Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1009
King John of England indignantly rejects the message of the French envoy, Chatillon, that Philip, king of France, has decided to support the claim of young Prince Arthur—the son of John’s deceased older brother Geffrey—for the throne of England. At the same time, the Faulconbridge brothers bring their domestic quarrel...
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King John of England indignantly rejects the message of the French envoy, Chatillon, that Philip, king of France, has decided to support the claim of young Prince Arthur—the son of John’s deceased older brother Geffrey—for the throne of England. At the same time, the Faulconbridge brothers bring their domestic quarrel to the king’s court: Philip (identified throughout the play as the “Bastard”) complains that his younger brother Richard has claimed his lands. Philip decides, however, to surrender his claim and to seek success on his own initiative after acknowledging that he is the son of the late King Richard I, John’s brother. Embarrassed, Philip’s elderly mother admits that Richard was indeed his father.
At the French court, King Philip of France and the duke of Austria vow to fight on behalf of Arthur’s claim, while Arthur, in exchange for their military support, is willing to forgive Austria for having killed his uncle, King Richard. Chatillon reports that the English forces are marching to Angiers, led by John, who has brought along his formidable mother, Eleanor of Acquitaine, as well as the Bastard. John enters to demand that France support his right to the English throne, but King Philip upholds Arthur’s claim.
At the besieged city of Angiers, its spokesman, the Citizen, explains from the city walls to the two armies that the town is loyal to the English king and insists that it will admit the king, once the true king is decided upon. The Citizen offers a peaceful compromise solution to the tense situation—that Lewis the dauphin and Blanche of Spain should wed. Eleanor agrees to this plan, while Arthur’s mother Constance is distressed because the plan will exclude her son’s claim to the throne. In the play’s most famous speech, “Mad world, mad kings, mad composition,” the Bastard professes to be amazed at the cynical peace agreed upon by the politicians; the world, he explains, is ruled by “That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity” (that is, self-interest).
Constance is outraged by the report of the proposed marriage of Lewis and Blanche and denounces Austria for agreeing to it. Pandulph, the papal legate, demands that John drop his objection to the pope’s candidate for the archbishopric of Canterbury, and he enjoins Philip to defend the Church against England. Philip thus promptly breaks his new alliance with John. John tells Hubert to keep Arthur under his control and quietly hints to Hubert that he should arrange Arthur’s death, describing the boy as “a very serpent in my way.”
Philip reports that France has been defeated: Its fleet is scattered, Angiers is lost, and Arthur has been captured. Constance, now clearly under mental duress, pathetically laments that she knows she will never see her son again. Pandulph tells Lewis that John, by winning, has lost: He will not know rest until Arthur is dead, at which time Lewis can claim the throne.
Hubert shows Arthur his order from John to put out Arthur’s eyes. Arthur appeals to Hubert’s mercy and reminds him of their previously friendly relationship, successfully persuading Hubert to relent. The innocent Arthur is then forced to improvise a succession of arguments to persuade Hubert not to kill him, and Hubert is touched by pleas such as “I would to heaven/ I were your son, so you would love me, Hubert.”
At court, the nobles discourage John from staging a second coronation, and Hubert falsely reports Arthur’s death to the king. A messenger reports that France has invaded England and that Eleanor and Constance are both dead. John now blames Hubert for Arthur’s death, although he had suggested it, and he clearly becomes disoriented by the news of his mother’s death. The king cruelly orders the death of a local prophet, Peter of Pomfret, merely for having predicted the end of his reign. At this low point, Hubert reveals that has actually spared Arthur’s life.
While attempting to escape from captivity by disguising himself as a ship’s boy, Arthur jumps from the walls and dies. Finding the boy’s broken body, the nobles scoff at Hubert’s claim to have spared Arthur. They proceed to blame Hubert for murder and John for having ordered it. When he enters to report that Arthur still lives, Hubert is struck with emotion when he is shown the boy’s body. Anguished but still loyal to John, the Bastard bears the body away.
John offers obedience to the papal legate. Pandulph replies that he will quell the storm that he has raised. The Bastard explains how the nobles found Arthur’s body. Despite John’s reconciliation with Rome, Lewis refuses to withdraw his claim to Arthur’s title, now that he has married Blanche. The Bastard reports that John is now in arms but claims that John is haunted by Death (“in his forehead sits/ A bare-ribbed Death”).
John, now sick with fever and heavy in heart, explains that he will seek refuge at Swinstead Abbey. Wounded in battle, Melun, one of the French nobles, warns the English nobles to submit to John, explaining that the duplicitous Lewis will condemn them to death if the French win the battle. A messenger reports to Lewis that Melun is dead, the English nobility has defected, and the French ships have foundered: An English victory is now assured. Hubert seeks the Bastard to report to him the defection of the English nobles back to John—and that John has been poisoned by a monk.
Prince Henry, John’s son, is present when his father dies. In a final irony, it appears that England will be governed by a boy after all. The Bastard vows revenge on John’s murderer and swears fealty to the late king in heaven. Pandulph brings an offer from peace from Lewis, while Prince Henry explains that John will be buried in Worcester. The Bastard concludes the play by insisting that England can only be conquered when it wounds itself first.