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King John /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: King John

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish), and those who are used to reading poetry, will have little difficulty understanding the language of poetic drama. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static”—caused by changes in language and in life—intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used, and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When reading on one’s own, one must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a Shakespeare play, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of King John, for example, you will find the words “sooth” (i.e., truth), “holp” (i.e., helped), “Zounds” (i.e., by Christ’s [or God’s] wounds”), and “peisèd” (i.e., balanced). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In King John, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the opening scenes of King John, for example, the word embassy has the meaning of “message,” warned is used where we would say “summoned,” fronts is used where we would say “foreheads,” and likes where we would say “pleases.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build dramatic worlds that have their own space, time, and history. King John tells the story of a battle for the English crown in the early thirteenth century, a time when much of the land that makes up present-day France was controlled by the monarch of England. It centers on the challenge to the reigning English king, John, by his nephew, Arthur, supported by King Philip of France. The play quickly establishes the geography of John’s dominions, with references to such “dominations” as “Poitiers, Anjou, Touraine, Maine” (2.1.183, 1.1.11). It also sets the terms for Arthur’s claim against John with charges that John’s is a “borrowed majesty,” that he “sways usurpingly” his “several titles” (1.1.4, 13), and that, by taking the English throne, he has “cut off the sequence of posterity, / Outfacèd infant state, and done a rape / Upon the maiden virtue of the crown” (2.1.96–98). The earlier history lying behind the play is established with references to “Plantagenet” (1.1.9), to “Geoffrey . . . [John’s] elder brother born” (2.1.104), and to “King Richard Coeur de Lion” and the legend of the “aweless lion [who] could not . . . keep his princely heart from Richard’s hand” (1.1.261, 274–75).

An additional language world comes into the play with the character who soon becomes known as the Bastard. Philip Faulconbridge, who elects to abandon his legitimacy and announce himself as the bastard son of Richard Coeur de Lion, speaks a language filled with allusions to legend and literature (“Colbrand the Giant,” “Philip Sparrow,” “Basilisco”), with words that reflect ordinary material life (“half-faced groat,” “eel-skins stuffed,” “absey-book”), with proverbs (“truth is truth,” “have is have,” “You are the hare of whom the proverb goes, / Whose valor plucks dead lions by the beard”), and with witty repartee and commentary. (In response to the Citizen’s speech proposing a marriage between Louis, the Dauphin of France, and John’s niece Blanche, for example, the Bastard comments: “Zounds, I was never so bethumped with words / Since I first called my brother’s father Dad” [2.1.487–88].) The Bastard’s language serves not only to characterize this unusually vital character but also to enrich a language world that is otherwise relatively one-dimensional.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often in order to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if the words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Shakespeare often, for example, rearranges subjects and verbs (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In King John, when Chatillion says “Thus, after greeting, speaks the King of France” (1.1.2), he is using such a construction. So is King John when he says “Here have we war for war” (1.1.19). The “normal” order would be “The King of France speaks” and “We have war for war.” Shakespeare also frequently places the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”). King John’s command “An honorable conduct let him have” (1.1.29) is an example of such an inversion, as is Robert Faulconbridge’s “Th’ advantage of his absence took the King” (1.1.105). The “normal” order would be “Let him have an honorable conduct” and “The King took th’ advantage of his absence.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word. Take, for example, Chatillion’s “Philip of France, in right and true behalf / Of thy deceasèd brother Geoffrey’s son, / Arthur Plantagenet, lays most lawful claim / To this fair island” (1.1.7–10). Here, the phrase “in right and true behalf of thy deceasèd brother Geoffrey’s son, Arthur Plantagenet” separates subject (“Philip of France”) from verb (“lays”). Or take Chatillion’s description of King John’s troops:

And all th’ unsettled humors of the land—

Rash, inconsiderate, fiery voluntaries,

With ladies’ faces and fierce dragons’ spleens—

Have sold their fortunes at their native homes,

Bearing their birthrights proudly on their backs,

To make a hazard of new fortunes here.


In this sentence the subject (“all th’ unsettled humors of the land”) and verb (“Have sold”) are separated from each other by two lines standing in apposition to the subject. In those two intervening lines the bare appositive (“voluntaries”) is modified by a series of adjectives that precede it (“Rash, inconsiderate, fiery”) and by the adjective phrase that follows it (“With ladies’ faces and fierce dragons’ spleens”). In order to create for yourself sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you may wish to rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“Philip of France lays most lawful claim” and “all th’ unsettled humors of the land have sold their fortunes”). You will usually find that the sentence will gain in clarity but will lose its rhythm or shift its emphasis.

Sometimes, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. Shakespeare puts this kind of construction in the mouth of the Bastard as he abandons his rights as heir to Sir Robert Faulconbridge’s lands, dissociating himself entirely from Faulconbridge and from Faulconbridge’s son:

      an if my brother had my shape

And I had his, Sir Robert’s his like him,

And if my legs were two such riding-rods,

My arms such eel-skins stuffed, my face so thin

That in mine ear I durst not stick a rose,

Lest men should say “Look where three-farthings


And, to his shape, were heir to all this land,

Would I might never stir from off this place,

I would give it every foot to have this face.


Holding back the essential sentence elements, the subject and the verb (“I would give”), the Bastard first provides an extensive catalogue of the meager physical features that characterize both the late Sir Robert and his son Robert Faulconbridge (tiny “arms” like “eel-skins stuffed,” and thin “legs” like “riding-rods”). This prolonged contemptuous description provides the grounds for his final declaration in the last two lines of his speech: that is, if I am not telling the truth, may I never move from where I stand—the truth being that I would give every foot of this land in order to have the face that I have.

Finally, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say, “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply the words missing from elliptical speeches. This play provides some examples in its very first scene, where King John and his mother, Queen Eleanor, have an exchange so laconic that it may alert an audience to their anxiety about John’s ambiguous right to the throne. After Queen Eleanor rebukes John for going immediately to war rather than negotiating with France, John says, using the royal “we,” “Our strong possession and our right for us.” Queen Eleanor’s response matches her son’s in its abruptness: “Your strong possession much more than your right” (1.1.39–40). John’s line can be expanded as follows: “My strong possession of the throne and my right to the throne are both on my side.” And the meaning of Queen Eleanor’s elliptical speech is immediately clear: “You will prevail only because you have ‘strong possession,’ for your right to the throne is not strong.” The terseness of this conversation—which depends in part on the familiarity of various proverbs (“possession is nine points of the law,” “possession is stronger than an ill charter,” etc.)—suggests that John’s right to rule is so uncertain that it will not bear extensive discussion, even between himself and his mother.

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, puns and metaphors. Puns in King John sometimes play on the multiple meanings of a single word and sometimes on the different meanings of words that sound the same. In the play’s first scene, for example, Robert Faulconbridge invokes his father’s will, the legal document that names him as heir, as his authority for challenging his brother Philip: “Shall then my father’s will be of no force / To dispossess that child which is not his?” Philip, later to be called “the Bastard,” replies, “Of no more force to dispossess me, sir, / Than was his will to get me, as I think” (1.1.133–36). Philip’s response repeats Robert’s use of the word will, but puns on the word’s meaning of “intention” (with possible wordplay on such other meanings as “carnal desire” and “penis”). In the same scene, when King John wants to know why Robert claims land that by the law of primogeniture should belong to Philip, Philip responds: “Because he hath a half-face like my father. / With half that face would he have all my land” (1.1.95–96). The word “half-face” itself had several possible meanings—a thin or pinched face, an imperfect or unfinished face; or a face in profile, as on a coin. The word “face” in the following line then puns on a second meaning of “face,” namely, impudence or insolence.

The Bastard’s puns here are of a piece with the many other kinds of wordplay that give his role much of its exuberance and vitality, but puns are also used in many serious contexts in this play. When King Philip accuses John of having “done a rape / Upon the maiden virtue of the crown” (2.1.97–98), his words literally accuse John of having violently stolen the crown; but by attributing “maiden virtue” to the crown, Philip also puns on the word “rape” in its meaning of “sexual assault.” And the Bastard, too, carries his use of puns over into serious contexts, as in his speech of advice to the kings at Angiers (2.1.389–412), where England and France are encouraged to “mount / Their battering cannon chargèd to the mouths, / Till their soul-fearing clamors have brawled down / The flinty ribs of this contemptuous city.” Here “brawled down” means “driven or forced down by wrangling,” but the association of the word “brawled” with the word “clamors” creates a pun on “brawled” as “quarreled noisily.”

A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which it shares common features. For instance, in King John’s instructions to Chatillion at line 1.1.27—“Be thou the trumpet of our wrath”—the French ambassador is equated with the musical instrument used to announce a king’s approach. This metaphor is strikingly appropriate to the dramatic situation, since John intends to come to France full of “wrath” and hot on Chatillion’s heels; indeed, Chatillion arrives in France in time to do little more than announce the approach of John and the army from England. When John arrives in France and finds Philip laying siege to the walled town of Angiers, John’s warning to the citizens about the peril they face (2.1.216–41) is expressed in an extended personification—a specific kind of metaphor in which the nonhuman is expressed as if it were human. Here he compares Angiers to a vulnerable, and in some respects feminized, human being exposed to violation. He verbally endows the town first with an “eye,” then with “eyes, your winking gates” (lines 217, 224) and with “threatened cheeks” (line 234). In lines 225–29 (“And, but for our approach, those sleeping stones, / That as a waist doth girdle you about, / By the compulsion of their ordinance / By this time from their fixèd beds of lime / Had been dishabited”), John presents the stones that make up the town wall as “sleeping” like people in “beds”; and in a simile (wordplay in which the comparison is made explicit through the use of the words “like” or “as”), he also dresses the personified town in human clothes by figuring the city’s wall as encircling the city “as a waist”—that is, a girdle. (The word “dishabited,” though primarily meaning “dislodged,” continues the clothing comparison by playing on the sense of habited as “dressed, attired.”) At line 237, the walls are described as threatened with “a shaking fever,” and even the cannons aimed at Angiers are given human properties: with “bowels full of wrath,” they are ready to “spit forth their . . . indignation” (lines 219–21).

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We should always try to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations.

Consider, for example, the stage action that is suggested in King John’s speech addressed to Philip Faulconbridge at 1.1.166–67: “Kneel thou down Philip, but rise more great. / Arise Sir Richard and Plantagenet.” We would expect, of course, that Philip would obey the king’s order to “kneel”; the ensuing order to “Arise” confirms this expectation. The new name and new title in the command “Arise, Sir Richard” make us fairly certain that as Philip knelt before King John, the king dubbed him a knight by tapping him on the shoulder with a sword. This inference is confirmed a little later in the play when the newly knighted Bastard, Sir Richard, identifies himself to his mother as a knight: “Knight, knight, good mother. . . . / What, I am dubbed! I have it on my shoulder” (1.1.252–53). We have therefore inserted a stage direction into King John’s speech at 1.1.166–67, which we print as

Kneel thou down Philip, but rise more great.

Philip kneels. King John dubs him a knight,
tapping him on the shoulder with his sword.

Arise Sir Richard and Plantagenet.

This is one of several places where the dialogue allows us to be reasonably confident in adding, in brackets, a stage direction suggesting the action.

On other occasions in King John, the signals for stage action are not so clear. These occasions offer interpretative challenges in the absence of explicit stage directions in the Folio text. One such challenge arises with the entrance of King John together with King Philip in 3.1. Shortly after their entrance, Constance seems to make reference in a pun to the two kings’ standing arm in arm when she says to King Philip “You came in arms to spill mine enemies’ blood, / But now in arms you strengthen it with yours” (3.1.105–6), where the first “in arms” means “armed, furnished with weapons,” and the second apparendy means “arm in arm with King John.” Later in the scene, there are several indications that the kings are clasping hands. The first of these comes when Cardinal Pandulph, who has excommunicated King John, insists that King Philip “Let go the hand of that arch-heretic” (199). Queen Eleanor counters by ordering King Philip “Do not let go thy hand” (202); and at line 271 Pandulph tells King Philip that he can more safely hold a tiger by the tooth “Than keep in peace that hand which thou dost hold,” indicating that the hands are still clasped. By the end of the scene King Philip has dropped King John’s hand, perhaps at line 272, when King Philip says “I may disjoin my hand, but not my faith”—or perhaps not until his declaration at lines 334–35, “England, I will fall from thee.”

As these quotations indicate, there are a number of different ways of staging this action. Perhaps the kings enter the scene with their hands clasped, and perhaps they sustain the handclasp until King Philip’s declaration “England, I will fall from thee.” Or they may instead take each other’s hands at some point after their entrance together; or they may take and release each other’s hands intermittently in the scene. We have chosen to represent them in our stage directions as entering with their hands clasped (since there is no obvious place within the scene where the joining of hands seems an attractive option), and we have chosen to delay the stage direction for King Philip to drop King John’s hand until King Philip says “England, I will fall from thee.” However, we have, as is our usual practice, placed the stage directions of our own creation in half-square brackets to alert readers that these are only our interpretations, thereby encouraging readers and directors to feel free to work out their own versions of the action.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.