King John | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King John | Act 3, Scene 4 | Summary

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Summary

Still at Angiers, King Philip of France complains to Cardinal Pandulph about his army's losses and England's safe retreat. "All shall yet go well," promises the cardinal, but Philip still has his doubts. The Dauphin, somewhat unhelpfully, expresses his own amazement at King John's success in the war so far.

Constance enters, looking disheveled. Unhinged by the capture of her son, she wishes for death and rebuffs Philip's attempts to calm her down. Pandulph accuses her of "utter[ing] madness and not sorrow," but Constance insists she is perfectly sane. "I am not mad," she declares. "Too well, too well I feel / The different plague of each calamity." Grief, she says, has taken the place of her "absent child," whom she despairs of seeing again before he is killed. She exits, followed by King Philip, who fears for her safety.

The Dauphin and Pandulph remain onstage. The Dauphin complains of his feelings of "shame and bitterness," but Pandulph predicts a reversal of France's fortunes. Arthur, he says, will be assassinated before long, an act that will turn the English against King John. With Arthur dead and John out of favor, he says, the way will be clear for the Dauphin to seize control of England. He urges the Dauphin to raise an army and head for England.

Analysis

This scene includes a series of remarkable short speeches by Constance, all centered on the idea of "a mother's grief." When she first appears onstage, Constance's hair is unbound—left to fall naturally, as opposed to the elaborate updos associated with royalty in Shakespeare's day. King Philip, embarrassed by the spectacle, urges Constance to "bind up [her] tresses" at once. The gesture of binding, which Constance attempts midway through the scene, thus becomes a sort of theatrical shorthand for "reining in" grief and reasserting self-control. Ultimately, however, Constance considers it dishonest to put up an appearance of calm and composure while she is so inwardly distressed by Arthur's absence. "I will not keep this form upon my head," she declares, "when there is such disorder in my wit."

The Dauphin, meanwhile, has not had much of an opportunity to show his true colors. He first appears in Act 2, Scene 1 where he is married off by his father to prevent a war. Meeting his fiancée, he falls in love on the spot and lapses into the kind of rhapsodic language of love poetry later mocked in Shakespeare's sonnets. Blanche, the Dauphin's bride-to-be, is so beautiful he falls in love with his own reflection simply because it appears in her eye. The Bastard, cynical as ever, scoffs at this hyperbolic display and describes the Dauphin as a traitor to his country. As preparations for the wedding begin, the question lingers: is Louis the Dauphin a lover and not a fighter?

Then in Act 3, Scene 1 the Dauphin seems to follow his father's lead in resuming—reluctantly—his war with the English. Whatever enchantment he found in Blanche's eyes has now worn off enough for him to defy his wife and her family. The Dauphin is still, however, not a free agent, for he has merely traded one set of allegiances for another. At the beginning of the present scene, the Dauphin still seems to be taking his cues from his elders, moping and mourning when his father does so. But toward the scene's end, the Dauphin begins at last to assert his independence. Once Cardinal Pandulph suggests the project of conquering England, the Dauphin sets about gathering his own army and mounting an invasion force. He is, as far as the play is concerned, the new leader of the French military and the chief French officer to appear in Acts 4 and 5. This scene is thus a pivot from the Dauphin's childlike dependency on his father toward something like adult autonomy.

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