Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
King John, who, as a champion of opposition to the Church of Rome, is treated with a sympathy rare in English literature. John is not a clearly characterized or consistent figure. His conscience or his sense of expediency torments him when he hears that his nephew Arthur is dead by his command. He submits to Rome to save his land from France, but he dies poisoned by a monk at Swinstead Abbey before he can learn that his country is saved.
Queen Elinor, the king’s mother. A strong, arrogant, and domineering woman, she guides and encourages her son and puts backbone into him. She is pleased with her blunt, illegitimate grandson, Philip the Bastard, and apparently gentle and affectionate toward her pathetic small grandson, Arthur. Her death weakens the king.
Philip the Bastard
Philip the Bastard, the supposed older son of Sir Robert Faulconbridge, actually the child of King Richard the Lion-Hearted (Ceur de Lion). At Queen Elinor’s suggestion, he renounces his name and inheritance and is knighted by King John, becoming Sir Richard Plantagenet. Rough, strong, and loyal, he serves his country and his king well, acting as a symbol of English manhood in exhibiting good sense and judgment as well as boldness and humor. He taunts and later kills the duke of Austria, his father’s supposed slayer. He is King John’s instrument in rifling the monasteries. He is honored...
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Arthur (Arthur, Duke of Britain)
He is the son of Constance and Geffrey, King John's older brother. According to the law of primogeniture, or birth order, Arthur ought to have become king of England when Richard I died. Arthur is generally presented as a helpless young child, yet sometimes he shows adult-like bravery and composure.
At the opening of II.i, he greets the duke of Austria and graciously thanks him for joining the ranks of his supporters. Later in the scene, however, his poise deserts him in the face of the spiteful wrangling between Constance and Elinor, and he seems overwhelmed by the political turmoil swirling around him. When Constance learns that the marriage of Blanch and Lewis has brought peace between England and France, the depth of her outrage frightens Arthur, and he begs her to accept the situation.
Arthur's childish innocence and sweet temperament are highlighted in IV.ii. When Hubert, King John's aide, shows him a warrant ordering that he be blinded, Arthur reminds him that he has shown him nothing but loving care and obedience since they have been together. He asks Hubert how he can carry out such a dreadful act. Shamed and moved by Arthur's continuing appeals, Hubert relents.
In disguise, Arthur bravely slips away from the prison and climbs onto the wall surrounding it. Believing that the only way to keep John from having him murdered is to escape, Arthur gathers his courage and leaps from the high wall, falling to his death on the...
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She is the widow of Geffrey—King John's older brother—and the mother of Arthur. Constance believes fiercely in her son Arthur's right to the throne. Indeed, she's obsessed by it. Constance is essentially powerless, however, and she must depend on allies such as the king of France, the duke of Austria, and Cardinal Pandulph. When she asserts Arthur's claim to the English crown, she represents the voice of conscience. Yet she is also proud and ambitious. There is strong evidence that she would be the power behind the throne if Arthur were king. Furthermore, Constance is frequently reckless in asserting and defending her son.
When John and his mother Elinor land in France to contest Arthur's claim, Constance and Elinor are at each other's throats almost immediately, tossing insults back and forth, and charging each other with adultery. Though Arthur begs Constance to stop quarreling, she continues. She correctly calls John a usurper, but she goes on at such length and so extravagantly that even Philip asks her to hold her tongue.
Ordinarily in the company of the French court, she is absent when Philip deserts Arthur's cause in favor of peace and a lucrative marriage between his son and John's niece. When she learns of this, Constance is outraged. At first she cannot believe that Philip has betrayed Arthur. She refuses to seek out the king, demanding that he come to her. When Philip and Austria arrive, she lashes out at them, charging them...
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de Burgh (Hubert de Burgh)
John's aid and right-hand-man, he is chosen to carry out the king's order to murder Arthur. In III.iii, John slowly reveals to Hubert his malicious intentions. The king flatters Hubert, thanks him for his past services, and gradually takes him into his confidence. With implicit promises of great rewards, John tersely spells out what he wants: Arthur's death. Hubert vows that he shall have it. It is difficult to judge Hubert's behavior in this so-called "temptation scene." John is manipulating him, and as a powerless commoner he seems to have little choice except to carry out the king's wishes. Yet once John has made his intentions clear, Hubert seems ready and willing to murder Arthur.
When they have returned to England, however, Hubert appears prepared to blind the boy rather than kill him. Arthur begs him not to do it and makes an emotional appeal to the man who has become his friend. Hubert grits his teeth and tries to resist the child's pleas, but he relents. Realizing that he has put himself in grave jeopardy with this decision, Hubert tells Arthur he must give the king a false report of his death. When he does so, and the king informs his nobles that Arthur has died, they immediately suspect that Hubert has killed him.
In IV.ii, Hubert keeps up the pretense that Arthur is dead—and John tries to lay all the blame on him. The king lies, saying that Hubert has repeatedly urged that Arthur must be killed. Even when Hubert shows him the...
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Elinor (Queen Elinor)
Historically, Eleanor of Aquitaine was Queen of France from 1137 until her divorce from Louis VI in 1152. That same year, she married Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou; when he became Henry I of England two years later, she became Queen of England. A gifted political strategist, Eleanor of Acquitance took part in several military campaigns, sometimes leading her forces into battle.
Eleanor and Henry I had five children. The oldest was Henry, who died before his father and thus never succeeded to the throne. Instead the second son, Richard Coeur-de-lion, became king when Henry I died in 1189. The third son, Geoffrey, married Constance of Brittainy and became the father of Arthur; Geffrey died three years before his father. John was the youngest son of Henry II and Eleanor; he succeeded to the throne upon the death of Richard in 1199. The family also included a daughter; she married Alfonso of Castile and became the mother of Blanche of Castile.
In the first half of King John, Elinor is her son John's closest adviser. She disputes the claim that her grandson Arthur is the rightful king of England— though she admits privately that John's possession of the throne is stronger than his right to it. When Philip the Bastard and Robert Faulconbridge present their legal dispute, Elinor is struck by the Bastard's resemblance to her late son, Richard Cordelion. She impulsively asks the young man if he will give up his share in the Faulconbridge...
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John (King John of England)
The king of England, he is the son of Elinor and uncle to Arthur and Blanch. Historically, he became king in 1199 upon the death of his brother Richard I, who had named him his successor two years earlier. John is reported to have been a wicked, tyrannical monarch. Yet Elizabethan historians praised him for being the only English king before Henry VIII to openly defy the pope. King John's defiance later turned to submissiveness, and he eventually acknowledged Rome's authority in English affairs. His noblemen supported him in his contest with the pope, but when he gave up the fight, they turned on him. They threatened a civil war unless he made many concessions to them; these concessions were formally preserved in the document known as Magna Carta, which John signed in 1215. John reigned until his death in 1216. According to legend, he was fatally poisoned by a monk.
Although he is the title character of the play, John is not a typical hero—even though he often behaves like one in Acts I through III. In this portion of the play, he keeps his passions in check whenever the circumstances call for clear thinking. He is willing to go to war to defend his throne, and he reacts to the French challenge with courage and determination. Yet he treats his political enemies and their representatives with respect. He is personally gracious toward Chatillion despite his hostile announcement, and he courteously sees to it that the ambassador is given safe passage out...
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Lewis (Lewis the Dolphin [Dauphin])
The son of King Philip of France, Lewis is sometimes referred to as the Dauphin (or Dolphin)— that is, the king's eldest son. An ambitious young man, he is easily manipulated by Pandulph. As leader of the French invasion of England, however, he is a capable strategist. Lewis is dogged by bad luck, and as his fortunes decline, he displays a vicious capacity for double-crossing his allies.
Though he is present throughout the exchanges between Philip and John outside the walls of Angiers, he has nothing to say until it is suggested that the way to settle the dispute between the two countries is for him to marry John's niece Blanch. Lewis is taken by surprise, and his response to the suggestion is awkward, to say the least. When his father asks him how he feels about the scheme, Lewis replies that he finds in Blanch's eyes a mirror of himself. Seeing his image there, he says that he never loved himself until this moment. This tribute to love draws a cutting remark from the Bastard.
After the French are handed a devastating defeat at Angiers, Lewis is humiliated. Pandulph tells him to look on the bright side and view Arthur's capture as a golden opportunity. John will surely see to it that Arthur is killed, the cardinal points out, and this will clear the way for Lewis to claim the English throne in the name of his wife Blanch. Lewis agrees with Pandulph's advice to invade England, and they go off together to get Philip's approval of the idea....
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Pandulph (Cardinal Pandulph)
A cardinal of the Church of Rome, he acts as the pope's ambassador to the courts of France and England. He represents one side of a central issue in the play: the conflict between the Church of Rome and the English monarchy. In a world where virtually everyone is consumed by the struggle for power, Cardinal Pandulph is a master of political manipulation. He uses the weapons at hand—excommunication and the threat of eternal damnation—to bring rebellious kings back into line. Adept at exploiting situations for his own purposes, Pandulph teaches Lewis how to turn Arthur's probable death into an opportunity for advancement.
Pandulph's first appearance is in III.i, when he confronts John near Angiers and demands to know why he has kept the newly appointed archbishop of Canterbury from assuming his post. John is defiant, and Pandulph explodes. He declares that John is henceforth "cursed and excommunicate" (III.i.173). For good measure, he adds that every English subject who rebels against John will be blessed, and whoever should kill him will be canonized "and worshipped as a saint" (III.i.177).
Pandulph turns next to Philip, threatening him with the curse of the Church unless he releases John's hand and renounces their newly achieved treaty of friendship. At first, the French king wavers, so Pandulph launches into an intricate argument, reminding Philip that his primary responsibility is to defend the church and treat its enemies as his...
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Pembroke (Earl of Pembroke)
As an earl, Pembroke is one of the foremost noblemen in England. Each time he appears in the play he is in the company of the earl of Salisbury, and their actions always coincide: as one moves from indignation to vengeance or from rebellion to loyalty, so does the other.
Though Pembroke is frequently in attendance on King John in the first half of the play, his first words are in IV.ii, when he protests that John's second coronation was an unnecessary demonstration of his right to the crown. To the king's request that his nobles tell him what reform they want him to undertake, Pembroke replies that he should free Arthur. Pembroke argues that it is disgraceful to keep a young boy imprisoned and that if John is confident of his right to be king, he has no reason to feel threatened by Arthur. When the king reports that Arthur is dead, Pembroke mocks the suggestion that he died of natural causes. Predicting that dire consequences will flow from Arthur's death, Pembroke sets off with Salisbury for the prison where the young boy had been held.
When they come upon Arthur's body, Pembroke bursts into a rage and declares that this is the most evil murder of all time. Refusing the Bastard's plea to suspend judgment and charging Hubert with the crime, Pembroke and the other lords storm off. As they leave, they announce their intention to meet Lewis, who has invaded England and declared himself the rightful king of England.
The meeting takes...
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Philip (King Philip of France)
He is King John's principal political foe in the first half of the play. As Arthur and Constance's chief ally, Philip is not always dependable. His decisions to abandon Arthur's claim by making peace with John, and then to revoke the treaty at Pandulph's command, raise several questions. Is personal gain his principal motive? Is he a rationalizer or a hypocrite? Does he finally agree with the cardinal that his first duty is to the Church—or is he terrified by the prospect of eternal damnation? In an amoral world dominated by the struggle for political power, King Philip frequently appears torn between honor and self-interest.
He sends an ambassador to John, boldly proclaiming his support of Arthur's claim to the English throne and threatening to wage war on the young man's behalf. He lays siege to the city of Angiers to force its citizens to accept Arthur as England's king. When John lands in France, Philip calls him a usurper and delivers a stirring defense of Arthur's cause. But his resolution melts at the prospect of a lucrative marriage between his son and John's niece. He agrees to the union—and to the terms of the agreement—though he knows that Constance will be angry when she learns he has abandoned Arthur's claim and made peace with John.
When Pandulph demands that Philip revoke his treaty with John, he refuses at first. He continues to clasp John's hand as a sign of their friendship. He points out to Pandulph that he has given...
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Philip the Bastard (also called Richard Plantagenet)
Legally, he is the first son of Lord and Lady Faulconbridge. Actually, he is the son of King Richard I and Lady Faulconbridge. Historically, there is no substantial evidence of such a person, though at least one Elizabethan historian reported that Richard I had a bastard son named Philip. After King John acknowledges Philip as Richard's son in Li, Philip also becomes known as Richard (after his father) Plantagenet (the family name of the members of the royal family).
In King John, the Bastard assumes many forms. He is an ambiguous figure, and his character resists simple definitions or explanations. Sometimes he stands outside the action and comments on it, and sometimes he is in the thick of things. In the first half of the play, he is a soldier of fortune, seizing opportunities as they present themselves. Impudent and frequently disrespectful, he lends an element of comedy to a play that is otherwise grim and relentless in its depiction of the realities of power politics. In the second half of King John, he tries to fill the gaping hole in England's leadership created by John's weakness. It's debatable whether the Bastard is motivated by loyalty, patriotism, or some less admirable quality.
Philip the Bastard and his brother Robert present themselves at the English court in the play' s first scene, asking the king to settle their dispute. The Bastard shows no hesitation in acknowledging that his mother may have been unfaithful...
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Salisbury (Earl of Salisbury)
One of the highest ranking English noblemen in the play, the Earl of Salisbury often seems to waver between honor and self-interest. His behavior and his motives are complex. If the king is guilty of an outrageous murder, Salisbury and the others would seem to have a worthy reason to refuse to follow the king any longer. But English nobles joining forces with an invader who threatens English sovereignty and national unity is treachery. And striking a bargain that will yield personal gain makes the justice of the rebels' motives questionable.
Salisbury appears only briefly in the first half of the play, but he is a prominent figure in Acts IV and V. In IV.ii, Salisbury says that he suspects the king means to harm Arthur. When John announces that the young prince is dead, Salisbury seems certain that foul play is involved. The first indication that he and the other nobles mean to desert John comes in IV.iii, where he describes to his friends a conversation he has had with Count Melune. Moments later, Salisbury and the others discover Arthur's body. Salisbury immediately declares that the boy was murdered and, kneeling beside Arthur's body, declares he will no longer serve the king. However, his earlier contact with the leaders of the French invasion raises the question of whether Arthur's alleged murder is really Salisbury's motive for rebellion or merely an excuse to justify a course of action he has already decided to take.
When Salisbury and...
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Austria (Lymoges, Duke of Austria)
He is usually referred to in the play by his title, duke of Austria. He is a blend of two historical figures: the duke of Austria, who imprisoned Richard Cordelion and held him for ransom, and the Viscount Limoges, who killed Richard in battle. In King John, Austria allies himself with King Philip in Arthur's cause. The duke is the butt of many of the Bastard's taunts in II.i and III.i, especially with regard to the lion-skin robe he took from Richard's body and now wears himself. When Philip temporarily deserts Arthur, Austria does too, and Constance calls him a coward and a fool. He is killed in battle, and his head is borne in as a trophy, by the Bastard.
Bastard (Philip the Bastard): See Philip the Bastard
Bigot (Lord Bigot)
An English nobleman, he appears in four scenes in the company of Pembroke and Salisbury. Bigot is among the nobles who discover Arthur's body; desert John and ally themselves with the French; learn that Lewis has betrayed them; and go to Swinstead Abbey to seek John's pardon.
Blanch of Spain
Queen Elinor's granddaughter and King John's niece, she becomes a pawn in the struggle for the English throne. Marriages arranged for political and economic purposes have been standard practice throughout human history, particularly in the case of royalty. Blanch's submissive response to the suggestion that she marry Lewis is...
(The entire section is 1289 words.)