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King John /

A Modern Perspective: King John

By Deborah T. Curren-Aquino


And I am I, howe’er I was begot.



Who art thou?

BASTARD              Who thou wilt.


The distance between the Bastard’s confident assertion of identity at 1.1.180 and the tentative response given to Hubert at 5.6.11–12 not only underscores a momentous change in the Bastard’s sense of self but also highlights the play’s own flux and mutability, for which Barbara Hodgdon’s term “chameleonlike” is particularly apt.1 “What’s done is done” is not a possibility in the ever-shifting world of King John, where what is done is undone only to be done again. That Arthur lives when supposed dead and is dead when thought living is paradigmatic of the broken vows, the political vacillations, the semantic changes that undo words’ meanings even as the words are uttered, and the rapid shifts in the odds of military success experienced by both the Bastard and Louis in the final scenes. The treacherous Goodwin Sands and the Wash, in which the Dauphin and the Bastard, respectively, lose supplies and men, carry metaphoric implications for the play as a whole, but especially for the changing “I” of individual speakers.

Throughout King John, as framed by the Bastard’s two remarks on identity, one finds a striking interest in the idea of self—whether as hereditary, social, physiological, geographical, or interior: “What men are you?” (1.1.50); “What becomes of me?” (3.1.37); “Thou dost forget thyself ” (3.1.140); “I am not mad. This hair I tear is mine; / My name is Constance; I was Geoffrey’s wife; / Young Arthur is my son” (3.4.46–48); “There’s few or none do know me” (4.3.3); and so on. The verbal register is charged with speeches that say, in effect, “Pay attention to me,” as characters plead, request, demand, or assume the right to be heard, often shouting down or interrupting others in an attempt to secure a place at the table of discourse.2 Instead of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” the philosophical mantra of King John may well be “I speak, therefore I am.” But as Charles Taylor points out in his study of the modern identity,

one cannot be a self on one’s own. I am a self only in relation to certain interlocutors: in one way in relation to those conversation partners who were essential to my achieving self-definition; in another in relation to those who are now crucial to my continuing grasp of languages and self-understanding—and, of course, these classes may overlap. A self exists only within what I call “webs of interlocution.”3

These defining interrelationships, with “certain conversation partners” (my emphasis), while present from the beginning of the play, become more pronounced in its second half as the structural dynamic shifts from “great massed public movements” to situations of “private intrigue . . . and private feeling” involving only two speakers, who incline more and more toward being “effects” on each other.4 Shakespeare calls attention to this collaborative “self-fashioning” (to borrow Stephen Greenblatt’s term) whereby voices are found, lost, and continually redefined through a series of “threshold moments”—each charting a rite of passage for the speaker involved. Such moments are by their nature transitional or “liminal” and therefore indicate flux.5 Moreover, they mark a significant change away from The Troublesome Raigne of Iohn, King of England (hereafter TR), which served as a source for Shakespeare’s play.6 In TR, these moments are either completely absent, merely suggested, or, if present (as in the famous “blinding” sequence in 4.1), different in kind rather than degree. By making liminality a defining feature of King John, Shakespeare turns what was a polemic into a probing rite-of-passage play for characters and—because this is a history play—for England as well.

King John’s most liminal figure is the Bastard, who functions in a series of transitional states on his way from country madcap to spokesman for England, a trajectory that anticipates Prince Hal’s in the Henry IV plays. Even his name, in both the speech prefixes and dialogue, is the least stable of the characters’ (he is addressed variously as Philip, Richard, and Faulconbridge). When we first meet the Bastard, he is legally no such thing, having both a first and a last name: Philip Faulconbridge. To the king’s question “What men are you,” he replies with an identification that, like the grammatical construction of his response, is fixed and static:

Your faithful subject I, a gentleman,

Born in Northamptonshire, and eldest son,

As I suppose, to Robert Faulconbridge,

A soldier, by the honor-giving hand

Of Coeur de Lion knighted in the field.


Civic duty, social status, local home roots, and—in keeping with a patriarchal world in which primogeniture governs inheritance—lineal position within a family are the defining terms of the speaker’s “I.” The one verb, “suppose,” a parenthetical interruption varied later in the dialogue as “as I think” (lines 61, 136), is the only indicator of an interior identity: a self that is intelligent, mentally flexible, and open to inner dialogue. With his lively and irreverent “country manners” (160), realized in a stylistic signature of puns, proverbs, colloquialisms, and concrete and earthy diction, the Bastard quickly establishes in the ensuing paternity trial a rapport with John (never again so good-humored and relaxed as in this exchange) and especially Eleanor, both of whom detect a marked resemblance to the recently deceased Richard Coeur de Lion (87–92). The empirical evidence, coupled with her instinctive liking of this “madcap,” leads the Queen Mother to ask a question requiring a choice, and by extension a risk:

Whether hadst thou rather: be a Faulconbridge

And, like thy brother, to enjoy thy land,

Or the reputed son of Coeur de Lion,

Lord of thy presence, and no land besides?


Choosing mythic rather than merely respectable paternity, the newcomer to court publicly accepts his marginalized status as a bastard, albeit a royal one, and his speech prefix in the folio accordingly shifts from “Philip” to “Bastard.” Pleased with his response, Queen Eleanor challenges him to be a soldier bound for adventure and martial glory. Within moments, the king, following his mother’s lead (an early suggestion of John’s dependence on her), gives the character now liminally caught between names—“Philip, my liege, so is my name begun”—a new name, thus formally registering a rite of passage: “Kneel thou down Philip, but rise more great. / Arise Sir Richard and Plantagenet” (162, 166–67). The rites of initiation by which he will grow into the legendary name are still to come.

The voice heard in the Bastard’s “A foot of honor” soliloquy (188–222), the first of his four major speeches in the play (each marking off a phase of the action), is jauntily caught up in his newfound status, richer by title but poorer by land. Like those of the young gallants of Shakespeare’s time forced to seek social advancement through means other than inherited estates,7 the Bastard’s is a “mounting spirit.” Displaying a capacity for detachment, he assumes in the theater of his imagination the manipulable voice of “worshipful society” and momentarily abandons homespun, often bawdy, primarily monosyllabic bluntness (“pops me out,” “fair fall the bones,” “eel-skins,” “Sir Nob,” etc.) for sophisticated polysyllabic affectation (“respective,” “sociable,” “conversion,” “accoutrement,” etc.). His mocking performance of the upwardly mobile self he will need to fashion to ensure “the footsteps of [his] rising” reveals what will be the Bastard’s modus operandi throughout the play: observation, not as distinct from participating in the world but as the key to being a player (213–14). Then, almost as though hearing and in the process editing himself, he consciously registers a difference between what he recognizes as an artificial and a natural self: he will observe the ways of the world and learn to “deliver / Sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age’s tooth,” not “to deceive, / [But] to avoid deceit” (218–21). There is, then, an inner “I” inhabiting the “outward accoutrement” that promises us and himself not to be lost. What the Bastard does here, and what he will do more emphatically in the famous “Commodity” soliloquy (2.1.588–626), is, as Harry Berger observes about dramatic speech in general, to “speak . . . for his own ears, audit . . . monitor . . . his own speech, pronominally divid[ing] in two so as to become the receiver of his own messages.”8 With the hasty arrival of his mother, Lady Faulconbridge, the soliloquy abruptly stops and the Bastard reverts to his energetic and plainspoken manner (1.1.240–47). Gusto combines with conciliatory persistence (so different from the browbeating of TR’s Bastard at a comparable moment) to draw from Lady Faulconbridge the information he seeks: confirmation of his paternity. Boldly, with knighthood newly felt on his shoulder, he takes as his first quest the protection of a lady’s good name, feistily vowing that “Who lives and dares but say thou didst not well / When I was got, I’ll send his soul to hell” (279–80).

By the end of this initial rite of passage, in which two female interlocutors figure prominently, readers and audiences are disposed to like and trust this “good blunt fellow” with a gift for incisive observation and an obvious disdain for affectation. Certain traits—his skepticism and pugnacity, for example—first introduced in a comic mode will take on more depth and militancy in the course of the play. At the end, he will once again be the king’s “faithful subject” but in a markedly different key. For that to happen, however, other thresholds must be crossed and the “webs of interlocution” must widen.

Like the “rash . . . fiery voluntaries, / With ladies’ faces and fierce dragons’ spleens” with whom he is associated in Chatillion’s account of the newly arrived English forces, the Bastard enters Angiers “to make a hazard of new fortunes” (2.1.67–71). The voice that targets Austria, the man whom the play represents as responsible for killing the Bastard’s father and who now arrogantly wears the celebrated lion’s skin (see the longer note to 2.1.5), retains its impudence and proclivity for country proverbs (140–41) and colloquialisms (136, 138–39, 142–43). The threat to Austria will later be realized with savage brutality, but for now all is swagger (148–49). Absorbing what he sees and hears, the Bastard continues to manifest a capacity for assuming the habits (lexical and otherwise) of those around him. After the initial offstage battle, for example, in which he experiences the violence of war for the first time, he immediately responds to the two kings’ talk of the “blood . . . cast away” and the “slaughter coupled to the name of kings” (348, 364) in a voice that, in the “Ha, majesty!” speech (365–76), begins to record what John Blanpied calls a “grating lust for violence and blood” that never fully disappears from his discourse.9 Seeking validation from those more seasoned in the political ways of the world, the Bastard makes his mad military proposal (393–412) as a way of showing that he has picked up some of their “policy”—that is, the cunning associated with Machiavellian political strategy. His plan is frustrated by the Citizen’s elaborately stated counterproposal—the expedient marriage of Blanche and Louis—but the Bastard once again deftly shifts linguistic register, repeating Louis’ “drawn in the flattering table of her eye” in such a way that the Dauphin’s artificial protestations of love are simultaneously exaggerated and mocked.

By the time the Bastard steps back from the action to comment on the “mad kings, mad world, and mad composition” he has just witnessed, he is no longer “green . . . and fresh in this old world” (3.4.148). The scorn permeating the “Commodity” soliloquy (2.1.588–626) suggests an older voice, harshly cynical in its penetrating assessment of a world governed by self-interest. The Bastard has made good on his earlier promise to “smack of observation”: he has watched as a citizen robs God’s “anointed deputies” of their majesty, forcing them to audition for the crown of England; he has been “bethumped” (487) with the rhetorical excesses of language meant to evade, “spin,” and obfuscate the facts; and he has observed kings break faith for their own expediency. Structured as a syllogism with a major premise (“Commodity drives the world”), an implied minor premise (“I’m no different from those I’ve railed against”), and a conclusion (“Therefore I too will worship gain”),10 the soliloquy reveals a keenly perceptive intelligence but not the mind of a philosopher given to logical, orderly predication of thought. This is a voice much too excited for introspective reflection, as the Bastard piles on examples (parataxis) and frequently repeats the same word in an initial position (anaphora): “that same purpose-changer, that sly devil, / That broker . . . That daily break-vow . . . That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity.” Nouns and adjectives fly in a torrent. We are left with a sense of display rather than deliberation, of intense feeling rather than cognition. Then suddenly, reflexively, as though hearing himself with his own ears, he shifts to inner debate. Recognizing his human susceptibility to “the bias of the world,” he candidly admits that while he may despise it, he cannot be a player in “this old world” and expect himself (or be expected) to avoid “break[ing] faith upon Commodity.” In Michael Kahn’s 1999 revival for the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C., after delivering the line “Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee!” (626), the Bastard not only followed in the direction of the wedding party but just managed to get through the gates of Angiers before they slammed shut. The speaker, having completed a crash course in realpolitik, had clearly crossed another threshold, in the process fashioning a new self: from soldier of fortune to Machiavel in the making. (Or so it seems; we never see him translate the slogan “Gain, be my lord” into action.)

In the next scene, framed by Constance and Blanche, the play’s female victims of Commodity, the Bastard speaks very little; but that little, still in the tone of a mocking observer, allies him with Constance as he repeatedly appropriates her taunt to Austria to “hang a calfskin on those recreant limbs” (3.1.135–37, 139, 206, 230, 311). As we observe his taking up the cause of a woman in distress to challenge a mutual enemy, we are reminded of his earlier defense of Lady Faulconbridge. Though the Bastard is not present during the private exchange between the painfully incredulous Constance and a visibly uncomfortable Salisbury (3.1.1–77), he is onstage to hear the anguished cry of the bartered bride, with whom he had briefly connected in Act 2 (1.144–47, 526–32). In a riveting passage that has no counterpart in TR and that portends the increasing emphasis on pathos in subsequent acts, Blanche ceases to exist as a mere pawn in the political chess game awarding her to Louis and becomes a self in relation to others:

The sun’s 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.

(3.1.341–51, my emphases)

In Blanche, as in Constance, politics as “parle” and “policy”—word games and strategies—assumes a human face, and this time the Bastard is there to observe it.

As the battle for Angiers resumes, King John, perhaps in recognition of the martial spirit on display in the previous act, officially gives the Bastard both military responsibility and a new name (for the first time explicitly acknowledging a personal bond of kinship): “Cousin [i.e., kinsman], go draw our puissance together” (354). The new name and responsibility usher in another rite of passage, as the Bastard’s entry in 3.2 holding Austria’s head makes clear. The Bastard has not only proved his mettle as a soldier, thus demonstrating his worthiness as Coeur de Lion’s heir, but has also avenged his father’s death. (In productions the actor typically dons the fabled lion’s skin after the slaying of Austria.) We also learn (contrary to TR) that the Bastard, not John, has rescued Queen Eleanor from the French (3.2.6–9). Earning (offstage) the paternity that he had stumbled into in the first act, the Bastard will be addressed or described with increasing frequency as “cousin” (3.3.6, 17; 4.2.142, 165; 5.7.55), “coz” (3.3.18), and “kinsman” (4.2.173; 5.3.5).

When he exits at 3.3.18 to do the king’s bidding (ransacking the abbeys to fill the royal coffers), the Bastard begins his longest absence from the stage. Resurfacing in 4.2—as typically happens after such absences in Shakespeare’s plays—he will sound different. In King John, Shakespeare fills the interval between the Bastard’s departure and return (essentially the middle of the action) with liminal moments for several characters. King John, Louis, Hubert, and Arthur each undergo a rite of transition, thereby becoming different conversation partners or presences from those the Bastard had encountered earlier. Their differences will affect his own self-definition.

Following the Bastard’s exit and at the height of England’s victory over France, King John experiences his first threshold moment, a transition that initiates the progressive diminution of his character. We know little about Hubert, the man in whom the king confides while Queen Eleanor and the captured Arthur stand off to the side, except that the king feels some kind of debt to a loyal follower (3.3.22–26). (Later we learn that the character has a sinister appearance [4.2.230–37, 268–69] and is not a nobleman [4.3.87–91].) But in King John, in contrast to TR, the newly arrived Hubert emerges as a key interlocutor for both John and the Bastard.

As the king hatches the deed that will precipitate his own undoing, the voice that had threatened France with “the thunder of [his] cannon” (1.1.26) and defied the church of Rome (3.1.153–66, 168–77) finds itself increasingly inarticulate. Whether his verbal awkwardness indicates conscience or a feeble attempt at Machiavellian cunning is not clear. Such utterances as “I had a thing to say, / But I will fit it with some better tune” (3.3.27–28) and “I had a thing to say—but let it go” (35), coupled with the periphrastic hinting at something ominous (36–49) and the wish to communicate “without eyes, ears, and harmful sound of words” (53), underscore the lack of specificity that characterizes John’s discourse for the rest of the play. After being recrowned in 4.2, he promises the nobles that he will give them further reasons for this second coronation (43–44), but he never does. In the same scene, he says that he has a way to win back the allegiance of the traitorous nobles (175), but we never learn what it is. Finally, in 5.1, without any overt explanation, he surrenders the crown to and receives it back again from Pandulph; we are left to infer his rationale—i.e., that the cardinal has agreed to be a peace broker (5.1.6–14). Nowhere, however, is John’s inexplicit mode more chillingly pronounced than in the Pinteresque exchange that effectively ends 3.3, a passage whose pauses and minimal predication have a tremendous psychological charge:



HUBERT  My Lord?

KING JOHN              A grave.

HUBERT                                He [Arthur] shall not live.


Guy Hamel has observed that “the explanation of ways and means is not the strong suit of [King John]”; clearly, as Joseph Porter notes, John’s speech, “the least . . . explicit of any Shakespearean monarch’s,” contributes greatly to the play’s elliptical temper.11 Language registers the exchange with the intuitively complicit Hubert as a liminal moment for John, the threshold crossed at “Enough. / I could be merry now” (74–75). The king who begins to lose his voice in this scene will surrender it to the Bastard at 5.1.79, becoming “almost speechless” by 5.6.28.

At the end of Act 3, shortly before the action moves back to England, the manipulative Cardinal Pandulph engages the political neophyte Louis in a pseudo-Socratic dialogue. The Dauphin is devastated over the French losses—Angiers, “divers dear friends slain” (3.4.7), and the capture of Arthur. He has also just witnessed Constance’s moving transformation into grief personified, a woman on the verge of madness over the loss of her son. Watching his father, King Philip, rush off to prevent Constance from “some outrage” (108)—the first time anyone in the play attempts to bring comfort to another but not the last—Louis sinks in despair: “There’s nothing in this world can make me joy. / Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale” (109–10). As Pandulph walks him through John’s catch-22—if John keeps Arthur, he cannot keep him alive—the cardinal presciently foretells how an “act so evilly borne” will work to France’s advantage: it “shall cool the hearts / Of all [John’s] people” (152–53), leading them to revolt and rally to the side of the man whose recent marriage to Lady Blanche allows him to claim the English throne. Buoyed by this mentoring session (a continuation of the course in realpolitik that the Bastard had observed and summed up in Act 2), Louis becomes a man of action—the only foreign leader in Shakespeare’s history plays to invade England. He will also emerge as a wily politician in his own right (5.2), proving a master of Machiavellian deceit in his treatment of the English lords and jarring the equilibrium of Pandulph as he finds the boy once so “green and fresh” no longer manipulable.12

The famous “blinding” sequence contains dual rites of passage for Arthur and Hubert. Though the historical Arthur was fifteen at the time of the play’s action (TR’s is comparable in age), Shakespeare makes him seem much younger. Up until 4.1, with the exception of two pleas for his mother to be quiet and to be “content” (2.1.168–70, 3.1.44), Arthur had depended on others (Chatillion, King Philip, Constance) to speak for him or, like the proverbially well brought up child, had spoken when given permission to do so (2.1.12–17). But as he undergoes a harrowing experience, he speaks for himself and proves, on one level at least, to be his mother’s son: he refuses to be silenced. Shakespeare’s Arthur uses emotion rather than logic to argue with his would-be assassin, reminding Hubert of the times he, “a prince,” had tenderly ministered to him, “knit[ting a] handkercher about [his] brows,” holding his head, and trying to cheer him up (4.1.46–58). With a surprising sophistication that indicates his own education in the lessons of Angiers, Arthur acknowledges that his gestures of kindness might be construed as “crafty love” and “cunning”; implicitly, however, he disowns such motivation (“Do, an if you will”; 59–60). Arthur’s voice (his “innocent prate,” 27), to which Hubert is increasingly vulnerable (34, 35–39, 108); his frequent repetition of Hubert’s name, which personalizes the voice-address relationship (9, 26, and ten other times); and his mounting fear and the pathos evoked by word and gesture (81–82, 84–92, 111–14) not only affect Hubert but also effect a change in him. No longer an object to be destroyed but a “self ” performing, Arthur has become an “I” whom Hubert will not offend “for the wealth of all the world” (144; see also 135). “Gain” has clearly lost a follower. And, as so often in the play, when Hubert crosses his threshold at “Well, see to live” (134) his decision is abrupt, its motivation left unspoken.

Through the scene’s interlocutory dynamic, Arthur and Hubert redefine themselves by discovering their true voices. Having learned to speak for himself in 4.1, Arthur two scenes later will take matters into his own hands as he tries to escape. Unlike his TR counterpart, who does not think beyond “gain[ing his] libertie” and who invokes the memory of his mother four times (at one point actually identifying himself as his “mother’s sonne”), Shakespeare’s Arthur never once mentions Constance; showing independence and practicality, he disguises himself as a shipboy (4.3.4) and is determined—if he makes the leap successfully—to “find a thousand shifts [stratagems] to get away” (7). At the point when the character in the source regresses, the “pretty child” in King John seems to advance in years at his final threshold. And Hubert, who had readily agreed to his king’s hinted desires, will in their next exchange be able to lie to that same king for the sake of a greater good; he will refuse to take the blame for the supposed killing and will force John to accept his share of responsibility before announcing that Arthur lives, rebuking the king for his slanders (4.2.218–71). In his demonstration of compassion, honor, and courage, the man “marked by nature” to do an evil deed becomes paradoxically the first in the world of the play to act according to conscience, setting a precedent for such triumphs of ethical resolve as the Bastard’s in 4.3 and Melun’s in 5.4. For Hubert, the gentle self fashioned during Arthur’s imprisonment, which is heard in his asides and to which he openly returns at the end of 4.1, has become the real self that Arthur greets joyfully: “O, now you look like Hubert. All this while / You were disguisèd” (4.1.138–39).

While King John, Louis, Arthur, and Hubert have been undergoing transitions onstage, the Bastard has had a threshold experience offstage. Traveling through the land, he has met conversation partners we never hear (except for the prophet’s one line at 4.2.159) but who have had a palpable effect on him. The clarity of the world he had known—toothpicks, absey books, maids with puppy dogs, tangible proofs of military valor like a lion’s skin and a severed head, countable sums of money—has been clouded by the uncertainty of strange fantasies, rumors, dreams, and prophecies. Having heard fear in the voices of the people, the Bastard, seemingly for the first time, finds himself unsettled, unsure of his world and his king. When he reports to John, he passes quickly over the news of the French invasion (the most important item for TR’s Bastard at the corresponding moment) to relate the rumor that weighs most heavily on his mind:

Besides, I met Lord Bigot and Lord Salisbury

With eyes as red as new-enkindled fire,

And others more, going to seek the grave

Of Arthur, whom they say is killed tonight

On your suggestion.

(4.2.168–72, my emphasis)

Choosing not to respond to the Bastard’s implied question (“Is what I’ve heard true?”), John instead urges his “gentle kinsman” to bring the nobles back. Perhaps relieved to have his attention diverted to a clearly defined task, the Bastard returns to his energetic voice of the earlier acts in “The spirit of the time shall teach me speed” (184), but not before suggesting in his body language a hint of lingering doubt. John has been forced to repeat his order, formally exhorting his kinsman to “be Mercury . . . [and] set feathers to [his] heels” (182).

Upon the shattering discovery of Arthur’s body in 4.3—the most crucial threshold experience for defining the Bastard, the one that will make possible the voice that closes the play—he maintains an outward control, thoughtfully raising the possibility of accidental death: “If that it be the work of any hand” (60). Skeptical restraint, however, quickly gives way to frenetic action as the Bastard impulsively and vigorously defends Hubert against the drawn swords of the nobles. After their exit, when the Bastard is alone with Hubert, the emotional floodgates open.

Because he needs to be convinced personally of Hubert’s (and by extension John’s) innocence, the Bastard furiously engages in an intense, highly charged interrogation. We have heard contempt and cynicism in his voice before, but nothing like the righteous anger and passion expressed here in the frenzied litany of “ifs” (“if thou didst this deed of death,” “if thou didst kill this child,” “if thou didst but consent / To this most cruel act,” 123, 130, 132–33), the constant interruption of Hubert, the triple repetition of “damned” that in the Bastard’s mind sends Hubert to hell, and the flourish of hyperbole by which the Bastard as prosecutor so shrinks the defendant that the smallest thread of a spider, a rush, a drop of water would be enough to execute him. With the Bastard emotionally spent—“I do suspect thee very grievously” (141) is somewhat anticlimactic—Hubert is allowed his defense. Taking each of the points in order—act, consent, and then, doing his interrogator one better, thought—Hubert’s response makes it possible for emotions to quiet and the tempo to slow. In the grammatical and metrical pause separating the two parts of a shared monosyllabic pentameter (“I left him well. | Go, bear him in thine arms,” 147), acquittal is won, a bond is forged, and introspection begins.

The “I am amazed, methinks, and lose my way” monologue may have a soliloquy-like feel but, as the directives to Hubert indicate, it is not quite a soliloquy. In addition to Hubert, there is the visually compelling conversational presence of the dead boy, with whom the Bastard seems in communion. Where observation led to satiric declamation in the “Commodity” soliloquy, the absorbing of a Pietà-like image—Constance’s maternal grief now transferred to the distraught Hubert tenderly cradling Arthur—leads to reflection.13 As he digests the implications of Arthur’s death, the Bastard invests the boy with the life, truth, and right of England:

                  Go, bear him in thine arms.

I am amazed, methinks, and lose my way

Among the thorns and dangers of this world.

Hubert takes up Arthur’s body.

How easy dost thou take all England up!

From forth this morsel of dead royalty,

The life, the right, and truth of all this realm

Is fled to heaven, and England now is left

To tug and scamble and to part by th’ teeth

The unowed interest of proud-swelling state.

Now for the bare-picked bone of majesty

Doth doggèd war bristle his angry crest

And snarleth in the gentle eyes of peace.

Now powers from home and discontents at home

Meet in one line, and vast confusion waits,

As doth a raven on a sick-fall’n beast,

The imminent decay of wrested pomp.

Now happy he whose cloak and cincture can

Hold out this tempest. Bear away that child,

And follow me with speed. I’ll to the King.

A thousand businesses are brief in hand,

And heaven itself doth frown upon the land.


While the syntax is clear and orderly (six complete and—until lines 160–64—simple or compound sentences make up the seventeen lines between “Go, bear him in thine arms” and “Bear away that child”), several stylistic features capture the speaker’s inner turmoil: the lexical shift from abstractions (“royalty,” “life,” “right,” “truth,” etc.) to the sustained visceral imagery of dogs and ravens preying on England; the anaphora of the repeated “Now”; and the sensory eruption of the auditory (“snarleth”), the visual (“gentle eyes of peace”), the tactile (“bristle”), and the kinetic (“tug,” “scamble,” “part by th’ teeth”). Pulsating metrical stresses, combined with (often alliterated) plosives, also suggest agitation (e.g., “Now for the bare-picked bone of majesty / Doth doggèd war bristle his angry crest,” 156–57). Then, abruptly, the speaker shifts gears. Between the moral anguish of lines 148–64 and the practical directive to Hubert to “bear away that child” (the demonstrative adjective already indicating some emotional distance), the Bastard makes a conscious political choice to return to the very king just implicated in the confusion afflicting the country.

The decision to return to John becomes less jarring if we consider that the Bastard has been having an inner debate—and we have heard only one side. Once again, in a grammatical and metrical pause—“tempest. Bear away” (164)—the speaker seems silently to come to terms with the problem found in all of Shakespeare’s histories: namely, how to distinguish between loyalty to the private figure who wears the trappings of authority (the body natural) and loyalty to the public representative of the country at large (the body politic). The clue to his decision to support the public rather than the private John appears in the repetition of “England”; the second time, the reference expands from a claimant to the throne (150) to the land (153), the realm that is on the verge of being torn apart. The Bastard had never spoken of England before. The land as a private holding that he had so lightly dispensed with in Act 1 (“I’ll take my chance,” 1.1.155) is in the process of becoming “home” (4.3.159), something to be protected from foreign as well as civil attack. We do not hear the panegyric poetry of John of Gaunt’s “this blessèd plot, this earth, this realm, this England” (Richard II, 2.1.55–56), but we begin to sense a patriotism tempered by moral and political pragmatism. Fittingly, “land” as patria is the final word in a speech that concludes with the juxtaposition of political choice (“I’ll to the King,” 165) and a newly developing moral and spiritual awareness of displeased providential powers (“heaven itself doth frown upon the land,” 167). However elliptically from the point of view of readers or audience, the Bastard has worked out the inner confusion mounting since his excursion through the land; in the process, he has fashioned a moral and civic self. As L. A. Beaurline astutely observes, Montaigne may provide the best gloss on the self emerging at the end of 4.3:

The virtue assigned to the affairs of the world is a virtue with many bends, angles, and elbows, so as to join and adapt itself to human weakness; mixed and artificial, not straight, clean, constant, or purely innocent. Civic innocence is measured according to the places and the times. . . . We may regret better times, but not escape the present; we may wish for different magistrates, but we must nevertheless obey those that are here.14

Like Louis in 3.4, but to a different end, the Bastard has crossed an “Arthurian” threshold. Because Louis confronts the boy’s death abstractly in Pandulph’s political scenario, the rite of passage for him remains solely political. Emerging as a man of ambition and intrigue eager for “conquest and to win renown” (5.2.116), Louis will say to the English rebels in an effort to allay their pangs of guilt: “Come, come; for thou shalt thrust thy hand as deep / Into the purse of rich prosperity / As Louis himself ” (5.2.60–62). In contrast, the Bastard, who feels Arthur’s death deeply, experiences a moment of interior moral anguish that implicitly informs his political choice. Equally important is the difference in the “certain interlocutors” crucial to each of these characters’ self-definition. Louis had Pandulph, labeled by one critic “the arch politician, the representative of super-commodity”;15 the Bastard had Hubert, the play’s first victor over commodity—and the silent presence of Arthur, commodity’s tangible human cost.

The king to whom the Bastard returns, with renewed purpose and with English place-names in his mouth (Kent, Dover Castle, London), is even weaker than in their previous encounter. Acutely aware of the country’s need for a public image of strength and leadership (5.1.45–62), the Bastard is outraged at John’s “happy peace” with Pandulph, seeing such an alliance as repeating the commodity-driven compromises made in Angiers (67–71). Ever the man of action, he calls attention to the “land” that has been growing in his own consciousness, and urges his “liege . . . to arms” (68, 75). As the Bastard grows in John’s estimation, the king’s self-regard diminishes to the point that he invests his kinsman with “the ordering of this present time” (79). The rite of passage that began with a journey through the land and now culminates in the Bastard’s being named the king’s surrogate is the most sustained treatment of liminality in the play, having its own beginning (3.3.18 to 4.2.137–84), middle (4.3), and end (5.1). The doubts that disturbed the Bastard in his travels and fierce interrogation of Hubert and that receive elliptical clarification in the climactic “I am amazed and lose my way” monologue moderate into the healthy skepticism of the prudent risk-taker keenly aware that “Our party may well meet a prouder foe” (5.1.82). Delivered as an aside, the comment further reveals a speaker who knows that in the voice of authority fear is best kept private.

As political responsibility and military leadership pass from the older generation of King John and King Philip to the younger generation of the Bastard and Louis, the two young men on parallel but morally contrasting trajectories confront each other directly for the first time. Although he mocks the Dauphin by referring to him as a “youth” (5.2.129), the Bastard is obviously delighted that the “beardless boy, / A cockered silken wanton” (5.1.71–72) he remembers from Angiers, is now so “willful-opposite” in standing up to the “halting legate” and refusing to “lay down his arms” (5.2.125, 177, 127). Like a good athlete competing with a respected rival, the Bastard is challenged by this interlocutory relationship to be at the top of his game, which in this instance means performing the voice of the king: “Now hear our English king, / For thus his royalty doth speak in me” (129–30). This is not, however, the voice of the present king, who, even at his most defiant (with Chatillion, King Philip, and especially Pandulph), never spoke of “crouch[ing] in litter of your stable planks,” or lying “like pawns locked up in chests and trunks,” or “hug[ging] with swine” (141–43). We hear instead an imaging of royalty that reflects the Bastard’s sense of how a king should speak. And he speaks it in his own voice—earthy, vigorous, and physical—with imagery from the country and words such as “cudgel” and “hatch” (139) that he alone employs. (For the Bastard’s earlier use of “cudgeled” and “hatch,” see 2.1.485 and 1.1.176.) Louis remembers this voice well from Angiers:

There end thy brave and turn thy face in peace.

We grant thou canst outscold us. Fare thee well.

We hold our time too precious to be spent

With such a brabbler.


In the 1984 BBC production, the Bastard (George Costigan) waited until his encounter with Louis to don the lion’s skin, the emblem of his father’s courage. Fashioning for the first time “in his own person the ‘concept of royalty,’ ”16 Costigan’s Bastard resurrected in the mind’s eye the king whose memory haunts the play.

The martial leadership projected verbally in 5.2 translates into action as the Bastard “desires” John to leave the battlefield and is himself perceived by the enemy as “that misbegotten devil, Faulconbridge, [who] / In spite of spite, alone upholds the day” (5.4.4–5). By the time of the penultimate scene, however, something has changed. In a tense night episode, two men, both filled with anxiety and uncertainty, haltingly search each other out, each identifying the other by voice through a series of questions (5.6.1–18). What had been metaphoric for the Bastard in 4.3—a Dantesque sense of being lost in a dark wood—is now literal. The Bastard quickly recognizes his fellow speaker; that it takes Hubert longer might suggest that there is something new in the Bastard’s voice and manner. His answer to Hubert’s “Who art thou?”—“Who thou wilt. An if thou please, / Thou mayst befriend me so much as to think / I come one way of the Plantagenets” (11–14)—is general, vague, and, most important, malleable; as such, like the self emerging in the final lines of 4.3, it makes possible the more detached and inclusive voice that ends the play. For several scenes, the issue of genealogy that had occupied so much of the dialogue in the first two acts has been only implicit. Here, with just a touch of the humor that was initially a major part of his voice, the Bastard alludes to his paternity: his “way of the Plantagenets” is the marginal way, the way of bastardy. This more subdued humor, in conjunction with his lack of specificity, suggests a detachment from the “new-made honor” and newfound paternity he reveled in at 1.1.252–53, 260, 267–68, 277–78. Weary and dispirited (half his forces have been lost, 5.6.43–45), the man so boldly defiant with Louis has come up against the “prouder foe” that neither he nor the Dauphin (5.5.14–15) can control: Nature.

For the second time in the play the Bastard, feeling confused and unsettled, finds himself in a private encounter with the same interlocutor, Hubert, who now seeks him out to share the news about John’s poisoning. Rebuking himself for not recognizing “any accent breaking from [the Bastard’s] tongue,” Hubert’s “Brave soldier” reminds the Bastard of who he is (5.6.15–18). In a distant echo of his first soliloquy (1.1.207), the Bastard dismisses any “compliment” (19) and quickly presses for information in a series of direct questions that move rapidly from the general to the specific: “What news abroad?” (19), “How did he take it? Who did taste to him?” (32), and so on. Following his near-death experience in the Lincoln Washes (45–46), the Bastard comes back to life in the company of Hubert. His offstage realization that he is not invincible leads to an onstage moment of liminal reflection, as the man who had irreverently promised to pray for Queen Eleanor if he remembered to pray (3.3.14–16) suddenly prays in earnest: “Withhold thine indignation, mighty God, / And tempt us not to bear above our power” (5.6.41–42). In the presence of Hubert, the Bastard seeks deliverance from despair by invoking the traditional Christian belief that God does not send the human soul more than it can bear (1 Corinthians 10.13).17 Suddenly, the action-oriented voice of the Bastard, appearing again without connectives, is back: “Away before. Conduct me to the King. / I doubt [fear] he will be dead or ere I come” (47–48). It is a voice always in search of something to do, a task to be performed, a direction in which to go—and once more Hubert, the Bastard’s friend and the play’s stellar example of moral conversion, is responsible for focusing the Bastard’s mind, spirit, and energies.

The final scene into which the Bastard rushes is a cluster of rites of passage: John’s transition from life to death, Prince Henry’s transition to kingship, and the Bastard’s transition from royal surrogate and image maker to the universal spokesman for all England. While able since 4.3 to distinguish between the public and private bodies of the king, the Bastard nevertheless retains a personal bond with the monarch who has called him “cousin” and “gentle kinsman”; the heat imaged in the Bastard’s breathless greeting “O, I am scalded with my violent motion” (5.7.53) reinforces his link with the feverish John, who “shrink[s] up” like “a scribbled form . . . Upon a parchment . . . against this fire” (34–36). As a figure of intense human suffering (32–33, 38–44), the king who, for most of the play, had been on the receiving end of criticism invites comfort from those around him (although not always to his satisfaction, 44–46). In his last moments John compresses (and shifts among) the various stages thanatologists associate with dying—denial and isolation (6–9), anger (11, 38–46, 49–52), depression (30–36), and acceptance (12, 13, 55–62). At the king’s death, the Bastard’s question “Art thou gone so” (74), unlike Salisbury’s and Prince Henry’s abridged memento mori (70–73), shows that he feels the separation personally. Anticipating Horatio in Hamlet and Kent in King Lear, the Bastard desires to follow John in death; but in contrast to them, he promises first “to do the office . . . of revenge” (74–76). The bellicose vigor directed earlier at Louis and the rebels resounds in his challenge to the returned nobles (those “stars, that [now] move in your right spheres”) to join with him “again / To push destruction and perpetual shame / Out of the weak door of our fainting land” (78–83). When suddenly informed that Pandulph has negotiated peace terms, the Bastard registers the beginning of his final transition. His statement “Let it be so” (101, like the earlier “I’ll to the king” and “Away before”) is the culmination of a self-fashioning that has repeatedly, often in the silence of an instant’s pause, adapted to changing circumstances and conversation partners.

For major characters in Shakespeare, according to Marjorie Garber, failure to adapt means failure “to undergo a rite of passage” that brings with it “incorporat[ion] into a new identity or social role.”18 Determined since Act 1 to be a player, the Bastard is always open to “incorporation.” His declaration of acceptance is immediately followed by his address to Prince Henry, suggesting an awareness of a new interlocutor in his conversational orbit, a sad and fragile young prince who might very well remind him of another young claimant to “the life, right, and truth” of England. (In performance the roles of Arthur and Prince Henry are sometimes doubled.) In the spatial proximity of the dead English king and his living heir, the father and his undisputed son, the Bastard observes a powerful image of continuity. This visual enactment of the ritual expression “The King is dead. Long live the King” crystallizes for him the issue that is so important to Shakespeare’s history plays as a genre and that incites so much wrangling in this play in particular—the matter of legitimate succession and lineal heritage. (Michael Kahn, in the 1999 Washington, D.C., revival, had the Bastard and Hubert support John while Henry sat by John’s feet; Karin Coonrod, in the 2000 production at New York’s American Place Theater, had the Bastard embrace the dead king with one arm and the weeping prince with the other.) In an instant, the Bastard focuses attention on the young prince’s imminent threshold moment: the “put[ting] on [of] / The lineal state and glory of the land” (107–8). Accordingly, the Bastard kneels to the “sweet self ” of royalty before him and promises his “faithful services / And true subjection everlastingly” (110–11), thus setting an example for the nobles to follow.

In the Bastard’s concluding speech, Shakespeare (as is typical of his approach to death and dying) emphasizes (again to quote Garber) “the survivor as one who needs to undergo rites of passage as much as do the dead. . . . In fact, rites of passage concerned with death in the plays are almost always related to a change in perception of those who survive, whether the survivor be an individual, a city or a state.”19 Since the end of 4.3, the Bastard has been filling a national need, shaping a self to fit the demands of the time. The present moment clearly requires a voice of gravitas, authority, and hope. Directly interacting with an emotional young prince, the Bastard picks up on Henry’s “tears” to urge decorous but not excessive mourning (115–16); then, in an effort to embolden the son as he had the father, he begins what promises to be an unqualified panegyric (118–19). Almost immediately—as though taking in yet another compelling image—the speaker shifts to an exhortation that moves beyond Prince Henry to include the newly (and expediently) returned nobles (120–24). By way of the stubbornly intrusive “if” (the skepticism of Act 1 assuming its deepest register), the invincibility of an England that “never did nor never shall / Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror” changes from a given to a conditional dependent on something uncommon in the world of King John: moral integrity, now specifically translated into the constancy and fidelity of the English people, king and subjects alike.

The Bastard’s “I am I, howe’er I was begot”—a comic forerunner of Coriolanus’ tragic vow to “stand / As if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin” (5.3)—is both true and false. There is certainly an “I” that remains in the speaking voice throughout—blunt, energetic, goal-oriented, pugnacious, and skeptical—but that same “I” is very much his father’s son, as Eleanor’s and John’s comments on physical and behavioral traits, his own martial victories, and his projection of royalty before Louis indicate. It is also an “I” that the Bastard has fashioned and refashioned (often by fits and starts) through a series of threshold moments in relation to “certain” (often themselves changing) interlocutors, especially Hubert. The speaker’s initial self-identification as the king’s loyal subject in the first scene was pure formula, but his last before the dying John is something acutely and personally felt—a change grammatically indicated in the shift from the formal “your faithful subject” (1.1.51) to the more intimate “thy servant” (5.7.77). Here, as in his subsequent kneeling and promise of services to Prince Henry, the Bastard’s self-identification is something he has lived and worked through—especially since the end of 4.3, when service to the king was subsumed into service to England.

The words from Charles Taylor quoted near the beginning of this essay go on to note that “the full definition of someone’s identity . . . usually involves not only his stand on moral and spiritual matters but also some reference to a defining community.”20 For the Bastard and others, that defining community—one of the “webs of interlocution”—is England, itself engaged in a rite of passage. First narrowly equated with the ruling monarch (Chatillion’s address “to the majesty . . . of England here” [1.1.3–4] and John’s “Doth not the crown of England prove the King?” [2.1.282]), the name England begins to widen (ironically) during Louis’ rite of passage when Pandulph talks about “all [John’s] people” rising up in revolt and “ten thousand English” following the French (3.4.168, 178). As the Bastard travels through the land—a key transitional time for him—we hear of a prophet and “many hundreds treading on his heels” (4.2.152–54); soon the generalized image of the people takes on a degree of specificity in the newly converted Hubert’s “old men and beldams in the streets,” a blacksmith with his “hammer” and “iron [cooling] on the anvil,” a tailor “with his shears and measure in his hand,” and a “lean, unwashed artificer” (4.2.196, 204–7, 212). The dying Arthur, bequeathing his bones to England, distinguishes between the king whom he blames for his death and the land that will be his final resting place. As wayward sons return home in Act 5, England discovers children it never knew in secret Anglophiles like Count Melun, whose dying recollection of his English grandsire partially informs his own final rite of passage. The change, as the Bastard had begun to conceive when he saw Hubert bearing Arthur in his arms, is a growing consciousness of English sovereignty as national rather than dynastic: England as the people and the land. Fittingly, but in a radical departure from orthodox Tudor ideology, England at the end of King John is reimagined or “refigured” in the voice of the Bastard, the one speaker who has imitated and tried on other voices, who has listened to the people’s rumors and fantasies, who has interacted with each of the play’s women, and who, as a royal bastard with rights to the land as a whole but without any legal rights in reality, “speaks in the name of England because he himself has no name, upholds the ‘unow’d interest’ because he himself owns nothing.”21 Rather than being arbitrarily imposed on the speaker, the pronominal widening in the final speech as the Bastard shifts from “I” to the communal and patriotic “we/us” has been present since 5.1.68, when the speaker’s newly developing appreciation of England as “the land” (4.3.167) became “our land” (repeated at 5.7.83).22 The England of the second half of the play, where English place-names proliferate (Bury St. Edmunds, Kent, London, Dover, Swinstead, Worcester, the Goodwin Sands, and the Wash), appears to take on the Bastard’s identity as “Who thou wilt,” offered to Hubert at the beginning of 5.6. Increasingly fluid, dynamic, and diverse, “that white-faced shore . . . That water-wallèd bulwark” (2.1.23–27) becomes an isle of “sons and children,” a “nation” that the tearful Salisbury wishes could be borne in “Neptune’s arms” and sail like a ship to a foreign land where Englishmen would fight others rather than one another (5.2.25, 33–39). In Act 2 an English king and a French king speak for England. At the end, who speaks for England? “Bastards and else” (2.1.285).

King John, unlike TR, does not conclude with a coronation, the act that typically marks the end of a nation’s mourning for its recently deceased monarch (though productions often show the crowning of Prince Henry). Without that formal ceremony, and as talk of tears and woe continues, the entire scene remains in the middle or transitional phase of the rite of passage associated with death—the mourning period between separation from that which was and incorporation into something new. That the Bastard and nobles kneel to Henry points in the direction of incorporation, as does the Bastard’s plural inclusive voice. But his elegiac exhortation with its recalcitrantly loaded “if,” delivered in the presence of a fragile boy-king surrounded by peripatetic nobles (not an image to instill confidence) and further qualified by the nonhistorical status of the speaker who emerges as the national conscience, maintains the sense of liminality to the very end.23 The ending rushes not to closure, as some have suggested, but to another threshold, thus reinforcing the play’s overall fluid, mutable temper.24 Like the Bastard, whose threshold moments inform the play, and like the young prince at the threshold of kingship, England itself, caught up in the process of history, is presented as a work in progress.

  1. Barbara Hodgdon, The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare’s History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 29. Hodgdon locates the play’s flux in its “politics of accommodation” (pp. 22–32); Virginia Vaughan in a constant pattern of frequent surprises and reversals of expectation (“Between Tetralogies: King John as Transition,” Shakespeare Quarterly 35 [1984]: 407–20, esp. pp. 415–19); and Jane Donawerth in the repetition of oral images (tongue, mouth, ear, breath, etc.) that suggest the fluidity of language as spoken rather than as written (Shakespeare and the Sixteenth-Century Study of Language [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984], pp. 165–88).
  2. Examples include “Let me make answer” (2.1.122), “Hear me, O, hear me!” (3.1.116), “Now hear me speak with a prophetic spirit” (3.4.129), “Nay, hear me, Hubert” (4.1.87), “Do but hear me, sir” (4.3.125), “Let me have audience” (5.2.120), “Give me leave to speak” (5.2.164), and “No, I will speak” (5.2.165). See also the Bastard’s constant interruptions of Robert Faulconbridge in 1.1.
  3. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 36.
  4. For the shift from a public to a private dynamic, see Alexander Leggatt, “Dramatic Perspective in King John,” English Studies in Canada 3 (1977): 8; for speakers being “effects,” see Harry Berger, Jr., “What Did the King Know and When Did He Know It: Shakespearean Discourses and Psychoanalysis,” South Atlantic Quarterly 88 (1989): 813.
  5. The notion of liminality was developed by Victor Turner, who defines it as “any condition outside or on the periphery of everyday life” (Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974], p. 47); see also his Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969), pp. 94–130. In Coming of Age in Shakespeare (New York: Routledge, 1981), Marjorie Garber applies it, along with other anthropological concepts such as threshold moments and rites of passage, to a number of plays (not including King John). Rites of passage include three phases: separation from a former identity, transition, and incorporation into a new role. Liminality relates specifically to the transition between a former identity and a new role as one confronts a threshold experience: “The act of crossing the threshold—of becoming a ‘marginal person’ or a ‘liminary’—is both a danger and an opportunity, testing the individual’s ability to grow and change” (p. 8).
  6. The question of which text came first, the anonymous two-part Troublesome Raigne published in 1591 or Shakespeare’s King John (for which almost every year between 1587 and 1598 has been offered as a possible date), is perhaps the most controversial topic in King John scholarship. Most hold that TR was Shakespeare’s primary source; a minority view TR as the derivative play, related to King John either along the lines of a bad quarto (E. A. J. Honigmann’s Arden edition [London: Methuen, 1954], pp. 174–76) or as a scenario-based transmission (L. A. Beaurline’s New Cambridge King John [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990], pp. 206–9), with Holinshed’s Chronicles serving as Shakespeare’s primary source. (See “An Introduction to This Text”.) In the present essay, I treat TR as a source for King John. All references to TR are taken from Geoffrey Bullough’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (1962; reprint, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), 4:1–151.
  7. See Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558–1641, abridged ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), pp. 183–232, 258–60.
  8. Harry Berger, Jr., Imaginary Audition: Shakespeare on Stage and Page (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 101.
  9. John Blanpied, Time and the Artist in Shakespeare’s English Histories (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1983), p. 105.
  10. See Christopher Z. Hobson’s detailed rhetorical analysis of the “Commodity” soliloquy in “Bastard Speech: The Rhetoric of ‘Commodity’ in King John,” Shakespeare Yearbook 2 (1991): 95–114.
  11. Guy Hamel, “King John and The Troublesome Raigne: A Reexamination,” in King John: New Perspectives, edited by Deborah T. Curren-Aquino (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1989), p. 44; Joseph Porter, “Fraternal Pragmatics: Speech Acts of John and the Bastard,” in the same anthology, p. 136.
  12. While the present edition follows the Folio in giving 2.1.1–11, 18, and 153–57 to the Dauphin rather than King Philip, my reading of Louis reflects a theatrical tradition in which he remains essentially a cipher in the Angiers action until the marriage proposal, not really finding his voice until 5.2.
  13. Geraldine Cousin notes how Deborah Warner’s 1988–89 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company “used the absence of the women in the second half of the play to explore, through male characters, aspects of the mother-child relationship” (Shakespeare in Performance: King John [Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994], pp. 128–29).
  14. “Of Vanity,” as cited in Beaurline, ed., New Cambridge King John, p. 57.
  15. Gunnar Boklund, “The Troublesome Ending of King John,” Studia Neophilologica 40 (1968): 183.
  16. Cousin, Shakespeare in Performance: King John, p. 97.
  17. Because his prayer is made immediately after Hubert has announced the surprising return of Prince Henry in the company of the newly returned and pardoned nobles, James L. Calderwood and William Matchett, among others, have suggested that the Bastard prays to be delivered from the alluring prospect of seizing power for himself. In rising above that temptation, he proves the worthiest heir to the legendary Coeur de Lion. See Calderwood’s “Commodity and Honour in King John” (1960), in King John and Henry VIII: Critical Essays, edited by Frances A. Shirley (New York: Garland, 1988), pp. 142–44, and Matchett’s “Richard’s Divided Heritage in King John,” Essays in Criticism 12 (1962), pp. 250–52. But the speaker’s sense of overwhelming woe—military losses, John’s poisoning, and the image of a boy-king controlled by self-serving lords—offers at least as good a reason to pray urgently for strength.
  18. Garber, Coming of Age in Shakespeare, p. 21.
  19. Garber, Coming of Age in Shakespeare, p. 216.
  20. Taylor, Sources of the Self, p. 36.
  21. In a far-ranging essay dealing with medieval drama, the Henry VI plays, Henry V, and King John, Peter Womack insightfully discusses the “imagining” of England in Elizabethan drama. See “Imagining Communities: Theatres and the English Nation in the Sixteenth Century,” in Culture and History, 1350–1600: Essays on English Communities, Identities, and Writing, edited by David Aers (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992), pp. 91–145, esp. 111–26; the quoted passage appears on p. 126. See also Nina Levine’s feminist approach to the topic in her chapter “Refiguring the Nation: Mothers and Sons in King John,” in Women’s Matters: Politics, Gender, and Nation in Shakespeare’s Early History Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1998), pp. 123–45. Ralph Berry was one of the first to note the play’s progressive questioning of the initial fusion of nation and king (“King John: Some Bastards Too,” in The Shakespearean Metaphor: Studies in Language and Form [London: Macmillan; Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978], pp. 26–36).
  22. As Womack persuasively argues, the Bastard “could not figure as a patriot in the first half of the play because there was, effectively, no patria to which such a role could refer, only the patently empty formalism of a monarchical rhetoric” (“Imagining Communities,” p. 125).
  23. In the 1999 Washington, D.C., revival, as the Bastard delivered the final lines near the front of the stage, the audience saw a newly crowned and royally garbed King Henry on an upper level surrounded by the nobles and (a textually interpolated) Pandulph. In the Coonrod production, the actor playing the Bastard ran off the stage into the audience after delivering his final speech, leaving the rest of the characters onstage. Was his work done? Had the “if ” of uncertainty unsettled him once more? Where was he going? Was there a new task to be performed? Was he making good on his promise to follow John? Or was this a final way of highlighting his national incorporation as the voice of “the people”? In 1960 at Stratford, Ontario, Douglas Seale chose to have the funeral procession begin as the Bastard started his final speech. By the time he arrived at the concluding couplet, he was all alone, “solitary, friendless . . . and disillusioned” in a kind of perpetual “betwixt and between” state (Seale, “King John in the Modern Theatre,” in King John: The Laurel Shakespeare, edited by Francis Fergusson and Charles Jasper Sisson [New York: Dell, 1963], p. 33). Both Coonrod and Seale, in different ways—one having the Bastard leave the action, the other having the action leave him—implicitly recognized that he existed outside the history enveloping the other characters. The two directorial choices also suggest that the Bastard might have more thresholds to cross.
  24. See Virginia Vaughan, “King John: Subversion and Containment,” in Curren-Aquino, King John, p. 73; also Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), p. 134; and Robert C. Jones, These Valiant Dead: Renewing the Past in Shakespeare’s Histories (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991), p. 57.