King John | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King John | Act 4, Scene 3 | Summary

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Summary

Back at the castle where he was held prisoner, Arthur has donned a disguise and climbed to the top of the wall. He now decides to leap down and escape before he is discovered and murdered. The fall, however, kills him upon impact. The Earls of Pembroke and Salisbury—the "angry lords" from the last scene—approach, accompanied by fellow Englishman Lord Bigot. As they discuss defecting to the French side of the war, the Bastard arrives and tries to convince them to return to King John. Before he can persuade them, however, they discover the broken corpse of Arthur. This sight fills the lords with fresh outrage. Salisbury vows to avenge the boy, and Pembroke and Bigot join in the oath.

Hubert rushes in. "Arthur doth live," he declares, a statement Salisbury takes as a bald-faced lie. For a moment a sword fight seems about to break out, but then Salisbury and the other lords depart to meet the Dauphin and join his forces. The Bastard asks Hubert about his role in Arthur's death, but Hubert professes his own innocence. With Arthur dead, the Bastard declares, England can no longer hope to escape the "tempest" of coming war.

Analysis

In this scene Shakespeare ties up some historical loose ends. As far as is known, the real Arthur simply went missing about 1203, though plenty of chroniclers were happy to divulge their suspicions of murder. Whatever became of Arthur historically, his continued presence in the play at this point would be a distraction. His death, however, helps explain the lords' ongoing rebelliousness without forcing the play to plunge into details of English politics. The real "angry lords" may have been motivated by oppressive taxation and inconsistent law enforcement, but these ideas are harder to convey in a play. Dramatically, Arthur's body becomes a symbolic rallying point for the lords—even though, historically, he likely died a decade before their open revolt against John.

By having Arthur die in an accident that is mistaken for murder, Shakespeare maneuvers the surviving characters into position for the end of the play. The "angry lords," who already know of John's intention to have Arthur assassinated, are understandably unwilling to give John the benefit of the doubt. Upset to the point of mutiny, they are unlikely to look at the boy's shattered body and say, "Well, maybe he just jumped." Instead, the overt signs of trauma confirm their worst suspicions.

Arthur's decision to dress in a commoner's clothes introduces a further cruel twist. He donned this costume to escape, but to the lords, it looks as though Arthur has been brutally tortured and dumped incognito in a ditch. The Bastard, meanwhile, has any remaining idealism wrung out of him by the apparent murder of his young cousin. He may remain loyal to England (Act 5, Scene 7), but his personal loyalty to King John reaches an all-time low in this scene.

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