King John | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King John | Act 3, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

The battle at Angiers has ended. King John enters with Queen Eleanor, the captive Arthur, the Bastard, and Hubert. He tells Queen Eleanor to stay behind in France until he can return with an army. Arthur, meanwhile, is to accompany the king to England, guarded by Hubert. John then instructs the Bastard to go on ahead and demand money from England's "hoarding abbots" to fund the ongoing war. The Bastard exits, and Queen Eleanor takes her grandson Arthur aside to speak with him in private.

King John now thanks Hubert, in rather extravagant terms, for his service in battle. Further rewards, John hints, are in store for Hubert—if he will help John out with another problem. Indirectly at first, then quite blatantly, John voices his wish to have Arthur, "a very serpent in my way," assassinated. Hubert tersely agrees to do the job. John takes his leave of Eleanor and, with the other men, heads for the northern French port of Calais.

Analysis

Much of King John's abysmal reputation—both during life and in chronicles written after his death—comes from his suspected role in the death of Arthur. Although medieval historians circulated conflicting accounts of the boy's death, most agreed he had been murdered, and several identified John as the culprit. Raphael Holinshed, whose Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587) Shakespeare often consulted for his histories, showed a bit more restraint. Seeing how much the 13th-century chroniclers had varied in their reports, he deemed John's guilt or innocence impossible to judge. For Holinshed Arthur's death presented a chicken-or-egg problem: John was so unpopular among his near-contemporaries that "whatsoever was done in prejudice of him or his subjects ... the blame was still imputed to him." In other words, John's unpopularity may have made him a suspect in Arthur's demise, which in turn dragged his approval ratings down even further.

John's treatment of the "hoarding abbots" was no doubt another contributing factor. Most medieval chroniclers were clerics of one sort or another, and many were monks. Thus, in attempting to divert monastery funds to his war chest, John alienated and angered the very men who would be responsible for writing his life story. In the play John's decision to plunder the "fat" monasteries comes back to haunt him in a more concrete way after he is forced to take refuge at Swinstead Abbey (Act 5, Scenes 6 and 7).

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