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King John | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King John | Act 4, Scene 1 | Summary



At a castle (in Normandy or England; Shakespeare does not specify), King John's servant Hubert instructs some executioners to prepare hot irons and then conceal themselves until he gives the signal. They exit, and Arthur comes forth. When Hubert greets him, Arthur can tell something is wrong. He speaks innocently of his own sadness at being imprisoned and his fear of foul play on King John's part. Hubert is moved to pity by Arthur's childlike speech. In an aside he admits he is unable to kill Arthur as the king has ordered him to do.

Unable to speak, Hubert shows Arthur a piece of paper ordering Hubert to burn out Arthur's eyes with hot irons. Arthur pleads with Hubert, citing his kindness and innocence: "Will you put out mine eyes, / These eyes that never did nor never shall / So much as frown on you?" Hubert remains firm in his purpose and calls for the executioners, but he hesitates when the hot iron is placed in his hand. As he attempts to summon the resolve to torture Arthur, the iron grows cold and the fire goes out. Deciding to spare Arthur, Hubert promises to spread "false reports" of the boy's death.


On its surface this scene is a maudlin affair, full of tears and pitiful speeches. Its sentimentality underscores Arthur's status as the one true innocent among the play's major characters. He is a frightened child, eager for assurances of love and security, set loose in a world of scheming and self-interested adults. His lisping lines about loyalty are bound to sound over-the-top to a modern reader; they may even have sounded over-the-top to Elizabethans. Still they unmistakably convey Arthur's blamelessness, his perplexity at living in a world where people do not keep promises or reciprocate kind deeds. Arthur's speeches also allow him to display a degree of calm and dignity in the face of an immediate threat to his life.

This scene, however, does more than build Arthur's character. It also shows the extent to which resistance and rebellion have begun to pervade English society. Hubert, so eager to win King John's favor in Act 3, now finds he cannot stifle his conscience and murder a child. He has reached his breaking point—a pattern repeated in Act 4, Scene 2 when John's noblemen walk out on him in disgust. In later scenes this mutiny will spread beyond the court to England's towns and villages, where tradesmen and peasants will welcome the Dauphin and the promise of a new regime. Eventually, even the Bastard—the play's cynic par excellence—will get in on the general condemnation of John's deeds. Shrewd as he is, however, the Bastard will swallow his disapproval and continue to serve his uncle the king.

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