King John, Part 2


by Keith Hopkins (July 2014)

History was becoming all the rage in Shakespeare’s time. The ancient world tended to view the things that had happened in the past as merely the locatable backdrop to the exploits of heroes or famous people. Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) opened up a new dimension. History conceived as a present record of the past. Past being the events of yesteryear. Present, the narrative in real time of these events. This new ‘cut’ into history undermined anecdote and legend. A good example of this is a play that is sometimes compared with Shakespeare’s King John, written around the same time (1591) and on the same subject; The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England (TR). In the TR there is a scene when, in order to discover his parentage, Philip goes into a trance, begins babbling in Latin, and picks up ‘fumes of majesty’ which convince him he is a royal. This is no doubt (unintentionally) funny to watch but not perhaps a reliable guide to real events. It’s not narrative, neither is it history. Holinshed wrote history because he consulted sources. In particular, Holinshed understood what feudalism meant, where a man’s word was his bond. Holinshed was Shakespeare’s history man.

The business of kings was war. It could be said medieval kings were always in a state of war with one another. Undeclared, declared, cold and hot. War was, chiefly, about rights. But the greatest right was, is, might. That, and possession being nine-tenths of the law. We can call it the state of nature, if it makes it sound any better but the reality is always the same – winners and losers. The French king (on behalf of little Arthur) makes a legal claim to dispossess John who is confident in:

“Our strong possession and our right for us.”

Eleanor, ever the realist,  firmly responds:

“Your strong possession much more than your right position.
Or else it must go wrong with you and me.”

Her wisdom and experience of the world has taught her that the law is written by the victors. King John refuses to vacate his throne. The two rival armies meet at Angiers, a town about two hundred miles south west of Paris, in front of the main gates. Each demands admittance. Here is a huge dilemma for the citizens. Whichever king they choose to allow in means the one not let in will be left outside – with his army. Neither are let in. If the English are entitled by law to this French town they must fight for it. They do. Battle commences. A truce is proposed by which each side, the French and the English, agree to turn their respective cannon (an anachronism) on the town and blast their walls to smithereens. Philip (the ‘Bastard’) plots a refinement whereby the French turn their cannon on their own side and leave the field clear for the English (perfidious Albion anyone?). The town spokesman, Hubert, realizes he must work fast to save the town from utter destruction. He proposes a dynastic compromise whereby a French royal (the Dauphin) marries John’s niece, Blanche of Spain. Arthur is cold-shouldered and gets a dukedom as a consolation prize. It’s a done deal. Real politik triumphs. Constance is devastated. For her, for many, the law is simply another word for injustice:

“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 his kingdom holds the law:
Therefore, since law itself is perfect wrong,
How can the law forbid my tongue to curse?”

Oath taking – and keeping – was a feudal institution. If you promised to do something, you were obliged to keep your promise no matter what. The Church had power of enforcement through its own courts because you made an oath in the presence, as it were, of the whole court of heaven. The Church could even turn its guns on kings themselves. This is precisely what happens in the play when Pandulph, the Papal Legate, excommunicates John (technically a job for the Pope) for refusing to accept Rome’s nomination for Archbishop of Canterbury. Pandulph can do this because John’s refusal puts him in breach of his coronation oath to uphold the Church. He then opens fire on the French king telling him he also is in breach of his coronation oath – to defend the Church against her enemies, which is what John now is – in his pact with John. In these scenes Shakespeare has his finger firmly on the pulse of modern society.

Western thinkers in the generation after Shakespeare (Hobbes, Spinoza) developed the notion of the rational, self-interested individual. Such a person was intolerant of being bound by anything except his or her own self-interest. One can wonder whether this is rationality, in the classic sense, or merely the rationalization of what someone has decided to do anyway. It’s not an exaggeration to say that western philosophy developed a loathing towards the whole concept of oaths and promises (it was anathema, you could say) which was part and parcel of the total rejection of the metaphysics of the medieval period. Why should man in this new scientific age be bound by all this superstition? The age of heroism was over. Who now would give his or her life for an ideal? Towards the end of the Bard’s life, St. Thomas More was becoming a medieval figure. All that mattered was the satisfaction of individual desires. If the world is created moment by moment then I need to adjust myself as I go along, always bearing in mind the principal good which is, of course, me. I certainly cannot be bound by something I promised to do yesterday in the light of what is happening today. And most certainly not by appealing to some mythic figure in the sky. When a bystander responding to all this might interject, so how can promises be enforced then, the standard reply of the rationalists is along the lines, well, I can still be held to my word, that’s why we have legal contracts. To which the only response we can imagine the ever-wise Shakespeare giving is, there is certainly nothing worse in this life than being stupid.

Human nature, in other words. Yes, we have the law. And much good it does us, whether on an individual or social level. The simple point being, of course, who in their right mind enters into a contract with someone they distrust from the get-go. Someone who signs one day and cancels – or sues – the next. Contracts developed in commercial society as a point of reference for parties. Each side trusted or had a course of dealing with the other. Myriad details had to be incorporated so that when something cropped up, either side could say, ‘Ah yes, this is what covers the situation.’ Indeed the law was the least of the concerns. It merely got in the way. But for ‘rational’ man there had to be an appeal to something. The Church had gone so all that was now left was the law as a kind of madchen-fur-alles. Thus began the idolization process of the common law, inspired by ‘property’ or ‘self-interest’ or ‘flexibility’. Take your pick. Pandulph’s speech in King John reinforces a terrible sense of moral drift and decay. Treaties, agreements, oaths, promises are there only to be unmade. In a key word in the play, the law has become a commodity, or simply, ‘commodity.’  

The law is just something the powerful say it is. This is graphically illustrated by John himself. He becomes increasingly neurotic and unstable (he may have been insane). He issues threats and commands. In a Kafkaesque inversion, the law now mutates into wrongdoing, conspiracy and murder. Arthur is to be bumped off. Few passages in the whole of Shakespeare can surely match the spare, chilling, grandeur of the interchange between John and his accomplice. Would this be enough to convict?

King John: ‘Death.’

Hubert: ‘My Lord?’

King John: ‘A grave.’

Hubert: ‘He shall not live.’

King John: ‘Enough.’

Hubert cannot bring himself to blind the boy. Arthur falls down from atop a lofty wall to his death. He represent a noble, pure concept of the law. But neither he, nor anyone else, is able to translate high moral ideals into the stuff of everyday reality. Arthur despairs and chooses the quickest route down from a high to a low place by throwing himself off the walls of his prison. Does the spirit of the law itself expire – give up the ghost – when it hits the ground, when it perforce adapts itself to the needs of others? An invasion of the country threatens. Everything turns against John. He submits to Pandulph, is reconciled with the barons and then dies, perhaps poisoned. Peace returns.

Freedom, or at least the notion of freedom, was not something granted to the English-speaking peoples. It developed as a frame of mind. It was the joint product of feudal obligations and a commercial society. In King John we see the attrition of a feudal society and the emergence of a new way of thinking about the individual and society. The older view is that we moved from status to contract (with the welfare state there is considerable evidence we are moving back again to status i.e. groups such as ‘the homeless’). But the notion of the individual, supported by the law, was destined to sweep the board in later centuries. But the limits of this revolution are hard to define. If society is a unitary ‘thing’ then how do atomistic individuals relate? How can what I do as an individual be taken to be a guide to universal conduct or impact society? To say that what the individual does should be done by everyone is fallacious (Kant). Clearly, everyone is not doing what the individual does. If they were, then there would be no individual action, or even identity. But then what are the restraints or limits on human freedom? In Shakespeare’s hands these ideas in King John become living, vibrant history, a making or re-making of history in which we, the audience, are complicit. 




Keith Hopkins is an historian and lawyer (solicitor). In 2007 he won the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust award for a review of ‘The History Plays’.

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