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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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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.
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
brilliance of the lines in his most popular
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.
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.
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 Lymoges—usually spelled Limoges—the 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 siegeSoon 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 kings—along with the would-be king, Arthur, and his mother, Constance—meet 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!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 EnglandPhilip, 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,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’d—ill fare—dead, forsook, cast off: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.
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.
ClimaxThe 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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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
Following are examples of figures of speech in King John. (For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.)
If lusty love should go in quest of beauty,Anaphora
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,Apostrophe and Personification
Death, death: O, amiable lovely death!Irony
And oftentimes excusing of a faultMetaphor
There is so hot a summer in my bosom,Metaphor and Synecdoche
[H]is pure brain,Metonymy
A sceptre snatch’d with an unruly hand
And none of you will bid the winter comeParadox
Peace is to me a war. (3.1.118)Personification
England, impatient of your just demands,Simile
Be thou as lightning in the eyes of France;.
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).