Title: The Life and Death of King John
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Published / Performed: 1595-7
Type of Text: Play
Main Characters: Philip Falconbridge (“the Bastard”), later Sir Richard Plantagenet, the illegitimate son of the late King Richard I (“Lionheart”): after asking King John to settle the question of whether he or his (legitimate) half-brother should inherit the Falconbridge estate, he is knighted and becomes a key ally for the king. King John of England, youngest brother of Lionheart; their mother, Queen Elinor of Aquitaine; John’s niece, Blanche. Arthur, nephew to the king who seeks the throne, and his mother Constance. King Philip and Prince Lewis of France, who initially support Arthur’s claim. Cardinal Pandulph, who marks John as an enemy of the Pope and so breaks the peace between England and France.
Themes & Imagery: Competing demands of family, state politics, religion, and personal loyalty. Illegitimacy. Temporal and spiritual power – the attempt of the Catholic church to control European / English politics. Parallels between local and national events. Powerful women who are nevertheless unable to act directly themselves.
Synopsis: This play treats the power struggle between King John and his nephew Arthur (and the French) after the death of Richard the Lionheart. Arthur’s claim to the throne is supported by King Philip of France, whose enemies clash with those of King John outside Angiers; but the two kings reach a peace, in which Arthur’s claim is abandoned, by agreeing that Philip’s son Lewis should marry John’s niece Blanche and thereby gain his own claim to the throne after John’s death (and some English territories in France as an immediate dowry). The peace is short-lived, however, since Cardinal Pandulph orders France to declare war on England on behalf of the Pope; the French army is strengthened by the defection of several English lords who believe Arthur has been killed on John’s order, but although John dies of illness or poison, France is ultimately unsuccessful.
Personal Response: The Bastard is certainly an intriguing and charismatic character, and the ambiguity of King John himself is fascinating, but the thing that stood out most for me was the powerful women in this play, Elinor and Constance and even Blanche. At first, I wasn’t a particular fan of Arthur, but I have to say, that opinion changed as the character developed through his touching interactions with Hubert in Act 4 scene 1. I don’t know how accurately it relates to the history, but I enjoyed the plot development immensely, and thought the short scenes of Act 5 were particularly good at conveying the rush and confusion of war. I imagine the themes would be more powerful to an audience to whom debates over the character of the monarchy and the role of the Catholic church were more relevant, but the notion of competing demands and loyalties – Constance’s perception of being betrayed, for instance, and her desire for chaotic revenge – is still very pertinent today.
Favourite Part: Act 2 scene 2, Constance’s outrage at the news that the King of France has abandoned Arthur’s cause and made peace with John.
My Top Five Lines & Passages:
The Bastard refuses to be a Falconbridge, 1.1.135-148:
Elinor: Whether hadst thou rather be: a Falconbridge,
And like thy brother to enjoy thy land,
Or the reputed son of Coeur-de-lion,
Lord of the presence, and no land beside?
Bastard: Madam, an if my brother had my shape
And I had his, Sir Robert’s his like him,
And if my legs were two such riding-rods,
My arms, such eel-skins stuffed, my face so thin,
That in mine ear I durst not stick a rose,
Lest men should say, ‘Look, where three-farthings goes’,
And to his shape were heir to all this land,
Would I might never stir from off this place,
I would give it every foot to have this face:
I would not be Sir Nob in any case.
Elinor and Constance fight over Arthur, 2.1.122-133:
Elinor: Out, insolent! Thy bastard shall be king,
That thou mayst be a queen, and check the world.
Constance: My bed was ever to thy son as true
As thine was to thy husband, and this boy
Liker in feature to his father Geoffrey
Than thou and John, in manners being as like
As rain to water, or devil to his dam.
My boy a bastard? By my soul I think
His father never was so true begot:
He cannot be, an if thou wert his mother.
Elinor: There’s a good mother, boy, that blots thy father.
Constance: There’s a good grandam, boy, that would blot thee.
After the Bastard’s attack on “commodity” (profit and self-interest) which leads John and Philip to a truce, 2.1.597-607:
Bastard: Any why rail I on this commodity?
But for because he hath not wooed me yet:
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand,
When his fair angels would salute my palm;
But for my hand, as unattempted yet,
Like a poor beggar, raileth on the rich.
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail,
And say there is no sin but to be rich:
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary:
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain be my lord, for I will worship thee.
Blanche complains about being stuck in the middle of the war, 3.1.259-271:
Blanche: The sun’s o’ercast with blood: fair day, adieu!
Which is the side that I must go withal?
I am with both, each army hath a hand.
And in their rage, I having hold of both,
They whirl asunder and dismember me.
Husband, I cannot pray that thou mayst win:-
Uncle, I needs must pray that thou mayst lose:-
Father, I may not wish the fortune thine:-
Grandam, I will not wish thy wishes thrive:
Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose:
Assured loss before the match be played.
Lewis: Lady, with me, with me thy fortune lies.
Blanche: There where my fortune lives, there my life dies.
The Bastard attacks the servant Hubert for supposedly killing Arthur, 4.3.126-138:
Bastard: Thou’rt damned as black – nay, nothing is so black –
Thou art more deep damned than Prince Lucifer:
There is not yet so ugly a fiend of hell
As thou shalt be, if thou didst kill this child.
Hubert: Upon my soul –
Bastard: If thou didst but consent
To this most cruel act, do but despair:
And if thou want’st a cord, the smallest thread
That ever spider twisted from her womb
Will serve to strangle thee: a rush will be a beam
To hang thee on: or wouldst thou drown thyself,
Put but a little water in a spoon,
And it shall be as all the ocean,
Enough to stifle such a villain up.