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King John | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King John | Symbols


The Crown

King John begins with a dispute over the English crown and ends with the passing of that crown to the next generation. Throughout the play King John attempts to invoke his headgear as a sign of his authority. In Act 2, when attempting to reason with the citizens of Angiers, he demands to know, "Doth not the crown of England prove the King?" In other words, the crown is for John a self-evident sign of his right to rule. If you're wearing it, you're the monarch.

At two subsequent points in the play, the crown is removed from John's head and placed back on it. By John's own reasoning, these are precarious moments for his standing as a ruler. If "the crown of England prove[s] the King," then anyone capable of removing John's crown is in a sense capable of un-kinging him. The first such moment occurs in Act 4, Scene 2 when John returns from France and insists on being re-crowned. Although the re-coronation takes place offstage, the English nobility continue to comment on the act and its symbolic significance. "You were crowned before," complains the Earl of Pembroke, and "that high royalty was ne'er plucked off." Salisbury likewise laments John's need "to be possessed with double pomp." In itself, a re-coronation ceremony was nothing new by the time of King John (see Insights to Act 4, Scene 2). The earls, however, correctly read it as a sign of insecurity. Later in the scene the soothsayer Peter of Pomfret predicts—again, correctly—John will "deliver up [his] crown" before noon on Ascension Day. John jails Peter and sentences him to death for his troubles.

At the beginning of Act 5, John loses and regains his crown once more. This time he yields it willingly to the pope, represented by Cardinal Pandulph, only to receive it back immediately. The trouble is it's not really John's crown at this point—he's leasing it from the pope, whom he has just acknowledged as his master. This is, at least in principle, a serious weakening of the English monarchy, undermining the Bastard's later lines about England's never being conquered. John certainly seems embarrassed, as he hastily tries to change the subject the moment he has his crown back. Cardinal Pandulph, however, lingers on the topic of John's "oath of service to the Pope," as if to rub in the humiliation. Ascension Day 1213 proves, in a bit of verbal irony, to be the date of John's descent from sovereign to vassal.

The Lion's Hide

Another noteworthy symbol appears in Act 2, when the Duke of Austria appears with a lion's hide draped over his armor. The lion is, among other things, the symbol of Richard the Lionheart, John's immediate predecessor and one of England's most famous warrior-kings. In Act 1, before Austria even enters the picture, Richard's "fury and unmatchèd force" are identified with the might of the lion. The Bastard even jokes about the connection between lions' hearts and other hearts Richard might win. Against Richard he says, "The aweless lion could not wage the fight / Nor keep his princely heart from Richard's hand. / He that perforce robs lions of their hearts / May easily win a woman's."

Thus by the time the Duke of Austria, draped in a lion's skin, comes onstage, the symbol's broader significance is well established. Lions represent courage, martial prowess, and virility—qualities Austria never displays in the slightest measure onstage. Moreover, in wearing the lion's hide, Austria is flaunting his own victory over Richard the Lionheart, whom, William Shakespeare implies, he killed in battle. This is a departure from historical fact: Richard was imprisoned by Austria during the 1190s but died years later in an unrelated battle.

Nonetheless, Austria claims and receives credit for the deed—at least from the French. The English faction is less willing to validate Austria's reputation as a war hero. Instead they mock him with a series of insults reimagining him not as a lion but as a timid prey animal. The Bastard calls Austria "the hare ... Whose valor plucks dead lions by the beard" and threatens to "set an ox head to [his] lion's hide." When Austria tells the Bastard to be quiet, he instead jeers, "O tremble, for you hear the lion roar."

In Act 3, Scene 1—Austria's last moments alive onstage—Constance joins in the lion jokes, angered by Austria's abandonment of her cause. "Thou wear a lion's hide!" she gibes. "Doff it for shame, / And hang a calfskin on those recreant limbs." Austria is incensed by this remark but, true to form, does nothing to avenge himself for the insult, even when the Bastard repeats it. Here, as elsewhere, Austria's abundance of bold words and lack of action seem to reveal a coward under the lion's skin.

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