King John condensed

William of Normandy became William the Conqueror when in 1066 he conquered England. He became England’s William I and was the great-great grandfather of King John; King John ruling England between 1199 and 1216.  This is a story of that era; a story without reference to the Magna Charta, forced on King John in 1215, perhaps the world’s most important civil rights legislation. King John’s father died in 1189 and was succeeded by his oldest living son, Richard I, better known as Richard the Lion-Hearted. Richard I died in 1199, succeeded by King John, his only living brother. The play’s central theme is the struggle among descendents of Henry II, William the conqueror’s great grandson; these descendents of Henry II being legitimate or otherwise, an illegitimate son being the play’s protagonist. 

Act 1. England controls a good portion of France. France’s king wants back that portion of France controlled by England and believes he can get it if young Arthur Plantagenet, the son of the Geoffrey, King John’s deceased older brother, is recognized as England’s king, the French king having a nice relationship with Arthur’s mother. The French ambassador opens the play letting King John know that Arthur “in right and true behalf” should be England’s king, and if that is not accepted England will risk war. King John and his mother interview Robert and Philip Faulconbridge over an inheritance issue.  Robert is the son of the late Sir Robert Faulconbridge. Philip’s father was Richard the Lion-Hearted. Lady Faulconbridge is the mother of both young men. Robert receives his father’s assets. Philip becomes a member of the royal family, receiving the honorary name of Richard Plantagenet, quite the proud name in English history.  Both are pleased.  Philip is hereafter referred to as the Bastard. 

Act 2. The French king and his entourage have gathered near Angiers in France.  King John and his forces soon arrive. All have a nice conversation, all trying to protect his or her own self interest. King John tells the people of Angiers that he is England’s rightful king. King Philip follows, promoting young Arthur as England’s more legitimate king.  The spokesman for Angiers says “he that proves the king, to him will we prove loyal.” The Bastard suggests the two parties “be friends awhile” and bombard the city.  The frightened Angiers spokesman suggests England’s Princess Blanche (the daughter of King John’s older sister) marry the French Dauphin, Louis. The kings agree. Louis and Blanche agree. The French king forgets about Arthur.

Act 3. Louis and Blanche marry. Arthur’s mother, Constance, is infuriated with the turn of events. Pandulph, a cardinal from Rome representing the pope, enters and scolds King John for not appointing the pope’s choice to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. King John tells Pandulph to back off, he being God’s agent over all things English.  Pandulph excommunicates him. France’s King Philip has made certain promises to England’s king. Pandulph plays hardball, letting France’s king know that his first loyalty is to the pope. King Philip responds “I am perplexed and know not what to say.”  The kings decide a war is needed to settle things. The French are forced to retreat. King John quietly captures Arthur, taking him back to England with him. King John decides that Arthur must not be allowed to live, asking Hubert, an aide, to “kill Arthur.”  Hubert responds “he shall not live.” Back in France, Constance becomes even more devastated with events, taking it out on Pandulph who responds to her outburst “Lady, you utter madness and not sorrow.”  Pandulph encourages the young and newly married Dauphin to go after King John in England, telling him “As John plots against you, the times conspire with you.” The Dauphin invades England.

Act 4. With the help of an executioner, Hubert makes plans with hot irons to put out Arthur’s eyes. Innocent Arthur is brought forward, saying to Hubert “Are you sick, Hubert? You look pale today.”  Shakespeare here has naïve Arthur, in a most smooth and compassionate way, talk his way out of his dilemma, the soft-hearted executioner leaving his irons cold.  Hubert can’t bring himself to complete his assigned task. Two English nobles, breaking with King John, find Arthur dead; Arthur having fallen on the rocks below the prison’s wall trying to escape. The Dauphin now has thousands of forces in England. We learn that King John’s mother and Constance have both died.  The Bastard enters to tell King John that “the people are full of fear.” The Bastard confronts Hubert over Arthur’s death, saying “I do suspect thee very grievously,” but Hubert convinces him that he is innocent.  The two English nobles meet with the Dauphin.  King John is frightened by events.

Act 5. King John has Pandulph administer a second coronation, trying to get himself back in Rome’s good graces. King John sends Pandulph to encourage the Dauphin to withdraw from England. The Bastard informs the king that the news isn’t good, that “all Kent has yielded,” that “London hath received like a kind host the Dauphin,” and that Arthur is dead.  King John has the Bastard “manage the present time.” Pandulph meets with the Dauphin, asking him to return to France. The Dauphin tells Pandulph “What is peace to me? Am I Rome’s slave?”  Pandulph tells the Bastard that “the Dauphin will not lay down his arms.” The Dauphin tells the Bastard and Pandulph “Let the tongue of war plead for our interest and our being here.” But important French reinforcements are “sunk on Goodwin Sands.”  Hubert lets us know that the king “is poisoned by a monk,” and is being attended by his son, Prince Henry. The Bastard lets the king know that England’s troops have been “devoured by an unexpected flood.” The king soon dies. The Bastard learns that the Dauphin has accepted “such offers of our peace to leave this war.” Taking charge, the Bastard, with support from the nobles, pledges his loyalty to the young prince “forevermore.” The year is 1216. Prince Henry is now Henry III.