“Yet indiscretion thereby grows direct,/And falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire/Within the scorched veins of one new burned.

King John

Act Three

By Dennis Abrams


Act Three:  After the wedding, Constance berates King Philip and the Duke of Austria for their weakness but is interrupted by the arrival of Cardinal Pandolf, the papal legate.  The Cardinal tells John that he must accept the Pope’s candidate for Archbishop of Canterbury.  But John refuses, and is excommunicated by Pandolf, who then threatens the same for King Philip unless he turns against John.  Philip reluctantly agrees and prepared to fight once more.  In the ensuing battle, the Duke of Austria is killed and Arthur is captured.  King John then commissions Hubert to murder Arthur.  Meanwhile, in the French camp, Cardinal Pandolf encourages the Dauphin to continue the fight against John and claim the English thrown for himself.


One of the things I’m enjoying about the play (which probably says a lot about me) is the play’s cynicism – some acts are cynical, others brazenly so.  One of its most unappealing events is the plot concocted to rid himself of his nephew Arthur, who has been captured from the French.  The tone of their exchange, is, I think, one of the most remarkable in the play and is as breathtakingly sinister as anything in Richard III.  John coos, “Good Hubert, Hubert, Hubert, throw thine eye/On young boy,”

     I’ll tell thee what, my friend,

He is a very serpent in my way.

And wheresoe’r this foot of mine doth tread,

He lies before me.  Dost thou understand me?

Thou art his keeper.


     And I’ll keep him so

That he shall not offend your majesty.

King John:



     My lord.

King John:

A grave.


He shall not live.

King John:


How good is that?  Strung across one line of verse, Hubert’s and the King’s thoughts are all of a piece:  curt, evasive, euphemistic.  John concentrates on Arthur’s eventual destination, not the act of killing him; Hubert put it all safely in the negative.  Everything but everything is read between the lines.  The aim of course, as it always and always shall be is deniability.  And indeed, it turns out the King will attempt to refute that he ever ordered Arthur’s death – which, strictly speaking, is accurate enough.

But Arthur will be saved, and for awhile at least, it looks as if the play might just redeem itself from utter and complete cynicism.  Moved by the boy’s eloquent appeals to his “heart,” Hubert undergoes an astonishing conversion from henchman to savior and saves him.  Wrongly persuaded that Arthur has been murdered, King John undergoes a transformation that is no less astonishing:  he tries to blame Hubert for persuading him into “bloody villainy” and frets (the only word possible) that the boy’s death will blot his copybook at the “last account,” – the Day of Judgment.  But his sorrow is nothing compared to the grief of Arthur’s mother Constance, convinced since his capture that her young son is dead.  Her words are breathtakingly simple:  “Grief fills the room up of my absent child,” she cries,

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…

Constance more than lives up to her name, providing – as do many other female figures in the history plays – a strong ethical center in a world gone incredibly amoral.   It’s interesting and perhaps pertinent to note that Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet was buried in August 1596, around the same time that King John was premiered, and it is tempting (although I’m not sure if it’s wise), to read into Constance’s words the feelings of a man who knew her kind of “grief” only to well.”


From Tanner:

King John has been called Shakespeare’s most unhistorical play.  It certainly plays fast and loose with facts and time.  It is incredibly compressed.  One scene, for instance (Act Iv, ii), brings together events which cover just about John’s entire reign [MY NOTE:  I’m not going to mention the events…yet.]  In the last century, one P.A. Daniel pointed out the whole reign is made to seem a matter of a few months, and that the action actually requires only seven separate days, with intervals.  Shakespeare sometimes like to collapse and foreshorten historic time in this dramatic way (most notoriously in Othello), and here it serves to jam cause and effect very tightly together.

To what end?  John emerges as a very defective king.  At times, he fulfills his traditional, dignified monarchial role and issues ringing defiance to his enemies.  But for the most part he is shown as weak and treacherous – mean, manipulative, and opportunistic – before his final collapse into utter impotence, and poisoned madness.  He does defy the Pope – but for purely political and financial reasons; and he is quick to hand his crown back to Pandulph, the papal legate, when expediency demands.  The increasingly discontented barons duly defect from John and go over to the French, and England is consequently, and shamefully, invaded.  (It is notable that Shakespeare never mentioned Magna Carta (1215), forced on John by the nobles to retain their ancient rights).  England is finally saved by the timely sinking of the French supply ships, the adroit political maneuvering of Pandulph, and the revelation of the French lord Melun which send the rebellious English barons hurrying back to the English side.  No great victories:  no outstanding heroes.

John Masefield thought the play to be primarily a study in treachery, and, indeed, it is full of traitors and turncoats; changing sides, yielding to shifting solicitations and pressures, breaking oaths as soon as they have made them, abandoning sworn loyalties as the wind changes.  Some examples of completely hollow rituals of allegiance would include:  Arthur willingly embracing Austria (who killed his father); the cynical marriage of Louis and Blanche; Philip’s oath to Constance (‘In her right we came,/Which we, God knows, have turned another way,/To our own vantage”); John forcing new oaths of allegiance out of his nobles at his second coronation; John’s show of renewed allegiance to the Pope as he hands the crown back to Pandulph; and the revelation of the dying Melun to the English lords which, though a good dead in itself (he confesses that the French intend to kill the defecting English lords once victory has been achieved), does break his oath to the Dauphin, who in turn intended to break his oath to the English nobles, who had already broken their oaths of loyalty to the English king – showing, graphically enough, how one broken oath leads to another!

This aspect of the atmosphere of the play is best exemplified by the exchange between the French king, Philip, and the papal legatee, Pandulph.  Peace between England and France has just been sealed by the marriage of Blanche and the Dauphin.  Pandulph enters, demanding to know why John has spurned the Pope’s choice in the appointing of the new Archbishop of Canterbury.  John is peremptorily dismissive – ‘no Italian priest/Shall tithe or toll in our dimensions’ etc. (this was the sort of defiant stuff the English Protestants loved).  Pandulph duly curses and excommunicates John (though, of course, he will later help him); and he orders the Catholic Philip to turn his forces against the English king.  To his credit, Philip is torn:

I am perplexed, and know not what to say

This royal hand and mine are newly knit,

And the conjunction of our inward souls

Married in league, coupled and linked together

With all religious strength of sacred vows;

The latest breath that gave the sound of words

Was deep-sworn faith, peace, amity, true love

Between our kingdoms and our royal selves

And shall these hands, so lately purged of blood,

So newly joined in love, so strong in both,

Unyoke this seizure and this kind regret?

Play fast and loose with faith? so jest with heaven,

Make such unconstant children of ourselves

As now again to snatch our palm from palm,

Unswear faith sworn, and on the marriage bed

Of smiling peace to march a bloody host,

And make a riot on the gentle brow

Of true sincerity?

Surely not.  It would be intolerable so to turn the back on all the values a Christian king is supposed to believe in.  But Pandulph is adamant.  Let go of England’s hand, and prepare to fight.  Philip still complains, resists:

I may disjoin my hand, but not my faith.


To which Pandulph replied with a masterpiece of casuistry which is one of the central speeches of the play.

So mak’st thou faith an enemy to faith,

And like a civil war set’st oath to oath,

Thy tongue against they tongue…

What since thou swor’st is sworn against thyself

And may not be performed by thyself,

For that which thou has sworn to do amiss

Paola Dionisotti as Pandulph in King John.  Photo by Keith Pattison.

Is not amiss when it is truly done;

And being not done, when doing tends to ill,

The truth is then most done by not doing it.

The better act of purposes mistook

Is to mistake again; though indirect,

Yet indiscretion thereby grows direct,

And falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire

Within the scorched veins of one new burned.

It is religion that doeth make vows kept,

But thou hast sworn against religion

(By what thou swear’st against the thing thou swear’st)

And mak’st an oath the surety for thy truth

(Again an oath the truth); thou art unsure

To swear – swears only not to be forsworn,

Else what a mockery should it be to swear!

But thou dost swear only to be forsworn,

And most forsworn, to keep what thou dost swear…

and endlessly more of the same.  This was the kind of Jesuitical ‘equivocation’ which drove Elizabethan Protestants mad.  Philip duly capitulates – ‘England, I will fall from thee.’  In an atmosphere in which such a speech can dominate and prevail, it is going to be very hard to work out, or hold onto, what might genuinely constitute ‘honour,’ ‘loyalty,’ ‘true duty,’ not to mention ‘majesty’ and ‘nobility.’  It is all very unedifying.”


It occurs to me that much of our discussion has, rightly I believe, centered on Faulconbridge, cynicism, etc., but not much on the play’s title subject at all.  This from Bloom should help to remedy that:

“The character of Shakespeare’s King John has few critical defenders, the most formidable is E.A.J. Honigmann, who deprecates the Bastard Faulconbridge so as to enhance John’s status as the play’s protagonist.  Honigmann’s John is a brilliant politician, who attempts to know everyone’s price and to buy everyone off, but who also possesses ‘ungovernable passion as well as cunning dissimulation in his heart.’  One can agree with Honigmann’s shrewd observation that these irreconcilable psychological elements, properly played, keep John a ‘puzzle and a surprise’ for the audience.

Alas, John is mostly a dour puzzle and an unhappy surprise:  he is half-way between the Marlovian cartoon of his ranting, dreadful mother, Queen Eleanor, and the Shakespearean inwardness of the flamboyant Bastard.

John’s peculiar interest for Shakespeare’s audience was the king’s ambiguous allusiveness to Queen Elizabeth’s political dilemmas.  Arthur, John’s nephew, was the legitimate heir to Richard the Lion Heart, just as Mary Queen of Scots could have been regarded as the rightful heir to King Henry VIII, after the brief reigns of Elizabeth’s half brother Edward VI and half sister Mary.  The parallels are certainly there between King John and Queen Elizabeth I:  papal excommunication, a foreign armada sent against England, even the plots against the ‘usurping’ monarchs by English nobles, whom the invading forces intend to eliminate when their purpose has been served.

To compare, however implicitly, the ill-fated John and Elizabeth was rather dangerous, and Shakespeare is too circumspect to overwork the parallels.  The Spanish Armada was defeated, and then wrecked by storm in the Hebrides, in the summer of 1588, in 1595 rumors swept London that a new Spanish Armada was coming together at Lisbon.  Whether King John, as a kind of ‘Armada play,’ is likelier to have been written in 1590 or 1595 therefore cannot be determined by outward events alone.  I tend to agree with Peter Alexander and with Honigmann that Shakespeare’s King John is the source, not the heir, of The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England (1591), an anonymous play even more Marlovian than Shakespeare’s.

Though Shakespeare’s King John was a popular success, its fortunes through the centuries have been very mixed.  Honigmann conjectures that in its first performances, by the combined Lord Strange’s men and the Lord Admiral’s men, Edward Alleyn (Marlowe’s Tamburlaine) played John, and Richard Burbage (later, Shakespeare’s Hamlet), appeared as the Bastard Faulconbridge.  The best King John I have ever seen was in 1948 at Stratford with Anthony Quayle as the Bastard and Robert Helpmann as John.  Though the play (because of the Bastard) seems to me far superior to Richard III [MY NOTE:  Any thoughts on this?], it is no surprise that it receives, these days, infinitely fewer performances than the endlessly popular Richard III.  There is something curiously antithetical about King John, with much in it that is Marlovian rant, yet much more that is very subtle and memorable.  I associate this mystery of the play with the greatest mystery in Shakespeare, which is the missing first Hamlet [MY NOTE:  More on this later!], where I have followed Peter Alexander’s lead in believing that ‘lost’ work to be Shakespeare’s own, partly embedded in the texts of Hamlet that we now possess.  The common mystery is the nature of Shakespeare’s complex apprenticeship to Marlowe’s example, the only influence relationship that ever troubled the greatest and ultimately the most original of all writers.

One of the apparent faults of King John is that it divides into two plays, Acts 1-III and IV-V.  John Blanpied, analyzing this, usefully calls the Bastard a satiric improviser of I-III, who thus humanizes the drama for us.  But in the chaotic world of IV-V, John falls apart, in a kind of hysteria, and the Bastard seems lost and confused, though always still a fighter and fiercely loyal to John.  Blanpied does not say so, but Shakespeare hints that the Bastard’s attachment to John (who is his uncle) is essentially filial and repeats the pattern of John’s relation to his dreadful mother Eleanor, whose death helps precipitate John’s collapse.  When the two roles are properly interpreted and acted, I do not think either the Bastard’s role or John’s diminishes in interest or strength in Acts IV-V, and so I think the play’s two-part division, while strange, is not ultimately a flaw.  Faulconbridge ceases to delight us as much in the play’s second part, but his inwardness (as I will show), is only augmented as he darkens.  He opens a new mode for Shakespeare, one that will achieve apotheosis in the greatness of Sir John Falstaff.  In Act II, in front of besieged Angiers, reacting to the dubious bargain struck by John and the King of France, the Bastard delivers the greatest of his monologues, an enlivening discourse upon ‘commodity’: worldly self-interest and political payoff:

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 divel,

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-fac’d gentleman, 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,

Clapp’d on the outward eye of fickle France,

Hath drawn him from his own determin’d aid,

From a resolv’d and honourable war,

To a most base and vile-concluded peace.

And why rail I on this commodity?

But for because he  hath not woo’d 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 than 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!

He will, of course, not worship gain, and will continue ‘from the inward motion to deliver/Sweet, sweet, poison for the age’s tooth,’ yet the shadow of ‘commodity’ henceforward begins to darken his exuberance.  Sent off by John to rob the English monasteries, he chants:

Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back

When gold and silver becks me to come on:

That is not exactly Faulconbridge at his best, but who in King John, except poor Arthur, is truly worth the Bastard’s concern?  Harold Goddard wisely compares Faulconbridge on Commodity with Shakespeare himself on Time and Policy in two magnificent sonnets, 123 and 124.  Sonnet 124 in particular seems to me almost a gloss upon the Bastard’s authentic defiance of timeserving:

If my dear love were but the child of state,

It might for Fortune’s bastard be unfather’d,

As subject to Time’s love, or to Time’s hate,

Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gather’d.

No, it was builded far from accident;

It suffers not in smiling pomp, nor falls

Under the blow of thralled discontent,

Whereto th’inviting time our fashion calls;

It fears not policy, there heretic,

Which works on leases of short-numb’red hours,

But all alone stands hugely politic,

That it not grows with heat, nor drowns with show’rs.

To this I witness call the fools of time,

Which die for goodness, who have liv’d for crime.

Except for the Bastard and the innocent Arthur, everyone in King John is among ‘the fools of Time,’ where ‘fools’ means ‘victims.’  Desperate as the mother-dominated John is, neither he nor neither of the two insanely driven royal women – Eleanor and Constance – is the prime fool of time in the play.  That has to be the Papal Legate, Cardinal Pandolph, a precursor of the Ulysses of Troilus and Cressida, and even more of Iago. Shakespeare sees to it that Pandolph alienates his audience every time he speaks, but it is Pandolph, high priest of Commodity and of Policy, who alone triumphs in this play.”

It seems to me that Pandolph’s triumph, given the cynical nature of the play, makes perfect sense.


What are your thoughts so far?


Our next reading:  King John, Act Four

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning


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4 Responses to “Yet indiscretion thereby grows direct,/And falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire/Within the scorched veins of one new burned.

  1. Mahood says:

    I quite like these [pessimistic] lines from Lewis:

    There’s nothing in this world can make me joy:
    Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale
    Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man;
    And bitter shame hath spoil’d the sweet world’s taste
    That it yields nought but shame and bitterness.

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