Back in month one of the project, when discussion The Comedy of Errors, we talked a little about the concept of beginnings beginnings. Back then, we said that there was two main ways to do it:
- With a BANG: something big happens, shocking, maybe loud, that will grab the audience by the lapels and quiet them down
- With (if not a whimper) a slow building of exposition
King John opens with a whimper.
Despite our titular king is present at the opening, there’s no alarum or pomp with his arrival. Instead, we get a simple question from the king to our ambassador from France:
Now, say, Chatillion, what would France with us?
The simple question is met with blistering insult:
Thus, after greeting, speaks the King of France
In my behavior to the majesty,
The borrowed majesty, of England here.
So France (or more specifically King Philip of France) thinks that the (seemingly newly crowned) King John is not the true or legitimate king, but rather the “the borrowed majesty.” This insult does not go unnoticed, as Eleanor calls out Chantillion for it.
So who is this Eleanor?
She’s King John’s mother. So of course she’s protective of her boy. What is not immediately/obviously apparent is that she is also the mother of the previous monarch, King Richard I (that would be the Lion-Heart). She also happens to be the mother of Geoffrey II, Duke of Britanny, the younger brother of Richard AND the older brother of John.
But it gets better.
Before she was married to Henry II, she happened to be married to a guy by the name of Louis… Louis VII, who just happened to be… wait for it… the King of France. Eleanor was 15 when she married Louis; over the course of the next seventeen years, she committed the one act no queen can: she failed to produce a male heir. And so Louis had their marriage annulled.
Eleanor is the first person in the play to show outrage, and Shakespeare took this from historical fact: she was NOT a woman to be wronged. Within two MONTHS of the annulment, she married Henry II. Nothing like marrying the enemy out of spite… better was that, she produced for him FIVE SONS (including two that would become king: Richard and John).
there’s more to this story, but I’ll get to that later in the month
So why is this important?
Chantillion delivers the message that Philip King of France claims that the throne of England actually belongs to Arthur Plantagenet, the son of Geoffrey, and Eleanor’s grandson.
Here’s the deal: Geoffrey had no son when he died (August 1186). However, Geoffrey’s wife Constance was pregnant at the time and Arthur was born in March of 1187). Geoffrey and Constance were rulers over Britanny, a French territory. Under the French logic, when Richard died without an heir, the next in line should have been any male child of the next brother in line (Geoffrey), instead of the next living brother (John).
The English believed that any child born after the death of the father had questionable paternity (more on that later), and thus Arthur was out of the running, and in popped John. Of course, it didn’t help Arthur’s cause any to be backed by the French (boo, hiss).
Chantillion says that the French are willing to go to war over this, and King John pretty much says, “Bring it on”:
Be thou as lightning in the eyes of France;
For ere thou canst report I will be there,
The thunder of my cannon shall be heard...
Once the ambassador is gone, Eleanor blames all of this on Constance, Arthur’s “ambitious” (I.i.32) mother [as we’ll see later in the play, this is one of those pot/kettle/black moments]. But within moments, discussions of royal lineage and legitimacy are interrupted by a petition to the king by two brothers, who want their personal lineage and legitimacy resolved, or as the stage directions put it: “Enter Robert Faulconbridge, and Philip [his bastard brother]” (I.i.49 stage direction).
And if you think this is coincidence, where have you been for the past year… but more on that tomorrow.