King John | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King John | Act 3, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Back at the French king's pavilion near Angiers, Constance, "full of fears," reacts negatively to the news of peace. Arthur and the Earl of Salisbury try to console her, but she fears for her own future and Arthur's if France abandons its war with England. Kings John and Philip arrive at the tent, accompanied by the newly betrothed Dauphin and Lady Blanche. Also in attendance are Queen Eleanor, the Bastard, and the Duke of Austria. King Philip pronounces the young couple's wedding day a "festival" day, but Constance sees nothing to celebrate. For her it is "[a] wicked day, and not a holy day!" She berates Philip for making peace with John, thus deceiving her and failing to maintain Arthur's right to the crown. When the Duke of Austria tries to calm Constance, she gives him a similar dressing-down. For Constance, "peace is ... a war."

As the bad feelings boil over, Cardinal Pandulph—an ambassador from the pope—arrives. He charges King John with flouting papal authority by keeping the archbishop of Canterbury from returning to Rome. John answers he refuses to be subject to the pope, a mere "Italian priest," and angrily proclaims his grievances against papal authority. King Philip is shocked at John's irreverence: "Brother of England, you blaspheme in this." Pandulph excommunicates John for his insolence, pronouncing him an official enemy of the Church and demands Philip resume his war with England until John repents. The English nobles now attempt to get Philip to maintain the peace, while the French nobles seem to favor a renewed war.

Philip, "perplexed," explains his plight to Pandulph: having just pledged peace to England, he is reluctant to break his promise. Pandulph tells him his duty to God outweighs any other oath he can make. Finally Philip agrees to break off the peace with England, cheering Constance and angering the other English. John, infuriated, commands the Bastard to raise the English troops and prepare for battle.

Analysis

King John is, to put it mildly, not a great play for monarchy. Neither John nor Philip shows himself a particularly capable leader, but each is fortunate to have some competent supporters among the royalty and nobility. In John's case the support comes from his noblemen, with the Earl of Salisbury at the head of the pack. In a less official capacity, it also comes from the Bastard, John's nephew. These characters are the voice of reason, urging John to action when he hesitates too long and advising him to hesitate when he acts too rashly. If the earl and his fellow lords were to defect—as they do in Acts 4 and 5—the king would be in serious trouble. However, John does not yet understand how much he relies on the loyalty of his noblemen. He will recognize this dependency only when it is too late.

Meanwhile, in his portrayal of Philip, Shakespeare seems interested in bringing the French monarch down to John's level. Philip appears in just one scene after this (Act 3, Scene 4), and he spends much of his time there fretting unproductively about the war. Here he vacillates for dozens of lines about whether he dares to defy the pope, letting his opinion be molded by his noblemen and noblewomen. This wishy-washy depiction does no justice to the real Philip II, a bold and successful military strategist who reclaimed much of mainland France from English rule. Yet Shakespeare knows his English audience too well to write a play that pits a weak English monarch against an assertive and charismatic French foe. If England's king is unheroic, like Henry VI for example, the French leadership also must have some conspicuous flaw, such as religious superstition or excessive vanity. Thus in this play Philip II becomes a marginal character, and his hotheaded son, the Dauphin, takes over from Act 4 onward.

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