By Dennis Abrams
Act Five: John gives in to the Pope’s wish, but Pandolf is unable to call off the Dauphin. As war breaks out, news arrives that the French reinforcements have been shipwrecked. Suffering from fever, John cannot celebrate but is forced to take refuge in Swineshead Abbey. The English received a further morale boost when Salisbury, Pembroke and Bigot leave the French, but the situation collapses with the news that John has been poisoned and half the English army drowned at the Wash. John dies just as peace is being negotiated.
It’s interesting to note, I think, that as the play draws to its close, as the territorial intrigues and political double-tricks continue, our eyes are caught by the fate of the King. Already ill by the time he engages one last time with the French in Act Five, John travels to the monastery at Swineshead for relief, but – in a bizarre and yet seemingly fitting twist – is poisoned there by a monk. As he lies on his deathbed, the monarch’s mind wanders around the consequences of his actions. “Ay marry, now my soul hath elbow-room, he says, riddlingly,
It would not out at windows nor at doors.
There is so hot a summer in my bosom
That all my bowels crumble up to dust;
I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen
Upon a parchment, and against this fire
Do I shrink up.
There is a macabre irony in John’s words: in the same way that he attempted to have Arthur murdered by the means of a note passed to Hubert, so his own body has become a ‘scribbled form’ shrinking into the fires of Hell.
Although the King is seemingly given what he deserves in the form of a punishment – in the manner of the moralized history books that Shakespeare often used – the play teases us right up to the end. No sooner is King John dead and Prince Henry on the throne than news arrives, another sudden reversal, of a French offer of peace. And suddenly, the play is over. Allowed the play’s final word, the Bastard makes of these events what he can, but his attempt to end things on a rousingly patriotic note sound just a bit hollow. Reflecting that “England never did, nor never shall,/Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,” he attempts to turn a lucky escape into a national triumph:
Now these her princes are home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms
And we shall shock them. Naught shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true.
Can we believe this?
A last few words from Bloom on the Bastard:
“It’s not that the Bastard is defeated, but the death of the boy Arthur, and the endless, twisted weakness of John finally have their effect upon even this most exuberant of Shakespeare’s earliest inventors of the human:
Who art thou?
Who thou wilt; and if thou please
Thou mayst befriend me so much as to think
I come one way of the Plantagenets.
That wry assertion of self-identity is extraordinarily unrepresentative of Faulconbridge, whose sense of himself as Richard the Lion Heart’s natural son is everywhere else so celebratory and vehement. But loving John as king-father carries a high cost: John is not a mother’s boy in the heroic mode of Coriolanus. Rather, John is a treacherous coward, even if one grants Honigmann his high evaluation of John as a politician. Historians remember John now only for his enforced granting of the Magna Carta to his barons, a matter so uninteresting to Shakespeare that he omits it altogether. Essentially, Shakespeare’s John pragmatically abdicates to the Bastard when, at the worst of times, he appoints his nephew all power to exercise against the French and the rebel nobles: ‘have thou the ordering of this present time.’ The finest tribute to the Bastard as a fighter is made in some desperation by Salisbury, one of the rebels:
That misbegotten devil, Faulconbridge,
In spite of spite, alone upholds the day.
Against all odds, almost single-handedly, the Bastard maintains the glory of his actual father, the Lion Heart. Shakespeare concludes the play with a patriotic clarion call by the Bastard that reverberates against the dying music of John, who speaks most memorably out of the bodily tortures of having been poisoned:
Poison’d, ill fare; dead, forsook, cast off:
And none of you will bid the winter come
To thrust his icy fingers in my maw,
Nor let my kingdom’s rivers take their course
Through my burn’d bosom, nor entreat the north
To make his bleak winds kiss my parched lips
And comfort me with cold. I do not ask you much,
I beg cold comfort; and you are so strait,
And so ingrateful, you deny me that.
It is the only time that John moves us, though even here Shakespeare distances us from this pathos, since we also could offer only cold comfort…”
And this from Tanner on Faulconbridge, picking up on the lessons he learned about “commodity.”
“The next episode in which the Bastard plays a major role, shows him to considerable advantage. It follows the sequence in which Hubert goes to put out Arthur’s eyes; decides to let Arthur live; and then Arthur, trying to escape, jumps to his death from the castle walls. The English nobles, already disaffected from King John, now pretend to uncontainable horror at what they assume to be the murder of Arthur ordered by the King. As their simulated outrage approaches hysteria, the Bastard counsels calms – and good manners:
Whate’er you think, good words, I think were best.
…’twere reason you had manners now.
[MY NOTE: For some reason it never occurred to me that the nobles were simulating outrage, but looking back at lines like “All murders past do stand excused in this,” and “This is the very top,/The height, the crest, or crest unto the crest,/Of murder’s arms. This is the bloodiest shame,/The wildest savagery, the vilest stroke,/That ever walleyed wrath or staring rage/Presented to the tears of soft remorse.”]
When they find Arthur’s corpse, the nobles leap to the worst conclusions and try to outdo each other in hyperbolic expressions of horror. Only the Bastard keeps balance and sanity:
It is a damned and a bloody work,
The graceless action of a heavy hand,
If that it be the work of any hand.
He, and he alone, wisely reserves judgment. When Hubert appears, the nobles simply want to ‘cut him to pieces.’ The Bastard maintains order – ‘Keep the peace, I say’; and to the over-inflamed Salisbury – ‘Your sword is bright, sir; put it up again’ – a memorable line anticipating, of course, Othello at his initially most authoritative). The nobles leave with their tails between their legs, heading for the French. It is a very impressive performance on the Bastard’s part. This is indeed a mature, stalwart, authoritative figure – as solid as a rock.
Left alone with Hubert, he says, — if in fact you did do the murder –
…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.
I do suspect thee very grievously.
But he accepts Hubert’s protestations of innocence, and tells him to carry away Arthur’s body. There follows a moment of bemusement, and other crucial speech.
I am amazed, me thinks, and lose my way
Among the thorns and dangers of this world.
Now for the bare-picked bone of majesty
Doth dogged war bristle his angry crest
And snarleth in the gentle eyes of peace:
Now powers from home and discontents at home
Meet in one line, and vast confusion waits,
As doth a raven on a sick-fall’n beast,
The imminent decay of wrested pomp.
Now happy he whose cloak and center can
Hold out this tempest. Bear away that child,
And follow me with speed: I’ll to the King.
A thousand businesses are brief in hand,
And heaven itself doth frown upon the land.
He is briefly lost, and is not sure where he stands; then – the images are very powerful – he surveys the imminent chaos and loss of centre as the rebellious English lords join up with the French; then – crucially – he decides upon immediate action (lots to be done), and a resolute direction and commitment – ‘I’ll to the King.’ This is a man now capable of making up his mind in the midst of ‘vast confusion.’ Invaluable.
Throughout the last act, the Bastard, in effect, takes over trying to organize the defence of England against the French. First he attempts to rouse the king to kingly behavior:
But wherefore do you droop? Why look you sad?
Be great in act, as you have been in thought;
Let not the world see fear and sad distrust
Govern the motion of a kingly eye;
Be stirring at the time; be fire with fire.
To no avail – the king has handed power over to Pandulph to try to arrange an agreed peace. This is ‘inglorious’ to the Bastard [MY NOTE: Quentin Tarrentino anyone?], who does not think that England should
Insinuation, parley, and base truce
To arms invasive.
He is for direct, honest confrontation – ‘stirring’ and meeting fire with fire – and he now speaks for the king and with a king’s voice. It is notable that when he goes to speak to the French directly, he says:
According to the fair-play of the world,
Let me have audience…
There is precious little ‘fair-play’ in the world we have seen, and it is almost as if he is appealing to some forgotten ideal – an ideal which, however, he himself has come to embody. ‘Fair-play’ is what you respect if you haven’t gone over to ‘commodity.’ To the French he says:
Now hear our English king,
For thus his royalty doth speak in me…
and he duly utters a long speech of kingly defiance (this is his Henry V side). By this time, he is to all intents and purposes ‘king,’ and we feel him to be such – though historically we know this cannot happen. Shakespeare h ere takes his play as near to the radical re-writing of history – pushing it off in another direction – as it was possible for him to go.
This is the point of the final scene, in which Prince Henry, John’s son and legitimate heir to the throne, suddenly appears. Not only have we not seen him before; no mention has been made of him (nor, indeed, of John’s wife, Isabel). It is as if Shakespeare has been deliberately holding him back while we watch the unimpeded growth of the Bastard into the kingly figure which, in the event, England did not get (or, at least, not until Henry V). To the end, the Bastard sees his mob as:
To push destruction and perpetual shame
Out of the weak door of our fainting land…
But with the appearance of the true heir, he abdicates his leadership, and turns and kneels:
To whom, with all submission, on my knee,
I do bequeath my faithful services
And true subjection everlastingly.
He is a figure, now, of truly selfless loyalty. Prince Henry’s task, says Salisbury, referring to the mess John has made of England, is
To set a form upon that indigest
Which he hath left so shapeless and rude.
The Bastard, we feel, would be a better man for that job. But real history makes its impositions, and marches on. Still it is given to the Bastard to voice the concluding sentiment of the play – a very important one to Elizabethans, always afraid of the possibility of civil war:
Naught shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true!
And finally, an interesting overview from Jonathan Bate, from his highly recommended book, Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare:
“’Speak, citizens, for England,’ says the king of France to the townspeople of Angiers as it is besieged by rival armies from opposite sides of the English Channel. Of all Shakespeare’s history plays, King John is the one that most explicitly asks what it might mean to speak for England. It explores questions about legitimacy and inheritance that were of concern to all properties families in Tudor England, but of monumental significance to the monarchy – especially at a time when an aged childless queen was sitting on the throne. In the much better-known play of King Lear, the legitimate son Edgar is the virtuous one and the illegitimate Edmund is the villain. King John imagines a more challenging possibility: suppose that a great king dies and that his bravest, most honest, and most intelligent son is the illegitimate one. In such a circumstance, inheritance on the basis of merit is not possible: if a bastard were to ascend to the throne, the legitimacy of the entire monarchial system would be called into question. The seamless interdependence of patrilineal state, law, church, and family would begin to unravel.
In the first scene of King John, before there is any resolution to all the difficult questions of succession and faith, power and proprietorship, a sheriff enters. His presence signals the jurisdiction of the shires, the ‘country’ as opposed to the ‘court’ interest. The question of which of two brothers will inherit a parcel of land in the shires parallels that of which of Richard Coeur de Lion’s brothers, John or Geoffrey (through Arthur), will inherit the nation as a whole. For the original audience in the 1590s, an encounter set in the distant thirteenth century would have echoed with debates in their own time, where it was not unknown for a provincial member of Parliament to give voice in the House of commons to words that one might have expected to belong to the queen alone: ‘I speak for all England.’ In many quarters, there was a strongly held view that ‘England’ was not synonymous with the English queen and her court based in and around London. Though the Tudor monarchs had tried to unify the nation by establishing a network of legal representatives across the shires, the ‘country’ gentry as well as the great barons of the north and west guarded their autonomy fiercely.
The Bastard announces himself as a gentleman born in Northamptonshire; he is ‘a good blunt fellow,’ which is to say a plain-speaking English countryman. Later, he appeals to St. George, the patron saint of England. His, then, is the voice of Shakespeare’s own place of origin, the Midlands, deep England. He is given a choice: to inherit the Falconbridge estates or take his ‘chance’ and assume the name, though not the patrimony, of the royal father who sired him out of wedlock.
The norm in the English gentry was for the older son to inherit the land and the younger to become mobile, to go to London and find a career in the law, the clergy, the army, the diplomatic corps, or possibly even the entertainment business. Settled legitimacy was pitched against the life of the adventurer. By accepting his illegitimacy and renouncing the land he is actually entitled to (because it was his mother’s adultery, not his father’s, he is not forcibly disinherited in the manner of Edmund in King Lear), the Bastard takes the route that was usually that of the younger brother. Shakespeare did the same when he left Stratford-upon-Avon.
The Bastard’s origin in middle England is further stressed by the arrival of Lady Falconbridge and James Gurney, wearing riding robes that signify the journey from country to court. The Bastard then describes his half brother as ‘Colbrand the Giant, that same mighty man.’ Colbrand was a Danish invader who was defeated in single combat by Guy of Warwick – a legendary figure who was immensely popular in chapbook, ballad, and drama. If Robert Falconbridge is symbolically Colbrand, then Philip the Bastard is symbolically Guy, a Warwickshire folk hero. Perhaps he is even a version of Robin Hood, with the sheriff of Northampton standing in for his colleague from Nottingham. Robin Hood himself, the most famous folk hero from the reign of John, cannot be mentioned because his name would immediately turn the king into a villain, which Shakespeare did not want to do at the beginning of the play. He preferred to keep open the question of the relative legitimacy of the claims of John and Arthur, and he was also working in that tradition of chronicle and drama in which King John was a proto-Protestant hero because of his refusal to allow the pope’s nominee, Stephen Langton, to become archbishop of Canterbury.
The Bastard stands in for Guy of Warwick, who stands in for Robin Hood of old England. It was Robin who maintained the values of good King Richard at home, while the latter was fighting his jihad in the Middle East (‘Richard that robbed the lion of his heart/And fought the holy wars in Palestine.’) As the play progresses, the Bastard’s role shifts to that of stand-in for the dead Coeur de Lion himself. He ends up fighting the war on John’s behalf and at one point comes within a whisker of ascending on the throne. He speaks for England in the closing lines:
This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
…Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.
The world-weary voice is that of a dramatist who in his Henry VI plays has shown the bloody consequences of England turning against itself.
The Bastard is the conscience of the nation, the symbolic heir of Lionheart, the voice of the shires. But he is also an adventurer, the embodiment of illegitimacy, a new man, an individualist who foreshadows the more sinister figure of Edmund in Lear: ‘I am I, howe’er I was begot.’ Improviser, player, speaker of soliloquies, both inside and outside history, could he be the voice not only of Guy but also of William of Warwickshire? Who speaks for deep England? A challenge of legitimacy. An entrepreneur. A player. A man who idealizes the shires even as he leaves them to enter the theater, the market, the emergent empire. Who speaks? A Shakespeare.”
My take on King John: I honestly went into it not expecting much, and I certainly can see its flaws (structurally, the split between acts 1-3 and 4-5, the occasionally overblown rhetoric from Constance, etc.), but the tone, the nearly complete and utter cynicism about politics and religion was not quite what I expected, but thoroughly and completely enjoyed. Add the Bastard to the mix and I was a very happy reader.
But what did you all think? Your thoughts, positive or negative? Unanswered questions? Share them with the group!
My next post: Sunday evening – Sonnet # 107
Our next play: The Merchant of Venice – trust me, you’re not going to want to miss this one.
Enjoy your weekend.