Every so often, I take the time to proofread my posts on this blog. I scour them looking for spelling and grammar mistakes, and I become embarrassed when I spot them. When I don’t find anything to correct, I instead sigh over the fact that this blog makes me sound like a terribly stuck-up person – certainly not the kind of person you’d want to be discussing Shakespeare with. I’m not sure how to fix that. I have a number of writing styles, but for some reason or another, I can’t shake myself out of the one I’m using for this blog. So I thought I could tell a quick story to humanize myself.
Two Thursdays ago, I was sitting in my faculty advisor’s office. We were talking about my upcoming research. One of my project partners was there as well, and we were both offered chocolate. I obviously accepted, because I’ll take all the free snacks I can get. This particular piece of chocolate was a small Reese’s peanut butter cup. I always, always forget that these cups sit in paper. So, being the genius that I am, I put the entire thing in my mouth (it was small, alright?). After chewing for a few seconds, I realized I was also chewing on paper. I didn’t react, choosing instead to just nod along with what my project partner and faculty advisor were talking about. I could have gotten up under the guise of needing the restroom. Instead, to save myself any embarrassment, I swallowed the piece of paper. But this blog post isn’t exclusively about the lengths I go to to avoid humiliation. It’s actually about King John.
King John was delivered to me in an envelope with A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Now, I obviously had heard of the latter, but who the hell was King John? I figured I could do some pre-reading research, but my huge end-of-year workload stopped me from doing that. Instead, I started reading King John at 1am on a Monday by the light of my pink lamp.
I enjoyed this play despite its apparent unpopularity. In fact, I have a hard time understanding why it’s so unpopular. Then again, I’ve always loved Shakespeare’s histories. So perhaps I’m biased.
The play opens the way most histories do: with the unmistakable promise of a fine, bloody war. John is King of England, but a lot of people believe that the crown belongs to his nephew, Arthur. This is a classic Lion King situation. Anyway, the French Dauphin believes very strongly that John’s territories should be Arthur’s. John isn’t having this, and threatens to attack France first.
Then we’re introduced to the Faulconbridge brothers. They are bickering over their inheritance. Philip claims to be the elder, and Robert claims to be the heir.
Is that the elder, and art thou the heir?
You came not of one mother then, it seems.
A fair assumption, but not quite right.
Most certain of one mother, mighty king –
That is well known – and, as I think, one father.
But for the certain knowledge of that truth
I put you o’er to heaven and to my mother.
Of that I doubt, as all men’s children may.
Out on thee, rude man! Thou dost shame thy mother
And would her honor with this diffidence.
All this drama, and it’s only the first act. Both John and his mother, Queen Eleanor, take note of the way Philip looks. How does he look, you ask? Why, like John’s brother, Richard the Lionheart. As it turns out, Lady Faulconbridge had a little tryst with Coeur de Lion. Philip isn’t too bothered by this – he gives up his claim to the Faulconbridge inheritance, and is knighted as Sir Richard Plantagenet. We don’t know what happens to Robert, but I’m assuming he took his whiny self back home to enjoy his Philip-free life.
Philip/Richard is now known to us exclusively as the Bastard. He is my favorite character in this play. His personality shines through this ancient text, and he is almost too big a presence for this story. The Bastard seemed like the kind of character who would be right up Harold Bloom’s alley, so I looked the play up in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. And, sure enough: “[The Bastard] is the first character in Shakespeare who can fully charm and arouse us, particularly because no one before in a Shakespearean play is so persuasive a representation of a person. It is not too much to say that the Bastard in King John inaugurates Shakespeare’s invention of the human.” According to Bloom, the Bastard is effective to us because he is the product of Shakespeare breaking away from his desire to imitate Marlowe. The Bastard is theatrical in nature, and is downright hilarious at the strangest times. It feels nice to finally agree with Bloom – I made the mistake of reading his chapter on Henry V one night, but I won’t bore you with that. Well, I will, but not today.
In the second act, we move to Angiers. The King of France and the Duke of Austria mean to lay siege on the city on Arthur’s behalf. For some reason, I was under the impression that Arthur was a young man. It took me half the play before I realized that he’s nothing but a little kid. Actually, this should have tipped me off:
Come to thy grandam, child.
Do, child, go to it grandam, child.
Give grandam a kingdom, and it grandam will
Give it a plum, a cherry, and a fig.
There’s a good grandam.
Good my mother, peace.
I would that I were low laid in my grave.
I am not worth this coil that’s made for me.
Constance is almost universally hated in this play. I understand her desire to see her son take his rightful place on the throne, but she needs to calm down. Her little son is brought to tears by her scathing words.
King John shows up, and the struggle for the crown begins. King John and King Philip both want the citizens of Angiers to allow England’s rightful King into the city. The citizens are not sure who that is, and decide they want proof before they just start letting people in willy-nilly.
Doth not the crown of England prove the King?
And if not that, I bring you witnesses,
Twice fifteen thousand hearts of England’s breed –
Bastards and else.
To verify our title with their lives.
As many and as wellborn bloods as those –
Some bastards too.
Stand in his face to contradict his claim.
The Bastard’s little quips throughout this play really make him shine. He has no shame in being a bastard, and is almost gleefully owning it. He stands out from the other nobles, and it’s clear that he’s only recently joined their ranks.
The citizens of Angiers are unconvinced, and decide to keep their gates locked until the legitimacy of both John and Arthur’s claims can be proven.
By heaven, these scroyles of Angiers flout you, kings,
And stand securely on these battlements
As in a theater, whence they gape and point
At your industrious scenes and acts of death.
The Bastard isn’t wrong, although he does have a penchant for dramatics. Even I was shocked that the citizens had the guts to keep their gates locked. The Bastard convinces John and Philip to join forces against Angiers.
Now by the sky that hands above our heads,
I like it well. France, shall we knit our powers
And lay this Angiers even with the ground,
Then after fight who shall be king of it?
Women are always described as incredibly changeable creatures in Shakespeare’s plays, but I’d like to argue that we see some of this nature in the men as well. Also, please read over the above quote and tell me that that isn’t the stupidest idea you’ve ever heard. “Let’s teach those commoners a lesson! And when we’re done, we can go back to kicking each other’s asses.” Charming.
The citizens aren’t too pleased with this idea, and propose that England and France become allies through marriage. The Dauphin, apparently, is the perfect match for King John’s niece Blanche. To calm things down further, John decides to give up his provinces, and makes Arthur the Duke of Brittany and Earl of Richmond. With that said and done, the King of France just…stops being passionate about helping Arthur out.
As you can imagine, Constance is not happy about this. Arthur asks for her contentment, to which she replies:
If thou bidd’st me be content wert grim,
Ugly, and sland’rous to thy mother’s womb,
Full of unpleasing blots and sightless stains,
Lame, foolish, crooked, swart, and prodigious,
Patched with foul moles and eye-offending marks,
I would not care; I then would be content,
For then I should not love thee; no, nor thou
Become thy great birth, nor deserve a crown.
But thou art fair, and at thy birth, dear boy,
Nature and Fortune joined to make thee great.
Of Nature’s gifts thou mayst with lilies boast,
And with the half-blown rose. But Fortune, O,
She is corrupted, changed, and won from thee;
Sh’ adulterates hourly with thine Uncle John,
And with her golden hand hath plucked on France
To tread down fair respect of sovereignty,
And made his majesty the bawd to theirs.
Constance, as usual, could stand to take it down a notch or two. Salisbury, a supporter of King John, asks her to come with him to the Kings. Constance is incredibly dramatic, so she refuses, sits on the ground, and refuses to budge. So the two Kings come to her – hilariously, they are hand in hand. Constance loses it almost immediately. She delivers an incredible insult to the Duke of Austria, and we are gifted with this hilarious exchange:
[…] Thou wear a lion’s hide! Doff it off for shame,
And hang a calfskin on those recreant limbs.
O, that a man should speak those words to me!
“And hang a calfskin off on those recreant limbs.”
Thou dar’st not say so, villain, for thy life!
“And hang a calfskin on those recreant limbs.”
We like not this. Thou dost forget thyself.
Maybe the reason I enjoyed this play was because the Bastard forgets himself so often. I’m a big fan of political dramas, but the Bastard elevates this play from good to fantastic more times than I can count.
Constance isn’t the only person in this play who has beef with John. Pope Innocent III, of all people, also has a problem with him.
Pandulph, a holy legate, speaks on Pope Innocent’s behalf in this play. He approaches John about a conflict he has with the Pope. John refuses to back down, so Pandulph decides to get a bit nasty:
Philip of France, on peril of a curse,
Let go the hand of that arch-heretic,
And raise the power of France upon his head
Unless he do submit himself to Rome.
Look’st thou pale, France? Do not let go thy hand.
Look to that, devil, lest that France repent
And by disjoining hands, hell lose a soul.
King Philip, listen to the Cardinal.
And hang a calfskin on his recreant limbs.
Well, ruffian, I must pocket up these wrongs,
This back and forth between all the characters present ends with John being excommunicated from the church. What’s worse, Philip decides to side with the Pope (does he have any choice, really?) and mount an attack against John.
John is suddenly feeling the heat, so he decides to take some drastic measures. He asks Hubert to deal with Arthur.
John is incredibly relieved when Hubert agrees to carry out the deed. Once Hubert has Arthur in his clutches, he decides to poke his eyes out with hot irons. Arthur says something of interest here:
Methinks nobody should be sad but I.
Yet I remember, when I was in France,
Young gentlemen would be as sad as night
Only for wantonness. By my christendom,
So I were out of prison and kept sheep,
I should be as merry as the day is long.
And so I would be here but that I doubt
My uncle practices more harm to me.
He is afraid of me, and I of him.
Is it my fault that I was Geoffrey’s son?
No, indeed, is ‘t not. And I would to heaven
I were your son, so you would love me, Hubert.
This struck me as being very Henry VI-esque. Arthur is a child, but both he and Henry have this deep-rooted innocence that sets them apart from other nobles. They both wish they didn’t have to deal with the violence that comes with being a royal. Can you blame them?
Anyway, Arthur’s purity and love brings Hubert to tears. He decides against killing Arthur. He tells him to stay put, and prepares to lie to King John.
Speaking of King John, he is having a second coronation. The nobles are not impressed by this in the slightest. They’d rather he just chill out for a second and let Arthur go free. Unfortunately, Hubert chooses this exact moment to show up and declare Arthur dead. In front of all the nobles. Who are all fond of Arthur.
So it’s really no surprise when they all turn against John. Even more terrible news arrives: the Dauphin has just landed in England, Eleanor is dead, and Constance wasn’t far behind her (though I’m not sure that this is bad news). In a panic, John sends the Bastard to go bring the nobles back to court. Then, he decides to turn on Hubert:
Why seek’st thou to possess me with these fears?
Why urgest thou so oft young Arthur’s death?
Thy hand hath murdered him. I had a mighty cause
To wish him dead, but thou hadst none to kill him.
What? Hubert, thankfully, doesn’t take this lying down.
No had, my lord! Why, did you not provoke me?
Is it the curse of kings to be attended
By slaves that take their humors for a warrant
To break within the bloody house of life,
And on the winking of authority
To understand a law, to know the meaning
Of dangerous majesty, when perchance it frowns
More upon humor than advised respect.
HUBERT [showing a paper]
Here is your hand and seal for what I did.
John really has some nerve, pretending that Hubert wasn’t following his direct orders. He refuses to take the blame in any way, shape, or form. He’s just a terrible person all around, incredibly selfish, and unfit for the crown. But, unlike Henry VI and (in some respects) Richard II, he wants to keep it on his head.
Hubert tells John that Arthur was never killed. John’s mood changes immediately, and he happily sends Hubert to tell the nobles. Selfish, selfish, selfish. John wanted Arthur dead – and he only cares about Arthur being alive because it helps keep him on the throne.
Arthur, meanwhile, decides that he’ll escape the prison. He may be pure of heart, but, boy, this kid is not smart.
The wall is high, and yet I will leap down.
Good ground, be pitiful and hurt me not.
There’s few or none do know me. If they did,
This shipboy’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.
O me, my uncle’s spirit is in these stones.
Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones.
For God’s sake, has this child never fallen down and hurt himself? The nobles come across Arthur’s dead body – clearly John’s doing, if you ask them. Hubert finds them, and they immediately turn on him.
Thou art a murderer.
Do not prove me so.
Yet I am none. Whose tongue soe’er speaks false,
Not truly speaks. Who speaks not truly, lies.
PEMBROKE [drawing his sword]
Cut him to pieces.
BASTARD [drawing his sword]
Keep the peace, I say.
Stand by, or I shall gall you, Faulconbridge.
Thou wert better gall the devil, Salisbury.
If thou wert but frown on me, or stir thy foot,
OR teach thy hasty spleen to do me shame,
I’ll strike thee dead. Put up thy sword betime,
Or I’ll so maul you and your toasting-iron
That you shall think the devil is come from hell.
The Bastard is not playing around. The nobles decide to go join the Dauphin, leaving the Bastard and Hubert behind. Even the Bastard isn’t sure that Hubert is telling the truth, but he is finally convinced.
King John is still in the frying pan, so to speak. The French forces are destroying England, and John finds himself handing his crown to the Pope in an effort to get the Church to intervene in the battle. Pandulph goes to the Dauphin, but it’s too late.
Your Grace shall pardon me; I will not back.
I am too high-born to be propertied,
To be a secondary at control,
Or useful servingman and instrument
To any sovereign state throughout the world.
Your breath first kindled the dead coal of wars
Between this chastised kingdom and myself
And brought in matter that should feed this fire;
And now ’tis far too huge to be blown out
With that same weak wind which enkindled it.
You taught me how to know the face of the right,
Acquainted me with interest to this land,
Yea, thrust this enterprise into my heart.
And come you now to tell me John hat made
His peace with Rome? What is that peace to me?
I can see where the Dauphin is coming from, honestly. This is Pandulph’s fault. Why should he back down now, after they’ve come so far?
John, in an effort to create as much drama as possible, develops a fever and is shooed from the battle by the Bastard.
More drama: the English nobles that turned their back on John find out from a wounded Frenchman that the Dauphin means to behead them whether or not they win the battle. For shame! They realize the error of their ways and rush back to John. The Dauphin gets a bit of (deserved) bad news himself: his supply ships have sunk.
King John, who just can’t quit making enemies, has been poisoned by some random monk. The monk, who is so dramatic that he can only belong in this play, drank some of the poison himself, which led to his intestines bursting. Fun.
We see Prince Henry for the first time. He asks his dying father to spare the traitorous nobles, who are now sweating nervously around John’s deathbed. They are pardoned. The Bastard shows up with some bad news – his men have been devoured by the water. Instead of dealing with this, King John just up and dies. With nothing left to do, the nobles and the Bastard swear their loyalty to Prince Henry, now King Henry III of England.
In all fairness, I can understand why people might not like this play. There are instances of murkiness, and it can be quite a chore to get through the longer passages. But, overall, I think it’s quite good. It has everything a good history needs: attempted murders, war, betrayal, and an entertaining bastard.
That’s it from me for this month. Next month I’ll be reading Henry IV, Part Two (!!!) and Much Ado About Nothing. Again, if you don’t see me, just assume that I’ve decided to crawl into my lab’s incubator and live with the cells in an effort to avoid all the work I have to do.
If I do show up next month, prepare yourself to suffer through yet another novella about Prince Hal. Also, expect a review of the Old Globe’s production of Richard II – I scored tickets for June 20th!