“But from the inward motion to deliver/Sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age’s tooth:/Which, though I will not practice to deceive,/Yet, to avoid deceit, I mean to learn;”

King John

Act One

By Dennis Abrams

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MAJOR CHARACTERS

King John of England, brother of deceased Richard (of the lion’s heart) I

Queen Eleanor (of Aquitaine), their mother.

Prince Henry, John’s son (later King Henry III of England)

Lady Blanche of Spain, John’s niece, later married to Louis the Dauphin

Hubert, a follower of King John

Rebellious English nobles:  Earls of Essex, Salisbury, Pembroke and Lord Bigot

Lady Faulconbridge

Philip Faulconbridge, also known as the Bastard, her illegitimate son by King Richard I

Robert Faulconbridge, her legitimate son

James Gurney, her servant

King Philip of France

Louis the Dauphin of France, Philip’s son

Arthur, later Duke of Brittaine, King John’s young nephew (the son of his elder brother Geoffrey)

Lady Constance, Arthur’s mother

Duke of Austria

Chatillon, ambassador from France to England

Count Melun

Citizen of Angers

Cardinal Pandolf, a legate from the Pope

Peter Pomfret, a prophet

 —————–

DATE

As we’ve seen, there is some question:  No records of early performances survive, but stylistic evidence indicates 1595-97), close to The Merchant of Venice and 1 Henry IV.

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SOURCES

An anonymous play, The Troublesome Reign of King John (printed in 1591), is striking close (in some respects) to Shakespeare’s – the relationship between the two is still in dispute.  Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles (of course) is the main printed source.

——————–

TEXTS

King John was first printed in the 1623 in a text wiped clean of all profanities, suggesting that it was perhaps prepared after a clampdown by the authorities.  (More on this later.)

————————

Act One:  At the English court Chatillon challenges King John’s right to the English crown and declares France’s support for the rival claim of his nephew Arthur.  The two nations face war.  John then hears a dispute between the two Faulconbridge brothers.  Robert, the younger, accuses Philip, the elder, of being the bastard son of Richard I and claims his inheritance.  Presented with a choice – accept bastardy and become Sir Richard Plantagenet, or keep the land – Philip (“the Bastard”) chooses the former and swears allegiance to Queen Eleanor.  Lady Faulconbridge arrives to defend her name, but eventually admits the truth.

—————————-

It’s a question of politics.  And that question takes an interesting turn with the entry of the Faulconbridge brothers.  Like King John himself, they too are engaged in a battle over rights, this time over which of the two is their father’s rightful heir – Robert accusing Philip of being illegitimate, and therefore not entitled to his land.  The man claimed as Philip’s real father is Richard I, who is supposed to have had an affair with Lady Faulconbridge while her husband was away.  For the King this question is close to home in more ways than one.  His opinion that “your brother is legitimate” is not unconnected to his own determination to hang onto the English throne:

My mother’s son did get your father’s heir;

Your father’s heir must have your father’s land.

This fudge will seem even more suspicious in the next meeting with the French, when Eleanor accuses Arthur of being a “bastard,” and therefore unable to claim the crown.  In the wider perspective, the quarrel between the brothers Faulconbridge over their father’s “fair five hundred pound” of inheritance points up the argument over who should be king of England for what it really is:  a tussle over property.

The story of the Bastard Faulconbridge (as he becomes known) could not be more crucial to the play.  He has been called (as we’ve seen) Shakespeare’s first real hero, for he demonstrates that it doesn’t really much matter whether you’re legitimate or not – it’s what you make of it that counts.  Given the opportunity to choose between his two identities, he decides to turn down his father’s inheritance, admit illegitimacy, and become Sir Richard Plantagenet.  In so doing he represents a spirit of opportunism that animates the play – a forerunner, maybe, of Shakespeare’s more famous (and not nearly so likable) bastard, Edmund in King Lear.  Reflecting on “new made honour,” the Bastard rejoices in his recent promotion into a higher social class. “This is a worshipful society,” he neatly observes:

And fits the mounting spirit like myself;

For he is but a bastard to the time

That doth not smack of observation…

Flexing the meaning of his identity, the Bastard claims that, for “the time” he is utterly legitimate.  So is anyone with “observation,” or the ability to watch for changing opportunities and make the most of them.  Often stepping out of the action and speaking directly to us, the audience, the Bastard seems to act as a chorus to the play, commenting on – and often smirking at – events as they scroll past.  If we’re complicity with anyone in King John, it’s him.

——————-

From Bloom:

“Faulconbridge is Shakespeare’s only amiable bastard, unlike the Don John of Much Ado About Nothing, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, and the sublimely fearsome Edmund of King Lear.  It is wonderfully appropriate that Shakespeare’s truly ‘natural’ character should be a natural son of Richard the Lion Heart, who had become a hero of English folklore.  Faulconbridge is himself lionhearted, and indeed avenges his father by slaying the Duke of Austria, who had turned loose a lion upon his captive, the Crusader English king.  Critics agree that Faulconbridge’s appeal to English audiences is that he is both royal by blood and yet only gentry by upbringing and on his mother’s side, seduced as she was by King Richard I.   The Bastard thus stands in King John for all the popular virtues:  loyalty to the monarchy, courage, plainspokenness, honesty, and a refusal to be deceived, whether by foreign princes or domestic churchmen, or by the Pope and his minions.  Though Shakespeare has the Bastard vow that he will worship Commodity, or Machiavellian self-interest, neither Faulconbridge nor the audience believes this exasperated declaration.  The authentic self-revelation by the Bastard comes in Act I, Scene I, when he has changed his identity from Philip Faulconbridge, heir to his supposed father’s modest lands, to Sir Richard Plantagenet, landless but the son of his actual father, the demigod Richard the Lion Heart.

A foot of honour better than I was,

But many a many foot of land the worse.

Well, now can I make any Joan a lady.

“Good den, Sir Richard!” – ‘God-a-mercy, fellow!” –

And if his name  be George, I’ll call him Peter;

For new-made honour doth forget men’s names:

‘Tis too respective and too sociable

For your conversion.  Now your traveler,

He and his toothpick at my worship’s mess,

And when my knightly stomach is suffic’d,

Why then I suck my teeth and catechize

My picked man of countries:  ‘My dear sir,’ –

Thus, leaning on mine elbow, I begin,

“I shall beseech you,” – that is Question now;

And then comes Answer like an Absey book:

“O sir,” says Answer, “at your best command;

At your employment; at your service, sir:”

“No, sir,” says Question, “I, sweet sir, at yours:”

And so, ere Answer knows what Question would,

Saving in dialogue of compliment,

And talking of the Alps and Apennines,

The Pyrenean and the river Po,

It draws toward supper in conclusion so.

But this is a worshipful society,

And fits the mounting spirit like myself;

For he is but a bastard to the time

That doth not smack of observation;

And so am I, whether I smoke or no.

And not alone in habit and device,

Exterior form, outward accoutrement,

But from the inward motion to deliver

Sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age’s tooth:

Which, though I will not practice to deceive,

Yet, to avoid deceit, I mean to learn;

For it shall strew the footsteps of my rising.

 

I follow Harold Goddard in hearing Shakespeare’s own enterprise as poet-playwright in the Bastard’s motto:

But from the inward motion to deliver

Sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age’s tooth:

Which, though I will not practice to deceive,

Yet, to avoid deceit, I mean to learn;

‘Poison’ here is not flattery but truth, and both the Bastard and Shakespeare assert their refusal to be deceived.  How much of English literature comes out of the Bastard’s monologue!  In it one can her, prophetically, Swift, Sterne, Dickens, and Browning, and a long tradition that reverberates still in the century now ending.  The social humor of the Bastard, original with Shakespeare (try to interpolate this soliloquy anywhere into Marlowe), can be said to have invented the English satirist abroad, or the man of withdrawn sensibility returned home to observe, without deception or illusion.  No one in Shakespeare before Faulconbridge speaks with so inward a motion, or with so subtly barbed an inflection.  What helps make this character so formidable is that, more than Talbot in Henry VI, he is Shakespeare’s first great captain, a soldier who preludes Othello in the Moor’s prelapsarian greatness.  ‘Keep up your bright swords or the dew will rust them,’ is Othello’s single line that stops a street battle.  That voice of authority is presaged when the Bastard warns a noble who rashly draws his sword, ‘Your sword is bright, sir, put it up again.’”

—————–

From Kermode:

“It is true that the Bastard, who rails against ‘commodity’ while professing to cultivate it, is brave and loyal, but he is a complicated figure made up of incompatible elements, suggesting not a type but an individual.  It may be too bold to suggest that with him a newly developed idea of character was introduced into Elizabethan drama, that he is the first of Shakespeare’s characters to have just those gaps and inconsistencies that require one to see character as mysterious, as something to be argued about.  One closes the gaps and unexplained divergencies by interpretation, as one must, though on a far lager scale, with Hamlet.  It has been remarked that nobody else in Shakespeare talks as the Bastard does, and that his language ‘ridicules and undercuts the fustian of the play.’  To say that is to make the play itself somewhat self-mocking, as if the author of Henry VI and Richard III had had enough of letting his characters talk like rhetoric books.  There is something in this notion of undercutting, of presenting material that the play itself will covertly deride, fooling us into acceptance of what he himself rejects.  Here, as in Hamlet and as in nowhere else before Henry V, Shakespeare reminds us that since we have entered a theater, we have to take what the theater offers.  When in Act II the armies of France and England are stalled outside the city of Angiers, the Bastard remarks that as the citizens ‘stand securely on their battlements’ they look down on the scene as if they were an audience, safely observing the mock-dangerous goings-on, actors busily simulating warriors:  ‘As in a theatre, whence they gape and point/At your industrious scenes and acts of death.’  So the fake fighting and the rant are rescued as necessary to theatre, yet there remains more rant than the Bastard can wholly discount.”

——————

And finally, from Tanner:

“We first encounter [Faulconbridge] when he and his legitimate half-brother, Robert, are brought before the king, who is asked to adjudicate in an argument they are having over the inheriting of the Faulconbridge lands.  The Bastard’s first words – to the king – are ‘Your faithful subject,’ and so, importantly, he proves to be.  Indeed, when, later, the English nobles defect to the French, it is as if he is the only ‘faithful subject’ remaining loyal to the king.  He knows that John is a bad and defective king – indeed, he has to take over from him when the French invade (‘Have thou the ordering of this present time,’ says the helpless John) – but he remains faithful to the kingly office (let’s say the symbol more than the man), and never permits himself any thoughts of removing or supplanting the king.  Even when the present order is weakened and in disarray, he defends it against any insidiously, or treacherously, suggested alternative.  In the quarrel with his half-brother, he gives up his claim quite cheerfully, with a characteristic insouciance and unusual indifference to possessions – ‘Brother, take you my land, I’ll take my chance.’  The king immediately knights him – ‘Arise Sir Richard, and Plantagenet) – and the Bastard is happier to have the ‘honor’ of being the knighted son of Richard Coeur de Lion than to inherit any lands.  His developing conception of ‘honor’ – he is still learning – is crucial to the play, peopled as it is, for the most part, with varyingly dishonourable characters.  And he has a touch of that Renaissance sense of the reality and integrity of his own identity – ‘And I am I, how’e’er I was begot.’  Whatever else, he is clearly his own man.

Shortly after, he has his first soliloquy.  It starts, understandably enough, with a bit of summarizing musing:

A foot of honour better than I was,

But many a many foot of land the worse.

But what follows is rather remarkable:

Well, now can I make any Joan a lady.

“Good den, Sir Richard!” – ‘God-a-mercy, fellow!” –

And if his name  be George, I’ll call him Peter;

For new-made honour doth forget men’s names:

‘Tis too respective and too sociable

For your conversion.  Now your traveler,

He and his toothpick at my worship’s mess,

And when my knightly stomach is suffic’d,

Why then I suck my teeth and catechize

My picked man of countries:  ‘My dear sir,’ –

Thus, leaning on mine elbow, I begin…

and so he goes on, fantasizing a posturing, pretentious encounter.  Shakespeare does this elsewhere – has a character on-stage now, in front of us, going through, in imagination, future scenarios in which he exercises and deploys some new-won position and power; but, to my knowledge, this is the first time he attempts it, and the effect is curiously arresting – it adds a dimension to the character.  Here it is comic of course; the Bastard is having fun with imagining the possibilities opened up by his new title.  More seriously, it suggests he might be preparing for a career of courtly affectation and ambition.  This impression is both strengthened and qualified by some important lines which follow:

But this is a worshipful society,

And fits the mounting spirit like myself;

For he is but a bastard to the time

That doth not smack of observation;

And so am I, whether I smoke or no.

And not alone in habit and device,

Exterior form, outward accoutrement,

But from the inward motion to deliver

Sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age’s tooth:

Which, though I will not practice to deceive,

Yet, to avoid deceit, I mean to learn;

For it shall strew the footsteps of my rising.

This certainly seems to suggest that he is preparing for a career of calculated social climbing (‘mounting’).  The determination to deliver a triply sweet ‘poison’ to ‘the age’s tooth,’ should indicate a commitment to limitless ingratiation and flattery.  If he is going to move into a world of deceit, he will out-deceive them all.  But although ‘observation’ can mean obsequiousness, it can also mean straightforward, vigilant, clear-eyed attention.  And the lines I have put in boldface could well mean – though I have no intention to be dishonest myself, I am certainly going to watch out for, and self-protectively learn, all the dishonest tricks going on around me.  He could be resolving to lead an honest life in a world in which everything seems to make against such an intention.  Although the Bastard will come to embrace what seem like simplicities – king and country; he is not, as I have indicated, a simple character.”

———————

Our next reading:  King John, Act Two

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning.

 

Enjoy.

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