King John | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King John | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

At his palace in England, King John receives an ambassador from the French king, Philip II. Also present are John's mother, Queen Eleanor, and the Earls of Pembroke, Essex, and Salisbury. The ambassador, named Chatillon, demands King John give up the throne in favor of Arthur, John's nephew. If he does not do so, Chatillon warns, France will subject England to "the proud control of fierce and bloody war." John defies this demand and threatens to invade France preemptively. As Pembroke escorts Chatillon offstage, Queen Eleanor voices her opinion that Arthur's mother, Constance, ambitious for her son, is behind Chatillon's demand.

A sheriff now comes onstage with two men involved in a "strange ... controversy." The men, Robert and Philip Faulconbridge, are half brothers, though this fact is not immediately evident from their testimony. Both claim to be heirs to Sir Robert Faulconbridge, a knight in the service of the late King Richard. It eventually becomes clear, however, Philip is the illegitimate son of King Richard himself. (At this point the stage directions rather bluntly begin referring to Philip as the "Bastard.") To end the argument about who is the real heir, Queen Eleanor offers Philip a choice: be acknowledged as Sir Robert's heir and inherit his lands or be acknowledged as the illegitimate son of a king. Philip chooses the latter and is knighted Sir Richard Plantagenet. All but the newly knighted Bastard leave the stage.

In the first long soliloquy of the play, the Bastard reflects on his choice, which has made him rich in honor but poor in land and money. He laughs to himself about the fancy airs he will have to put on to get along with the king's high-society friends. Finally he remarks on the tendency toward flattery and deceit in the royal court. At this point his mother, Lady Faulconbridge, enters the stage, accompanied by her servant James Gurney. She asks the Bastard about his brother's whereabouts. Dismissing Gurney, the Bastard demands to know the identity of his real father. After stalling Lady Faulconbridge admits to having been "seduced / to make room for [King Richard] in [her] husband's bed." She repents this "transgression," but the Bastard promises to defend her against slander: "Who lives and dares but say thou didst not well / When I was got, I'll send his soul to hell."

Analysis

Chatillon's demand to King John is not quite as outrageous as it may first appear. Arthur, the rival claimant to the throne, is a member of the English royal family—the son, in fact, of John's late elder brother, Geoffrey. He is also, through his maternal bloodline, the Duke of Brittany, a territory he rules jointly with his mother, Constance. More important—though this fact is not made explicit in the play—Arthur was at one point the designated heir to Richard I, the previous king, who had no children of his own. Near the end of his life, however, Richard changed his mind and made his brother John the heir. Thus, when Richard died in 1199, John was slated to succeed him, and Arthur was no longer part of the order of succession. Needless to say, not everyone got the memo. Many—particularly in England's French territories—retained their allegiance to Arthur and resisted John's attempt to govern. Others, like the Angevin townsfolk who will appear in Act 2, were caught in the crossfire between John's faction and Arthur's.

Richard's decision to disinherit Arthur was not driven by mere capriciousness or spite, or by any special fondness for his younger brother. Rather Richard sought to protect the English crown from the influence of King Philip II of France, at whose court Arthur had lived since 1196. Despite Richard's change in policy, Arthur remained a puppet—or, more charitably, an ally—of France throughout his short life. Philip II, in turn, backed Arthur's bid for the English throne.

Eleanor, John and Richard's mother, would have had her own reasons for not wanting to see Arthur crowned. Since the death of her husband Henry II in 1189, Eleanor had carefully managed the realm during the reign of first Richard, then John. She had helped them consolidate their empire formed by her marriage to Henry, defending it against external threats and internal dissension. The last thing the aging Eleanor wants now is to watch this empire disintegrate as England's French territories are broken off piece by piece. Anyone who threatens such an outcome (e.g., Constance and Arthur) is persona non grata.

The real breakout character of Act 1, however, is the Bastard, who quickly establishes himself as a major interpreter of the play's events. He will be involved—chiefly offstage—in the political and military maneuvering that defines the play's action. Onstage, however, the Bastard functions primarily as a kind of cynical chorus, deflating the noble pretensions of the other characters. His choric quality is first evident at the end of this scene, where he scoffs at the customs of the political elite: their fancy dinner parties, their exaggerated sense of their own learning and culture. More important, he mocks the ideals of this group by noting the courtiers' tendency to tell flattering lies rather than uncomfortable truths. This is the "sweet, sweet poison" against which the Bastard wishes to immunize himself.

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