William Shakespeare's

The Life and Death of King John

c. 1591


Dramatis Personae

Act I

  • Scene 1 KING JOHN'S palace
  • Act II

  • Scene 1 France, before Angiers
  • Act III

  • Scene 1 The French King's pavilion
  • Scene 2 The same; Plains near Angiers
  • Scene 3 The same
  • Scene 4 The same; KING PHILIP'S tent
  • Act IV

  • Scene 1 A room in a castle
  • Scene 2 KING JOHN'S palace
  • Scene 3 Before the castle
  • Act V

  • Scene 1 KING JOHN'S palace
  • Scene 2 LEWIS's camp at St. Edmundsbury
  • Scene 3 The field of battle
  • Scene 4 Another part of the field
  • Scene 5 The French camp
  • Scene 6 An open place in the neighbourhood of Swinstead Abbey
  • Scene 7 The orchard in Swinstead Abbey

  • Possession and Right: De Facto Rule and the Power of Accident In King John

    In King John, the reader is presented with a view of history and politics strongly tinged with an understanding of the role played by chance in constructing history. At key moments throughout the play, the action of the plot eludes the intentions of the characters, escaping the bonds of planned action and calling into question teleological ideas of succession and divine providence embodied in the concept of rule de jure: rule “by right.” This questioning leads directly to the final act and scene of King John, where the weight of chance built up throughout the play culminates in the shift from King John’s “strong possession” (1.1.39) of the crown to King Henry’s unquestioned “lineal state” (5.7.102); that is, the shift from John as de facto king to Henry as king de jure.

    At the start of the play, the reader is quickly made aware, through the dialogue between King John and Chantillon, of the centrality of rightful rule to the play, of John’s questionable right to his “borrowed majesty” (1.1.4). This point, that John rules mainly by virtue of his possession of the throne—de facto rule—is emphasized with Queen Eleanor’s assertion that John’s hold on the kingship relies on his “strong possession much more than (his) right” (1.1.39; italics added). According to the rules of primogeniture, the crown should have passed on to John’s elder brother, Geoffery; with Geoffery dead, the crown would shift to his son, Arthur. John’s claim to the throne is thus shown to be tenuous, dependant more on force and possession than on the will of providence or the tradition of primogeniture.

    King John is aware that Arthur is “a very serpent in his way” (3.3.61), and in 3.3 acts to remedy the situation, convincing Hubert to murder the young prince. This act, meant to make his kingship more secure, works in the opposite manner, convincing the rebel lords to turn against him, and so weakening John’s already weak position. Ironically, due to Hubert’s humanity, Arthur does not die by the king’s design, but by the whim of chance, dies through his own fault while trying to escape. This episode is the most important instance of the working of accident, in relation to the making of history and the movement of politics, in the play; accident works to legitimate King John’s hold on the crown where he himself was unable to do the same. At the same time, the manner in which Arthur dies (easily misconstrued as the result of an intentional push), and the quick discovery of his body by the already disgruntled Pembroke, Salisbury and Bigot work to further discredit King John’s position.

    The death of Arthur leads directly to the revolt of the rebel lords, and King John’s eventual capitulation to Cardinal Pandolf in 5.1. Ironically, it is only after King John “hath reconciled/ Himself to Rome” (5.2.69-70) that Pandolf’s curse of 3.1—“And meritorious shall that hand be called,…/ That takes away…/ (John’s) hateful life” (3.1.102-104)—comes to fruition at the hands of the “resolved(ly) villain (ous)” (5.6.30) monk. In King John’s poisoning, as in the death of Arthur and the Dauphin’s refusal to submit to the will of Pandolf, the reader is presented with events going awry; the anticipated outcome of events (in this case, the failure of John’s obeisance to the Church to win him victory) is again reversed by the whim of Fortune. These accidents of fate, where an expected outcome is ironically reversed, lead directly to the final scene of the play, where King John succumbs to poison and fever and young Prince Henry gains the crown. This scene can be seen as the culmination of these varied accidents, which work to bring about a rightful king. King John’s dubious right to the throne—both weakened and strengthened by Arthur’s death and his capitulation to Pandolf—his “shapeless and…rude” (5.7.27) kingdom, is redeemed by his son, who was “born/ To set a form upon” (5.7.25-26) the chaos left by his father. Prince Henry, then, benefits from the many accidents in the play in manner his father never could; by not being directly involved in any of the preceding action (Henry is only present in the final scene of the play), Henry escapes the stain of accident and illegitimacy that tainted his father’s rule: de facto becomes de jure. At the same time as his subjects accept Henry’s kingship without reservation, however, the reader cannot help but be aware that Henry only gained the throne through the workings of both chance and his father’s often immoral machinations; Henry is, in a sense, an usurper-by-proxy, in that he owes his crown to the usurpation of his father. The message that King John seems to espouse at its end is that all dynasties, if one examines their dynastic genealogy, are predicated upon both an original transgression, an original usurpation that is only later retroactively given legitimacy (a de facto rule that later becomes seen as de jure), and the incomprehensible and meaningless acts of chance, those accidents that change the process of history, and make it into something other than the principals involved may have intended.