William Shakespeare
The Life and Death of King John

Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1999

William Shakespeare

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.   

Overall Impression: This is fairly early Shakespeare, a relatively straightforward historical play, not as great as what was to follow.

Overview of the Historical Plays: See Henry VI Part I.

Per Bevington: Sources may include the anonymous play "The Troublesome Reign of King John" (1591) [alternatively it may be a "bad Quarto" of WS himself]. WS toned down the rabid anti-Catholicism and scurrilous humor found in it. King John's rule was viewed critically by medieval Catholic historians such as Polydore Vergil but more favorably by later revisionist Protestant texts that also may have been sources, such as William Tyndale's "The Obedience of a Christian Man" and John Bale's play "King Johan", Foxes's "Acts and Monuments" (also known as the "Book of Martyrs"), and Grafton's and Holinshed's chronicles. Paris' "Historia Major" and "Wakefield Chronicle" may have also served as sources.

WS has not adopted the rabid anticlericalism found in earlier play and is not vindictive against the church. Pandulph however symbolizes the meddling of the church in political affairs. John seems unprincipled when he is willing to bargain away part of his country in exchange for holding on to the throne. His desire to be rid of Arthur is especially heinous. The universal political scheming is summed up in the term Commodity, or self-interest. Bastard (fictional) is like a choric figure, a folk-hero, valiant, and the most patriotic person in the play.

Royal Lineage in John's era: Henry II ruled 1154-1189, was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, and was son of Geoffrey of Anjou (nicknamed "Plantagenet"). Richard I "Couer de Lion" succeeded him, ruling 1189-1199 [and had the reputation of having slain a lion by reaching down its throut and pulling out its heart]. John claimed the throne on the death of Richard I in 1199 and ruled 1199-1216. John's older brother Geoffrey had had a son Arthur D. of Brittany, who was c. 13 when Richard I died and had a potential claim to the throne superior to John's.


Act I

Act I Scene 1

The court of King John. King John ("John") receives the emissary from the French king Philip II of France, Chatillon. Phillip supports the claim of Arthur Plantagenet ("Arthur" of Brittaine or Brittany), son of John's deceased brother Geoffrey, to the throne of England, Ireland, and the French territories Poitiers, Anjou, Touraine, and Maine, and believes John is a usurper. He threatens war if John does not relent, but John is defiant and himself promises war. His mother Eleanor says she predicted that Arthur's ambitious mother Constance would pursue her ambitions for her son by appealing to France to take arms against the usurper John. Eleanor knows that John's case is legally weak. John will have the abbeys and priories pay the costs of the expedition to France. 

Robert Falcounbridge and his half brother Philip ("Bastard") enter. Bastard was allegedly knighted by Richard I Coeur de Lion ("R1"). Robert claims the family inheritance because Bastard is illegitimate. Bastard tells his tale. Eleanor and John see some resemblance in him to R1. Robert's father (Sir Robert F.) was employed by R1, and R1 took advantage of his absence by seducing Robert's mother. Sir Robert's will bequeathed his lands to Robert, since he believed Bastard to be illegitimate. Eleanor asks Bastard what he would rather have, the lands or a knighthood in her employ as the reputed son or R1--he takes the latter. John knights him as Sir Richard Plantagenet, and Bastard pledges his loyalty. They want to make haste for France. Alone, Bastard envisions himself a knight. 

Lady Falcounbridge enters with James Gurney, distressed that her good name has been smeared by Robert. Bastard asks her who his real father is, and she confesses it was R1. He is happy to know that his father was such a great man and thanks her. 

Act II

Act II Scene 1

France, before Angiers. King Philip ("P2") introduces the Duke of Austria ["Austria", who wears the lion skin taken from R1 and in whom is combined also another historical figure, the Viscount Limoges, before whose castle R1 was killed] to Arthur, telling him Austria has come to help them win his claim against John. Arthur forgives Austria for his role in R1's death. Austria is all kindness to Arthur and pledges to return Arthur's rightful domain to him. Constance also thanks him. P2 wants the cannons [anachronistic] to begin the attack on Angiers, but Constance asks that they await word from Chatillon of John's response. 

Chatillon arrives and tells them of John's intent on war, that he is in fact arrived there close behind him, accompanied by Eleanor and Eleanor's granddaughter Blanche of Castile (daughter of Eleanor's daughter also named Eleanor), the Earl of Pembroke, and the Bastard. John arrives and speaks. P2 denies his right to the throne and John denies him any authority to judge the matter. Constance and Eleanor exchange insults, Constance suggesting that John was illegitimate and that Arthur more resembles Constance than John resembles Eleanor. The Bastard chimes in irreverently and insultingly and threatens Austria. He mocks the lion skin worn by Austria. John asks Arthur to yield his claim in exchange for concessions. Arthur weeps, not wanting such a fuss to be made over him, apparently a pawn in all this and not really interested in the throne. Constance further insults Eleanor's sin-conceiving womb. Eleanor has a will from R1 barring Arthur's right to the throne and naming John as inheritor to the throne. P2 asks them to desist further public arguing in front of the citizens of Angiers.

P2 asks the men at the walls of Angiers who they will support. The citizen is noncommittal, only pledging to support him that is proved to be the rightful king. Bastard insults Austria more, and the opposing sides finally agree to war against each other.

Opposing heralds successively demand of Angiers to let in Arthur, then John. John encounters Philip and threatens that the war may spill into France itself, not just the English territories in France. Bastard comes up with the innovative idea that the warring sides temporarily suspend their fighting against each other and instead jointly attack Angiers--the kings agree. The Angiers citizen comes up with a new strategy. He proposes that Lady Blanche be wed to Lewis the Dauphin [son of P2, future Louis VIII, Dauphin=eldest son], thereby allowing England and France to be at peace. The kings are willing and John promises a fine dowry of lands to Lewis (actually Arthur's inheritance of Anjou, Touraine, Maine, and Poitiers, all French territories except Angiers) plus 30,000 marks [historically occurred in 1200]. Lewis is enthusiastic and Blanche also agrees. They all enter Angiers to celebrate the wedding. John plans to make Arthur Duke of Brittaine and Earl of Richmond, and ruler over Angiers. 

Left alone, Bastard reflects on the madness of the world and how John would give away part of his kingdom to save the rest. He speaks of Commodity (self-interest) and how it biases all action, resolving to make it his own object of worship [though his actions remain patriotic throughout the play].

Act III

Act III Scene 1

France, French king's quarters. Constance has heard the news and rails with Earl of Salisbury against the marriage of Lewis and Blanche and her stymied plans. She wonders what will happen to Arthur and her, but still wants to champion his bid for the throne. The kings enter arm in arm, accompanied by their entourages. Constance calls it a day of shame and accuses P2 of betraying her, railing against Austria as well. Bastard insults Austria. 

The legate of the pope [Innocent III], Pandulph, cardinal of Milan, arrives. He objects to John's denial of the church's appointee, Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury. John is insulting to him and says John is supreme head in his lands [a title claimed by Henry VIII] and will rule without interference. P2 warns him he blasphemes. John continues his insults, calling the pope a meddling priest, corrupt, etc. Pandulph summarily excommunicates him and says anyone who kills him shall be canonized. He demands P2 release John's hand. Lewis cautions his father to obey the church, since a curse from Rome would be a heavier burden to bear than losing England's friendship. Constance reinforces this appeal. P2 is perplexed what to do, as he has sworn oaths of support to John and also in support of the marriage. But Pandulph will make no concessions, arguing that his vows were invalid and therefore easily broken [an example of "equivocation", much deplored by Elizabethans as examples of Catholic duplicity]. Blanche begs her father-in-law not to take up arms against John. Constance praises Lewis for wanting his father P2 to support the church position. Finally, P2 agrees to cease his support for John. Blanche laments that she can't support her husband's cause against her uncle's, and will lose in either case. John is burning with wrath at his abandonment. He calls England to arms against France.

Act III Scene 2

Plains near Angiers. Bastard carries Austria's head and has rescued Eleanor. John places Arthur in safekeeping with Hubert de Burgh. 

Act III Scene 3

Same. Alarum, excursions etc. John bids Arthur to go with Eleanor, Hubert etc. to England. Bastard is also to go there, and is to shake down the hoarding abbots of money to pay for the war. Bastard says he will not be deterred even by threats of excommunication ("bell, book, and candle"). 

Speaking just to him, John praises Hubert and considers confiding in him a plan. Hubert pledges his loyalty. John says Arthur is a serpent to him and wants Hubert to kill him--Hubert agrees. 

Act III Scene 4

France, the French king's quarters. P2 contemplates his losses. Angiers lost, Arthur taken prisoner, John back in England. Constance enters with her hair in disarray, wishing for death, fearing for her son's life. P2 consoles her. Pandulph and P2 tell her she is too fond of grief. Lewis laments "Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale". Pandulph says the cure is at hand. He deviously suggests that Lewis can win the throne because John may kill Arthur and then he can claim it via his marriage to Blanche, since John will be reviled by his own people for the murder. Bastard is in England ransacking the church. Pandulph encourages Lewis to mount a military campaign into England, and Lewis agrees.

Act IV

Act IV Scene 1

England, a castle. Hubert meets with executioners, who provide irons and rope and leave. Arthur enters, cheerful and loving to Hubert, though suspecting his uncle plans to harm him. Hubert, who loves Arthur, shows him the warrant prepared to authorize Hubert to burn out Arthur's eyes. Arthur recalls how he has shown love and comfort to Hubert. The executioners come forth to bind him to the chair. Arthur agrees not to struggle, and eventually talks Hubert out of doing the vile deed. Hubert says he will tell John Arthur is dead. 

Act IV Scene 2

England, The court of King John. Salisbury counsels John against a second coronation. Pembroke requests the freeing of Arthur, whose imprisonment is stirring the populace to discontent. If his kingship is legitimate, why does he need to keep Arthur mewed up?

Hubert enters and confers privately with John. Pembroke and Salisbury confer--they know Hubert has been assigned to put out Arthur's eyes. John announces that Arthur is dead [the fiction which Hubert has concocted]. Salisbury openly suspects foul play. Pembroke leaves with him in indignation to find justice for the dead boy. 

A messenger tells John that hostile forces have arrived from France led by the Dauphin (Lewis). His mother Eleanor has died in France and Constance died three days ago. Bastard enters with the prophet Peter of Pomfret. Bastard has collected the funds from the clergymen, but notes the people are full of fear. Peter is preaching that before the next Ascension Day at noon, John will be relieved of his crown--John has the man imprisoned. Bastard has seen Salisbury and Lord Bigot seeking the grave of Arthur. He plans to win their affection back.

Hubert enters. John [wrongfully] blames Hubert for suggesting to him to kill Arthur and curses how slaves such as Hubert always do what the king tells them, even if morally wrong. Why did not he attempt to dissuade John from his evil plan? He wants to cast out Hubert. But H. tells him Arthur is alive. John is relieved and wants the news to be told rapidly to the discontented noblemen.

Act IV Scene 3

England, near a castle. Arthur, disguised as a shipboy, falls accidentally from a wall and dies. Salisbury, Pembroke, and Lord Bigot enter, and discuss the letter Salisbury has received from Pandulph. Bastard enters and requests the men attend the king. But they see Arthur's body, and believe he was murdered. Bastard is not so sure it was murder. Salisbury and Pembroke kneel to swear vengeance. Hubert arrives to say Arthur is alive, but is shocked to see the body. Bastard stops the men from attacking Hubert--the latter weeps at the death of the boy and claims his innocence. The nobles leave to join up with the Dauphin. Bastard blames Hubert initially but Hubert assures him otherwise. Bastard fears for the contested succession now.

Act V

Act V Scene 1

The court of John. Pandulph receives and gives back the crown to John--John has reconciled with the church in exchange for Pandulph's agreement to intervene in the invasion by the French. Pandulph fomented the invasion in the first place and believes he can stop it. It is Ascension Day. Bastard informs him that the Kent peoples have gone over to the enemy. Bastard informs him that Arthur is dead. He counsels the king to act with greatness and firmness against the invaders. John informs him of the pact with Pandulph, which dismays Bastard.

Act V Scene 2

The Dauphin's camp at St. Edmundsbury. Lewis presents an agreement to Lord Melun and to Salisbury, Pembroke, Bigot, etc. Salisbury laments the infection of the times that has led him to support a foreign invader. Lewis tenderly wipes away his tears and consoles him [but will betray him soon].

Pandulph arrives, telling of John's reconciliation. But Lewis will not just turn off his invasion on this news. He claims the English throne for himself, saying he is not Rome's slave. Bastard arrives to parley and find out the Dauphin's response. He taunts the young leader and tells him John is prepared to fight. They resolve to go to battle.

Act V Scene 3

England, field of battle. John tells Hubert he is sick with fever. A messenger to John says Bastard wants John to leave the field. The Dauphin's supply ships have been wrecked at Goodwin Sands. The French are tapering in their fighting. 

Act V Scene 4

Same. Salisbury and Pembroke are surprised at the good fight John is putting up. The dying Melun tells them that they are betrayed by the French, who will behead them if they win. He advises they return to John and throw themselves at his mercy, to which they resolve. 

Act V Scene 5

England, the French camp. A messenger informs the Dauphin that the English lords have fled, the ships wrecked, and Lord Melun is dead.

Act V Scene 6

England, field near Swinstead [actually Swineshead] Abbey. Hubert and Bastard encounter each other in the dark. The king has been poisoned by a monk. The lords have returned and have brought with them Prince Henry, John's son and future Henry III, who appealed to the king to pardon the men. Bastard has lost many men to the tide on the flats in the Lincoln Washes.

Act V Scene 7

The orchard at Swinstead [actually Swineshead] Abbey. Prince Henry notes his father is nearly dead, the poison now acting on his mind. Salisbury tells Henry that he will make the kingdom take shape in a way John was never able to achieve. John is brought in, burning up with fever, begging cold comfort. Bastard arrives. The Dauphin is preparing to leave. John dies. Henry is now Henry III. Bastard faithfully swears to attend to the dead king in heaven and meantime to seek vengeance against the Dauphin. He rallies the noblemen to attack. Salisbury informs him that Pandulph has arranged terms of peace from the Dauphin and that the Dauphin is himself leaving England. Bastard is resigned to this anticlimactic end to the war, and pledges allegiance to the new king, as do the others. Bastard patriotically asserts that England never was nor never shall be under foreign domination. "Nought shall make us rue/If England to itself do rest but true."