By Dennis Abrams
Act Four: Back in England, Hubert visits the cell where Arthur is being held, but, ultimately, cannot bring himself to use red hot irons to burn out young Arthur’s eyes. At court, the support of Salisbury, Pembroke and Bigot – already weakened by John’s strange decision to be crowned a second time – is further damaged by the news of Arthur’s apparent death. The situation worsens as John hears of the arrival of a huge French army, and that both Eleanor and Constance are dead. Rumors escalate, stirred up by Peter of Pomfret, of John’s imminent downfall. Panicked, John blames Arthur’s death on Hubert, who reveals that the boy is still alive. Neither knows, however, that Arthur is in fact dead, killed in a fall while escaping from captivity. When his body is discovered by Salisbury, Pembroke and Bigot, they assume that Arthur has been murdered, and join the Dauphin’s army.
Before getting into Act Four, I was re-reading Acts Two and Three, and there are a couple of things I’d like to note that escaped my attention before:
1. Act Two, scene 1, 397-400. John and the King of France have fought to a stalemate under the walls of Angiers. John proposes to Philip, “France, shall we knit our powers/And lay this Angiers even with the ground,/Then after fight who shall be king of it?’ How darkly modern, cynical (somehow Vietnam comes to mind), is that passage?
2. Act Three, scene 1, 127-133. Constance has been berating Limoges, the Duke of Austria, for wanting to accept the peace between England and France, ending with “Thou wear a lion’s hide!/Doff it for shame,/And hang a calfskin on those recreant limbs.” Austria responds, “O that a man should speak those words to me!” To which Bastard immediately responds, “And hang a calfskin on those recreant limbs.” Very Marx Brothers like.
3. Act Three, scene 4, 125-158. Pandulph, the Papal Legate’s utter and complete cynicism in this speech – his almost cheerful willingness to let Arthur die so that the people of England will revolt and kick John off the throne.
The thing about King John, I think, is that it makes little or no attempt to spare our feelings. Though Arthur has somehow survived the king’s plotting, it is only to face death just a few scenes later, jumping from a wall while disguised as a ship-boy. This is just the kind of senseless event that King John presents to us – a chaos reflecting what the Bastard describes as the ‘tug and scramble’ of the world.
“King John is a new kind of history play for Shakespeare. There is no shadow of the Morality play in the background; nor are there any ritual elements – in the action or in the language (we hear none of the antiphonal exchanges audible in Richard III). I have not mentioned some of the elements of the play – the pathos of young Arthur pleading with Hubert not to put out his eyes; the hysterical, though often powerful, complaints and laments of the demented [MY NOTE: Really?] Constance, (she dies ‘in a frenzy’) – and in her speeches a descendant of Queen Margaret. But it is clear to me that by far its most important feature is the development of the imaginary character, the Bastard. It is worth noting, as E.A.J. Honigman pointed out in his magisterial edition, that certain key words occur more often in this play than in any other Shakespeare play. These include ‘blood’ (40 times), and ‘right’ (28 times). The recurrence of ‘right’ is perhaps hardly surprising since much of the play consists of endless debating about what, in this world where the ‘morality’ of politics is discussed in terms of games (‘Have I not here the best cards for the game/To win this easy match played for a crown?’ – and one good treachery deserves another (‘Paying the fine of rated treachery/Even with a treacherous fine of all your lives), ‘right’ actually is, and what is ‘right. Perhaps only the Bastard gets and keeps a fast hold on this. ‘Blood’ lines up with other frequently occurring words referring to parts of the body – ‘hand’ (52), ‘eye0 (47), ‘arm’ (27), ‘breath’ (18), ‘mouth” (14), ‘foot’ (12), ‘brow’ (11), ‘bosom’ (10), ‘tooth’ and ‘teeth’ (4), ‘spleen’ (4), ‘bowels’ (3) – this is a lot in a comparatively short (2,600 lines) play. It certainly indicates that this is an intensely corporeal play: the emphasis is very much on the body and there is very little sense of the transcendent or the spiritual. In a world dominated by ‘commodity,’ the body is, as it were, the central commodity. Again, this is a new feeling in Shakespeare. But I stay and end with the Bastard as the crucial invention and innovation. He represents the introduction (and fictitious) comic-heroic element into the history play, which will enable Shakespeare to progress to his supreme achievements in the genre – Henry IV, Parts 1&2.
“The energies of Shakespeare’s King John have much in common with those of Titus Andronicus, an early tragedy with which it shares a propensity for physical violence and the thematics of bodily mutilation. Where, for example, Titus seems to return repeatedly to the allusive language of heads and hands (both vividly lopped off, onstage, in that robust Senecan play), King John is similarly engaged – one might say obsessed – with the imagery of the eye, a thematic emphasis that culminates in the famous scene, invented by Shakespeare, in which the citizen Hubert of Angiers threatens, on John’s orders, to put out the eyes of Prince Arthur, a rival claimant to the throne. King John’s own language, and especially his use of the word ‘signs,’ likewise links John to Titus as well as to another early history play, Richard III. Here, for example, is the King’s remonstrance to Hubert, after John receives what turns out to be the false news of Arthur’s murder (Hubert pretends to have done the deed, and is relieved to learn that John now wishes it undone):
Hadst thou but shook thy head or made a pause
When I spake darkly what I purposed,
Or turned an eye of doubt upon my face,
As bide me tell my tale in express words,
Deep shame had struck me dumb, made me break off,
And those thy fears might have wrought fears in me.
But thou didst understand me by signs,
And didst in signs again parley with sin;
Yea, without stop, didst let thy heart consent,
And consequently thy rude hand to act
The deed which both our tongues held vile to name.
Out of my sight, and never see me more!
The ‘hands,’ ‘tongue,’ and ‘signs’ of Titus Andronicus are here combined with the ‘eye of doubt’ and the command ‘Out of my sight,’ echoes of the insistent ‘eye’ language of earlier scenes, and especially of the scene of aborted torture. When Hubert, emboldened, announces, ‘Young Arthur is alive. This hand of mine/Is yet a maiden and an innocent hand,/Not painted with the crimson spots of blood,’ and says that he is not, and could not bring himself to be ‘butcher of an innocent child,’ John begs his forgiveness: ‘Doth Arthur live?…my rage was blind,/And foul imaginary eyes of blood/Presented thee more hideous than thou art.’ In this play John’s emotional respite is short-lived, however, since Arthur in the next scene leaps to his death from the castle in which he had been imprisoned. This now unwelcome death of a former rival, like so many hastily and unwarily wished for in Shakespeare’s history plays (e.g., the death of Richard II that blights the reign of Henry IV), will come back to haunt the king.
In dramatic terms, the rivalry sets up a series of mother-son pairings unusual in Shakespeare’s history plays, which are so often preoccupied with the relationships between fathers and sons. Eleanor and John, Lady Falconbridge and the Bastard, and Constance and Arthur are all juxtaposed in scenes that show the mother’s affection, the son’s loyalty, and the complex politics of mother love, in a way that will not appear again until the late Roman play Coriolanus. The first act opens with the entrance of a king and queen, but the queen – Eleanor – is the king’s mother, not his wife. And she is also clearly his political confidant and close adviser. Lady Falconbridge’s ‘dear offense’ with King Richard I (Richard Coeur-de-lion, the Lion-Hearted), Eleanor’s eldest son and John’s brother and predecessor, has produced the Bastard as hero and champion. And Arthur’s claim, passionately supported by Constance and by her allies of France and Austria, derives from his father, Geoffrey, Constance’s husband and Eleanor’s second son. When John’s forces capture Arthur (officially styled Duke of Brittaine, but called by John, more dangerously, ‘Arthur of Britain), Constance is distraught, and in her distress she delivers what is perhaps the play’s most memorable single speech, her lament for ‘pretty Arthur’ and her almost metaphysical praise of grief.
The scene, act 3, scene 4, anticipates the torture scene in act 4, scene 1, and it is important to remember that at this point Arthur is neither dead nor even physically threatened. Yet in performance this is a ‘mad scene,’ anticipating Ophelia and Lady Macbeth, as Constance enters with her hair down (the conventional stage sign of the madwoman), and the French King Philip ineffectually commands her, ‘Bind up those tresses…Bind up your hair.’ Her reply is all too apposite: ‘I tore them from their bonds, and cried aloud,/’O that these hands could so redeem my son,/As they have given these hairs their liberty!’’ She is convinced that her son will die in captivity: ‘therefore never, never/Must I behold my pretty Arthur more.’ Although Constance begins the scene with histrionic exclamations, a familiar if powerful combination of macabre charnel house language and the erotics of womb and tomb – ‘Death, Death, O amiable, lovely death!/Thou odoriferous stench, sound rottenness!…I will kiss thy destestable bones,/And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows,/And ring these flowers with thy household worms…Come grin on me, and I will think thou smil’st,/And buss thee as thy wife’ – she ultimately modulates her tone, and attains, for a moment, an astonishing sublimity of utterance. When the Cardinal chides her for her excessive grieving, she answers in the same tenor as Macduff: ‘He talks to me that never had a son.’ And King Philip’s mild reproof, aimed at the emotionalism of women – ‘You are as fond of grief as of your child’ – produces the extraordinary conceit that is, perhaps, the play’s most often quoted passage:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
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;
Then have I reason to be fond of grief.
Fare you well. Had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
[She unbinds her hair]
I will not keep this form upon my head
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord, my boy, my Arthur, my fair son,
My life, my joy, my all the world,
My widow-comfort, and my sorrow’s cure!
The King, like Horatio confronted with the mad Ophelia, ‘fear[s] some outrage,’ and follows her offstage. Arthur’s desperate leap to his death comes an act later, and it is greeted with equal ceremony – ‘O death, made proud with pure and princely beauty!’ – by the nobles who discover the body. But by this time both Constance and Eleanor are dead, the passing of these two enemies and rivals twinned, with acute irony, in a messenger’s report to King John:
O, where hath our intelligence been drunk?
Where hath it slept? Where is my mother’s ear,
That such an army could be drawn in France,
And she not hear of it?
My liege, her ear
Is stopped with dust. The first of April died
Your noble mother. And as I hear, my lord,
The Lady Constance in a frenzy died
Three days before…
In this exchange, John speaks in words very similar to those later to be heard from a scornful Lady Macbeth (‘Was the hope drunk/Wherein you dress’d yourself?’), only to hear, as Macbeth will hear, of the queen’s death offstage. ‘What! mother dead?’ John exclaims, rather bathetically, at the news. The historical Constance died in 1201, three years before Eleanor, but Shakespeare’s play brings these mighty opposites together in death. In a play written in the time of Elizabeth and focused on a set of martial, political, and religious conflicts often compared with Elizabeth’s own, neither Eleanor nor Constance prevails. Instead, as with Elizabeth, the key question continues to be not who will be the power behind the throne, but who will be the legitimate and powerful ruler. The model remains male (John; his son, Prince Henry; the heroic Bastard). Elizabeth would have seen herself in the line of kings, and not among the female consorts. But the theatrical power of these two strong women is very effective, enlivening the play and deepening its pathos.
Against these titanic women of the older generation, the younger women, exemplified by Blanche of Spain, have little power. Blanche, indeed, finds herself in a situation that will become familiar for brides-to-be in Shakespearean plays, torn between love and filial duty – between her husband, Louis of France, and her uncle, King John of England, as the false peace brokered by her wedding immediately escalates to war:
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.
Like Octavia in Julius Caesar, caught between her husband, Antony, and her brother, Caesar, Blanche discovers that an arranged marriage cannot so easily reconcile determined foes.
Prophecies, like that of the local seer Peter of Pomfret, are used to reinforce the sense of dramatic fatality. Peter’s prediction that John will ‘deliver up’ his crown by Ascension Day comes true, but not in the dire sense in which it is taken, since at the beginning of act 5 John voluntarily surrenders his crown to the papal legate in order to receive it ceremonially back from him, thus reconciling himself with Rome. Peter of Pomfret is dismissed as a ‘dreamer,’ like the soothsayer in Julius Caesar, and the part he plays is a very small one. In fact, though he is onstage at the time, in act 4, his prophecy is reported by the Bastard rather than spoken by Peter himself. But this slantwise achievement of a prophetic ‘truth’ against its apparently plain meaning is a device that Shakespeare will sue repeatedly in other plays, from Richard III (where the prophecy that ‘G” intends mischief refers not to George, Duke of Clarence, but to Richard, Duke of Gloucester) to Henry IV Part 2 (where the King dies in a chamber called ‘Jerusalem,’ not in the Holy Land, as he had expected) and the several prophecies in Macbeth.
The larger design of the play pursues a pattern that would become familiar in later histories and tragedies. A king with a clouded title to the throne tries desperately to reinforce that title by repressing, appeasing, or extinguishing a popular rival. Arthur’s name, Arthur of Brittaine, we might note here, would have carried historical resonances with the ancient and legendary King of Britain, as well as with Henry VIII’s elder brother, the first Tudor heir, Prince Arthur, who died young. Interested parties on all sides attempt to intervene, with results that are either futile or counterproductive. External war (in the plot of the play, the medieval conflict of England against France; in the context of Shakespeare’s own time, England’s recently concluded war with Spain) is followed by civil strife, both between rival factions and within the divided mind and consciousness of the king. A heroic and entrepreneurial figure – here, the Bastard Falconbridge – emerges to combine the popular and the ‘noble,’ and to offer a spirit of patriotic energy otherwise lacking from the tired court.”
Our next reading: King John, Act Five
My next posting: Thursday evening/Friday morning.