you can almost hear Keifer Sutherland intoning: “Previously on King John…”
When we last left King John,
King John had revoked the death sentence on Arthur (after he had been led to believe that it had been carried out), and he was sending Hubert to the “angry lords” with the news in hopes of calming them down, and forestalling any attempt by them to join the French invasion, backed by the Pope. Of course, just before we broke yesterday, Arthur had a great fall, and all the angry lords and the young dudes could do nothing to save him.
Le Morte d’Arthur, anyone?
The angry lords departed for the Dauphin, and the Bastard headed back to King John, who, we find at the beginning of Act Five, Scene One, has capitulated to Rome, even giving up his crown (which the papal emissary Pandulph immediately returns). For Shakespeare’s audience, this had to be tough to take (even after he had sentenced his nephew to death and then weaseled out of the deed’s responsibility).
We also learn immediately why John has done this: he wants Pandulph to
go meet the French,
And from his holiness use all your power
To stop their marches 'fore we are inflamed.
John wants Rome to stop the French invasion (a request with reasonable logic, given it was Rome that spurred the Dauphin on to claim the English throne). Pandulph agrees, admitting it was his “breath that blew this tempest up” (V.i.17). The Bastard enters with reports that France is on the move, and is gaining English support… and he delivers the news of Arthur’s death. John is despondent, but the Bastard delivers a pep talk to ready King John to fight the French anyway (especially as the Bastard cannot believe that John caved to Rome).
Act Five, Scene Two begins with Louis the Dauphin finalizing a treaty between France and the angry lords, aligning them together against King John. There’s a great deal of long-winded speechifying, in which both pledge loyalty. Into this mutual backslap-a-thon, enter Pandulph with news of John’s reconciliation with Rome and a request that France stop its marches.
One problem: Louis “will not back” down (V.ii.78). And why should he? As he says,
Have I not heard these islanders shout out
'Vive le roi!' as I have bank'd their towns?
Have I not here the best cards for the game,
To win this easy match play'd for a crown?
And shall I now give o'er the yielded set?
No, no, on my soul, it never shall be said.
Louis has a point (though Shakespeare’s audience may have bristled at his description of them as “islanders”), and is–unlike John–a vertebrate.
Now, the Bastard arrives, wanting to know the status of the situation. When he hears that the French won’t back down, he is… thrilled. Why? Because now he gets to fight.