King John: by Shakespeare - Summary

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      King John precedes the rest by more than a century He had an unhappy and bloody reign. On chief reason for this is his doubtful claim to the throne. When his father Henry II (1154-89) died Richard (1189-99) the eldest son succeeded to the throne But he reigned only till 1199. Henry's second son Geoffrey had been dead already but left behind his son, Arthur. But this boy was aged just 12, at the time of his Uncle Richard's death.

      The question raised was who had the better claim to the throne? Should it be Richard's adult youngest brother or the Child-nephew by an intermediate brother? In similar situations, the real or supposed wishes of the dying king, the support of the powerful nobles, the strength and achievements of the heirs and sometimes sheer luck would decide the crown. Hence Richard's supposed naming of John as his heir in addition to the support from certain nobles and the powerful mother Queen Eleanor encouraged John to get crowned. But throughout his reign (1199-1216) he suffered opposition from Rome, France and his own nobles at home. Historically he faced these three forces separately each time getting the support from one or the other.

      Shakespeare, for dramatic purposes has telescoped all these events as noted by the Arden editor of the play who observes “above all, the close weaving together of the Papal interference the death of Arthur, the baronial revolt as if brought about by Arthur's supposed murder, and the French invasion” considers “all these are felt to be dramatic gains.” (Ivor B. John p. xxvii). The play opens when King John receives an ambassador from the King of France who is prepared to go to war in support of Arthur’s claim to the throne. While John’s mother, Queen Eleanor is determined that he should keep the throne, her daughter-in-law Constance is equally strong and sure of her son Arthur’s rights and succeed thus in getting the French King’s support. Both the kings appeal to the citizens of Algiers to decide who is the true King of England, Arthur or John.

      But the clever citizens announce that they are the true subjects of the King of England. After a terrible fight truce is established between the two kingdoms by letting Queen Eleanor’s niece marry the French King’s son.

      Constance who is disappointed at this, once again revives hopes when an envoy arrives from the Pope excommunicating King John due to a disagreement over the authority of the Church. The French King after a struggle with his conscience, breaks off his alliance with King John. In the fight that follows John wins arid takes Arthur captive. He orders Arthur’s keeper, Hubert to put out the boy’s eyes. But Hubert moved by Arthur’s words gives up this horrible plan. He gives the King the false report that Arthur as dead He crowns himself, more to make his title doubly secure The nobles Suspect King John to have caused Arthur’s death to Pacify the angry lords Philip Faulconbridge (the Bastard) an interesting and lively Soldier is see to them. Hubert conveys the good tidings that Arthur is alive. But Unfortunately, Arthur had tried leaping over the high Wall of the castle is found lying dead outside it. King John had established peace with the Pope When the trouble started from the nobles who joined the forces of the French King. The Bastard informs him of the treachery of the nobles. Given the command of the army, the Bastard almost single-handedly Succeeds in holding back the French strength In the end, the French lose the battle the English nobles realize the intended treachery of the French king end hence returns in loyalty to their Own king. King John dies soon due to fever leaving the kingdom to his sun, and all the lords view fealty to the flew king The Play ends with the proud Words of Patriotism by the loyal, warmhearted Bastard of Faulconbridge;

This England never did, nor never shall,
lie at the proud food of a conqueror
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again.
Come to the three corners of the world in arms, And we shall shock them
Nouglit shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true.

      England must be true to herself and that is the burden of this play. Prof. Wilson Knight comments on the significance of this play thus. In King John England is felt groping towards independence. The nation’s relationship to the Continent and specialty to the Church of Rome's Subtly presented together with a feeling for England’s true strength dependent on two things Which are really the same, the coming home of her revolted barons, that is, unity an truth to herself.’ (The Sovereign Flower, 1958). For E.M.W Tillyard the play is concerned with the specific problems such as the succession, the ethics of rebellion, and the kingly character, (Shakespeare’s History Plays, 1944). John’s claims are weak no doubt but his ruin comes from his defective character.

      Knowing his house to be founded upon sand, he puts on an air of authority and grandeur. But within there is nothing but shame and rottenness. Tillyard finds in King John “three pretenders to royalty; Arthur, John, and the Bastard: and they all lack something. Arthur is the genuine hair, but he lacks years and probably character. John is kingly only in appearance and in the possession of the crown: in mind he is hasty and unstable. The Bastard is illegitimate in birth but in other ways he is one of Shakespeare’s great versions of the regal type”. (Shakespeare’s History Play). Peter Saccio finds illegitimacy a central idea in King John: “Not only does it appear in the form of illegitimate rule (usurpation), but also as illegitimate birth (bastardy), and illegitimate honor (boastful pretensions (P. Saccio, Shakespeare’s English Kings, 1577). According to M. M. Reese King John is the most cynical and disillusioned of the histories. It is a dark picture. Issues of right and wrong are debated freely, and every time the wrong prevails. Force and expediency appear in all the distorting colors of conscience, honor, patriotism, domestic piety and religious duty. Never before has Shakespeare’s world been so ubiquitously and subtly evil”. (M.M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty, 1961)

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