“King John” was probably written around 1595 – a golden period in Shakespeare’s writing, which saw the composition of “Romeo and Juliet”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Merchant of Venus”. But it may equally have been written as early as the late 1580s, at the very start of his career, when he was writing “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “The Taming of the Shrew”.
It is possible that “King John” was based on a pre-existing text, “The Troublesome Reign of King John”. If so, it may well be that this original text was also by Shakespeare and the aim of the later version was to polish and refine his earlier work. Or he may simply have used the earlier text as he used Holinshed’s “Chronicles”, as a trigger for his own purposes.
It follows from these two paragraphs that the genesis of this play is a matter for speculation and debate. But it does seem that “King John” is a transitional play, because it contains features that will later become standard in Shakespeare’s plays. Prominent among these is the creation of characters rather than types, and among these, the character of Falconbridge is the most prominent,
Falconbridge’s character is also the play’s most provocative. He comes to the King’s attention in the opening scene, in which he is contesting his inheritance: he is illegitimate, and it is unclear who his father is. It emerges that the answer is Richard the Lionheart, John’s older brother, and from this point he is taken into the royal family, and his skills put to use in their interest.
Central to these skills are his sense of devil, of mischief, his provocative high spirits. Four speeches stand out as examples of his dynamic and lively personality. In the first, delivered below the city walls of Angiers, he compares the watching citizens to the audience in a theatre – in the process “simultaneously destroying and enhancing illusion” as Harold Bloom observes, too mischievous (as it were) for his own play.
Then, at the end of 2.1, he explores his aversion to self-interest and graft, but resolves to embrace it. This soliloquy levels with the audience in a way that’s uncomfortable. Similar feelings may emerge in the third of Falconbridge’s key moments, when he provokes Austria with questions about his courage. He is next seen emerging from battle with Austria’s severed head in his hands.
His final moment is the play’s last speech, with a stirring contribution that calls on Englishmen to unite, and notes (as other History plays will affirm) that victory in battle does not follow from division at home. “King John” was written in the years after the Spanish Armada, and though (as mentioned above) we may not know exactly how long after, the evidence of Falconbridge’s rhetorical conclusion is that the memory was green.
A note about names: Falconbridge has four of them. Initially there is the one I have used here, which is the name and status he abandons when he discovers he is Richard’s illegitimate son. In the Dramatic Personae he is called Philip with one /l/ – confusing, because Phillip (with two) is the given name of the King of France. On discovering his father’s identity Falconbridge is knighted and renamed Richard. But being illegitimate, he is also known as The Bastard – a technical term denoting status – which is the name I have used in these notes.
Scene by Scene
Act One Scene One
A French messenger reports that the King of France demands King John resign in favour of Arthur.
His older brother’s son, the King of France claims, has a better right to the English crown than John.
King John angrily rejects the suggestion he abdicate, and predicts “your own decay” to the French.
Queen Elinor blames her daughter-in-law Constance, but admits John’s right to power is tenuous.
The King decides “Our abbeys and our priories” will finance a military adventure across the Channel.
Philip the Bastard explains how he has been excluded from his inheritance because he is illegitimate.
Queen Elinor and the King agree that he bears close resemblance to John’s predecessor Richard I.
Falconbridge confirms that Richard was a friend of his mother while his father was away in Germany.
The King confirms that the Bastard is Richard’s son, but Elinor offers him a post by her side in France.
He is knighted as Sir Richard Plantagenet, renounces his former claim and prepares for France.
Alone, the Bastard practises the good manners and conversational skills required in high society.
The Bastard questions his mother and she confirms his father was Richard, much against her will.
The Bastard is delighted and quick to “thank thee for my father”, denying his conception was sinful.
Act Two Scene One
Though Austria killed his uncle Richard, Arthur welcomes him to the coalition outside Angiers.
Austria pledges he will not return home until he has ensured Arthur has usurped his uncle’s throne.
Phillip of France prepares to flatten Angiers, only to be informed that the English army is “at hand”.
Phillip accuses John of having “done a rape” on “the maiden virtue of the [English] crown”.
Philip predicts that Arthur, son of John’s older brother Geffrey, will one day prove a “huge” power.
Elinor and Constance bicker about their fidelity to respective husbands and their sons’ legitimacy.
Arthur bursts into tears and Constance accuses Elinor of having usurped her young son’s crown.
John addresses the citizens of Angiers, and accuses the French of preparing to attack the town.
Phillip replies Arthur should be King of England and of Angiers, and tells the town to “pay that duty”.
If they accept Arthur’s authority, his soldiers will “bear home that lusty blood” and save the town.
The citizens accept the King of England’s authority but question who should be King of England.
The two armies make for the battlefield where their stalemate is observed from the walls of Angiers.
Philip the Bastard compares those watching the battle from the city walls to a theatre audience
He recommends English and French unite and attack the city before re-dividing to resume battle.
But the town’s First Citizen has a better plan: that England’s niece should marry the France’s son.
John accepts the plan so long as Louis agrees – and he admits “I do love her most unfeignedly”.
John confers a generous dowry on Blanche, and Austria recommends the young couple kiss.
Arthur (now absent with his mother Constance) is to become Duke of Brittany and Earl of Richmond.
Alone, the Bastard recognises that self-interest has trumped principle and resolves to pursue “Gain”.
Act Three Scene One
Constance senses the marriage between Blanche and Louis will leave her (and Arthur) marginalised.
She accuses Phillip of having deceived her, and Austria of being a fool and a “calf’s skin” coward.
The Pope’s legate demands why John is impeding the promotion of Stephen Langton to Canterbury.
John says “no Italian priest” will tell him how to govern – and is threatened with excommunication.
The hostility of the English crown for the Church of Rome jeopardises Louis’s marriage to Blanche.
France is told by the Pope’s legate that he must abandon England and “be champion of our church”.
In a confused speech, the Pope’s legate threatens France – to be cursed, to despair and to die.
Louis is keen to fight, and is supported by Constance – and France – leaving Blanche in despair.
The Bastard is despatched to prepare England for war while John and Phillip exchange threats.
Act Three Scene Two
The Bastard appears with Austria’s head, and tells John that he has rescued the Queen from danger.
Act Three Scene Three
King John reassures Arthur he will be safe, then despatches the Bastard to England to raise money.
John flatters Hubert de Burgh and draws from him an agreement to murder Arthur in cold blood.
Act Three Scene Four
Phillip of France reports that he has lost a fleet of ships, and seen Arthur captured and Angiers lost.
Constance appears, bereft of her son Arthur, dishevelled, deranged with grief and desperate to die.
The Pope’s legate Pandulph reassures the dispirited Louis that King John will likely murder Arthur.
If he does, he says, the English people will rise against him, inspired by “but a dozen Frenchmen”.
Act Four Scene One
Hubert fears that if he listens to Prince Arthur’s innocent prattle, he will find it hard to kill the boy.
When he tells Arthur he’s to blind him with hot irons, the boy recalls caring for him when he was ill.
He dismisses the executioners, but finds the fire too weak to heat the irons and abandons the crime.
Act Four Scene Two
The King is rebuked by two of his nobles for having orchestrated a “superfluous” second coronation.
He asks what they advise, and Pembroke replies it would be popular in the country to release Arthur.
Hubert appears, and speaks confidentially to John, who announces Arthur’s death to the nobles.
The nobles leave John, speaking of “foul play” and remembering that Arthur should have been king.
A messenger appears, to announce a strong invading force from France – and the death of Elinor.
The Bastard reports that he has found England “strangely fantasied / Possess’d with rumours”.
Peter of Pomfret, who predicted the King would resign, is summarily imprisoned, awaiting execution.
Hubert reveals five moons have been seen in the night sky, inspiring popular anxiety about Arthur.
John accuses Hubert of urging Arthur’s death and accuses him of mistaking “humours for a warrant”.
Hubert reveals the instructions for Arthur’s death and John blames Hubert for provoking the murder.
But Hubert is able to reveal that Arthur is still alive because he was too “innocent” to kill him.
John apologises the insults he made about Hubert’s face, “for my rage” he says tellingly “was blind”.
Act Four Scene Three
Arthur leaps from the castle walls in an effort to escape imprisonment, but dies in the attempt.
Salisbury and Pembroke, having abandoned John, discuss their forthcoming encounter with Louis.
The Bastard instructs the lords to meet with John but they reply that they are no longer loyal to him.
They discover Arthur’s body and condemn the apparent murder: “this is the bloodiest shame”.
The lords determine not to be “conversant with ease” until they have avenged Arthur’s murder.
Hubert reveals that Arthur is still alive, to be met with drawn swords and accusations of murder.
Hubert claims he last saw the Prince alive an hour ago, but the lords leave to join up with Louis.
The Bastard tells Hubert to gather up the body whilst reflecting that Heaven frowns on England.
Act Five Scene One
King John hands Pandulph his crown as a symbol of his own weakness and the church’s power.
Pandulph hands it back to reflect the Pope’s consent to John’s continuing government in England.
John asks Pandulph to influence the French to call off their invasion, and Pandulph agrees.
The Bastard reports that John’s power hangs by a thread especially given the news of Arthur’s death.
But he encourages the King to show a “dauntless spirit”, “boldness” and “aspiring confidence”.
The Bastard is disappointed to hear of John’s agreement with Pandulph to prevent the invasion.
The King puts his nephew in charge of “the ordering of this present time” and he calls for “courage”.
Act Five Scene Two
Salisbury regrets that he has been forced by circumstance to take up arms against his own country.
Louis is shocked by his tears, until Pandulph arrives to announce John’s reconciliation with Rome.
Louis refuses to abandon his campaign, claiming he is “too high-born” to be the Church’s servant.
He blames the Church for provoking the invasion, and claims the English crown as Arthur’s heir.
The Bastard arrives, to be told that Louis refuses to abandon his attempt to seize the English crown.
The Bastard reports the King is ready to expel the invaders, and he rebukes the unpatriotic rebels.
Louis dismisses the Bastard, but is told that “warlike John” is ready to “feast upon” the French.
Act Five Scene Three
The King, troubled with fever, prepares to abandon the battlefield for the abbey at Swinstead.
He is told the invading army has been shipwrecked in the Channel, and the enemy are in retreat.
Act Five Scene Four
The rebelling English nobles, surprised that the King has so many allies, praise the Bastard’s strategy.
The French Lord Melun, faint with wounds, reports that Louis intends to behead the English rebels.
When he tells them to reconcile with John, Salisbury agrees to “untread the steps of damned flight”.
Act Five Scene Five
Louis is told that Lord Melun has died and that the English lords have gone back to join King John.
Further bad news arrives that “your supply, which you have wish’d so long” has been lost at sea.
Act Five Scene Six
Hubert informs the Bastard the King has been poisoned by a monk but “peradventure may recover”.
He adds the English lords have returned to his side and been pardoned at Prince Henry’s request.
The Bastard reports that “half my power [or soldiers] this night” have been lost in a flood tide.
Act Five Scene Seven
Henry reports to the returning rebels that it is “too late” to save the King from death by poison.
The King reports he is in agony from the poison, his mental balance destroyed though he seems fit.
The Bastard reports that with his own forces lost to the flood tide Louis is free to attack and triumph.
Henry notes the transience of power while the Bastard pledges revenge once Louis has been beaten.
Salisbury reports that a truce has been signed with Louis, to which the Bastard eventually agrees.
He concludes that England will never be conquered so long as it forebears to “wound itself”.
The play opens with two disputes about inheritance. The first concerns the crown itself: John is King but his claim to the throne is tenuous. He is the youngest brother of the previous King Richard the Lionheart, but an older brother – now dead – has left an heir: Prince Arthur, who is supported in his claim to the crown by the King of France. Bear in mind that in the early thirteenth century, Kings of England still retained large tracts of land as well as towns in France. It’s telling that John’s mother Elinor believes “Your strong possession much more than your right” reinforces the King’s highly questionable claim to the throne.
The second dispute over inheritance revolves (as his name implies) around Philip the Bastard. He is his mother’s son but not his father’s – or so it seems. Around the time he was conceived, King Richard was his mother’s constant companion while her husband was away in Germany. The Queen believes she can discern the genes of her son Richard in Philip, and King John enthusiastically agrees: “Mine eye”, he claims, “finds [him] perfect Richard” – the image of his brother. So Philip renounces any claim to a legitimate place in the Falconbridge family tree, and instead accepts the Queen’s offer of a position at her side in France.
The appearance of Queen Elinor in the opening scene, supporting and advising her son, signals one unusual feature of “King John”. Shakespeare’s plays in general are notable for the numerous explorations of the father / daughter relationship – Capulet / Juliet, Brabantio / Desdemona, Shylock / Jessica – but mother / son relationships are much less familiar in these plays: Gertrude / Hamlet and Volumnia / Coriolanus are rare exceptions. But “King John” has three such relationships: Elinor / John, Constance / Arthur and Lady Falconbridge / Philip the Bastard. Still more unusual is the fact the Shakespeare’s History plays do routinely explore father / son relationships in some detail, but in this respect too, “King John” is an outlier.
The Bastard, as mentioned in the Introduction, is by common consent the most interesting character in the play. His soliloquy at the end of Act Two, in which he notices that even the best-laid plans can be abandoned when self-interest requires it, is a characteristic Shakespearean device: to allow the play’s most provocative character to bend the audience’s ear over his plans for looking after number one. Here the Bastard pledges that in future, principle will matter little and self-interest (“Commodity”) will govern his actions. The Bastard belongs to the tradition of The Vice, a disruptive character in Medieval Mystery Plays, who re-emerges in Shakespeare in characters as diverse as Falstaff, Richard III and Iago.
When Constance tells Austria in Act Three Scene One that he should remove his “lion’s hide” and instead “hang a calf’s skin on those recreant limbs”, she is implying that he is a coward: if he will not fight for her and her son, she implies, he has no right to sport the hide of a lion, but rather should wear a calf’s skin. A further implication is that he is a fool: wealthy families, it seems, kept a coat of calf skin to be worn by fools or clowns for entertainment. The Bastard repeats this dismissive insult to Austria several times, desisting briefly when King John intervenes: “We like not this,” he tells the young man, “thou dost forget thyself”. Later, the last word belongs to the Bastard, who turns up on the battlefield with Austria’s head in his possession.
When John is threatened with excommunication by the Pope’s legate in 3.1, he responds with two allegations against the Catholic Church: first, that the Church is driven by greed and corruption (or “vile gold”), and, second, that it is in thrall to “witchcraft”. Hitherto King John has cut a somewhat nondescript figure in this play, but one might imagine Shakespeare’s audiences responding warmly to what was in effect a contemporary patriotic slur.
The opening scene in Act Three opens with a marriage and a truce – and closes with a declaration of war. The connection between the two is the appearance of the Cardinal, whose intrusion into the scene (and into the English King’s governance of his kingdom) triggers the collapse of the budding entente cordiale symbolised by the marriage of Louis to Blanche. Once again one might imagine the audience finding various anti-Catholic prejudices reinforced in this scene.
Constance does not cut an attractive figure in this play but her distress at the loss of her son to her enemies draws heartfelt grief and poetry from her, in particular her final speech in the play, the thirteen lines beginning “Grief fills the room up of my absent child” (3.4). It may not be relevant, but Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet died in August 1596. “King John” was written sometime in the mid-1590s – though as ever the precise date is impossible to pinpoint.
Hubert promised King John in Act Three that he would murder Arthur, whose claim to the throne is inconvenient. In the event, it’s clear from 4.1 that the task is to blind him. It’s a potentially grotesque punishment, made still more poignant by the fact that Arthur is self-evidently innocent of any crime except being born into the royal family. It is often said that the most shocking scene in Shakespeare is another blinding – one that actually takes place: that of Gloucester in “King Lear”, his eyes cut out on stage in full view of the audience. Had Hubert followed through here, Gloucester’s blinding would perhaps rank as the second most shocking scene in Shakespeare. Happily, Hubert has second thoughts.
Until Act Three, John has emerged as no more odious a character than any other member of his court or family. But his actions in soliciting the murder of his nephew in 3.3 and his slippery evasions in 4.2 elevate him to the company of Shakespeare’s worst villains. His concern for Arthur in 4.2 is, of course, simple self-interest, and his attempt to shift the blame for Arthur’s death to Hubert is a disingenuous attempt to avoid responsibility for his own decisions.
In the process of extricating himself from blame for his nephew’s murder, John regrets that he is too well served by his assistants: “It is the curse of kings”, he opines in 4.2, “to be attended / By slaves that take their humours for a warrant” – in other words, to be served by officials who read between the lines and freelance accordingly. This is an extraordinarily dangerous few lines for Shakespeare to have written, since it describes pretty accurately the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, around eight years before this play was written. On that occasion, Elizabeth signed the death warrant that consigned her cousin to the block, but the execution itself was only triggered after a secret meeting of the Privy Council, convened without her knowledge.
The longer the play has proceeded, the more John’s reputation with Shakespeare’s audience will have plummeted. Arthur’s death, though strictly speaking self-inflicted, was ultimately the King’s project; his capitulation to the Roman Catholic Church in 5.1 will seem unacceptable to a public who, after half a century of Protestantism (excluding the brief reign of Bloody Mary) are reconciled to the new normal. Shakespeare’s purpose here is to question John’s strength of character, political nous and military daring. A rhetorical question, perhaps.
The play ends on a note of patriotic afflatus, with the Bastard proclaiming that so long as the English stick together, their country will not be conquered. This is a familiar theme in Shakespeare’s History plays: in “Henry VI Part One”, for example, English defeats in France are the direct result of in-fighting at home. The injunction to stick together may have had particular impact for Shakespeare’s late-Elizabethan audience, partly because the country was still menaced by a powerful enemy in Spain, partly because there remained a powerful schism at home, between Protestant loyalists and Roman Catholic dissidents. Around ten years later, when the cellars of Parliament were stuffed with gunpowder, disaster arising from this schism was only narrowly averted.
Who’s Who / Characters
King John declines in dignity and prominence as the play progresses. At first, sitting in judgement on the issue of the Bastard’s parentage, he carries a certain understated authority. Similarly, when he cautions the Bastard against antagonising Austria, he comes across as a character to be respected. But as his dealings with Arthur reveal, he is fundamentally weak and cruel, and his anxious reaction to the repercussions of Arthur’s murder (as he perceives it) – to blame Hubert for following his instructions – is particularly unimpressive. He dies a weak and marginal figure, the passive victim of events beyond him, much as history presents him.
The central character of the play, an updated version of the Vice of the Medieval Mystery Plays, and a forerunner of characters as diverse as Falstaff and Iago. Most notable for his high spirits and devilry, he gradually develops into a significant character, from his provoking of Austria in Act Two to his delivery of the patriotic rhetoric at the close – evidence that Shakespeare invests in his drive and commitment and expects his audience to do the same. His insecurities and contradictions reinforce a sense that this is a real character with a depth and a hinterland no other character here possesses, one of the earliest of many such to emerge from Shakespeare’s fertile imagination.
Who is to finance the forthcoming English campaign in France?
Give the name of the disputed French town in Act Two.
Who is Arthur’s father?
To whom does the Bastard compare those watching the battle from the city walls?
Who does Pandulph claim is being blocked from becoming Archbishop of Canterbury?
When the Bastard appears on the battlefield in 3.2, what does he have in his hand?
Which celestial phenomenon is said to have triggered popular anxiety about Arthur?
Who is sentenced to death for predicting that the King will abdicate?
Give the name of the abbey to which John retires to die.
How does the Bastard lose his army in Act Five?
“Our abbeys and priories”
A theatre audience
The head of the late Duke of Austria
The appearance of five moons
Peter of Pomfret
Swept away in a flood tide
King John is best known today for Magna Carta, essentially a bill of rights on which many individual freedoms are based to this day. But Shakespeare doesn’t mention Magna Carta in this play. So what drew him, writing in the late sixteenth century, to an otherwise obscure monarch from the early thirteenth?
The answer may well be distance: that is, King John was remote enough from the late-Elizabethan present tense for Shakespeare to air some contemporary concerns without being suspected of interfering in matters that didn’t concern him. This is not to argue that Shakespeare had a particular axe to grind – merely that his audience would have reacted to themes of which they had some experience. There seem to be three of these.
First “King John” reinforces contemporary Elizabethan anxieties about the Roman Catholic Church – often quite crudely. Bear in mind that Elizabeth herself had been excommunicated by the Church – John meets the same fate here – and the Pope had called for her assassination. In the circumstances the negative view of the Church presented here is no surprise.
Second, late-Elizabethan England was at war with Spain, having only recently escaped an existential confrontation with the Spanish Armada with the help of a “Protestant wind” that took out one third of the Spanish fleet. Similar meteorological bad luck sinks the French fleet in the fifth act of “King John”, an event that must have resonated with Shakespeare’s audiences.
Finally, there are significant parallels between the death of Prince Arthur in this play and the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1588. In particular, the refusal of King John to take responsibility for having ordered the execution of the young pretender may have been inspired by the behaviour of Queen Elizabeth after Mary was beheaded. In both cases, it seems, it is the prerogative of monarchs to act on the advice of the Victorian poet Arthur Hugh Clough: “Thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive / officiously to keep alive”.
Nor to take responsibility for your own instructions, perhaps – even when they are followed to the letter.