King John | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King John | Act 2, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Act 2 consists of a single massive scene, set outside the French city of Angiers. First to enter is Philip II of France, accompanied by his son Louis, the Dauphin; Arthur, Duke of Brittany; and Arthur's mother, Constance. On the opposite side of the stage enters the Duke of Austria, who has brought his army to aid Arthur's cause. King Philip prepares to besiege Angiers, but Constance advises him to hold off until the French ambassador Chatillon returns from England. Just then Chatillon appears with fearful news: an English army has landed in France. He advises Philip to turn his "forces from this paltry siege / And stir them up against a mightier task": that is, end the siege and prepare to fight the English. A far-off drum announces the English have already arrived.

Within moments King John and his retinue appear onstage. His party includes Queen Eleanor; the Bastard; John's niece, the Lady Blanche; and the Earls of Pembroke and Salisbury. Each king now demands the other's surrender, to no effect. As they begin arguing, Constance and Eleanor fall into a venomous quarrel of their own, questioning the legitimacy of each other's son. The Duke of Austria attempts to silence the two women, but the Bastard and Blanche mock him. Arthur, meanwhile, is mortified by the fighting among his relatives and friends.

As English and French parties continue to bicker, King Philip summons the citizens of Angiers to see which king they will acknowledge. Each king makes a long speech in defense of his claim to the city. The chief citizen of Angiers, however, refuses to acknowledge any ruler but "the King of England"—whoever that might turn out to be. The two kings, he says, should go fight it out, and Angiers will submit to the winner. John and Philip rally their forces, and a bloody battle ensues offstage.

Soon French and English heralds, or messengers, appear, each reporting a victory for his own side. The chief citizen says the battle is too close to declare a winner. The two kings return with their respective groups of noblemen, but the citizens of Angiers still refuse to open the gates to either. The Bastard proposes a solution: the kings should join forces to besiege Angiers and then fight their own battle afterward. Terrified, the chief citizen asks the kings to hear his own less violent proposal. The Dauphin, he says, should marry the Lady Blanche, thus forging a family bond between the two kingdoms.

The two parties step aside to consider the proposal. Eleanor tells John to endorse the marriage, which will deprive Arthur of his chance to seize the throne. He agrees and, as a dowry, offers France all of England's Continental territories except Angiers. King Philip cheerfully accepts the offer. The Dauphin and Lady Blanche consent to the match as well, joining hands and kissing to seal the betrothal. All but the Bastard exit to get ready for the impending wedding. Left alone onstage, he gives a long and bitter speech about the "commodity"—the expediency or self-interest—that has led the two kings to make peace with one another.

Analysis

Throughout the Middle Ages, England claimed and controlled various territories that are now parts of France. Angiers, now spelled Angers, is the capital city of Anjou, one such territory. Other Continental English possessions, mentioned in Act 1, Scene 1, include the city of Poitiers and the provinces of Touraine, whose capital city is Tours, and Maine, whose capital city is Le Mans. At the beginning of the play, these territories are understood by all characters to be under English control. Chatillon, in his Act 1 audience with King John, explicitly validates the English claim when he declares Arthur the "right royal sovereign" of the territories. Then in Act 2 the Angevin citizens pronounce themselves "the King of England's subjects." These gestures show France, in backing Arthur, is not directly contesting England's claim to the territories. Rather Philip II and his followers are hoping to enact a "regime change" within the English court. If they install the young and malleable Arthur as king, they may not have to fight to win back the territories. The drive to control these Continental possessions was a main source of conflict between England and France throughout the Middle Ages.

In King John, as in his other history plays, Shakespeare turns the political into the personal. Instead of trying to dramatize the dry, board-game-like territorial politics of medieval Europe, he boils it down to a single question: who should rule? Eleanor and Constance, the mothers of King John and Arthur respectively, are even more keenly interested in this question than their sons seem to be. In portraying Eleanor as petty and vindictive, Shakespeare is not being altogether fair: her contemporaries viewed her as a wise, charismatic leader who actively managed the affairs of the realm during her sons' rule. This, however, is a simplification with a purpose. By letting Eleanor and Constance argue over the crown in the bitterest and most personal terms, Shakespeare injects a sense of urgency into the struggle for the throne. King John and Arthur may be weak leaders, but their mothers—and, by extension, their courts—realize just how much is at stake.

The Bastard—the de facto narrator of King John—returns at the end of this scene with his most scathing speech about the kings and their courts. In Act 1 he was cynically amused at the "sweet poison" of flattery the noblemen doled out to their monarchs and to one another. Now a darker and more Machiavellian side of the Bastard emerges. Although he previously claimed to have no intention to "deceive," he now feels fully justified in betraying others. He rationalizes this amoral behavior by citing the bad example of the kings, who "break faith," or disregard promises whenever it suits them. Though not as manipulative as Iago in Othello or Richard III in the play of the same name, the Bastard happily serves up half-truths and equivocations when it serves his purposes.

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