(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1009 words.)