King John | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King John | Act 5, Scene 6 | Summary

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Summary

The scene shifts to the environs of Swinstead Abbey, where King John lies sick. Hubert and the Bastard enter the stage separately. Standing watch on King John's behalf, Hubert threatens to shoot the Bastard if he does not identify himself. After a tense exchange, the two recognize one another as allies. King John, Hubert announces, has been "poisoned by a monk" and is now with the rebel lords, who have been pardoned and welcomed back. The Bastard demands to be led to the king, already fearing he will arrive too late.

Analysis

The manner of King John's death has been the subject of much speculation through the centuries. The trouble begins with the medieval chroniclers, who offer a variety of conflicting and sometimes bizarre explanations for the king's gradual decline. The early 13th-century writer Ralph of Coggeshall, for example, attributed John's death to gluttony. His contemporary Roger of Wendover somewhat more colorfully blamed it on "a surfeit of peaches and cider."

Only in the late 13th century were the monks of Swinstead Abbey implicated as possible agents in John's death, as Shakespeare here presents them. Yet by Shakespeare's time, the "poisoned by a monk" hypothesis remained only one of numerous possible explanations, none of which were accepted as definitive. The 16th-century historian Raphael Holinshed, one of Shakespeare's key sources for his English history plays, sums up the divergent reports as "doubtful, and therefore undetermined." Modern historians are similarly skeptical of poisoning, gluttony, and other possible causes of death. They tend to suspect dysentery, an infectious disease whose symptoms match those described by the chroniclers.

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