King John | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King John | Quotes


Sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age's tooth.

The Bastard, Act 1, Scene 1

Soon after being knighted and welcomed into the royal family, the Bastard reflects on the social world he has entered. In English high society, he recognizes the "sweet poison" of flattery and indirection is more appreciated than blunt honesty. He optimistically—or perhaps dishonestly—decides not to be deceitful himself, a promise that later scenes will call into question. Nonetheless, the Bastard recognizes the value of "learning" the poisonous language of the court.


Give grandam kingdom, and it grandam will / Give it a plum, a cherry, and a fig.

Constance, Act 2, Scene 1

Here Constance mocks Queen Eleanor's attempts to win Arthur's submission. Grandam is an informal term for "grandmother," similar in tone to "granny" or "nana." Thus Constance is demeaning Eleanor through the use of imitative baby talk.

Plums, cherries, and figs are typical treats a grandparent might give a small child. Fig is also a proverbial term for something trifling or worthless. Constance uses these fruits to ridicule John and Eleanor's offers of land and titles: nothing they can give Arthur compares to the English crown.


Since kings break faith upon Commodity, / Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee!

The Bastard, Act 2, Scene 1

In his Act 2 soliloquy the Bastard complains of a complete lack of integrity on the part of the kings and noblemen. "Commodity," he says—a term usually taken to mean expediency or self-interest—is the only value they hold dear. Since the kings are willing to break oaths to serve their own selfish interests, the Bastard sees no reason not do so himself.


Gone to be married? Gone to swear a peace? / False blood to false blood joined? Gone to be friends?

Constance, Act 3, Scene 1

The peace treaty of Act 2 is welcome news to most of the play's characters. Not so for Constance, who hoped to use the war between France and England as a means of securing her son's claim to the throne. Constance now reacts to the announcement with a bitter, histrionic outburst. Such rhetorical displays will define Constance throughout her remaining scenes.

In the second of these two lines, Constance accuses the leaders of both England and France of being "false." England, in her view, is "false" in it embraces a "false" (illegitimate) ruler rather than her son. France, meanwhile, has been "false" (disloyal) to Constance, who was relying on the French king's support to win the throne for Arthur. With these two forms of "falsehood" united in marriage, Constance seems to have no hope of becoming the mother of a king.


The fat ribs of peace / Must by the hungry now be fed upon.

King John, Act 3, Scene 3

With these words King John justifies his decision to extort money from the monasteries to fund his ongoing war with France. England's people, he argues, must sacrifice some of the comfort and plenty they enjoy in peacetime if the war is to be a success. The clergy are not exempt.

The imagery of fatness and hunger is, on the surface, innocuous enough. Peacetime is proverbially a "fat" time of abundance, whereas wartime is a "lean" time of rationing and thrift. However, in taking aim specifically at the "fat ribs" of the monks, John reveals at least a small amount of anticlerical prejudice. His treatment of the monasteries as revenue sources was, historically, one reason the chroniclers (including many monks) viewed him negatively. Within the play John's attempts to "trim the fat" from the monasteries help explain why a monk eventually saw fit to poison him.


I am not mad. This hair I tear is mine; / My name is Constance; I was Geoffrey's wife; / Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost.

Constance, Act 3, Scene 4

Up to this point Constance has been presented in an ambivalent light at best. She is understandably zealous in defense of her son's right to rule. Yet she seems to ignore the emotional toll the battle for the throne is taking on Arthur. At her worst in Act 2, Constance seems like those modern parents who place their children's "careers" in sports or academics above the child's well being.

Now, however, Arthur is captured, and Constance reveals a softer, more sympathetic side. The depths of her desperation in this scene show the audience how deeply Constance does care about her son. At the same time, she warns onlookers not to assume she has been unhinged with grief. Quite the contrary: given the sad reality she must now reckon with, going "mad" would be welcome relief.


Grief fills the room up of my absent child, / Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me.

Constance, Act 3, Scene 4

Later in this same scene, Constance realizes her grief is still not being taken seriously. She has already been called insane for her reaction to the news of Arthur's capture. Now, some 50 lines later, King Philip and Cardinal Pandulph are essentially asking her to "get over it." Constance responds by trying, vainly, to get the men to understand her point of view. The loss of her son has left a huge void in her life, which grief proceeds to fill for the time being.


When Fortune means to men most good, / She looks upon them with a threat'ning eye.

Pandulph, Act 3, Scene 4

This snappy aphorism comes in the middle of a larger pep talk Pandulph is administering to the Dauphin. He is, essentially, trying to get the Dauphin to reframe France's losses as the prelude to an eventual victory. Pandulph is not, however, cheering the despondent Dauphin because of selfless compassion. Rather he fervently wishes for France to win the war and conquer England. From the Church's point of view, a French victory means uprooting the rebellious King John while increasing the influence of the obedient King Philip.


Will you put out mine eyes— / These eyes that never did nor never shall / So much as frown on you?

Arthur, Act 4, Scene 1

Most of this scene consists of a long and sentimental exchange between Arthur, about to be tortured, and Hubert, the reluctant torturer. In the process Shakespeare sharpens the distinction between innocent Arthur and corrupt John and his henchmen. These lines capture that contrast.

Arthur, a mere boy, has not resisted captivity but has meekly complied with his jailers' demands. More than that he has actively befriended Hubert out of compassion for the man's own suffering. Now, hoping to spare himself from torture and death, Arthur reminds Hubert of these facts. His plea—at first ignored—is eventually heard, and Hubert relents.


To gild refinèd gold, to paint the lily /... Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

Earl of Salisbury, Act 4, Scene 2

This speech is the source of the misquoted expression to gild the lily, meaning "to do something extravagant and excessive." The examples Salisbury uses are, arguably, even more over-the-top: to "gild refinèd gold" is literally to cover gold with more gold.

The excessive "gilding" to which Salisbury refers is King John's insistence on being crowned twice. John, apparently, feels more secure having his kingship confirmed by a second coronation ceremony. Salisbury, however, rightly discerns such an excessive gesture will have the opposite effect. The English, he worries, will be reluctant to trust a leader who demands to be "re-crowned," as if the first coronation were not legitimate.


Do not seek to stuff / My head with more ill news, for it is full.

King John, Act 4, Scene 2

At this point King John's earls have abandoned him. He has learned of his mother's death and the approach of the French army. Now John gives rein to the dangerous but very human impulse to ignore bad news. When the Bastard tries to give John his report from the home front, John buries his head in the sand, preferring ignorance to harsh truths. This, as the Bastard recognizes, is not the way to win a war.


How easy dost thou take all England up!

The Bastard, Act 4, Scene 3

This gloomy remark follows the discovery of Arthur's corpse at the foot of the castle wall. At first the comment seems treasonous: if the Bastard is loyal to John, then surely his rival Arthur does not count as "all [of] England." In the remainder of his speech, however, the Bastard clarifies his remarks. Arthur's demise represents the downfall of England not because Arthur is king but because "the life, the right, and truth" of England are irrecoverably lost. The boy's death, whether accidental or not, ruins John's prospect of reconciling with his nobles and resisting French encroachment.


The day shall not be up so soon as I / To try the fair adventure of tomorrow.

Dauphin, Act 5, Scene 5

Late in the war the Dauphin encounters a series of setbacks that threaten to halt his invasion of England. Unlike King John, however, who is easily shaken by bad news, the Dauphin is resilient in the face of disappointment. He curses his luck for a few lines and then resolves to be up before dawn and resume his assault as best he can.


Be of good comfort, prince, for you are born / To set a form upon that indigest / Which [John] hath left so shapeless and so rude.

Earl of Salisbury, Act 5, Scene 7

As King John breathes his last, the Earl of Salisbury looks to Henry, the crown prince, to rebuild the kingdom. Henry, Salisbury acknowledges, has his work cut out for him. England has been left "shapeless" and "rude" by the combination of a French invasion and civil war. Nonetheless, Salisbury expresses a hope Henry will "set a form" upon the chaos, restoring both political order and territorial sovereignty. History did not bear out this hope: Henry's reign proved almost as troubled and turbulent as John's.


Naught shall make us rue, / If England to itself do rest but true.

The Bastard, Act 5, Scene 7

This upbeat sentiment hardly seems to fit a play in which England has lost most of its lands in France, had its monarch poisoned, and barely survived a rebellion. The Bastard's closing cheer for England is more readily understood as an anachronistic shout-out to Elizabethan audiences. England, the Bastard here insists, must stick together despite the crises of its own time. In Elizabeth's day this meant rebellions, religious dissension, and threatened invasions from Spain. There was plenty to "make [England] rue" in the 13th century, but this speech holds forth the promise that the 17th century may be different.

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