God and the Kings
Blanche does it again
The Life and Death of King John
That Shakespeare lived and wrote in a time of religious turbulence we all know. Many of his plays reflect this. None more, perhaps, than The Life and Death of King John. And few more dramatically than in Act 3:1 where a great clash between church and state is compacted into some of Shakespeare’s most politically pithy lines.
The situation is this:
King John of England is at war with King Philip of France. King John (the wicked prince in the Robin Hood legend and the signer of the Magna Carta, though there is no mention of that in the play) is brother to the deceased older brothers Geoffrey and Richard the Lionheart. Philip is friends with Constance, widow of Geoffrey and mother of young Prince Arthur, who she claims is the rightful King of England. The marriage between John’s kinswoman Blanche and the Dauphin of France, Lewis, has just taken place, creating peace between the two kingdoms. Constance is furious. To add fuel to the fire John has angered the pope who has sent his legate Pandulph to confront him.
So we have two conflicts. The keeping or breaking of vows to the pope? And war or peace between England and France?
John, Philip, Constance, the Duke of Austria and the Bastard (son of Richard the Lionheart) are already bickering, with Blanche looking on, when Cardinal Pandulph enters demanding to know why John has spurned the pope’s chosen archbishop of Canterbury.
To which John retorts:
What earthy name to interrogatories
Can test the free breath of a sacred king?
Though canst not, cardinal…
…no Italian priest
Shall tithe or toll in our dominions:
But as we, under heaven, are supreme head,
…we will alone uphold
Without th’ assistance of a mortal hand:
So tell the Pope, all reverence set apart
To him and his usurped authority.
Words well appreciated by non-Catholics in Elizabethan England, one can assume.
When Philip, shocked, exclaims, ‘Brother of England, you blaspheme in this’, John says contemptuously:
Though you and all the kings of Christendom
Are led so grossly by the meddling priest,
Dreading the curse that money may buy out,
And by the merit of vile gold, dross, dust,
Purchase corrupted pardon of a man,
Who is that sale sells pardon from himself:
Though you and all the rest so grossly led
This juggling witchcraft with revenue cherish,
Yet I alone, alone do me oppose
Against the Pope, and count his friends my foes.
A fine Protestant rallying battle cry! Brave words from good old King John. Not that he sticks to them. He soon repents and returns to the fold but it sounds good when he says them.
Constance already hates John for as she sees it usurping the throne from young Arthur and she jumps at the chance to use his words against him:
O, lawful let it be
That I have room with Rome to curse awhile:
…when law can do no right,
Let it be lawful that law bar no wrong:
Law cannot give my child his kingdom here;
For he that holds the kingdom holds the law;
Therefore, since law itself is perfect wrong,
How can the law forbid my tongue to curse?
She challenges King Philip to break with John. Lewis, the Dauphin, too, encourages his father to resume enmities with England:
Bethink you, father, for the difference
Is purchase of a heavy curse from Rome,
Or the light loss of England for a friend:
Forego the easier.
His newly acquired wife Blanche, who does not want to become the enemy of her kinsman’s England, entreats him to choose the other, ‘That’s the curse of Rome,’ and Constance says:
Oh, Lewis, stand fast: the devil tempts thee here
In likeness of a new untrimmèd bride.
To which Blanche replies:
The lady Constance speaks not from her faith,
But from her need.
I think I’ll stop right there. They go on bickering and in the end they go to war and switch loyalties back and forth to fit the changing power balance but Blanche has done it again. She is a minor character but with this throw-away line, that is in fact a show stopper if you think about it, she captures the essence of the play.
They all speak not from faith but from need. Or, more likely, simple greed and ambition.
That sums it all up, doesn’t it? Gods or kings? Both or neither. It depends on where you are in the power struggle at the moment, doesn’t it?
Shakespeare knows, and shows, this.
- William Shakespeare, the Complete Works, the RSC edition, 2007. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
- 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.
- A well done production. The play is going on at the Globe this summer so maybe we can hoped for the filmed version in a year or so.