Caught in the Middle
The Life and Death of King John
The first time we read the play, a couple of years ago, I liked it. Now we've read it again and my first reaction was “Did I really like this play? Why?” Eagle-eyed readers of this blog will have noted that on the Monday report from February sixth I wrote, “Next step: figuring it out. I hope Bloom, Greenblatt and others will help.”
Well, Harold Bloom was no help whatsoever and Stephen Greenblatt didn't write the introduction in the Norton edition. However, Walter Cohen did and he helped immediately by pointing out that the play doesn't make a lot of sense and it wasn't meant to. Actually what he writes is that “the logic of the plot is to undermine logic” (page 1045). Thank you, Walter Cohen! So if I don't always follow, it's because I'm not meant to. He goes on to explain why it's a good play anyway and to remind me why I liked it. The BBC production helped too. So now I can declare: The Life and Death of King John is a good play.
It is not, of course, Shakespeare's most famous play so a short explanation might be in order. You've probably heard of King John. He's the king who signed the Magna Carta in 1215 giving the nobility certain rights. This is very famous in English history (all the little kiddies have to learn it, as if they care) and supposedly it makes John a good guy but of course he didn't do it voluntarily. They made him do it. The other thing he's famous for is being the bad guy in the Robin Hood legend, having seized the throne when his brother, good guy Richard the Lionhearted was off fighting the Crusades.
Well, Richard is talked about in the play but he's already dead, and Shakespeare makes no reference whatever to the Magna Carta or Robin Hood. So what is the play about? I'm not going to tell you much – look it up on Wikipedia or, better yet, read it, but I'm going to tell you enough to spoil it for you if you want it all to be a surprise (there are a few “Oh no's!” while reading). The main story is: war between England and France over who should be king of England (and France). How original, huh?
So if the story isn't interesting, what is?
Everything else, not the least of which is the conflict between the two Kings, John of England and Philip of France, and the church, the odd and somehow appealing character of the Bastard (the fictitious son of Richard the Lionhearted) who could be compared to Bolingbroke in Richard II, the two very strong women in the play - John's mother Queen Eleanor and Constance, his sister-in-law and mother of young Arthur who is, probably, the rightful heir to to English throne.
One of the most interesting aspects of the play, Cohen points out, is that King John himself plays a rather small role in the action, which is to a large extent propelled by Queen Eleanor, Constance and the Bastard – women and an outsider, “personages generally peripheral to dynasty history” (page 1047). Queen Eleanor promotes the Bastard to official status as her grandson and entrusts him to lead her armies in the war against France. Constance passionately battles against anyone who doesn't support Arthur as the rightful king of England. And the Bastard, after hovering around the edges, muttering snide asides for a few scenes, brings everything together in the end by proving himself the only true Englishman.
Even more peripheral to the action, however, are young Arthur himself and the essentially anonymous Lady Blanche. Arthur is a likeable lad who eloquently and lovingly talks King John's henchman Hubert (well-played in the BBC version by John Thaw of Morse fame) out of blinding him (on John's orders) with a hot poker, only to die tragically in a fall while trying to escape back to France from captivity in England.
Lady Blanche is another pawn in this game of kings and popes and though we learn almost nothing about her she has what I see as the most heartbreaking scene in the play.
Lady Blanche enters the stage at the beginning of Act Two when King John and his gang arrive in France to confront the strident King Philip and Constance who are, as previously mentioned, demanding that John cede the throne of England to the boy Arthur. What Lady Blanche is doing there, or even who she is, we are not told. In the cast at the beginning of the play she is listed as “of Spain, niece of King John” but in the play itself she is essentially anonymous. She witnesses the dispute and she is allowed one saucy remark to the saucy Bastard who has just taunted the Duke of Austria, slayer of Richard the Lionhearted (the Bastard's father, remember?) with the threat of tearing the symbolic lion's skin the duke wears as a memory of his deed. To which Lady Blanche retorts, for no obvious reason, not having uttered a word to anyone so far:
Oh, well did he become that lion's robe
That did disrobe the lion of that robe! (Act 2.1)
It is in fact interesting that one outsider connects with another outsider and this brief exchange (the Bastard answers her back) does establish Blanche as a feisty young woman with a mind of her own. Just being there with the combatants shows that she's not a passive stay-at-home-and-keep-quiet young woman. Quite rightly. Women of the nobility in the Middle Ages generally weren't.
Still she wanders wordlessly off the stage with the rest of them for the duration of the battle then wanders back on and listens silently while the warring sides argue about who won and then agree to destroy the town of Angers, outside the walls of which they are all gathered, for not accepting the rule of either side.
The quick-witted citizen of Angers comes up with what seems like the perfect solution to establish peace and save his own skin and that of his fellow citizens:
The daughter there of Spain, the Lady Blanche,
Is niece to England. Look upon the years
Of Louis the Dauphin and that lovely maid.
If lusty love should go in quest of beauty,
Where should he find it fairer than in Blanche?
If zealous love should go in search of virtue,
Where should he find it purer than in Blanche?
He is the half part of a blessèd man,
Left to be finishèd by such as she;
And she is a fair divided excellence,
Whose fulness of perfection lies in him.
This union shall do more than battery can (Act 2.1)
More than a page of discussion among the others – kings, queens, Louis himself and the Bastard with his snide asides – takes place before Blanche is allowed to give her opinion, and then what option does she have but to say, “If Uncle John wants me to, OK, I will.” What is interesting in her acceptance speech is that she doesn't immediately declare herself madly in love with the prince but says candidly
I will not flatter you, my lord,
That all I see in you is worthy love,
Than this: that nothing do I see in you
Though churlish thoughts themselves should be your judge,
That I can find should merit any hate (Act 2.1).
She then replies to her uncle John that she is
...bound in honour still to do
What you in wisdom shall vouchsafe to say (Act 2.1).
Not exactly Romeo and Juliet but look at how things turned out for them. The match between Blanch and Louis is much more realistic and extremely practical on the face of things. Everybody's happy. Well, except for Constance and a few others...
So next time we see Blanche in Act 3.1, stage directions have a bunch of people entering including “Blanche, [married; Queen]. That went quick.
In the following dramatic exchange between King John and Cardinal Pandolf, John is excommunicated and poor King Philip has to decide whose side he's on, that of his new friend and in-law John, or the pope. Son Louis advises him not to risk the “heavy curse of Rome” but rather “choose the easier”, i.e. “the light loss of England for a friend” (Act 3.1). Blanche rather enigmatically says, “That's the curse of Rome”. Does she mean it's better to suffer the curse of Rome than lose the friendship of her uncle John? Brave words in a world dominated by the church and the fear of eternal damnation.
Constance, who hated the marriage between Blanche and Louis because it ruined her chances for son Arthur to become king, begs Philip to obey the cardinal and break with John, and Blanche says to her husband of a few minutes:
The Lady Constance speaks not from her faith,
But from her need (Act 3.1).
It seems that Blanche isn't terribly religious.
But none of her reasoning helps. Philip falters and wavers. Louis licks his warmongering chops and shouts, “Father, to arms!”
And Blanche's tragedy, and that of the French and English people, begins. She cries:
Upon thy wedding day?
Against the blood that thou hast marrièd?
What, shall our feast be kept with slaughtered men?
Shall braying trumpets and loud churlish drums,
Clamours of hell, be measures to our pomp?
O husband, hear me! Ay, alack, how new
Is “husband” in my mouth! Even for that name
Which till this time my tongue did ne'er pronounce,
Upon my knee I beg, go not to arms
Against my uncle. (Act 3.1)
Constance begs the Dauphin to follow heaven's plans and go to war. Blanche uses the only argument she has left:
Now shall I see thy love: what motive may
Be stronger with thee than the name of wife? (Act 3.1)
Louis ignores her and wonders why his father still hesitates. But Philip hesitates no longer. He breaks with England and war is imminent. With Blanche stuck in the middle:
The sun o'ercast with blood; fair day, adieu!
Which is the side that I must go withal?
I am with both, each army hath a hand,
And in their rage, I having hold of both,
They whirl asunder and dismember me.
Husband, I cannot pray that thou mayst win. -
Uncle, I needs must pray that thou mayst lose. -
Father, I may not wish the fortune thine, -
Grandam, I will not wish thy wishes thrive.
Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose,
Assurèd loss before the match be played. (Act 3.1)
Her husband, Louis, who it seems has much in which she could find which would merit hate – and in fact he becomes more and more vicious as the play progresses – says only, “Lady, with me thy fortune lies,” (Act 3.1).
As indeed it does. What can she say but, “There where my fortune lives, there my life dies,” (Act 3.1).
And we hear not a word more from her.
The play goes on for awhile. John worries about losing the throne. Eleanor, Constance and young Arthur die. Some nobles desert John and join France. John and the Pope make up. Peace is made but war is urged by the alpha males Louis and the Bastard. Lots of soldiers on both sides die in shipwrecks. (Cohen writes: “The war itself is marked less by climactic battles than by both sides' careless habit of losing their armies at sea “, page 1045). The defecting nobles are shocked to learn that the Dauphin is planning on slaughtering them when the war is won so they redefect back to John who dies, having been poisoned by monks and his young son Henry shows up to become king. The Bastard makes a speech about internal strife being more dangerous to England than foreign enemies. And that's it.
So what's the moral of the story? I have no idea. What happened to Blanche? Who knows? Even Googling doesn't tell us anything about her fate so I guess we have to assume she stayed married to nasty Louis and lived her life the best she could.
Why did Shakespeare write this play? I still don't know. But I'm glad he did.
- The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
- Cohen Walter, in The Norton Shakespeare (see above).
BBC, 1984. Director: David Giles. Cast: Lady Blanche – Janet Maw: King John – Leonard Rossiter; the Bastard – George Costigan; Queen Eleanor – Marry Morris; Constance – Claire Bloom; Hubert – John Thaw: King Philip – Charles Kay; Louis the Dauphin – Jonathan Coy. One of the best in the box. The entire cast is convincing and each of these rather odd characters are brought to life.
Seen on stage: no.