In Act Three, Scene Three of King John, we heard our titular king order the citizen of Angiers, Hubert, to kill the pretender to his throne (and probable nephew) Arthur. As Act Four begins, we see Hubert preparing an executioner to do just that.
The executioner, however, begins to question his orders: “I hope your warrant will bear out the deed” (IV.i.6). While he isn’t sure about this, Hubert preps him for his job nevertheless. The executioner leaves, and Arthur arrives. Arthur thinks Hubert is sad (which he is), and tries to cheer him up. Hubert knows he cannot let Arthur continue to talk:
[Aside] If I talk to him, with his innocent prate
He will awake my mercy which lies dead:
Therefore I will be sudden and dispatch.
Hubert shows Arthur the warrant for his death, and Arthur begs for his life. Fearing a waver in his resolve, Hubert calls in the executioner, who is then pleased when Hubert sends him away (ostensibly to do the deed himself): “I am best pleased to be from such a deed” (IV.i.86). Any resemblances between this executioner and Clarence’s in Richard the Third are (probably not) purely coincidental.
Arthur continues to beg and convinces Hubert not only to spare his life, but to put out stories of his death while Hubert hides Arthur.
In the second scene, King John has had himself crowned a second time, an act that his lords find “superfluous” (IV.ii.4). In fact, they feel that this act, along with Arthur’s imprisonment, is causing problems within the kingdom, feeding “the murmuring lips of discontent” (IV.ii.53).
Hubert arrives, and while the king takes him aside, one of the lords (Pembroke) tells the other that he knows that Hubert was to perform the murder of Arthur as he had seen the death warrant. When the king comes back and announces Arthur’s death, Salisbury says that he had heard Arthur was sick. Pembroke responds: “Indeed we heard how near his death he was // Before the child himself felt he was sick” (IV.ii.87-88). Nothing like a little gallows humor. Except, of course, when the lords aren’t laughing; in fact, they leave in indignation.
Once gone, King John repents his role in Arthur’s death. A messenger comes with news: France has invaded England, Eleanor has died, and (according to rumor) Constance died three days before that. The Bastard arrives and tells of his collection of taxes from the clergy; while he was doing this, he also learned of the people’s discontent. King John then sends the Bastard to try and calm the lords.
When the king begins to bemoan the invasion and his own people’s unhappiness with his rule, he sees Arthur’s death as the cause, and he begins to blame Hubert for the death. Hubert reminds the king that he ordered the execution, but John continues to throw Hubert under the Elizabethan bus:
Hadst thou but shook thy head or made a pause
When I spake darkly what I purposed,
Or turn'd an eye of doubt upon my face,
As bid me tell my tale in express words,
Deep shame had struck me dumb, made me break off,
And those thy fears might have wrought fears in me:
But thou didst understand me by my signs
And didst in signs again parley with sin;
Yea, without stop, didst let thy heart consent,
And consequently thy rude hand to act
The deed, which both our tongues held vile to name.
If we as an audience didn’t disrespect John for ordering of the execution, we certainly do for his lack or resolve and loyalty. (Remember this is our title character…) Hubert then reveals that Arthur is alive, and King John tells Hubert to tell the “angry lords” (IV.ii.268) the news, hoping that this will make amends.
or as Butch told Sundance: “Hell, the fall’ll probably kill ya”
The third and final scene of the act begins with Arthur on the walls of the castle, safe and sound. That is, until he jumps from the wall in an attempt to escape what he fears is inevitable death at John’s hands. Of course, things don’t go well.
Arthur dies at the foot of the castle walls. Enter the angry lords Pembroke and Salisbury, who fail to see the body. The Bastard arrives and tells the lords that he has been sent by the king to bring them back in hopes of reconciliation.
Then they find Arthur’s body. Needless to say, the angry lords are made not happy by this. Neither is the Bastard, but he has doubts as to blame:
It is a damned and a bloody work;
The graceless action of a heavy hand,
If that it be the work of any hand.
He’s not sure that John is to blame for this. The lords, however, are sure, and when Hubert comes onto the scene, they threaten him, then leave to join the Dauphin’s forces. The Bastard doesn’t know what to think, save that, as a common man, he is “amazed… and lose(s his) way // Among the thorns and dangers of this world” (IV.iii.140-141).
And with the Bastard’s exit to go find King John, the fourth act ends.