Austria in revenge for his father’s death and England prevails and captures both Angiers and Arthur. Eleanor stays behind in France to look over the territories whose titles England still holds while the Bastard is sent to “collect” money (read: ransack) from the English monasteries. John pulls Hubert, Arthur’s caretaker, aside and orders Arthur’s death; Hubert agrees.
Constance is beside herself with grief. Pandolf convinces Louis that he now has the strongest claim to the English throne because Arthur is as good as dead; even if John doesn’t decide to kill the boy outright (although he already has) he’ll need to once the French make their way to England to fight. Between the death of the young boy and the Bastard robbing from churches the people of England should gladly turn to Louis as their king. Thus Pandolf convinces Louis that the French should invade England, and Philip later agrees as well.
Hubert gets ready to poke Arthur’s eyes out with hot pokers but, at the last minute, realizes he can’t. He instead lies and announces that Arthur is dead. John insists on a second crowning ceremony for himself to solidify his rule over England. In attendance are Pembroke, Salisbury, and other nobles and they demand that John release Arthur. John announces that the boy, sadly, died the night prior. The nobles are incensed and insist that John ordered the boy’s death (they’re not wrong). They leave the court and defect to the French who, John has just been informed, have arrived on English soil. John is angry that this was the first he heard of their trip to England. That’s when he learns that his mother died in France and the lady Constance as well, three days before Eleanor.
The Bastard enters and tells John that the monasteries aren’t happy about John trying to take their money (imagine that). John sends the Bastard to join the nobles and try to convince them to rejoin John. John then blames Hubert for Arthur’s death, insisting that Hubert took it into his own head to kill to boy to try to win John’s favor and that John himself had never wanted such a thing. Hubert, incredulous and enraged, then informs John that Arthur is alive and well. John is ecstatic and sends Hubert to inform the nobles.
Arthur, convinced that John will try to kill him again if he remains where he is, attempts to escape and jumps from the castle wall; he dies upon landing. The English nobles and the Bastard happen upon his body and are convinced that this is proof that John ordered the boy murdered. The Bastard defends the king. Hubert then arrives and is shocked to see Arthur’s body but nobody believes that he left the young prince alive and well less than an hour ago. The nobles continue on their way to join the French while the Bastard, still not quite believing Hubert’s innocence, goes with Hubert (carrying Arthur’s body) to see John.
John makes a deal with Pandolf: he swears allegiance to the Pope and Rome and Pandolf will convince the French to leave England. John then orders the Bastard (who’s not happy about John’s agreement with Pandolf) to lead the English army against France.
Louis refuses to accept Pandolf’s request that the French stop fighting and leave England. The Bastard arrives and threatens and insults Louis to get him to back down; still, Louis would fight. And so war breaks out. The Bastard sends a request to John through a messenger that he should leave the field; John does, saying that he feels ill. The English nobles that had defected to the French find out through a French noble, Melun, that Louis plans to behead them all when the French win the day. The English nobles decide to reconcile with the English side.
So, the English nobles head back to the English side and the French are defeated. The Bastard goes in search of John and happens upon Hubert, who brings dark news: John has been poisoned by a monk. (Remember, John had sent the Bastard to take money from all the monasteries.)
John dies, surrounded by his son, Henry, the nobles, and the Bastard. The Bastard makes plans to assault the French troops once more but is forestalled when he learns that Pandolf is within the monastery and came with news of a French peace treaty. Prince Henry then becomes King Henry III.
And that’s it until next week when we read The Merchant of Venice!
Unlike the other history plays, there’s no sense of predestination in King John. The event sin the other history plays felt inevitable, perhaps because they were so well-known to Elizabethan audiences. Also unlike other history plays is that here ordinary citizens play little to no part in the play itself. (The only one I can think of is the first citizen of Angiers, when France and England are vying for the town’s support.)
One of the first events in the play, when John listens to the Bastard and his brother arguing over who deserves their father’s (or in the case of the Bastard, their supposed father’s) inheritance, John is essentially listening to the main grievance that will shape his future actions: that of the disagreement over who inherits the crown. Specifically, does the younger son have claim to the title?
I’m certain there’s also something to be said for the amount of agreements that are later broken throughout this play; it’s really the only constant. Other familiar tropes are: the power struggle between the state and the Catholic Church, arguments over the legitimacy of rule, and the constant threat of invasion.
One trope we can clearly see is the karma that results from shedding innocent blood. John orders Arthur killed and it’s from this action that his nobles defect to the French side and the battles begin in earnest. Of course, Hubert didn’t actually kill Arthur but the near-miss makes Arthur feel he must flee the castle, and it’s this flight that leads to his death and thus to John’s further problems (since the nobles think Arthur’s accidental death is actually proof of his murder). Lesson: never order the death of an innocent child; things will not go well for you.
That being said, we could also argue that Arthur, though the legitimate heir to the throne, was not the best fit for the role. John was the better fit by far and a much better ruler; Arthur was a child and under great influence from his mother. So here’s the debate again about whether certain issues could lead to an almost divine intervention and provide a more fitting king or whether kingship was divinely supported , and the heir to the throne was ordained by heaven to be king regardless of whether he’s fit for the role or not. It’s Richard II all over again.