Spoiler alert: King John dies. That fact, revealed in the title, leaves us just the where and when and how to wonder about (another spoiler alert: poisoned by a monk in an Abbey). Along the way, Shakespeare introduces several interesting characters, including two strong women. Elinor of Aquitaine is the elegant and brave Queen Mum who provides counsel and a much needed voice of reason. Constance is her shrewish and self-involved daughter-in-law. Shakespeare often lumps “female,” “emotional,” and “foolish” in the same category; Constance fits right in there. But often, too, women serve as conscience and constant reminder of mortality to their male counterparts, and Elinor fulfills that role.
Philip the Bastard – poor guy – carries the burden of his name. Shakespeare refers to him as Bastard, and not Philip, so as not to confuse him with the French King Philip, with whom he shares not only a name, but the blood of royalty. He is not, in fact, an illegitimate Faulconbridge, as his mother finally admits, but the illegitimate son of Richard I, Coeur-de-Lion, the Lionheart (what girl could resist a king, anyway?). Once his lineage becomes clear Elinor ‘adopts’ him, validates his identity, and drags him off to war with her. He serves as an insightful, cynical questioner of the sometimes inane status quo.
The plot revolves around the seemingly never-ending tug of (literal) war between England and France for land and sovereignty over it. Questions of paternity, legitimacy, and validity permeate the royal courts and battlefields. The powers that be, then as now, seem all too willing to risk the lives and limbs of their armies and subjects in resolving these disputes. The Church of Rome augments the plot and raises the level of absurdity as a thorn in both countries’ sides. Its emissary flits in and out of the action arbitrarily exerting its god-via-pope-given will hither and thither. In fact, that seemingly random and very much complicating papal intervention elucidates, at very least, the Church of England’s historic conflict with Rome. From a broader perspective it makes organized religion and the controversy and violence it incites in its name, seem quite disturbing.
The English and French dispute reaches its own special level of absurdity on the plains outside the town of Angiers. This scene recalls to mind the moments in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the Brits stand below the French castle while they hurl insults, excrement, and animals down upon them. Here, both sides lay down the gauntlet, claiming rightful sovereignty and accusing the other of wrongful usurpation. KP tells KJ that he “hast under-wrought his lawful king,/Cut off the sequence of posterity,/Outfaced infant state, and done a rape/Upon the maiden virtue of the crown.” (II,i,95-8). Elinor and Constance stand on the field and join the catfight, as do the Bastard, the Duke of Austria, the Spanish King’s daughter (and KJ’s niece) Blanch, and KP’s son Lewis (the Dauphin, referred to by Shakespeare as the Dolphin). I know. It was just as confusing to read.
They stand around bickering below the walls of Angiers until its citizens (including Hubert) come to the parapets to file a noise complaint. The sparring sovereigns suck the townsfolk into the fray by asking that they choose the rightful ruler. Kind of like a beauty pageant. Hubert points out the inanity of that solution, and suggests instead that they go off like good armies and fight each other and come back when one side has won, “but he that proves the King,/To him we will prove loyal.” (II,i,270-1). They dutifully recede, fight, and return; both claiming victory.
At this point all I could envision was the scene from the above mentioned movie where the French slosh shit down on the Brits and “fart in their general direction” while slapping themselves in their Conehead helmets. The Bastard notes: “By heaven, these scroyles of Angiers flout you, kings,/And stand securely on their battlements/As in theatre, whence they gape and point” (II,i,373-5). But his idea is no less absurd: Let’s all back up, take our fighting positions, run at Angiers, level it, and then fight it out until we have a victor. Really?
Lowly citizen Hubert (surely shaking and scratching his head at the spectacle below) comes up with the best and most level-headed solution (short of throwing another cow at them): let the countries interests align via the union of their young – Blanch and Lewis. Everyone looks around, stares, shrugs; why not? Sounds good. Done. Love conquers all. The common man brokers the peace.
Until the Church intervenes. KP’s “Here comes the holy legate of the Pope.” (III,i,135) echoes Flip Wilson’s “Here come da judge,” and bodes about as well. That legate would be Cardinal Pandulph who comes on a “holy errand.” (III,i,137) to “religiously demand” (III,i,138) why KJ does not melt into an acquiescent puddle every time the pope snaps his fingers. KJ tells them to mind their own business; what kind of a king would he be if he let the pope rule him? Sadly, this divide, in the name of god and religion, upends the carefully balanced apple (and orange; this is England and France, after all) cart, and breaches the craftily brokered betrothal and peace as KP sidles up to and sides with the church against KJ. KP tells him: “England, I will fall from thee,” (III,1,320) whilst KJ is not happy either: “France, I am burn’d up with inflaming wrath.” (III,1,340)
The strife and conflict continue courtesy of Pope Innocent (how utterly ironic his name). What happened to turning the other cheek? Peace on earth? Goodwill to all men? This church is a political and economic machine, not a spiritual beacon. The egoism of organized religion supplants the purer and more altruistic tenets of compassion that most religious philosophies share at their core.
Pandulph leaves much damage in his wake. He reappears as Act V opens with an ironic twist of fate. KJ has caved, and literally hands his crown back to the Cardinal in an act of contrition and submission so that the Cardinal may hand it back to him and crown him in the name and under the authority of Rome.
“KJ: Thus I have yielded up into your hand/The circle of my glory.[Giving the crown]
Pand: Take again/From this my hand, as holding of the Pope,/Your Sovereign greatness of authority.” (V,i,1-4)
The church emasculates him to grant him his power. The Bastard chastises the neutered KJ and tells him to grow a pair and go defend himself regardless of what the pope’s boy toy does. “Let us, my liege, to arms./Perchance the Cardinal cannot make your peace;/Or if he do, let it at least be said,/They saw we had a purpose of defense.” (V,i,73-6) And, “Away then with good courage.” (V,i,78)
But for France, where his father caved in the face of papal force, Lewis will not take a knee:
“Your Grace shall pardon me, I will not back./I am too high-born to be propertied,/To be a secondary at control,/Or useful servingman and instrument/To any sovereign state throughout the world./Your breath first kindled the dead coals of wars/Between this chastised kingdom and myself,/And brought in matter that should feed this fire;/And now ’tis far too huge to be blown out/With that same weak wind which enkindled it.” (V,ii,78-87)
Take that, Vatican. Finally, a French foot put down. So the peace that Rome proposes crumbles and the battle ensues. Mostly everyone dies (it is, after all, Shakespeare), the stray English noblemen come back to the fold, and KJ’s son Henry III, who goes on to rule for 56 years, is installed on the throne. Any hope lies with him: “I have a kind soul,” (V,vii,107) which is more than we can say for anyone else in the play. But interestingly, the Bastard has the last word (that was the least Shakespeare could do for him given his onerous moniker): “This England never did, nor never shall,/Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,) (V,vii,122-3).
This may hardly be the place to expound upon the merits (or demerits) of organized religion, but it’s my blog so… you know how the song goes. I intend no offense and I fully recognize that lay people can be corrupt, power-hungry ninnies. But this play highlights some glaring shortcomings of organized religions. When an institution which holds itself to a higher standard – that of direct-from-the-lips-of-god moral compass – not only fails to comport itself in a way which would serve as a role model to its followers, but actively intervenes to cause discord and violence; well, then, shame on that institution.
We regular folk have such an amazing penchant for living in our egos and so making everything about ourselves that we do not recognize our sameness. We see only differences and hence make enemies of others on that basis alone. Religious institutions – true religious institutions – of whatever faith – ought to gently help followers see that, guide them back to the path of lovingkindness, and not rub salt in the gaping wound while wielding forceps to widen it.
That’s my sermon for today, and I’ll step down of the soapbox as I look forward to tackling King Lear next. Figuratively, of course.