The Medievalism of Shakespeare's King John

By Brother Anthony / An Sonjae
Sogang University, Seoul

When Sean Connery comes riding into the wedding celebrations at the end of the film 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves', he is pretending to be Richard Coeur-de-Lion, the Lionheart King of England who in his ten years of rule only spent six months in England. His younger brother John, supposedly regent in his place, is the villain blamed for the misrule represented by the Sherrif of Nottingham, and he therefore enjoys a bad reputation in the popular tradition represented by the late-medieval Robin Hood ballads.

At the time of the Reformation, however, a leading Protestant writer John Bale wrote (before 1536) what is perhaps the first English history play, in praise of King John. Here he is shown in a revisionist light, as the first English monarch to oppose the Pope. For Bale, John was a proto-Protestant hero, although in the end he had to accept the papal demands.

In modern times, the most important event in John's life is often thought to be his 'signing' (sealing) of Magna Carta in 1215, which Americans especially seem to consider as the first bill of democratic rights. John here is seen as an autocrat brought to his knees by the forces of democracy represented by the (in fact very undemocratic) barons.

Probably, none of these three portraits of John is very close to historical reality! It is not easy to know why Shakespeare chose to make John the subject of what may well be his first play, his only English history play not part of the two tetralogies. There can be no other play by him so little written about. Critics skate round it, compare it unfavorably with other works, treat it as a mere rewriting of an earlier play. Yet it continues to attract considerable attention in the theater, being often acted.

In King John there are many conflicts of power, both private and public, but none of them is a clear-cut conflict between right and wrong, as in 'Robin Hood'. Shakespeare's John is no Machiavel- ian villain skillfully taking advantage of every situation for his own ends. One reason why King John is such a tantalizing play is that it constantly slips away from all our frames of reference. King John offers a most peculiar choice of episodes from the chronicles, and uses a very condensed time-scheme, so that events separated by several years are brought together, the most notable example being the news of the deaths of Constance and Eleanor (IV.ii), three years united in a single speech! The period's barons' revolts all seem to be explained as effects of the death of Arthur. There is no mention of Magna Carta, or of the papal Interdict on England.

This all certainly suggests that Shakespeare was not much interested in dramatizing details of 13th century history! At the same time, there is little or no development of 'character' in the play, we have virtually no moment where someone hesitates, trying to analyze their own motives or emotions. It is never possible to see John in conflict with himself, for example. He is no Macbeth, not even Richard III! Why, then, did Shakespeare write it at all? Where does the central focus of the play lie?

It seems that we should look for some kind of dominating political or philosophical theme, as modern producers usually do, in order to find a unifying element. Critics have often noted that the theme of 'rights' is introduced in the play's very first lines, when Chatillon comes challenging John's right to the throne in the name of France's support for the rights of his nephew Arthur 'so forcibly withheld' (l.18). Shakespeare even changes his historical sources at this point, for in the brief duo between mother and son that follows, when John affirms 'Our strong possession and our right for us' (l.39) Eleanor tells him (and us) that although possession is nine tenths of the law, she too thinks that John is not king of England by legal right. In the chronicles no one seriously questions John's legal right to the English throne. In the play such uncertainties are central.

In the Arden edition introduction, Honigmann reminds us that the word 'rights' is found in King John more often (28 times) than in any other of Shakespeare's plays. He also finds records for the play's use of blood (40), mouth (14), breath (14), arm (27), bosom (10), brow (11) etc (Intr. p.lxii), notes sexual images implying violence and rape, and concludes 'The key to the major "imagery of oppression" which we have outlined seems to be the theme of "right versus might"' (p.lxiv), and offers as a key to the play's structure the fact that "The story ends when the usurper's vitality has consumed itself, when even his legs fail him, and a child-figure, Arthur resurrected as Prince Henry, triumphs at last in undisputed 'right'" (p.lxv).

It is still a gross exaggeration to give John the title 'usurper', as Honigmann does; King John is not Macbeth. And why identify Arthur with Henry? They are utterly different in their dramatic functions. Among his statistics, though, Honigmann fails to note the 20 uses of the word 'faith' which form another very striking record, the next most frequent use being in Troilus with only 9. Richard II has only 3 uses, the great tragedies virtually none. This large number in King John is mainly due to the 12 uses of the word during the confrontation in III.i, when the Papal Legate demands that King Philip of France break his oaths of peace just made to England. The word is always used in the sense of 'keep/break faith,' never in its religious sense, and it may be the clue we have been looking for. Honigmann sees Arthur as the key to the play ('The action of the play is held together through Arthur' p. lx n.1) and this leads him to write 'We take IV.i to be the central scene' (p.lx).

Yet this aborted blinding scene, despite its pathos, is most notable for what does not happen during it! It has no direct effect on the political or military action, which is more affected by false rumours and then by the death of Arthur, which happens in IV.iii, far too early for the key-figure of the play! When we look at the uses of faith, we see how often it is a victim of violence: 'breaks the pate of faith' and 'break faith upon commodity' both occur in the 'Commodity speech' of the Bastard (II.i); in III.i faith 'changes to hollow falsehood', 'dies', 'lives again', 'mounts up', is 'trodden down', then people 'play fast-and-loose' with it, make 'faith an enemy to faith', and in Act V 'discarded faith' is 'welcomed home again', 'mended'.

The best way of integrating these facts, I think, is to see the play as illustrating the need for constancy in a world in which everyone plays fast-and-loose with faith. Arthur is simply a helpless pawn in other people's power-games. By stressing his youth, Shakespeare invites us to see him in passive roles, his only defence is his total innocence, which saves his eyes, but leads to his death, when he fails to realize the height of the wall he jumps from. Meanwhile, the 'real world' goes on its way regardless. In that light the 'central scene' of the play must surely be III.i, in which the action suddenly turns from peace to conflict, in the name of conflicting allegiances to the centers of power represented by the Pope and John.

Behind all that happens in the first Act, looms the question of the nature of legitimacy, of legal rights: do their roots lie in constitutional and legal theory, or in the possession and exercise of power? Eleanor says that John's 'right' to the throne is doubtful, yet he is king. Legally, the younger Faulconbridge could have no claim to the rights of his elder brother, even if it were sure that another man had begotten him, yet he brings his case.

When the judgement comes out in favor of his rights, the 'Bastard' is at once prepared to sacrifice them in favor of bright prospects! Act II transfers the power struggles to Angiers, where the two opposing forces are the royal persons England and France, each with their army, making a claim to rightful possession of the city. Not surprisingly, the city is unable to decide between two claimants of equal power! About to be attacked by the combined armies, it seems, the citizens suddenly, unexpectedly, make a new move, suggesting the diplomatic marriage of Blanche and the Dauphin which is quickly agreed on.

It is here that we realize that King Philip has been using Arthur, that the French support for his 'rights' was political, opportunistic, not based on any firm moral convictions. When political, national interest (commodity) demands it, France breaks faith with Arthur. The rhetoric of the infuriated Constance at the end of Act II is tragi-comic, powerless to influence political events. France and England have decided on a peace that consolidates John's hold on power, the play seems to be over.

The sudden, unexpected arrival of the Legate Pandulph with his demands in III.i shatters the status- quo of peace and harmony, forcing the French to declare war on England, breaking faith, since solemn vows of peace and unity had just been sworn. Violence reappears, thanks to the Church! Faith is broken in the name of Faith.

With the capture of Arthur by John, a new question begins to emerge: will John too break faith with Arthur, as expediency seems to demand (as Pandulph recognizes)? The fragility of the boy- prisoner becomes almost emblematic, and the threat to his eyes is clearly an expression of something more than mere sadism. Yet the question of his right to the throne is never even discussed in the play. What happens between him and Hubert in the blinding scene is a seduction-in-reverse, since Hubert by his decision not to hurt him is breaking faith to John, while the child restores him to his true humanity.

The play has no great monsters, since not even John is resolutely evil. Indeed, we care so little about John, that his death is little more than a dramatic incident. The whole play has been marked by a series of sudden, unexpected appearances and disappearances. There is no call to be surprized, then, by the totally unannounced introduction of John's son Prince Henry as next king in, or by the way in which the Bastard becomes actively involved in the national defence, (with rather disastrous consequences), or to object to the sudden final peace mission of Pandulph.Throughout the play, the text itself has been playing fast-and-loose with the rights of the audience. Our right to know what will happen in the end is a victim of this game.

Now the situation caused by the Papal politics in King John is a very evident reflexion of international realities at the time the play was written, when an invasion of England sponsored by nations loyal to Rome was a very real danger. In V.iv, English lords who for the noblest of reasons have gone over to the French (the Pope's!) side learn that the wicked continentals will break faith and kill them if victory is theirs. The island fortress is saved by their return to loyalty, but despite their heroic resistance, the English urgently need a true leader. The end of the play expresses the hope that in Henry at last England has a king who will not simply follow the demands of international political expediency, but be a true English king, surrounded by faithful English lords.

The real enemy in King John, as in Shakespeare's England, is not the Pope as such but the foreign nations acting in his name. Almost the whole of Act I of the play is taken up with a debate about the Bastard, and the identity of his dead father; once identified as Richard Coeur de Lion's son, the Bastard is legitimized and enters the circles of power, where he remains present to the very end. Indeed, he becomes more central to the play than John himself! He avenges his dead father, and grows into the play's most reliable character.

The issue of bastardy was a vital one for Queen Elizabeth. The Bull of Pope Pius V, Regnans in excelcis, issued in 1570, had denied Elizabeth's legitimacy, and therefore her right to the English throne. Born in 1533 as the child of Henry VIII's second marriage to Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth (with Mary) was declared a bastard in July 1536, two months after her mother's execution and just before the caesarean birth of Edward killed Jane Seymour. Less than ten years later, the Third Act of Succession (1546) re-legitimized both daughters by recognizing their right to succeed, a right re- confirmed by Henry VIII's will. Yet when Edward was dying, he named the Lady Jane Grey as the next queen, and Mary and Elizabeth were re-bastardized in June 1553! The 'legitimacy' of Mary depended on the fact that she entered London with an army and was supported by the population; Lady Jane Grey did not live long after that!

The other event of the age which has left clear echoes in King John is the execution of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots in early 1587. The signing of her death warrant by Elizabeth was prompted by rumors that a Spanish army had landed in England and that Mary had escaped from prison. The story of how this warrant then escaped from Elizabeth's control and was used without her knowledge clearly underlies John's initial response to the (false) report of Arthur's death. In 1588, the Armada concretized all these fears, and certainly made it clear that the nation was under threat from foreign powers for reasons that had only superficial links with religion and legal right.

To be loyal, then, was a perfect ideal, only the question was bound to arise as to whom one should be loyal to, and why. Birth rights? Possession? Papal decree? National law? Pragmatic considerations? By the time Shakespeare began to write King John, another aspect of the question was arising. Elizabeth was getting old, and was without a clear heir. When she died, what would be the criteria for deciding on the legitimacy, the right, of any claimant or claimants? Where would loyal Englishmen be asked to give their faith? How should they decide? Whose was the power over England? Royal absolutism never had a chance in England, in such circumstances, since it was so clear that what made the sovereign was the English people's consent! Even Bloody Mary had to learn that she could only govern if Parliament passed her laws.

'Faith' is the theme of King John, in a negative sense, since nobody keeps faith in it. The demands of literary form are such that a theme like this can only be explored by showing it being tested to its limits. In King John, faith is certainly tested to breaking-point and beyond, and this is required before the Bastard can close the play with a most remarkably strong patriotic appeal for faith:

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.

This theme of 'a nation being its own worst enemy' is familiar in later plays, and was a familiar slogan in post-Armada years.

Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms
And we shall shock them! Nought shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true!

These sentiments support the very early date for the play that Honigmann proposes, 1590, since there is clear evidence that the last words are nationalistic slogans often found in the years immediately following 1588.

Critical discussion of this play has been bedevilled by the existence of the anonymous play The Troublesome Raigne of Iohn King of England (dated 1591) which many critics still see as the 'only source'. Honigmann in his Arden edition shows good reasons for thinking that this play is a 'bad quarto' based on Shakespeare's play, for various technical reasons. The same opinion is reinforced by the recent New Cambridge edition. Who but Shakespeare at this time would have been capable of researching and writing such a work, after all? Only he goes so thoroughly into the chronicle sources, then changes them so radically; who else would have dared to write a King John play without black villain, proto-Protestant, or Magna Carta?

In this play we can see Shakespeare re-creating the Middle Ages as an image of his own time, but one which is marked culturally by those medieval features that his age wished to reject. He stresses the absence of firm bases of political stability, the risks of adventurism, and the dangers of endless power- struggles. But the very center of the play lies in the speech of Pandulph in III.i 190ff, a parody of that papistical casuistry that the 'informed' Protestant audience of 1590 would have hated, culminating as it does in the outrageous "falsehood falsehood cures" (two lies make a truth!) of line 203, which is not without recalling the 'equivocations' of Macbeth.

Culturally, the Middle Ages of the play is the image of all that Renaissance and Reformation England was resolved to smash in its act of constructive iconoclasm (Spenser). For Elizabethans, the Middle Ages was not at all the nostalgic paradise of courtesy and chivalry it was to become in the 19th century. The age of dishonest, sophistical churchmen like Pandulph was the great bogeyman of the Humanists, thanks to the polemical campaigns against 'the schoolsmen' of Erasmus and others. The frank speaking of the Bastard represents Renaissance England's determination to reject the bad habits of 'medieval' obscurantism in favor of the frank honest speech of classical morality and Gospel humanism. The freedom of the English nation can only so be achieved, he claims. There is no hope of truth to be found in absolute monarchy; only when the English people learn to keep faith and speak clearly with a united voice will security and peace come.

The way we see the past, then, and in particular the way writers use the past, can vary. For Shakespeare, the past was certainly a mirror to hold up to his own age; not the mirror of an ideal age, though, but a mirror in which to see warnings. Perhaps the main warnings that he saw in the Middle Ages were that when England and Europe were in conflict, England had much to thank its island-ness for; that wars could never be won (not even by Henry V); that the English could only enjoy peace when there was harmony and mutual respect between king and people; and that the sovereign in England had strictly limited autonomy, for which we should all be thankful.


E.A.J. Honigmann ed., King John (The Arden Shakespeare, Methuen, 1954)
John Bartlett, A Complete Concordance to Shakespeare (Macmillan, 1894)
Stanley Wells ed., Shakespeare: A Bibliographical Guide (Oxford University Press, 1990)
Alexander Leggatt, English Drama: Shakespeare to the Restoration, 1590-1660 (Longman, 1988)
John N. King, English Reformation Literature: The Tudor Origins of the Protestant Tradition (Princeton University Press, 1982)
David Norbrook, Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance (RKP, 1984)
Margo Todd, Christian Humanism and the Puritan Social Order (Cambridge University Press, 1987)
John N. King, Spenser's Poetry and the Reformation Tradition (Princeton University Press, 1990)
Charles B. Schmitt and Quentin Skinner eds., The Cambridge History of Renaissance Philosophy (Cambridge University Press, 1988)
John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford University Press, 1988)

The Life and Death of King John : Summary

ACT I Scene 1: Court scene ; diplomatic conflict between King John and French ambassador, with interventions from John's mother Eleanor; John opts for war, refuses to turn over power to young Arthur. Robert and Philip Faulconbridge come in dispute over land, Philip being Richard Coeur de Lion's bastard son; John and Eleanor invite Philip to join them, leaving the family lands to his younger brother. He accepts and is knighted. The Bastard has a soliloquy on 'observation' before his mother comes and she, hearing that he has already given up the family name, confirms that he is Richard's son, for which he thanks her.

Act II Scene 1: Military confrontation before Angiers; Arthur introduced by Philip of France to Limoges-Austria (who killed Coeur de Lion). The ambassador to John in Act I arrives only minutes before John and his army. Confrontation between Philip and John, plus mothers Eleanor and Constance. The Bastard also intervenes. Who will Angiers accept as king? John and Philip speak their claims. City will accept whichever proves to be the rightful king! The heralds issue the same challenge, same reply. The French and English armies prepare to fight. Bastard suggests using the two armies together against the city. Accepted; then Hubert (spokesman for Angiers citizens) suggests a marriage of alliance between Blanche of Spain (John's niece) and Lewis the Dauphin of France, to bring France and England together. Accepted; Arthur named Duke of Britain by John, in compensation. Bastard's soliloquy on 'commodity'. Scene 2: Arthur's mother Constance horrified by the news.

Act III Scene 1: Assembly of both courts together, including protesting Constance. Papal legate arrives to deal with problem of John's actions against Stephen Langton, the Pope's nominee as Archbishop of Canterbury. John asserts absolute quality of national rights and laws, using Protestant words ('usurped authority'). Legate threatens excommunication, urges France to support him against John. Wavering, Philip asks for understanding, some other method. Legate makes sophisticated speeches; Philip decides against England; Blanche laments her divided loyalties. War! Scene 2: Bastard brings in Austria's head. John entrusts captured Arthur to Hubert, sends the Bastard to get money from the churches in England. John indicates to Hubert that Arthur must die. Scene 3: France has lost on all sides. Constance now full of bitterness and grief, to the point of madness. Legate Pandulf anticipates Arthur's death, suggests that it will benefit Philip, since Blanche then becomes heir to the throne, and people will be shocked by John's cruelty. Legate urges France to invade England.

Act IV Scene 1: Grisly preparations for blinding Arthur, pathetic dialogue, Hubert decides not to hurt him. Scene 2: John crowned again, for more security. The Lords scold him. They have heard of the plot against Arthur; John 'learns' he is dead, the Lords walk out in protest. Messenger announces France's arrival in England, the death of Eleanor, and of Constance. Bastard brings prophet from Pomfret who tells John he will give up his crown by Ascension Day noon. Hubert announces strange sign of 5 moons, and describes how people are in turmoil. John regrets death of Arthur, blames Hubert; Hubert reveals that he is alive. John asks him to tell the lords this. Scene 3: Arthur dies trying to escape from the castle. Bastard and Lords find him, think it is murder. Hubert arrives, insists he was alive. Lords ride to join France, not believing him. Bastard confused, but sees that the fate of England is the main thing now.

Act V Scene 1: Ascension Day; John gives up his crown to Pandulf, and receives it from him again, so that he will stop the French invasion. Bastard tells John of the Lords' desertion, death of Arthur... encourages John. John says that the legate will stop the French; Bastard demands battle. Scene 2: The agreement between the English lords and the Dauphin. Salisbury laments. Pandulf tells Dauphin to go back to France; he refuses. Bastard arrives to challenge the French, in high terms. Battle. Scene 3: During battle John, sick, leaves the field. The Dauphin's ships are wrecked. Scene 4: Wounded Melun tells the English lords that they will be killed if the Dauphin wins. Lords return to John. Scene 5: The Dauphin learns of his losses. Scene 6: Bastard and Hubert meet in the dark, fail at first to recognize each other. Hubert announces John is poisoned by a monk. Then tells that the lords are all come back, bringing Prince Henry with them. Bastard has lost half the army crossing the Wash. Scene 7: Henry prepares for John's death. John brought on, in pain. Dies. Bastard prepares for desperate resistance against French. Salisbury announces that Pandulf has just brought terms for peace. All submit to Henry as King. Bastard declares English invincibility.