King John | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King John | Plot Summary

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Summary

Act 1

The kingdoms of France and England are on the brink of war. King John sits uneasily on the English throne, which he has inherited from his brother Richard the Lionheart. His main rival is his nephew Arthur, earlier named Richard's heir. Though a mere boy, Arthur has the backing of the French king, Philip II, who claims the English crown on his behalf. Arthur's mother, the duchess Constance, thrusts her unwilling son into the conflict to protect her own interests.

The play begins at the royal palace in England, where the French ambassador Chatillon demands King John relinquish the crown. John rebuffs the ambassador and sends him back to France, warning him to prepare for war. Before he can gather his army, however, John is asked to settle a land dispute between two brothers. One of them, Philip Faulconbridge, turns out to be John's nephew, born out of wedlock to Richard the Lionheart and Lady Faulconbridge. Once his ancestry is recognized, Philip—now known as "the Bastard"—is welcomed into the royal court. His importance to the play's development will lie mainly in his keen-eyed commentary on English and French politics.

Act 2

Outside the French city of Angiers, the French and English armies meet. Each king attempts to persuade the townsmen to open the gates and receive him as ruler. The citizens of Angiers, however, refuse to admit anyone but the true "king of England," a title to be decided by combat. The two armies march away and, after a brief offstage battle, send messengers to announce victory for their respective sides.

Because both claim victory, the matter seems to be at a standstill. Frustrated, the Bastard suggests the two armies enact a temporary truce and lay waste to the defiant city. The warring kings agree and are about to issue marching orders when a panicked Angevin citizen offers a different suggestion. If the Dauphin (France's crown prince) marries John's niece Blanche, he proposes, perhaps the war can be averted altogether. The kings and their young relatives quickly agree to the match. Constance, who is offstage, is reportedly angered by the prospect of peace, which will quash her own son's chance of becoming king. The Bastard, similarly vexed, gives a long soliloquy about the kings' faithless and self-serving behavior.

Act 3

Still shocked and saddened at the news of a peace treaty, Constance vacillates between rage and desperation, accusing the French king of breaking his promise to support Arthur's claim to the throne. At first the other French and English royals attempt to calm her, but they soon fall to bickering among themselves.

Just then, papal ambassador Cardinal Pandulph appears. John, it is now revealed, has been defying the pope by preventing the archbishop of Canterbury from leaving England. Pandulph demands John submit to the pope's authority immediately, on pain of excommunication. John scoffs at the demand, offers some harsh words about the pope, and is excommunicated on the spot. Pandulph then orders the French king, as a loyal Christian, to resume his war with England.

King Philip wavers for a moment, reluctant to renege on his just-concluded peace treaty with the English. Soon he is worn down by the cardinal's threats, and the English and French join in battle, with England winning the day. Arthur is taken captive and entrusted to Hubert, one of John's loyalists, initially tasked with escorting the boy to England. Later John orders Hubert to kill Arthur and thereby eliminate a threat to John's sovereignty. The Bastard, meanwhile, is sent to raise war funds by extorting money from the English clergy.

Back at Angiers, Constance grieves the loss of her son, whom she suspects will die in captivity. After she leaves the stage, Pandulph consoles the Dauphin by predicting King John will indeed assassinate Arthur. This deed will undermine public faith in the already unpopular John and pave the way for the Dauphin to invade England, claiming its throne for himself. The Dauphin cautiously sets about raising an army for this purpose.

Act 4

Hubert tries—and fails—to bring himself to assassinate Arthur. Instead, to protect the boy, he claims to have done the deed, buying Arthur time to escape. John insists on being re-crowned, a move that troubles his courtiers. Then when the Earl of Pembroke demands Arthur's release, John says Arthur has died—a statement that, at this point, the king believes true. This is the breaking point for John's noblemen who, suspecting foul play, desert him. Soon thereafter, King John learns of a huge army that just arrived from France. Queen Eleanor and Constance die offstage, the latter still in a "frenzy" over her son's capture. To top it all off, a soothsayer warns John shall "deliver up [his] crown" on Ascension Day.

Frightened and needing allies, John sends the Bastard to make peace with his "angry lords"—Salisbury, Pembroke, and Bigot. When Hubert reveals Arthur has not really been killed, John sends him along as well to deliver the good news and win the noblemen back. However, by the time John's allies track down the rebellious lords, it is too late: Arthur has died in an attempt to leap off a castle wall, and his manner of death convinces the lords he has been murdered. Thus, far from returning to John's side, Salisbury and the others vow vengeance for the boy's death. Hubert and the Bastard fail to prevent them from going to join the Dauphin's army.

Act 5

John reconciles with the Church, and Pandulph promises to make peace with France on England's behalf. The Dauphin, however, refuses to be bullied into abandoning his campaign so close to victory. Flouting the cardinal's decrees, he continues with his largely unresisted invasion of England. On the battlefield King John falls ill and leaves to take refuge at Swinstead Abbey.

Salisbury, Pembroke, and Bigot, meanwhile, learn of the Dauphin's plan to execute them as traitors after they have served their purposes. They flee to Swinstead and reconcile with King John, now on his deathbed. Supply line difficulties undermine the Dauphin's advantage in the war and lessen his chances of an easy victory.

In the play's final scene, King John expires in agony. His fatal sickness, the English noblemen discover, is the result of poisoning by a monk. Henry, the English crown prince, grieves his father's death, but Salisbury urges Henry to focus on his destiny of reuniting and strengthening the country. A peace treaty, brokered by Cardinal Pandulph, spares England from further losses, and the English lords pledge their loyalty to the future King Henry III. The Bastard, the last character onstage, construes the play's events as a lesson in the importance of national unity. "Naught shall make us rue," he declares, "[i]f England to itself do rest but true."

King John Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 King John refuses to acknowledge Arthur's sovereignty.

Rising Action

2 English and French armies prepare to besiege Angiers.

3 War with France is temporarily averted by a royal marriage.

4 During renewed fighting, Arthur is captured.

5 French forces invade England.

6 King John orders Arthur's assassination.

7 A group of "angry lords" defect from King John to France.

8 Arthur attempts to escape and dies in a fall.

Climax

9 The Dauphin defies the pope by continuing to wage war.

Falling Action

10 King John falls ill and retires to Swinstead Abbey.

11 John dies at Swinstead after reconciling with his barons.

Resolution

12 The English nobility depart to seek peace with France.

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