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King John | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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King John | Themes



King John's best-known speech occurs in Act 2, Scene 1 where the Bastard—a leading English commander—inveighs against "that smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity." He half-laughs, half-chides as he notes King Philip's pious reasons for going to war, as contrasted with his pragmatic reasons for later seeking peace. Philip, the Bastard says, had his armor buckled on by "conscience" and was led to the field of battle by "zeal" and "charity"—meaning his selfless desire to see Arthur crowned. But all this holiness was cast aside when Philip began listening to "commodity," "that ... purpose-changer, that sly devil." Suddenly Philip found it more convenient to let John keep the crown, if only France could regain its lands on the Continent. John is just as bad in the Bastard's view, having "willingly departed with a part" of his kingdom "to stop Arthur's title in the whole."

The word commodity has multiple meanings, but critics generally take its use in King John to denote "self-interest" or "expediency." The Bastard pretends to be astounded by the two kings' decision to lay aside their principles and negotiate, but he is not really surprised. The Bastard does not actually believe Philip to be a selfless crusader, defending Arthur out of a sense of moral obligation. Nor does he see his uncle John as a noble-hearted warrior-king, interested only in justice for himself and his kingdom. Rather the immediate point of the speech is both kings are hypocrites, pretending to serve higher ideals when really they answer only to "commodity." If Philip were truly bound by "conscience," "zeal," and "charity," he would not stop fighting simply because John offers to return some territories to France. Similarly if John were truly idealistically insistent on his right to rule, he would not sacrifice his Continental territories in the first place. He would not offer to make "Anjou and fair Touraine, Maine, Poitiers" part of his niece's dowry in her marriage to the Dauphin.

The broader point of the Bastard's speech is the whole "mad world" works this way, hiding motives of self-interest behind the rhetoric of virtue and obligation. Thus the Bastard has no compunction about joining the game and chasing "commodity" himself: "Since kings break faith upon Commodity, / Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee!"

Taken as a whole, however, the events of the play neither confirm nor falsify this worldview. Some characters—not only Kings John and Philip, but Cardinal Pandulph as well—happily play the "commodity" game. Their speeches are peppered with allusions to rights, justice, law, and order, as can be seen when the kings address the Angevin citizens in Act 2, Scene 1. Each insists on his status as the wronged party and, therefore, has a right to revenge. Pandulph offers his own version of this performance when he uses Christian piety as a justification for waging war and breaking oaths in Act 3. Puffed up with pride as a "prince of the Church," he seems to enjoy playing puppet master with the secular monarchs. Moreover, he naturally prefers these monarchs to be docile and malleable, rather than having agendas of their own. Because he claims to speak on behalf of a higher power, Pandulph has an excellent vantage point from which to disguise his pursuit of "commodity."

Other characters, however, are more idealistic than the Bastard expects people to be. The "angry lords"—Salisbury, Pembroke, and Bigot—may, historically, have sought political power in their rebellion against John. William Shakespeare, however, portrays them as among the few characters truly interested in justice. They vow revenge for Arthur, abandoning their cause only when it becomes clear the French are using them. Earlier in the play, Arthur disavows any notion of "commodity," and he does so even more convincingly than the adult characters. In Act 2, Scene 1 the young duke believably insists he is "not worth this coil that's made for [him]." Not wanting "coil" (meaning "quarrel"), he wants peace, safety, and parental love and guidance—not a crown or a kingdom.


King John portrays a political battle royal in which several distinct factions vie for control—of France, of England, and of one another. From Act 1 onward, two opposing groups—one led by King John and one led by King Philip of France—seek to secure a claim to the English crown. Each faction includes a supporting cast of royal family members and noble retainers, who, at least at the beginning, back their respective monarchs in the struggle for power. John is initially supported by his mother, Eleanor, and a group of English noblemen. Philip, claiming his actions are on behalf of the young Arthur, John's rival for the English throne, is supported by Constance, who wants to see her son crowned king, and by his ally the Duke of Austria. The third team to enter the field (in Act 3) is the Church, headed by the pope and represented onstage by papal legate Pandulph. As an institution, the Church has its own interests to protect and demands total submission from the two secular monarchs. Later in the play the English noblemen, holding different ranks but known collectively as the "lords," emerge as a fourth distinct faction. They begin the play loyal to John but defect when he makes the tyrannical decision to assassinate Arthur in Act 4.

None of these factions ends up enjoying real control over England. The English—both the royals and the lords who serve them—are left with a country that is "shapeless" and "rude" (unformed and raw). Bringing order to the land after the French invasion and the subsequent civil war will be the life's work of King Henry III (1207–72), who appears in the final scene (Act 5, Scene 7) as the young Prince Henry. As Shakespeare's original audiences likely knew, Henry will hardly leave the country better than he found it. The French, meanwhile, fare little better. The terms of their peace, concluded offstage at the play's end, will restore parts of the Continent to French control, but England will remain intact. Thus the Dauphin's fleets and armies grant him some bargaining power but hardly the second crown he hoped for. The Church may seem the real winner here, having gained indirect control of the English throne. The throne, however, is only as good as its occupant. Henry III's submission to the pope will be of little use if he cannot govern his own kingdom. The chaos and rebellion will continue throughout the 13th century, a fact that casts a grim light on the power struggles of King John.

Queen Eleanor and Constance both vie for political power alongside their respective sons, but their ambitions are portrayed even less flatteringly. Eleanor comes across as a domineering queen mother, apt to tell her son "I told you so." Constance is, at times, almost like a 13th-century royal "pageant mom," constantly thrusting her unwilling child into the limelight. Yet even though Eleanor and Constance are depicted unfavorably in the play, their desperation to control England is understandable. As the widows of English royalty, they wield power only indirectly. They have no armies of their own and are dependent on the success of sons—one a weak monarch, the other a mere child. As John goes, so goes Eleanor: if he loses the crown, she becomes a nobody, politically marginalized at best and in danger of assassination at worst. Similarly Constance's political future hangs on Arthur's ability to seize the throne whether he wants to or not. In the warlike world of medieval Europe, being a queen mother is far preferable to fending for oneself.


King John also dramatizes the conflict among three kinds of loyalty: loyalty to others, loyalty to principles, and loyalty to one's self-interest. Both kings, as the Bastard shrewdly observes in Act 2, pretend to be unswervingly devoted to the ideal of justice. Additionally, King Philip pledges his loyalty to Arthur and his cause, ostensibly for charitable reasons. However, both kings are loyal only to their own interests: John wants to keep the crown, and Philip wants to recover France's lost provinces. The Bastard wryly notes the discrepancy in his "commodity" speech at the end of Act 2, Scene 1.

In Act 3, Scene 1 Constance, however, is much less nonchalant in complaining about the faithlessness of kings: "France is a bawd to Fortune and King John, / That strumpet Fortune, that usurping John.— / Tell me, thou fellow, is not France forsworn?" It's hard to argue with Constance's reasoning here. France, or King Philip, has indeed "forsworn" himself by breaking his promise to help Arthur. He has shown himself more loyal to "Fortune," or convenience and personal gain, than to those he pledged to aid. His alliance with King John is, like the business transacted by a "bawd," or pimp, a temporary arrangement—not a long-term commitment. In Act 5, Scene 1 John's obedience to the pope—his standing as a "gentle convertite"—is similarly a matter of convenience. He submits because he wants an end to the war, not because of Christian piety or personal loyalty to the pontiff.

Perhaps the purest of this impure lot are the "angry lords" who defect from King John in Act 4, Scene 2. The Earls of Pembroke and Salisbury, along with their associate Lord Bigot, rebel against King John but not out of an obvious desire for political advantage. Rather they leave the royal court and join the French because they can no longer tolerate John's tyrannical behavior. In doing so they travel in the opposite direction from the play's monarchs, sacrificing personal allegiance for loyalty to a moral code. It may or may not be more practical for them to remain in John's court. It's certainly less risky in the short run: when they defect, they have no assurance France will receive them as allies. Nonetheless, the three men are principled enough to see the murder of innocents as unacceptable. Salisbury expresses this idea most forcefully in Act 4, Scene 3 as he claims, "We will not line [John's] thin bestainèd cloak / With our pure honors, nor attend the foot / That leaves the print of blood where'er it walks." To keep one's honor "pure" one cannot associate with assassins and tyrants, no matter what they might offer in exchange.

Ultimately John's downfall might be said to come from presuming too much of the personal loyalty of his people. He is himself loyal only to his self-interest—not to the pope, not to King Philip, and certainly not to his own subjects. He realizes too late others as well care only for their own advantage, or—in a few exceptional cases—for maintaining their honor and integrity. In neither case do they have any special devotion to him as a person or a ruler. Although King John is generally classed as a history, this belated recognition lends a tragic touch to the play's ending.

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