“And now he feasts, mousing the flesh of men/In undetermined difference of kings.”

King John

Act Two

By Dennis Abrams


ACT TWO:  The two armies confront each other at Angers.  The French claim the city for Arthur; King John demands it as his.  A citizen, acting as spokesman, vows loyalty to the King of England, but insists that the battle will determine who that really is.  The armies fight and both claim victory, but still the city denies them entry.  Infuriated, the enemy kings are about to join forces against Angers when the citizen suggests a solution:  the warring sides will be united by a marriage between the Dauphin Louis and Lady Blanche (John’s niece.)  The two sides agree, and, in addition, John gives the city to Arthur.  All are happy except Constance, who is horrified that the French have abandoned her son’s cause.


If the Bastard is opportunistic, those principles that he embodies reach a climax at Act Two at Angers, in which the French and English armies attempt to face each other down.  Both need to win the town in order to claim victory, but, with an interest in self-preservation that seems entirely characteristic of the play, Angers’ citizens decline to pick sides until they know for certain who will win.  Though one of those citizens admits that “we are the King of England’s subjects,” that King’s appeals go unheard:

King John:

Acknowledge then the King, and let me in.


That can we not; but he that proves the king,

To him will we prove loyal; till that time

Have we rammed up our gates against the world.

Their demand for “proof” stays.  Yet proof is not exactly swift in coming:  the battle fought between the English and the French ends inconclusively, and when the citizens again decide not to choose sides, both kings decide to join forces, — and, as John ever so delicately puts it, “lay this Angers even with the ground.”  The irony of the situation is overwhelming; instead of coming together in the interests of their people, the two rulers unite to obliterate them.  This is a novel spin on John’s desire to match his enemy “war for war” and “blood for blood.”

Appropriately given the tone of the play, the town is only saved through a still more staggering political ply, a speedily concluded marriage between Dauphin Louis and Lady Blanche.  As John resigns areas of France as part of the deal, it isn’t hard to agree with the clear-eyed Bastard that it is all a pointless charade:

Mad world, mad kings, mad composition!

John, to stop Arthur’s title in the whole,

Hath willingly departed with a part;

And France, whose armour conscience buckled on,

Whom zeal and charity brought to the field

As God’s own soldier, rounded in the ear

With that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids –

Who having no external thing to lose

But the word “maid,” cheats the poor maid of that –

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity;

Commodity, the bias of the world…

John’s impassioned defense of his realm, France’s religious fervor; all undone by “commodity,” i.e., self-interest.  Given the Bastard’s wisecracking speech, it will be little surprise to learn that, just a few scenes later, the brief peace is over.  Cardinal Pandolf – having excommunicated John – puts pressure on King Louis to reconsider his self-interest, and turn against the “cursed” John instead.


From Frank Kermode:

“Early in the play Hubert makes the suggestion that France and England don’t really need to fight, since John’s niece, Blanche of Spain, could end the need to do so by marrying the Dauphin:

That daughter there of Spain, the Lady Blanche,

Is near to England.  Look upon the years

Of Louis the Dolphin and that lovely maid.

If lusty love should go in quest of beauty,

Where should he find it fairer than in Blanche?

If zealous love should go in search of virtue,

Where should he find it purer than in Blanche?

If love ambitious sought a match of birth,

Is the young Dolphin every way complete:

If not complete of, say he is not she,

And she again wants nothing, to name want,

If want it be not that she is not he.

And so on for many more lines.  Perhaps the occasion excuses the extreme formality; the specious complexity of the last four lines may sound like later Shakespeare, the enigmatic and monosyllabic last line reminiscent of a great moment in Troilus and Cressida, but the conceit is slowly and elaborately expounded in the lines that follow, which do not sound like mature Shakespeare.  The Bastard immediately ridicules the performance, but the Dolphin, the Dauphin, is quick to accept the plan and instantly expresses undying love for the lady:

   in her eye I find

A wonder, or a wondrous miracle,

The shadow of myself form’d in her eye,

Which being but the shadow of your son,

Becomes a sun and makes your son a shadow.

I do protest I never lov’d myself

Till now infixed I beheld myself

Drawn in the flattering table of her eye.

(Here ‘shadow,’ as often in Shakespeare, means ‘reflection,’ though it also implies the now usual sense, and ‘table’ means the board on which a picture is painted.)  The sentiment, though meant to suggest an exercise in courtly love, is dramatically absurd, and is at once deflated by the Bastard’s aside:

Drawn in the flattering table of her eye!

Hang’d in the frowning wrinkle of her brow!

And quarter’d in her heart!  he doth espy

Himself love’s traitor.  This is pity now,

That hang’d and drawn and quarter’d there should be

In such a love so vile a lout as he.

The beautiful Blanche is not over-enthusiastic, either.  Yet there is more to be said of the passage than that it gives a cynical view of political and princely practices.  It is a displaced love lyric that might be found in so different a play as The Two Gentleman of Verona, and there is a certain absurdity in its intrusion into what is already an absurdly protracted proposal of dynastic marriage.  The Bastard’s acid commentary prevents our taking the lines as serious though stilted, and yet they reflect a theme that was of special interest to Shakespeare.

Other poets, including John Donne, made use of the conceit that lovers could see their own images in the eyes of the beloved, and others had punned on ‘son’ and ‘sun,’ but here the two ideas are combined:  the lady’s eyes are so bright that he, the son, becomes a sun.  He has never admired himself so much as when he sees himself as a picture drawn on the ‘table’ of her eye.  The picture is so wonderful that from being a shadow it becomes a sun, while the sitter, a son/sun because the son of the King, is reduced to mere shadow.  The thought may be a bit confused, but the Bastard’s is not, being a witty comment on the punishment for treason, which was to be hanged, drawn (disemboweled), and quartered.  It may be noted that his speech, to complicate the irony, is presented in the six-line stanza (with a rhyme scheme ababcc) of erotic poetry, the stanzas of Venus and Adonis, here used for a grotesque conceit.  It is the only rhymed verse in the play, and can only be a sophisticated joke.”


From Bloom:

“I return to my earlier question, as to what made the breakthrough of Faulconbridge possible for Shakespeare.  Ben Jonson, rival yet close friend to his fellow actor-playmaker, in his tributary poem for the First Folio, says that nature herself was proud of Shakespeare’s designs, a reference not only to Shakespeare’s natural endowment but also in the way in which he exemplified a great metaphor in The Winter’s Tale:  ‘The art itself is nature.’  The Bastard himself is nature, and consciously is supremely artful, indeed theatrical.  When the city of Angiers will not admit the army of either the King of England or of France, Faulconbridge sums up the moment in a mode that Shakespeare will exploit with ever-greater cunning:

By heaven, these scroyles of Angiers flout you, kings,

And stand securely on their battlements,

As in a theater, whence they gape and point

At your industrious scenes and acts of death.

No one before Faulconbridge in Shakespeare is overly theatrical in this new way, which adds to the self-referential gloating of Marlowe’s Barabas (repeated by Aaron the Moor and Richard III) a doubling effect, confronting the action with the actors, simultaneously destroying and enhancing illusion.  But Tamburlaine and Barabas are firmly in the game, while praising themselves for their perceptual victories; the Bastard is both in and out of the game, watching and wondering at it.

Shakespearean protagonists from Faulconbridge on [MY NOTE:  Assuming that Bloom is correct, and King John is an early play that was revised in 1594-95)] (Richard II, Juliet, Mercutio, Bottom, Shylock, Portia) prepare the way for Falstaff by manifesting an intensity of being far in excess of their dramatic contexts.  They all suggest unused potentialities that their plays do not require of them.  The Bastard ought to be king, because nobody else in King John is at all kingly.  Richard II ought to be a metaphysical poet; Mercutio’s vitalism deserves to find some expression beyond bawdry; Bottom’s wonderfully good-humored, almost preternatural patience might weave an even more bottomless dream; Shylock’s desperate will to avenge insults could get beyond evil farce by forsaking literalism; Juliet and Portia warrant lovers more equal to them than Romeo and Bassanio.  Instead of fitting the role to the play, the post-Marlovian Shakespeare creates personalities who never could be accommodated by their roles; excess marks then not as hyperboles or Marlovian overreachers, but as overflowing spirits, more meaningful than the sum of their actions.  Falstaff is their first culmination, because his mastery of language is so absolute, yet from the Bastard on they all have an eloquence individual enough to intimate what will come:  characters who are ‘free artists of themselves’ (Hegel on Shakespeare’s personages), and who can give the impression that they are at work attempting to make their own plays.  When we confront Hamlet, Iago, Edmund, Lear, Edgar, Macbeth, and Cleopatra, we cannot ever be certain that they are not carrying free artistry of the self beyond the limits that Shakespeare only seems to set for them.  Trespassers defiant of formal and societal overdeterminations, they give the sense that all plot is arbitrary, whereas personality, however daemonic, is transcendent, and is betrayed primarily by what’s within.  They have an interior to journey out from, even if they cannot always get back to their innermost recesses.  And they never are reduced to their fates; they are more, much more, than what happens to them.  There is a substance to them that prevails; the major Shakespearean protagonists have souls that cannot be extinguished.”


And another take, from Tanner:

“For the next two Acts, as the English and French kings and noble spar for positions in France, the Bastard is something of a loose cannon.  He makes ironic, realistic comments (he is, indeed, an ‘observer,’ in particular mocking and goading the Duke of Austria, to the latter’s mounting irritation and discomfiture.  (Austria would be wearing the famous lion skin of Richard Coeur de Lion whom he had killed, which is provocation enough for Richard’s spirited son who will, shortly, kill Austria and retrieve the skin.)  His caustic comments on the follies of the main players have made some critics deem him a cynic (hence the Touchstone, Jaques comparisons, etc.), but this seems to me wrong.  He is more of a potential Falstaff [MY NOTE:  Bloom would approve of this], an ironic realist, contemptuous of the rhetorical hypocrisies and mendacities circulating around him.  At the impasse in front of Angiers when, after some pointless but bloody fighting, both kings claim victory and the right of entrance, the Bastard comments:

Ha, majesty!  How high thy glory tow’rs

When the rich blood of kings is set on fire!

O now doth death line his dead chaps with steel;

And now he feasts, mousing the flesh of men

In undetermined difference of kings.

The compressed power of those last two lines is, I think, something new in Shakespeare, and marks a sudden step closer to his mature style.  [MY NOTE:  It’s lines like these that make me think the play was written around the time of R&J and Richard II, and not earlier.]  Certainly, at times the speech of the Bastard represents a qualitatively new burst of linguistic energy.  This is nowhere more clear than in the Bastard’s reaction to the cynically proposed, politic marriage of Blanche and the Dauphin.  Hubert of Angiers, who suggests the marriage, conceals the motivating cynicism under an excessively cosmetic, hyperbolic rhetoric.  This way of talking is anathema to the Bastard [MY NOTE:  Falstaff, as well, cuts through all such nonsense], who is ever a plain speaker:

Here’s a large mouth, indeed,

That spits forth death and mountains, rocks and seas

Zounds!  I was never so bethumped with words

Since I first called my brother’s father dad.

But it is the marriage itself that repels him.  First, because the Dauphin, with his empty, insincere and formulaic love rhetoric, strikes him as horrible (‘In such a love so vile a lout as he’).  Secondly, because Blanche in her honest – ‘Further I will not flatter you, my lord’ – and her obedience – she will do, she says, ‘That she is bound in honor still to do’ – reveals to the Bastard a notion of ‘honor’ which nothing he has so far seen can match.  At the end of the scene, he sums up what he feels about all the maneuverings he has been watching.  This is the famous ‘Commodity’ soliloquy (it is the first time Shakespeare used the word) and it is one of the most important speeches in early Shakespeare – again, it is a new step.  The speech should be studied in its entirety (II, i, 561-98), but some lines must be singled out.  After his opening comprehensive comment – ‘Mad world!  Mad kings!  Mad composition!’ – the Bastard goes over what he has seen, and decides on a word for the kind of unprincipled self-interest which seems to determine almost everyone’s actions.  It is ‘that sly devil…That daily break-vow’—

That smooth-faced gentlemen, tickling commodity,

Commodity, the bias of the world,

The world, who of itself is peised well,

Made to run even upon even ground,

Till this advantage, this vile drawing bias,

This sway of motion, this commodity,

Makes it take head from all indifferency,

From all direction, purpose, course, intent.

And this same bias, this commodity,

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…

There is a reference to bowling in The Taming of the Shrew, but this is Shakespeare’s first extended use of what was to become a favourite metaphor.  Since, in bowls, the ball always had a ‘bias’ or weight in one side, it never went straight.  The possibilities of the image are many and obvious.  To the Bastard’s eye, apart from pawns like Blanche and victims like Arthur, everybody has a built-in ‘bias’ which he calls ‘commodity’ – self-servingness, expediency, compliance, causitry, opportunism, compromise, vow-breaking; it has a hundred names – and nobody maintains a straight course, variously abandoning fixed resolves, and deviating from set intentions.  And note – ‘this all-changing word.’  A casuist like Pandolph can, with the ‘right,’ specious words, change ‘treachery’ into ‘loyalty’ – and vice versa – in a matter of seconds.  The implications are frightening.  Anything can be changed into anything.  What, then, becomes of stable values, or indeed of any of the settled meanings by which we orient ourselves?  That way, chaos.

The Bastard has seen – and learned – a lot:  his ‘observing’ has carried him far.  But then come some unexpected lines which have confused some critics:

And 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 kinds break faith upon commodity,

Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee!

This seems plain enough – since Commodity reigns, he will submit to its rule.  But this is to miss the tone, which is more like – ‘I’m probably going on like this because I’ve never actually been directly tempted; very likely, given the chance, I’d jump at the offer of some corrupt money.  Probably, this is all envy and, if I become rich, I might well change my tune.  Anyway, seeing what kings do, I’d better prepare for a comparable change in myself.’  The Bastard is growing in self-knowledge and self-awareness, and there is a lot of protective, excessive self-honesty in these lines – the kind of honesty that over-accuses itself, damns itself in advance, in order to guard against self-righteous, self-deceiving complacency.  We are watching, and hearing, the Bastard learn.  This man will never be a hypocrite.”


And finally, this from W.H. Auden:

“The real interest in King John and Richard II lies in Shakespeare’s development as a writer.  Language is a means of making human feeling, and patterns of human feeling, conscious.  Language and people develop side by side and, to a degree, independently.  A poet is first and foremost in love with language.  The love of language is either itself a poetic gift or a symptom of it.  In a young writer, technical skill outruns mastery of feeling.  This is the opposite of the average unliterary man or woman who grows up to develop feelings that are more mature than his or her capacity for expression.  Language, like any other creature, wants to be autonomous, to go its own way.  Left to itself, it wants beautiful sounds and intricate rhetorical patterns.  It is also conservative.  It does not want to change a pattern that works well, and it is threatened by emotions and ideas that are too strong, too disorderly, or too new for tidy expression.  Language is the enemy of action.  If language had its way, action would stop, and man would exist in a lyrical trance, as in the poems of Mallarme, and in such a lyric as Peele’s,

Hot sunne, coole fire, tempered with sweet aire,

Black shade, fair nurse, shadow my white haire,

Shine sun, burne fire, breath aire, and ease mee,

Black shade, fair nurse, shroud me and please me,

Shadow (my sweet nurse) keep me from burning,

Make not my glad cause, cause of mourning.

     Let not my beauties fire,

     Enflame my unstaied desire,

     Nor pierce any bright eye

    That wondereth lightly.

The writer who surrenders to language – including even W.B. Yeats – is a minor poet.  The relation between poet and medium is like The Taming of the Shrew, where the writer is the husband and language the wife.  In the period of courtship, the writer should fetch and carry and stand waiting in the rain.  Once accepted, however, he must be the boss.  If a writer doesn’t love language, he isn’t even a minor poet.  In a young poet, look for artifice and technical skill.  Everyone must begin as a minor poet.  Beginning poets confine themselves to poetical feelings, either those of others or those that are their own particular discoveries.  Houseman is an instance of the latter.  A major poet is always willing to risk failure, to look for a new rhetoric.  Shakespeare, in 1595, might have startled us very much, because in 1595 he was not interested in plays, but in poems and sonnets.  Highbrows then would have been much more interested in his advances in lyric poetry.  It is great luck that Shakespeare had no money and was forced into drama.  From observation and experience, one can say that circumstances in the theater create artistic problems that a dramatist must learn to meet.  Shakespeare had to study action, which was a bore.  So he had to find the rhetoric that enabled men of action such as Faulconbridge to transcend action and become interesting.  Or, taking a particular lyric rhetoric as a given, he had to find a character to suit it, as he did with Richard II.”


So what do you think of the play so far?  Are you finding its dark cynicism as enchanting as I am?


Our next reading:  King John, Act Three

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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5 Responses to “And now he feasts, mousing the flesh of men/In undetermined difference of kings.”

  1. GGG says:

    I am running behind–getting ready for vacation. Shakespeare will be coming with us!

    The newspaper said today that this was the day (June 15, 1215) that King John signed the Magna Carta at Runnymede. Know it is not in the play, but good timing nonetheless!

  2. Sara says:

    I just finished this act. I have never read this play before, and am absolutely astonished at the character of the Bastard. He is one of those characters who seems to have wandered into the play fully formed (Bloom, et al, said it much better than I did). I’m also pleased with Constance and Elinor as female characters. I can’t believe this isn’t performed more often, although I saw that there is a production in London going on right now with a woman playing the Bastard. Sounds like great fun!

  3. Tyson says:

    You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be really
    something that I think I would never understand.
    It seems too complicated and extremely broad for me.
    I’m looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

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