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 with the final speech in the play, a brief, patriotic eulogy on England.
Constance, the widow of Geoffrey Plantagenet and mother of Arthur. Intensely emotional and ambitious for her son’s career, she struggles to have him enthroned and thus indirectly causes his death. Her reaction to King Philip’s desertion of her son’s cause is violent. A message reaches King John that news of her son’s death has caused her own “in a frenzy.”
Arthur, the duke of Bretagne (breh-TAHN-y), a gentle-hearted, bewildered child. His reported execution by John’s orders ruins the king. His death actually is an accident caused by an attempt to escape prison.
Robert Faulconbridge (
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