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King John
A Study Guide
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Type of Work     Composition and Publication     First Performance     Source      Historical Background     Settings
Characters      Conflict      Climax      Themes      Figures of Speech      John and the Magna Carta      History Repeats Itself
Murder by Poisoning      Study Questions and Essay Topics      Complete Text
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010, 2011..©

Type of Work

William Shakespeare's King John is a history play.  It may also be referred to as a chronicle play. Because it depicts the downfall of the main character, it also qualifies as a tragedy. 

Composition and Publication
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Shakespeare wrote the play between 1591 and 1598. It was first printed in 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.

First Performance

No records exist to establish a date when the play debuted in Shakespeare's lifetime. Reliable documentation does exist to indicate that the play was popular in the nineteenth century. In modern times, it is one of Shakespeare's least-performed plays. Its current unpopularity is regrettable, for the play contains wonderful imagery and many memorable lines that sometimes equaland sometimes surpassthe brilliance of the lines in his most popular plays.

Source 

Shakespeare’s source was The Troublesome Raigne of King John of England (Anonymous, 1591), which was based on accounts in The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland (Holinshed’s Chronicles), by Raphael Holinshed (?-1580?). The first edition of the chronicles was published in 1577 in two volumes. 

Historical Background

England's King John was born in 1167 as the youngest of three sons of King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine (Queen Elinor in the play). His brother Richard the Lion-Hearted acceded to the throne in 1189, but envious John tried to usurp the kingship while Richard was fighting in the Third Crusade. After Richard died in battle in France in 1189, John inherited the throne. 

Settings
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The action takes place in England and France, between 1199 and 1216. Specific locales are King John's palace in London, a battlefield before Angiers (spelled today Angers) in northwestern France, an English castle holding the imprisoned Arthur, St. Edmundsbury in England, a battlefield in England, and a field and orchard at Swinstead Abbey in England. 

Characters
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King John: Mean-spirited son of King Henry II (1133-1189) and brother of the late King Richard the Lion-Hearted. John was born in 1167 at Beaumont Palace in Oxford and reigned as king from 1199 to 1216, when he he died at Newark Castle about three months before his fiftieth birthday. He probably succumbed to dysentery, an intestinal infection. However, his unpopularity raised suspicions that he had been poisoned. Shakespeare's play agrees that foul play caused John's demise.
Queen Elinor: Domineering mother of King John and widow of King Henry II. Historians generally refer to her as Eleanor of Aquitaine, but she has also been called Eleanor of Guyenne, Éléonore d'Aquitaine, and Aliéonor d'Aquitaine.
Prince Henry: Son of King John. 
Philip Faulconbridge: Illegitimate son of King Richard I, the Lion-Hearted, and Lady Faulconbridge. Like his father, Philip is a valiant warrior and serves England with great distinction. 
Robert Faulconbridge: Legitimate son of Lady Faulconbridge and Sir Robert Faulconbridge. He claims lands held by his half-brother, Philip.
Arthur, Duke of Bretagne (Brittany): Nephew of King John and posthumous son of Geoffrey Plantagenet. The king of France maintains that Arthur (1187-1203), just a boy, is the rightful King of England.
Constance: Mother of Arthur. She champions his claim to the English throne against Queen Elinor.
Rebels Against King John: Earl of Pembroke, Earl of Salisbury, Lord Bigot.
Hubert de Burgh: Chamberlain of King John. 
James Gurney: Servant of  Lady Faulconbridge. 
Peter of Pomfret: Prophet.
Philip, King of France.
Lewis, Dauphin of France: Heir to the French throne.
Lymoges, Duke of Austria
Cardinal Pandulph: Pope's legate.
Melun: French Lord.
Chatillon: Ambassador from France to King John.
Blanch of Spain: Niece of King John. She marries the dauphin.
Minor Characters: Lords, citizens of Angiers, sheriff, heralds, officers, soldiers, messengers, attendants.

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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2003

King Philip of France delivers a brazen message to King John of England. It declares that the English crown and all of its possessions—including Ireland, Poitiers, Anjou, Touraine, and Maine—rightfully belong to John’s nephew Arthur, the Duke of Bretagne (Brittany). At the English court in London, Philip’s emissary, Chatillon, boldly declares that France will wage “fierce and bloody war” if John refuses to yield the crown to Arthur. 

Arthur, just a child, is the son of John’s deceased brother Geoffrey Plantagenet. John and Geoffrey's other brother, Richard I the Lion-Hearted (1157-1199), sat on the English throne from 1189 until his death in 1199 during a battle in France. It was Arthur’s mother, Constance, who persuaded the French king to claim the English throne for Arthur. As a kind of stage mother, she is ever ready to bully, badger, and browbeat to further her son’s career. And she has been quite successful in making her case on behalf of little Arthur. John is weak and cowardly, but he has a powerful ally: his domineering mother, Queen Elinor. She is as forceful in championing John as Constance is in championing Arthur. John dismisses Chatillon, warning him that England chooses war. 


Meanwhile, a charming, happy-go-lucky fellow named Philip Faulconbridge presents himself before John to request that the king settle an argument. It seems that Philip Faulconbridge’s brother, Robert, claims all of Philip’s lands because the latter is a bastard and, therefore, not legally entitled to receive property. King John notices that Philip bears a remarkable resemblance to his late brother, Richard I the Lion-Hearted. (Philip is the illegitimate son of Richard I and Lady Faulconbridge.) John offers Philip a choice: Take the disputed property or claim as his father King Richard I. Philip chooses to be the son of a king. John then bestows on him the title “Sir Richard Plantagenet.” However, Philip goes by a single name throughout the rest of the play: “Bastard.” He is to take the field on John’s behalf in the coming war against France. 


In France, King Philip and his forces are besieging the English-held town of Angiers when Arthur and his mother, Constance, welcome Lymoges, the Duke of Austria, an ally of the French. (When he was the viscount of Lymogesusually spelled Limogesthe duke was attacked by Richard the Lion-Hearted at the viscount’s castle at Châlus after the viscount refused to surrender gold dug up by a French peasant. An arrow shot by one of the viscount’s men killed Richard. (The account of this incident is not part of Shakespeare’s play.) 

However, in Act II, the oldest son of the King of France, Lewis, introduces the Duke of Austria as the slayer of Richard (Arthur’s father) and says the duke has decided to fight for France to redeem himself. Young Arthur absolves the duke of any guilt, saying, “God shall forgive you Coeur-de-lion’s death / The rather that you give his offspring life” (2.1.14-15). When King Philip prepares to bombard the town with cannon fire, Chatillon arrives from England. He tells the king to
       Turn your forces from this paltry siege
And stir them up against a mightier task.
England, impatient of your just demands,
Hath put himself in arms: the adverse winds,
Whose leisure I have stay’d, have given him time
To land his legions all as soon as I;
His marches are expedient to this town,
His forces strong, his soldiers confident. (2.1.57-64)
Soon thereafter, King John and his army arrive, along with John’s mother, Queen Elinor. Drums beat, heralding John’s arrival for a parley with the French. The two kingsalong with the would-be king, Arthur, and his mother, Constancemeet to voice their demands and grievances. While the kings and their representatives argue their claims, Elinor and Constance exchange insults:
QUEEN ELINOR:  Thou monstrous slanderer of heaven and earth!
CONSTANCE:  Thou monstrous injurer of heaven and earth!
Call not me slanderer; thou and thine usurp
The dominations, royalties and rights
Of this oppressed boy: this is thy eld’st son’s son. (2.1.181-185)
Faulconbridge, hot to wield his sword for England, calls for all-out war, as does the Duke of Austria on behalf of the French side. As the armies prepare to engage, the citizens of Angiers propose a settlement sealed by a marriage. John’s niece Blanch, the daughter of the King of Spain, should marry Lewis, the oldest son (dauphin) of the King of France. Lewis and Blanch are both present. Thus, France and England would become “in-laws” and friends. The two kings endorse this agreement. However, the Bastard disapproves of the plan, believing it will only cause more trouble in the end. Constance, too, disapproves. Her son, after all, will lose the throne. Nevertheless, the marriage takes place. 

By and by, Cardinal Pandulph, an envoy from Pope Innocent, arrives to confront King John on an ecclesiastical matter. It seems the king opposes the pope’s choice of Stephen Langton to be Archbishop of Canterbury. King John tells Pandulph that as King of England he holds supreme authority in his realm and pays no heed to the demands of the Vatican. John says:
Tell him this tale; and from the mouth of England
Add thus much more, that no Italian priest
Shall tithe or toll in our dominions;
But as we, under heaven, are supreme head,
So under Him that great supremacy,
Where we do reign, we will alone uphold,
Without the assistance of a mortal hand. (3.1.158-164)
Philip, shocked that King John would oppose the will of Pope Innocent, says, “Brother of England, you blaspheme in this” (3.1.167). The cardinal then wields a fearsome weapon of the Vatican: He excommunicates John, barring him from participating in church rites and receiving the sacraments, such as Holy Eucharist, and disqualifying him from Christian burial. (Cut off from the church’s salvific powers, an excommunicated person risks loss of heaven. The purpose of excommunication is to force a sinner to acknowledge his errors in order to allow him to return to full community in the church.) Philip, not wishing to risk the wrath of the church, sides with Pandulph. 

Thus, John and Philip are again at odds and they go to war. After the armies clash, the Bastard kills the man who killed his father (Richard I) and rescues King John’s mother, Queen Elinor. Arthur is taken captive, and the English win the day. John orders the Bastard back to England to “shake the bags / Of hoarding abbots” (3.3.9-10), explaining that “the fat ribs of peace / Must by the hungry now be fed upon” (3.3.11-12). King John next orders his friend, Hubert de Burgh, to kill Arthur after the boy has been transported to England, declaring that Arthur “is a very serpent in my way” (3.3.65).


Meanwhile, Cardinal Pandulph, believing Arthur will indeed die, encourages Lewis to claim the English throne. John, now back in England, orders Hubert to burn out Arthur’s eyes with hot irons. However, Hubert has taken a liking to the innocent lad and spares him. To protect the boy, Hubert gives out word that Arthur is dead. In response, the great lords who have been entreating John to allow Arthur to live, break with John and form an alliance with the French, who have landed an army in England to win the throne for Lewis. Constance, stricken with a terrible sense of loss over the apparent death of her son, says:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form. (3.4.98)
Later, she dies in a frenzy of grief. Queen Elinor also dies. (No explanation for her death is given.The historical Elinor, known as Eleanor of Aquitaine, died at about age 82 while in residence at a monastery in Fontevrault in the province of Anjou, France.) When John begins to repent his actions and all seems lost, Hubert tells the king that young Arthur is yet alive. John then orders Hubert to go to the great lords and “throw this report on their incensed rage” (4.2.275). But, alas, Arthur, in an attempt to escape imprisonment, falls onto rocks and dies. 

The lords blame Hubert and John for the boy’s death and join the French forces. While John is concluding a reconciliation with the Vatican, he asks Cardinal Pandulph to go to the French and effect a peace. Pandulph agrees, saying, “My tongue shall hush again this storm of war” (5.1.23). After Pandulph leaves, the Bastard arrives with news that the lords have deserted King John and that Arthur has been found dead. John gives the Bastard command of the English troops after Pandulph fails at peacemaking. The Bastard serves his king well, almost singlehandedly holding off the French. When the English lords learn from a dying Frenchman that Lewis plans to execute them if he wins the throne, they return to the side of King John. However, King John is also dying. A monk, “a resolved villain” (5.6.35), has poisoned him, Hubert tells the Bastard. When asked how he fares, King John says he is 
Poison’dill faredead, forsook, cast off:
And none of you will bid the winter come
To thrust his icy fingers in my maw,
Nor let my kingdom’s rivers take their course
Through my burn’d bosom, nor entreat the north
To make his bleak winds kiss my parched lips
And comfort me with cold. I do not ask you much,
I beg cold comfort; and you are so strait
And so ingrateful, you deny me that. (5.7.41-49)
After John expires, Pandulph forges a peace agreement between England and France, and John’s son, Prince Henry, inherits the throne as King Henry III. Henry decrees that his father is to be buried at Worcester, according to his wishes. The Bastard then salutes the new king and pledges his loyalty to him.


Main Conflict

Many conflicts arose in early England and elsewhere in Europe over birthrights and inheritances. In King John, the French and English fight over who is the rightful heir to the throne of England. King Philip of France seeks to install young Arthur—the Duke of Bretagne and son of the deceased brother of King John—as king of England, Ireland, and the English territories in France. Thus, the central conflict in the play centers on relatives, John and Arthur. Declaring he is the legitimate king of England, John leads his army to war against Philip and France. The mothers of John and Arthur come in direct verbal conflict on the French battlefield when each promotes the cause of her son and each bitterly denounces the other.

Climax

The climax of a play or narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of King John occurs, according to the first definition, when John orders the death of Arthur even though John has won the battle against the French. His cruelty turns his own people against him and sets in motion his downfall. According to the second definition, the climax occurs when John dies.

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Themes
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Family feuds can bring deadly results. Unresolved disputes involving family members lead to great political and social upheaval and war. For further information on this theme, see Conflict.
 
The power-hungry often victimize the innocent. In the struggle for power in King John—and in struggles for power in any age and place—the adversaries often stop at nothing to achieve their goals. Arthur, a little boy who is the focus of the conflict in King John, becomes a pawn in the effort of his grasping mother and her French supporters to seize the throne of England. Ironically, Arthur himself has no desire to be king. In the first scene of Act 2, he says, "I would that I were low laid in my grave: / I am not worth this coil that's made for me" (172-173).

Mothers can be mighty. Arthur's mother, Constance, persuades the King of France to press England to accept Arthur as its rightful king. John's mother, Elinor, stands by her son with the tenacity of a pit bull.


Figures of Speech
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Following are examples of figures of speech in King John. (For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.) 

Alliteration

If lusty love should go in quest of beauty,      
Where should he find it fairer than in Blanch? (2.1.442-443)   

O death, made proud with pure and princely beauty!    
The earth had not a hole to hide this deed. (4.3.40-41) 

My heart hath melted at a lady’s tears. (5.2.49)

Anaphora
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, 
To throw a perfume on the violet, 
To smooth the ice, or add another hue 
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light 
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish, 
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess. (4.2.3-18)

No natural exhalation in the sky,
No scope of nature, no distemper'd day,
No common wind, no customed event,
But they will pluck away his natural cause
And call them meteors, prodigies and signs,
Abortives, presages and tongues of heaven. (3.4.158-163)
Apostrophe and Personification
Death, death: O, amiable lovely death!
Thou odoriferous stench! sound rottenness!           
Arise forth from the couch of lasting night. (3.4.28)
Constance address death (apostrophe) and compares death to a person (personification)
Irony
And oftentimes excusing of a fault 
Doth make the fault the worse by the excuse. (4 2.32-33) 

How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds 
Makes deeds ill done! (4.2.233-234) 

Must I rob the law? (4.3.85)
Salisbury draws his sword and utters these words in the belief that Hubert killed young Arthur at the king's behest. 
Irony occurs when Salisbury threatens to break the law (by killing Hubert) in order to enforce the law. In effect,
he would "rob the law" of its right try Hubert.

Metaphor
There is so hot a summer in my bosom, 
That all my bowels crumble up to dust: 
I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen 
Upon a parchment, and against this fire 
 Do I shrink up. (5.7.35-39) 
King John, dying, compares the hot summer to pain and debility. In another metaphor,

he compares himself to a scribbled drawing about to be consumed by a fire.

The cannons have their bowels full of wrath, 
And ready mounted are they to spit forth 
Their iron indignation ’gainst your walls. (2.1.221-223)
Comparison of cannons to intestines; comparison of indignation to iron

And now, instead of bullets wrapp’d in fire, 
To make a shaking fever in your walls, 
They shoot but calm words folded up in smoke, 
To make a faithless error in your ears:. (2.1.238-241) 
Comparison of bullets to the cause of a fever; comparison of words to missiles of war

To solemnize this day the glorious sun    
Stays in his course and plays the alchemist, 
Turning with splendour of his precious eye 
The meagre cloddy earth to glittering gold. (3.1.81.84) 
Comparison of the sun to an alchemist and an eye

O! that my tongue were in the thunder’s mouth!           
Then with a passion would I shake the world (3.4.42-43)
Comparison of thunder to a creature with a mouth

BASTARD   Your sword is bright, sir; put it up again. 
SALISBURY   Not till I sheathe it in a murderer’s skin. (4.3.86-87)
Comparison of skin to a sheath 

Out, dunghill! dar’st thou brave a nobleman? (4.3.94)
Bigot compares Hubert to a dunghill.

Thus have I yielded up into your hand 
The circle of my glory. (5.1.3-4)
King John compares his crown to a "circle of glory."

Metaphor and Synecdoche
                              [H]is pure brain, 
Which some suppose the soul’s frail dwelling-house, 
Doth by the idle comments that it makes 
Foretell the ending of mortality. (5.7 4-8) 
Prince Henry, observing his poisoned father, uses a metaphor to compare brain to house and synecdoche to make the brain
represent man. lliteration occurs in some, suppose, and soul’s. Synecdoche occurs when brain represents a man.
Metonymy
A sceptre snatch’d with an unruly hand     
Must be as boisterously maintain’d as gain’d. (3.4.140-141)
Substitution of sceptre for kingdom or rulership

Personification
And none of you will bid the winter come 
To thrust his icy fingers in my maw, 
Nor let my kingdom’s rivers take their course 
Through my burn’d bosom, nor entreat the north 
To make his bleak winds kiss my parched lips 
And comfort me with cold. I do not ask you much, 
I beg cold comfort; and you are so strait 
And so ingrateful, you deny me that. (5.7.42-49) 
King John dying, uses personification and metaphor to compare winter and the north wind to persons. 
Paradox
Peace is to me a war. (3.1.118)

Let it be lawful that law bar no wrong. (3.1.193)

All form is formless, order orderless, 
Save what is opposite to England’s love. (3.1.263-264) 

Yet indirection thereby grows direct, 
And falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire 
Within the scorched veins of one new-burn’d. (3.1.286-288) 

Personification
England, impatient of your just demands, 
Hath put himself in arms: the adverse winds, 
Whose leisure I have stay’d, have given him time 
To land his legions all as soon as I; 
His marches are expedient to this town, 
His forces strong, his soldiers confident. (2.1.59-64) 
Comparison of England to a person

Our cannons’ malice vainly shall be spent 
Against the invulnerable clouds of heaven (2.1.262-263) 
Comparison of cannons to a person. (Only a human being can be malicious.)

When Fortune means to men most good, 
She looks upon them with a threatening eye. (3.4.124-125) 
Comparison of Fortune to a person

Simile
Be thou as lightning in the eyes of France; 
For ere thou canst report I will be there. (1.1.26-27) 
King John tells the ambassor from France he must be like lightning
in making his report to the king of France.

France, thou mayst hold a serpent by the tongue,
A chafed lion by the mortal paw, 
A fasting tiger safer by the tooth, 
Than keep in peace that hand which thou dost hold. (3.1.268-271)
Pandulph says it is safer for the Philip to imperil his life against a serpent, lion, or tiger
than to make peace with England. (A simile uses like, as, or than to compare unlike things.)

Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale 
Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man. (3.4.113-114) 
Comparison of life to a tale 

      Tame the savage spirit of wild war, 
That, like a lion foster’d up at hand, 
It may lie gently at the foot of peace. (5.278-80) 
Comparison of the renunciation of war to a docile lion

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King John and the Magna Carta
 
King John was the signer of the Magna Carta on June 15, 1215, at Runnymede meadows in Surrey, England. It granted special liberties and rights, including a clause used later to establish habeas corpus (the right to a speedy trial). John signed the historic document under pressure from the disenchanted nobility, whom he had taxed heavily. The Magna Carta (Latin for Great Charter) provided that the king was subject to the law, not above the law. Modern legal documents in the U.S., England, and elsewhere have adopted this principle, making heads of state and other officials answerable to the law of the land.

History Repeats Itself

The conflict in King John is similar to the conflict between Elizabeth and Mary in the sixteenth century. Mary Queen of Scots (1542-1587), a grand-niece of King Henry VIII (1491-1547), claimed the English throne after Elizabeth (1533-1603), Henry's daughter by Anne Boleyn (1507-1536), became Queen of England in 1558. Because Henry eventually rejected and executed Elizabeth's mother and remarried, supporters of Mary Queen of Scots declared she was the rightful queen of England, not Elizabeth. A period of unrest ensued in England, mainly between Catholic supporters of Mary and Protestant supporters of Elizabeth. Like King John, Queen Elizabeth was condemned by the papacy. Like the throne claimant Arthur, Mary eventually died (by beheading). 

Murder by Poisoning
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Poison kills King John to make way for a new ruler, according to Shakespeare's version of history. This murder method has been a favorite of assassins since ancient times. It is said that the custom of garnishing food with parsley originated in the time of the Caesars. Parsley was a secret sign from a friend in the kitchen that food was uncontaminated. 

Poisoning was only one of a remarkable variety of killing tools and methods Shakespeare used to send his characters to the beyond. In Othello, Moor of Venice, Othello smothers Desdemona, apparently with a pillow. (The stage directions say he "stifles" Desdemona.) In Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra commits suicide via the bite of an asp.  In Macbeth, hired assassins inflict "twenty trenched gashes" upon Banquo's head. In Cymbeline, Guiderius decapitates Clotan. In King Lear, Goneril stabs herself while Gloucester, blinded by his enemies, hurls himself off a cliff. But because the cliff is only about six feet high, he survives. In Hamlet, Claudius murders his predecessor by pouring poison into his ear.

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • Which character in the play do you most admire ? Which do you least admire? 
  • In King John, does Shakespeare interpret history or does he report history? 
  • If you had lived in the England of King John, would you have been among the nobles who rebelled against him? Explain your answer.
  • Write a psychological profile of King John, using quotations from Shakespeare’s play—as well as other research—to support your views. 
  •  In an expository essay, explain the laws and customs used in the time of King John to determine rightful heirs to the throne and rightful heirs to family property.
  • What was everyday life like for an ordinary citizen in the England of King John?
  • According to Shakespeare’s play, King John was poisoned. In your view, do citizens ruled by a tyrant—a Nero, a Hitler, a Saddam Hussein—have a moral right or even a moral duty to assassinate the tyrant? Explain your answer. 
 

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