King John | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King John | Act 5, Scene 7 | Summary

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Summary

In the orchard of Swinstead Abbey, Prince Henry reports some grim news to Lord Bigot and the Earl of Salisbury. King John, he says, is near death and becoming delirious. The Earl of Pembroke comes out of the abbey and asks whether the king might be moved into the open air to ease his suffering. Prince Henry assents, and Bigot exits to carry out the order.

Henry now asks about his father's condition. Pembroke says the king is in better spirits and is even singing a little. Prince Henry chalks this up to the delirium. Salisbury attempts to comfort Henry with the thought he will be able to "set a form upon that indigest / Which [John] hath left so shapeless and so rude." Henry, in other words, will be able to restore order to England once he ascends the throne. John is brought forth in obvious agony and seems to ask to be put out of his misery. The Bastard enters and is shocked to see the king in his weakened state. When John asks about the progress of the war, the Bastard tells him of recent English losses and an impending French advance. King John dies instantly.

As Prince Henry and the Bastard fret about how to meet the Dauphin's army, Salisbury reports an offer of peace from the French. Cardinal Pandulph, he says, is within the abbey and has been authorized by the Dauphin to declare an end to the war. The three English lords offer to ratify the peace treaty, first swearing their loyalty to Prince Henry. As they leave the stage, the Bastard offers a patriotic speech about English strength and unity. "Naught shall make us rue," he concludes, "If England to itself do rest but true."

Analysis

Throughout King John Shakespeare has been reworking history to emphasize the distinction between France and England, Frenchmen and Englishmen. In the time of Queen Elizabeth such a distinction was certainly thought to exist and even taken for granted. Elizabeth herself appealed to English nationalism in rousing wartime speeches to her soldiers, cultivating a kind of "English exceptionalism." Shakespeare, meanwhile, underscored the cultural differences between England and France in many of his history plays—and a few of his comedies, too. He makes fun of French fashions, mannerisms, and language while endowing his French characters with a reverence for England's fighting spirit. Henry V, perhaps the most famous Shakespeare history play, presents the French as incompetent fools who care more about their horses than about warfare.

However, in the early 13th century—the time of King John—concepts of nationality were far less clear. Many members of the nobility had close familial ties to both England and France. Many more, especially on the Continent, had only weak allegiances to either the French or the English monarch. England itself had been conquered only a century and a half earlier by William, a Norman ruler who ousted the Anglo-Saxons and installed a Continental elite. King John and his court would not even have spoken English, the language of the common people and seldom used by the ruling class. An avid reader of history, Shakespeare was likely well aware of this fact. Thus, the "England" and "France" portrayed in King John are far different from the early modern nation-states of Shakespeare's day.

In sidestepping complicated issues of national identity, however, King John does not merely "dumb down" European history. Rather Shakespeare uses a simplified, modernized version of nationhood to make his play relevant to his contemporaries. If the play is read against the backdrop of actual medieval history, the Bastard's moralizing speech at the end seems phony, even ridiculous. To what "self" could England remain true when it was ruled by the French-speaking direct descendants of a Norman conqueror? The idea of national unity is more directly relevant to Shakespeare's own time, when a well-defined, highly centralized monarchy faced both foreign and domestic threats.

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