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The Life and Death of King John is usually dated on grounds of style between Shakespeare’s two historical tetralogies, perhaps shortly before Richard II in 1594 or 1595. In structure and characterization, it is also transitional from the episodic first series (Henry VI through Richard III) to the more tightly organized second series (Richard II through Henry V). It stands alone among Shakespeare’s history plays of the 1590s in choosing the early thirteenth century for its subject, rather than the fifteenth century. Yet the political problems are familiar.
Foremost is the uncertainty of John’s claim to the English throne. He occupies that throne by “strong possession” and also seemingly by the last will and testament of his deceased eldest brother, King Richard I. But could such a will disinherit Arthur, the son of John’s older brother Geoffrey? English primogeniture specified that property must descend to the eldest son; after Richard’s death, without direct heirs, his next brother, Geoffrey, would inherit and then Geoffrey’s son, Arthur. Significantly, even John’s mother, Queen Eleanor, who publicly supports John’s claim, privately admits that “strong possession” is much more on their side than “right” (1.1.39–40). All parties concede, then, that young Arthur’s claim is legally superior.
Yet such a claim raises serious practical questions, because it challenges the status quo. John is de facto king, and Arthur a child. To make the dilemma complete, Arthur has no ambitions to rule and seemingly no talent for leadership. Without the unremitting zeal of his widowed mother, Constance, Arthur would retire into the private world of kindness and love, where his virtues shine. Moreover, Constance’s uncompromising defense of her son’s true claim requires her to seek alliance with the French for an invasion of England. Such an appalling prospect of invasion and civil war inevitably poses the question: is the replacement of John by Arthur worth the price? Which is better—an ongoing regime flawed by uncertain claim and political compromises or restitution of the “right” by violent and potentially self-destructive means?
Shakespeare refuses to simplify the issues. John is neither a monstrous tyrant nor a martyred hero, although both interpretations were available to Shakespeare in sixteenth-century historical writings. Catholic historians of the late Middle Ages, such as Polydore Vergil, had uniformly condemned John, partly, at least, because of his interference with the Church. The English Reformation brought about a conscious rewriting of history, and, in John Bale’s play King Johan (1538, with later revisions), the protagonist is unassailably a champion of the right. Centuries ahead of his time, this King John comprehends the true interests of the state in fending off the encroachments of the international Church. He fails only because his people are superstitious and his aristocrats are the dupes of Catholic meddling. Bale’s play is transparently a warning to Tudor England. This portrait of John as a martyr continues unabated in John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments and in the chronicles of Richard Grafton and Raphael Holinshed, which were based on Foxe. Most virulent of all is the play called The Troublesome Reign of King John (c. 1587–1591), once thought to be by Shakespeare and analyzed by some recent editors as an unauthorized quarto of Shakespeare’s text but now generally regarded as the work of some more chauvinistic playwright, most probably George Peele. Although generally close to Shakespeare’s play in its narrative of events, it also contains scenes of the most degraded anti-Catholic humor, featuring gross abbots who conceal nuns in their private rooms, and the like. Against such a corrupt institution, the plundering undertaken by King John’s loyal follower, Philip the Bastard (also known as Sir Richard Plantagenet), is wholly justifiable. John and the Bastard would be invincible, were it not for the base Catholic loyalties of the nobility.
Shakespeare consciously declines to endorse either the Catholic or the Protestant interpretation of the reign of King John. (Interestingly, neither side showed any interest in Magna Carta; not until the seventeenth century was that event interpreted as a famous precedent for constitutional restraints imposed on the monarchy.) To be sure, some anticlericalism still remains in the play. John grandly proclaims that “no Italian priest / Shall tithe or toll in our dominions.” John is “supreme head” of Church and State (the actual title claimed by Henry VIII), defending his people against “this meddling priest” with his “juggling witch- craft” (3.1.153–69). Yet Shakespeare’s King John is not vindictive against the Church. He seizes some of its wealth, not as a reprisal, but to support his costly military campaigns; when he is poisoned by a monk, neither John nor anyone else assumes that a Catholic conspiracy is responsible—as it is in Troublesome Reign. Similarly, the baronial opposition to John is motivated not by secret leanings toward Rome but by understandable revulsion at the apparent murder of Arthur.
Shakespeare’s balanced treatment need not merely reflect his own political allegiances, whatever they were. Artistically, King John is a study of impasse, of tortured political dilemmas to which there can be no clear answer. How do people behave under such trying circumstances? Shakespeare’s play is remarkable for its sensitivity and compassion toward all sides. His most completely sympathetic characters are those innocently caught in the political cross fire, such as Arthur and the Lady Blanche. Among the major contenders for power, all except the ruthless Dauphin Lewis are guided by worthy intentions and yet are forced to make unfortunate and self-contradictory compromises. Constance, for all her virtuous singleness of mind, must seek a French invasion of England. King Philip of France, bound to Constance’s cause by all the holy vows of heaven, changes his purpose when England offers a profitable marriage alliance and then shifts quickly back again when the papacy demands in the name of the Church that Philip punish King John for heresy. Philip’s conscience is troubled about both decisions, but what is a king to do when faced with practical choices affecting his people’s welfare and his own political safety?
Even Pandulph, the papal legate, can be viewed as a well- intentioned statesman caught in the web of political compromise. Presumably, he is sincere in his belief that King John’s defiance of the papacy—in particular, his refusal to accept the Pope’s choice, Stephen Langton, as Archbishop of Canterbury—represents a grave threat to Catholic Christendom. Yet Pandulph reveals an unprincipled cunning when he teaches King Philip how to equivocate a sacred vow, or instructs the apt young Lewis in Machiavellian intrigue. As Pandulph explains, the French can exploit King John’s capture of Arthur by invading England in Arthur’s name, thereby forcing John to murder his nephew in order to terminate the rival claim to the throne. Arthur’s death will, in turn, drive the English nobility over to the French side. By this stratagem, the seemingly bad luck of Arthur’s capture can neatly be turned to the advantage of France and the international Church (3.4.126–81). Lewis learns his lesson only too well. What Pandulph has failed to take into account is the insincerity of Lewis’s alliance with papal power. When the legate has achieved through the invasion what he wants—the submission of John—and then tries to call off Lewis’s army, Pandulph discovers too late that the young Frenchman cares only for war on his own terms. Pandulph’s cunning becomes a weapon turned against himself.
John is, like his enemies, a talented man justly punished by his own perjuries. His failings are serious, but they are also understandable. Given the fact that he is king, his desire to maintain rule serves both his own interests and those of political order generally. The deal by which John bargains away his French territories of Angiers, Touraine, Maine, Poitiers, and the rest, in order to win peace with France, is prudent under the circumstances but a blow to those English dreams of greatness that John professes to uphold. When France immediately repudiates this treaty, John merely gets what he deserves for entering such a deal. His surrender of the crown to the papacy is again the canny result of yielding to the least dangerous of the alternatives available but diminishes John’s already shaky authority nonetheless.
Most heinous is John’s determination to be rid of Arthur. He has compelling reasons, to be sure. As Pandulph predicts, the French invasion of England, using Arthur’s claim as its pretext, forces John to consider Arthur as an immediate threat to himself. (Queen Elizabeth had long agonized over a similar problem with her captive, Mary, Queen of Scots; so long as Mary lived, a Catholic and claimant to the throne, English Catholics had a perennial rallying point.) What is a ruling king to do with a rival claimant in his captivity? As Henry IV also discovers once he has captured Richard II, the logic demanding death is inexorable. Yet such a deed is not only murder but also murder of one’s close kinsman and murder of the Lord’s anointed in the eyes of those believing the captive, in this case Arthur, to be rightful king. Furthermore, it is sure to backfire and punish the doer by arousing national resentment and rebellion. John quickly regrets Arthur’s death, but we suspect that the regret is, in part, motivated by fear of the consequences. The same ironic predicament that protects John against his own worst instincts, momentarily saving the boy from Hubert’s instruments of torture, also justly prevents John from obtaining any political benefit from this brief reprieve; Hubert is too late, Arthur dies in a fall, and the lords are convinced of John’s guilt. With fitting irony, John is punished for his crime after he has decided not to do it and after the murder itself has failed to take place.
The word used to sum up the universal political scheming and oath-breaking in this play is commodity, or self-interest (2.1.574). The word is introduced by the Bastard, the fascinating choric figure of King John, whose reactions to the events of the play are so important in shaping our own. The Bastard is an outsider from birth and so not beholden to society for its usual tawdry benefits. As the natural son of the great King Richard Coeur de Lion, the Bastard is a kind of folk hero: he is instinctively royal and yet a commoner, a projection of the Elizabethan audience’s sentimental fondness for monarchy and at the same time a hero representing a cross section of society. He is a fictional character in a largely historical world. His quarrel with his effete brother Robert over the inheritance of their father’s property comically mirrors the futility of the dynastic quarrel between King John and Arthur. In both contentions, a will left by the deceased confuses the issue of genealogical priority. Thus John, who defends the Bastard’s unconventional claim to his inheritance, discovers a natural ally.
The Bastard is strangely drawn to commodity at first. He finds it exhilarating to trust his fortune to war and royal favor, rather than to the easy comfort of a landed estate. The wars enable him to pursue a quest for self-identity. After learning from his reluctant mother who his real father was, the Bastard must venge himself upon the Duke of Austria, who (unhistorically) killed the Bastard’s father. When first confronted with the moral ambiguity of the war, the Bastard’s response is mischievous, almost Vicelike. He makes the cunning suggestion, for example, that France and England join against the city of Angiers until it surrenders, after which they may resume fighting one another. Clearly, this Machiavellian proposal embodies, even satirizes, the spirit of commodity. Yet the Bastard is not motivated by self-interest or a cynical delight in duping people, as is the bastard Edmund in King Lear. This Bastard’s illegitimacy has no such ominous cosmic import. Instead, he is at first the detached witty observer, wryly amused at the seemingly inherent absurdity of politics. Although he does protest also that he will worship commodity for his own gain, we never see him doing so. Despite his philosophic detachment, he remains loyal to England and to John. In fact, he is the play’s greatest patriot.
The supreme test for the Bastard, as for all well-meaning characters and for the audience as well, is the death of Arthur. The Bastard must experience disaffection and even revulsion if he is to retain our sympathy as choric interpreter. Yet his chief function is to triumph over that revulsion and, in so doing, to act as counterpart to the more rash English lords. They have come hastily to the conclusion that John is guilty of Arthur’s death. This is, of course, true in the main, but they do not know all the circumstances, and truth, as usual, is more complicated than they suppose. Only the Bastard consistently phrases his condemnation in qualified terms: “It is a damnèd and a bloody work . . . If that it be the work of any hand” (4.3.57–9). Moreover, the lords have concluded that John’s guilt justifies their rebellion. Yet they stoop to commodity of the very sort they condemn. They fight for the supposed good of England by allying themselves with Lewis of France. Once again, the ironies of cosmic justice demand that such commodity be repaid by treachery. The lords are luckily saved just in time by Lord Melun’s revelation of Lewis’s plan, just as John had been saved from his own headstrong folly by the kindness of Hubert. The Bastard’s decision to remain loyal to John thus proves not only prudent but also right-minded. He has led our sympathies through disaffection to acceptance. Rebellion only worsens matters by playing into the hands of opportunists. Loyalty to John is still, in a sense, a kind of commodity, for it involves compromise and acceptance of politics as morally a world unto itself. Nevertheless, loyalty is a conscientious choice and is rewarded finally by the accession of young Henry III, who at last combines political legitimacy and the will to act.
The ending of King John is not without its ironies. England, having suffered through the dynastic uncertainties of a child claimant to the throne (as also in the Henry VI plays, Richard III, Richard II, and Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II), must now face a new destiny under the young and unproven Henry III. The irony is often underscored, in some modern productions at least, by doubling the parts of Arthur and Henry III for the same juvenile actor. Is there sufficient reason to suppose that the problem will not recur? The Bastard’s role in seeking affirmation is a crucial one, and yet he does so from his vantage point as the play’s most visibly unhistorical personage. As a fictional character, the Bastard is free to invent fictions around him, to instruct King John in the playing of a part that will benefit England, and to fashion a concluding speech in which there can be hope for the future. What sort of consolation does this fiction provide? To dwell on the conflict between history and fiction is not to subvert all hope by labeling fiction as mere fantasy, but it does call attention to the fruitfully ambiguous relation between Shakespeare’s stubbornly historical subject matter and his function as creative artist.