King John abbreviated

William of Normandy invaded and conquered England in 1066.  As a result of his success, he became known for all time as William the Conqueror.  He became England’s William I.  One of William I’s great-great-grandsons was King John, the man who ruled England and portions of France from 1199 through 1216.  By far the most important event during King John’s reign was the signing of the Magna Charta, forced on the English king in 1215, a document that is the foundation of the rights and privileges the public in the U.S. and England and beyond enjoy today.  But the Magna Charta, the most significant matter of that era, wasn’t covered in this play. 

King John’s father, the late Henry II, William I’s great grandson, had died in 1189.  He was succeeded to the throne by his oldest living son, Richard I, who ruled England for ten years. King John, his younger and only living brother, succeeded him. Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine had four sons and one daughter; John being the youngest of the five. 

King John’s father may be deceased, but his mother Eleanor is very much alive, active and influential early in the play.  In this era, Henry II was the trunk of this powerful family tree, much as Edward III was in Shakespeare’s history series that runs through the fifteenth century.  Henry II’s second son, Richard I, is better remembered as Richard Coeur de Lion or as Richard the Lion-Hearted.  Richard the Lion-Hearted had an illegitimate son, known here as the Bastard, a fine man. His role is central to the play. 

How King John came to succeed his brother Richard at his death in 1199 is never addressed, and that issue is a central theme in the play.  Another central issue is the role played by the Bastard, Philip Faulconbridge, his mother being Lady Faulconbridge.  We learn that Philip Faulconbridge looks just like his father, Richard I.  Early in the play Philip is knighted as Richard Plantagenet, an honorary name given to him by King John, a name that will ring loud and strong in England for centuries.  It’s said Plantagenet, a French word, became the surname for England’s royal family through a nickname tagged to King John’s grandfather, Geoffrey of Anjou, Anjou being a French province. The nickname came to be, it’s been said, as a result of Geoffrey’s habit of wearing of a sprig in his cap.  So there you go.  Moving forward, Henry II’s third son, Geoffrey, also had (as had Henry II’s first son) predeceased his father, another important issue in the play.  At his death, Geoffrey had left a young son, Arthur, and a strong and ambitious-for-her-son widow, Constance.  Constance believes her son should be king, her late husband, as we say, having been Henry II’s third son; John being the fourth. She has a point. For political reasons, Philip II, the king of France, also thinks the very young Arthur should be England’s king, England controlling at that time large portions of France.

Eleanor, Henry II’s fourth child (and as we say his only daughter), given the same name as her mother, is a widow. She has a daughter, Blanche.  When it comes to selecting a king, the earliest of those born into the royal family don’t want to be passed over, nor do they want their children to be passed over.  These matters are at the heart of the play. 

The Bastard, the illegitimate son of the second born (and deceased) Richard I; the young Arthur, the son of third born (and deceased) Geoffrey; and Blanche, the daughter of fourth born Eleanor, all have big roles in the play.  Succession issues inside the Plantagenet family were central to most of Shakespeare’s histories, an issue that must have been appealing and consuming for London’s theatergoers. 

The play opens in London when Chatillion, the French ambassador, lets King John know that the king of France believes that Arthur Plantagenet “in right and true behalf” as “thy deceased brother Geoffrey’s son, lays most lawful claim to this fair island and its territories.”  So, right out of the gate, the challenge is thrown and war appears imminent, King John rejecting Chatillion’s comments out of hand.

Soon after the French ambassador leaves, a sheriff enters advising King John that there are two men at the door who want to see him. The king says “let them approach.”  The two young men are the Faulconbridge brothers, Philip and Robert.  They have approached the king to settle a family matter: which one of them is the rightful heir to the land of the recently deceased Sir Robert Faulconbridge. The boys have the same mother, but Philip’s father, as noted, was Richard the Lion-Hearted, where Robert was the legitimate son of Sir Robert.  Philip is the older.  Both boys were reared by Sir Robert and his wife, Lady Faulconbridge. (Request, Act 1, Scene 1) King John lets Robert know that his brother Philip “must have your father’s land” since Philip is the older. But then aside, Queen Eleanor says to the king that Philip “hath a trick of Coeur de Lion’s face” at which point the king responds to his mother “mine eye hath well examined his parts and finds them perfect Richard.”  King John changes his mind.  He knights Philip (the Bastard) as Richard Plantagenet, officially acknowledging that Philip is his brother’s son. (Explanation, Act 1, Scene 1) Philip gets the honor of being recognized as a king’s son; Robert gets the lands.  As Robert exits graciously and the king and his entourage prepare to leave for France to meet with King Philip II, Philip fantasizes in a soliloquy about his new-found status as “Sir Richard,” letting us know his thoughts and plans, a young man not quite believing this turn of good fortune. (Pride, Act 1, Scene 1)

Philip’s mother soon arrives looking for her other son, Robert.  The Bastard outspokenly says “Is it Sir Robert’s son that you seek so?”  The comment upsets his mother. Philip boldly says “Madam, I was not old Sir Robert’s son.”  He then says “Let me know my father --- some proper man, I hope. Who was it, mother?”  After a moment’s reflection, she says “King Richard Coeur de Lion was thy father” as she proceeds to beautifully defend herself, saying “Thou art the issue of my dear offense, which was so strongly urged past my defense.”  He says to his mother “with all my heart I thank thee for my father.”  (Appreciation, Act 1, Scene 1)

Near the city of Angiers in France, King Philip II, the Dauphin (the king’s son, the prince), the duke of Austria, Constance (Geoffrey’s widow), and her son Arthur are discussing current events, mostly the who-should-be-England’s-king issue, when Constance says “My lord Chatillion may from England bring that right in peace which here we urge in war.”  Chatillion does soon enter, warning them that King John and his forces are about to arrive.  King John, the Bastard, Queen Eleanor and Blanche enter.  King Philip and King John have a civil conversation, King Philip letting King John firmly know that he believes that young Arthur is the legitimate heir to England’s crown, and therefore heir to certain French provinces and cities such as Anjou, Angiers, Aquitaine and Normandy. (Warning, Act 2, Scene 1) The conversation quickly deteriorates when Austria (wearing a lion’s hide), King Philip II, Queen Eleanor and Constance seriously bicker with each other, each trying to protect his or her own self interest. 

Soon a citizen standing on the wall of the city of Angiers cries out to the kings: “Who is it that hath warned us to the walls?” King John makes a plea that he is the citizens-of-Angiers’ rightful king. (Plea, Act 2, Scene 1) King Philip quickly follows with his own argument. (Suggestion, Act 2, Scene 1) Challenging the kings, the citizen says “to he that proves the king, to him will we prove loyal.”  King Philip says “Mount, chevaliers! To arms!”  King John cries to his men “Up higher to the plain.”  The Bastard says “Speed, then, to take advantage of the field.”  King Philip cries to his officers “It shall be so, and at the other hill.”  At the city’s gates, the French Herald cries “you men of Angiers, open wide your gates, and let young Arthur in.”  The English then demand that the city open its gates to them.  The Angiers’ citizen’s response: “Both are alike. One must prove greatest.”  The Bastard suggests the two forces “be friends awhile” and together bombard the city. (Compromise, Act 2, Scene 1)  They agree to his suggestion.  Hearing of the frightening plan, an alarmed city of Angiers’ citizen suggests England’s Princess Blanche marry France’s Dauphin, Louis. (Proposal, Act 2, Scene 1) The kings agree.  Louis and Blanche agree to marry, each quickly falling for the other.  However, Constance, Arthur’s mother, is distraught, her son being left out of the compromised solution.  At this point the Bastard offers some interesting thoughts to himself on how the kings’ self-interest has won out, and that he too will plan to pursue self-interest, what Shakespeare calls “Commodity.” (Insight, Act 2, Scene 1)

An infuriated Constance rails at Salisbury, an English nobleman, letting him know in no uncertain terms that she believes King Philip has done her wrong; has abandoned her son Arthur, and that Salisbury should do something about it.  The kings enter, Philip II letting Constance know that Louis and Blanche’s wedding is to be that day.  She cries out at the duke of Austria.  At this point, Pandulph, a cardinal from Milan, known as the legate, an emissary representing the pope, enters.  Pandulph promptly scolds King John for not accepting a Stephen Langton as the Archbishop of Canterbury, appointed to the position by the pope.  King John quickly responds to Pandulph, telling him that he does not need to respond to the pope’s wishes, he being God’s agent over England’s territories. (Disdain, Act 3, Scene 1) Pandulph proceeds to excommunicate England’s king, the Bastard and Eleanor supporting King John.  On the other side of this very powerful political, religious and emotional issue, Austria, the Dauphin and Constance beg King Philip to support the cardinal.  Caught between his loyalty to the pope and his pledge to King John, Phillip II says “I am perplexed and know not what to say.” (Plea, Act 3, Scene 1) Pandulph firmly presses his case that Philip II’s first loyalty is to the Church. (Threat, Act 3, Scene 1)

The Dauphin soon enters crying “Father, to arms.”  Blanche responds to her husband of one hour “upon thy wedding day?”  The kings decide they need a war to settle things.  As an interesting turn of events, The Bastard returns with Austria’s head, having been asked by King John to assemble his army.  Having forced the French troops to retreat and having secured Angiers, King John quietly takes young Arthur into his custody. The English forces leave for England. King John asks Hubert, one of his aides, to do him a favor: “kill Arthur.”  Hubert responds “he shall not live.” 

Having “lost” her son and looking disheveled with her hair unbound, an angry Constance enters.  She seriously berates Rome’s emissary in the immediate presence of Philip II and the Dauphin. Pandulph responds “Lady, you utter madness and not sorrow.” (Grief, Act 3, Scene 4) Constance binds up her hair and in a more calm way continues to lecture Pandulph. (Insight, Act 3, Scene 4) When Constance leaves, Pandulph encourages the Dauphin to chase down King John in England, telling him “As John plots against you, the times conspire with you.” (Persuasion, Act 3, Scene 4) The Dauphin makes plans to invade England. 

As Act 4 begins, Hubert, with help from an executioner, makes plans with a set of hot irons to put out the eyes of the young and imprisoned Arthur.  A naïve Arthur enters the room, greeting Hubert with kindness and warmth, saying “Are you sick, Hubert? You look pale today.”  Hubert says he has no option but to put out the boy’s eyes, but Arthur, in a most smooth and compassionate way, as only Shakespeare can do it, talks him out of it, the kind-hearted executioner having left the irons cold.  Unable to complete his task, Hubert says “I’ll fill these dogged spies with false reports.”  (Kindness, Act 4, Scene 1) Hubert tells the king that Arthur is dead.  The English nobles, Salisbury and Pembroke, break with the king, leaving to find young Arthur’s grave.  A messenger enters to tell the king that his mother Eleanor and Constance have both died, and that the Dauphin has landed in England with a force of thousands.  The Bastard enters to tell the king that “the people are full of fear.”  Hubert re-enters to tell the king that “old men in the streets” are upset to hear of Arthur’s death.  After a back-and-forth, in a who-said-what-to-whom-when conversation, Hubert reveals to the king that “young Arthur is alive.” 

However, late that night Arthur tries to escape the prison by jumping from the prison’s walls. But a bed of rocks lay below the prison walls and Arthur dies in his attempt to escape.  While looking for Arthur’s grave, Pembroke and Salisbury learn that the Dauphin wants to see them at Bury Saint Edmunds. They soon find Arthur’s body beneath the prison’s walls.  Hubert rushes in to tell them that “Arthur doth live; the king hath sent for you,” but he quickly is told that Arthur in fact is dead. Salisbury and Pembroke, both distressed over the turn of events, leave to visit the Dauphin at Bury.  The Bastard remains with Hubert, saying to him “I do suspect thee very grievously,” but he accepts what is.  Hubert leaves as the act ends, giving the Bastard the opportunity to give us some thoughts on how he plans to move forward from here. (Counsel, Act 4, Scene 3)

King John has Pandulph administer a second coronation, “having yielded up into your hand my crown,” the English king having decided to support Pandulph’s position.  Now that he is back in the good graces of Rome, King John sends Pandulph on a mission to tell the French “to stop their marches ‘fore we are inflamed.”  The Bastard soon enters and tells King John that “all Kent has yielded” and that “London hath received like a kind host the Dauphin” and that Arthur has been found dead. The Bastard re-encourages the demoralized king. King John gives him authority to “manage the present time.” (Counsel, Act 5, Scene 1)

Pandulph enters to tell the Dauphin that “King John hath reconciled himself” and that he should therefore wind things up.  The Dauphin responds “You tell me John hath made his peace with Rome? What is that peace to me? Am I Rome’s slave?”  The Bastard asks Pandulph “how you have dealt with him?”  Pandulph lets him know “The Dauphin will not lay down his arms.”  The Bastard immediately demeans the young Dauphin and his effort. (Challenge, Act 5, Scene 2) The Dauphin tells the Bastard “there end thy bravado and go away in peace” as Pandulph tries to get a word in edgewise.  Responding to the Bastard and Pandulph, the Dauphin says “We will attend to neither. Let the tongue of war plead for our interest and our being here.” 

King John learns that the French reinforcements have been lost at sea “sunk on Goodwin Sands.”  A seriously wounded Count Melun, a Frenchman with English ties, enters to warn Salisbury and two other nobles that if the Dauphin wins the war he plans to promptly put the English nobles to death. (Courtesy, Act 5, Scene 4)

A messenger soon enters to tell the Dauphin that Melun has died.  The Bastard and Hubert enter.  Hubert lets the Bastard know that the king “is poisoned by a monk” and that he is being attended by his son, Prince Henry.  The Bastard quickly decides to leave to be with the king, saying “I doubt he will be dead before I come.”  Salisbury and Pembroke are at the king’s side.  The Bastard enters, telling the king that the Dauphin and his forces are moving forward, and that many of England’s troops have been “devoured by the unexpected flood.”  The king promptly dies. 

Soon after the king’s death, Salisbury lets the Bastard know that the Dauphin has accepted “such offers of our peace to leave this war.”  The Bastard, taking charge, turns to Prince Henry, kneels and says “With all submission on my knee I do bequeath my faithful services and true subjection everlastingly.”  Salisbury, Pembroke and Bigot also kneel and pledge their support to the young prince “forevermore.”  The time is 1216.  Prince Henry is now Henry III. 

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