King John | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King John | Act 4, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

At his palace in England, King John has been crowned again in the presence of the Earls of Pembroke and Salisbury. His noblemen worry the "re-crowning" ceremony will show John's insecurity and turn popular sentiment against him. John offers to address any grievances the earls might have with his governance of the realm. Immediately Pembroke asks for Arthur to be set free from his imprisonment. John consents, but just then Hubert enters the room and draws the king aside to talk with him. A few moments later they step forward and announce Arthur's death without stating the cause. Losing their patience, the two earls accuse John of ordering Arthur's murder, and then leave the court, taking some other lords with them. A messenger enters, announcing the arrival of a huge army from France and the deaths of Queen Eleanor and Constance. John begins to lose his nerve "under the tide" of bad news.

Next to enter is the Bastard, who has succeeded in extorting war funds from the clergy. He brings with him the soothsayer Peter of Pomfret, who has announced "that ere the next Ascension Day at noon / [King John] should deliver up [his] crown." John orders Hubert to throw Peter in prison, to be executed on Ascension Day. The Bastard also reports the arrival of the French and the defection of the earls—both of which John already knows. John asks him to seek out the discontented earls and make an offer of peace with them. He obliges the king's request and leaves right away.

Hubert reenters, having disposed of the soothsayer. He tells of an English populace bustling with rumor—both of the French invasion and of Arthur's death. John accuses Hubert of being overhasty in killing Arthur, but Hubert replies he was just following orders. At last John acknowledges his own guilt, at which point Hubert confesses Arthur is still alive. John urges Hubert to track down the "angry lords" and tell them the good news.

Analysis

John's re-coronation is another historical detail that might seem odd to a modern reader. In fact, John was hardly alone among English monarchs in choosing to have a second coronation ceremony. Two of his predecessors, Stephen and Richard I, had been re-crowned as a way of celebrating their return to the throne after periods of imprisonment by a foreign power. Stephen was re-crowned in 1141 at his own behest after being captured by the forces of the Empress Matilda. Richard I, John's immediate predecessor, had undergone a similar experience, being captured in late 1192 by Duke Leopold of Austria. Upon his release in 1194, Richard I was re-crowned at the urging of his noblemen, who thought his dignity as a ruler had been diminished by his time in captivity.

As these two examples show, being re-crowned was not all that unusual in the England of King John's time. Monarchs both great (Richard I) and mediocre (Stephen) used it as a way of publicly reasserting themselves as rulers. Shakespeare, however, transforms John's re-coronation into a huge "Warning: Reign Unstable" sign. He does this primarily through the earls, who treat the re-coronation as an absurd and paranoid act. For the Earl of Salisbury, a second coronation is a gesture of "wasteful and ridiculous excess," which will "make sound opinion sick and truth suspected." It will, in other words, raise uncomfortable questions about the security of John's grip on the throne. The Earl of Pembroke seconds this opinion, likening the re-crowning to "an ancient tale new told" at an "unseasonable" time.

Shakespeare also undercuts King John's re-coronation by bringing in a prophet, Peter, who assures anyone who will listen John's reign will be short-lived. Prophets in Shakespeare plays have an uncanny habit of being correct in even their most far-fetched predictions, as are for example, Macbeth's witches or Queen Margaret in Richard III. Thus, Peter's quite reasonable prophecy is a heavy hint to the audience. King John's reaction to the prophecy—imprisonment pending execution—further demonstrates how anxious and insecure the king has become. The mere mention of John's losing the crown again constitutes, in his eyes, an odious act of treason.

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