Last Updated on January 6, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1365
Act I The play opens at the English court of King John. Chatillion, an emissary from King Philip of France, declares that Philip claims the English crown and all its territories in the name of Arthur, King John's nephew. John vows that he will sail to France immediately to wage...
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The play opens at the English court of King John. Chatillion, an emissary from King Philip of France, declares that Philip claims the English crown and all its territories in the name of Arthur, King John's nephew. John vows that he will sail to France immediately to wage war against Philip. Robert Faulconbridge and Philip the Bastard enter, and present competing claims to the late Sir Robert's Faulconbridge's land and fortune. Robert argues that his father was overseas on a mission and the late King Richard was staying at the Faulconbridge estate when Philip was conceived; he notes that on his deathbed, Sir Robert denied that Philip was his son. Elinor, King John's mother, asks the Bastard if he will forsake his claim to the Faulconbridge inheritance, and he readily agrees. John officially declares Philip the Bastard to be Richard's son. Left alone, the Bastard soliloquizes about honor, flattery, and his new circumstances. Lady Faulconbridge appears, and when the Bastard asks her to tell him who his father was, she admits that it was King Richard, not Sir Robert Faulconbridge.
Outside the French city of Angiers, King Philip has assembled his noblemen and allies. King John arrives with his followers, and the two monarchs formally exchange rival claims about who has the more valid right to the English throne: John or Arthur. Elinor and Constance, Arthur's mother, hurl insults at each other, while the Bastard vows to give the duke of Austria a thrashing. A citizen of Angiers suddenly appears on the city walls above them. John and Philip each demand to be admitted to the city. The citizen replies that since Angiers is an English possession, its gates will open only to the rightful king of England—whoever that is proven to be. The French and English armies engage in battle, with neither side gaining the upper hand. The two kings and their attendants meet near the city walls, and the Bastard points out that the citizens of Angiers have treated them both with contempt. He suggests that they turn their weapons against the city and destroy it. The citizen suggests another solution: that John's niece Blanch become the wife of Philip's son Lewis. John promises to turn over all his French provinces and a huge sum of money as well if the marriage takes place. Lewis and Philip agree to the match. Blanch says she will do whatever is asked of her. Alone after everyone else leaves, the Bastard expresses his astonishment over the turn of events, marveling that self-interest has led the French to abandon a just and honorable course of action.
At the French encampment outside Angiers, Constance rages at the news of the alliance between France and England. When John and Philip appear with their followers, she turns on Philip, accusing him of perjury. Cardinal Pandulph arrives and demands to know why John has blocked the pope's appointment of a new archbishop of Canterbury. John tells him that the king, not the pope, rules England. Pandulph declares that John is a heretic and no longer a member of the church, adding that whoever revolts from John's rule will be blessed and whoever takes his life will be doing a good deed. The cardinal further orders Philip to break of his new alliance with John or be barred from the church. Philip hesitates, but after Pandulph presents a complex argument about Philip's primary role as defender of the church, the French king renounces the alliance. Combat resumes between England and France, and Arthur is taken prisoner. While the battle rages, John approaches Hubert, a follower he has named to look after Arthur. By degrees, he reveals to Hubert that he wants the boy killed, and Hubert agrees to do it. With the English clearly victorious, Pandulph, Lewis, and Philip meet. They are confronted by Constance, grief-stricken over the loss of her son. When she leaves, Philip follows her. The cardinal then points out to Lewis that because Arthur represents a threat to John's title, it is inevitable that John will have him killed—leaving Lewis a clear way to the English throne, through his marriage to Blanch. Lewis agrees to Pandulph's proposal to invade England.
In an English prison, Hubert shows Arthur a document ordering that the young prince be blinded. Arthur pleads with Hubert not to carry out the order, and at last Hubert relents. The setting shifts to the palace of King John, who has just been crowned a second time. When the assembled nobles request the release of Arthur, the king agrees. Hubert arrives and whispers in John's ear. The king turns to the nobles and tells them that Arthur has died that night. Pembroke and Salisbury declare that there must have been foul play. After they depart, a messenger arrives, announcing that French forces have landed in England. The Bastard enters with a man who has predicted that on the next Ascension Day, John will give up his crown. Dispatching the man to prison and the Bastard to bring back the nobles, John tells Hubert he never meant to have Arthur killed. When Hubert shows him the warrant he had signed, John blames Hubert for carrying out his orders. Hubert then reveals that Arthur is still alive. The scene shifts to the prison walls, where Arthur intends to elude discovery by leaping down and running away. He plummets onto the stones below and dies. Pembroke, Salisbury, and Bigot appear nearby. They are soon joined by the Bastard, who tries to convince them to return to the palace. They discover Arthur's body, and the nobles insist he must have been murdered. When Hubert appears, the nobles accuse him of killing Arthur, but he denies it. After they leave, the Bastard demands to know if Hubert is guilty. He denies it again, and the Bastard tells him to bear away Arthur's body.
In a room at the English palace, John hands his crown to Pandulph, who places it on the king's head and declares that John's sovereign authority comes from the pope. The king, in turn, urges the cardinal to keep his part of their bargain and halt the French invasion. When Pandulph remarks that it is Ascension Day, John realizes that the prophecy has come true. The Bastard enters and tells the king that several English cities have welcomed the French invader, that many nobles have gone over to Lewis's side, and that Arthur is dead. Yet he urges John to remain steadfast. The king puts him in charge of marshalling the English forces against the invasion. In the French encampment, Lewis and Count Melune confer with the English noblemen who have become their allies. Pandulph arrives and tells Lewis that hostilities should cease. The Bastard appears, learns that Lewis means to fight on, and then delivers a rousing speech in which he portrays King John as determined to carry on the war and defeat the French. On the field of battle, however, John complains of a fever, and when a messenger comes from the Bastard telling him to retire from the field, he assents. The messenger also brings word that ships sent to re-supply the French troops have run aground. In another part of the field, the fatally wounded Melune tells Salisbury, Pembroke, and Bigot that they have been betrayed: Lewis has sworn to cut of their heads that night. Salisbury proposes to the other English nobles that they return to King John and ask him to pardon them. Subsequently, in an orchard at Swinstead Abbey, Prince Henry, Salisbury, and Bigot wait to hear news of John, who has been poisoned by a monk. The king is carried into the orchard, desperately ill and consumed by fever. The Bastard arrives with Hubert, bringing dire news about the course of the war. The king dies as they are speaking. Salisbury counters the Bastard's account with an entirely different report: Pandulph has come to Swinstead Abbey from Lewis, seeking peace and apparently agreeable to any terms the English set. Everyone kneels in loyalty to Henry, the dead king's heir, and the Bastard closes the play with a stirring appeal to the principles of patriotism.