Act Three, Scene One: Constance(ly) a Pain

After two single-scene acts, King John finally gets an act with more, though the first scene (of four) is over half the act.

When we left off yesterday, the kings of England and France have agreed upon a marriage to align their nations: Blanche (the niece of King John) will marry Louis the Dauphin (and son to King Philip), much to the reported chagrin of Constance, mother to pretender to the English throne, Arthur.

As Act Three opens, we go from listening to reportage to watching Constance chew some scenery. We’ve talked about the concept of beginnings before; well, despite this opening being a speech by a woman, I think it’s safe to say this scene opens with a bang: “Gone to be married! Gone to swear a peace! // False blood to false blood joined! Gone to be friends!” (III.i.1-2). Ladies and gentlemen, that’s four exclamation points in just two lines. Suffice to say, Constance is NOT a happy camper.

She rails to anyone who will (or is forced to) listen–in this case, her son Arthur and the Earl of Salisbury. Remember a couple of days ago, when I noted this play’s repetitive nature? Well, try this four-line chunk of Constance’s first speech:

For I am sick and capable of fears,
Oppress'd with wrongs and therefore full of fears,
A widow, husbandless, subject to fears,
A woman, naturally born to fears

— III.i.12-15

That’s a lot of fears, there. And as she continues to go on and on (and on… and on some more), we see that she’s not just afraid for her son: “Lewis marry Blanche? Oh, boy, then where art thou? // France friend with England, what becomes of me?” (III.i.34-35). When she isn’t fearing for her own future, she also cursing not just France and England, but Fortune itself, which Constance says

is corrupted, changed and won from thee.
She adulterates hourly with thine uncle John,
And with her golden hand hath pluck'd on France
To tread down fair respect of sovereignty,
And made his majesty the bawd to theirs.
France is a bawd to Fortune and King John,
That strumpet Fortune, that usurping John!

— III.i.55-61

Not only is Fortune “messing around” with John, but it’s screwing Constance as well.

Believe it or not, the two kings go to her to try and reconcile.

On Louis and Blanche’s WEDDING DAY.

What kind of leadership is that?

I’m beginning to see that this is Shakespeare’s point.

But instead of reconciling, she insults both kings and then Austria, too, even telling him to “doff (the lion’s skin that he took from Richard I when he killed the late English king) for shame, // And hang a calfskin in those recreant limbs” (III.i.128-129). What follows is a nice piece of verbal comedy:

O, that a man should speak those words to me!

And hang a calf's-skin on those recreant limbs.

Thou darest not say so, villain, for thy life.

And hang a calf's-skin on those recreant limbs.

— III.i.130-133

Austria doesn’t want to say anything because Constance is a woman, so the Bastard repeats the taunt. You just have to love this guy. Having seen Henry the Fourth, Part One just last month, I’m reminded greatly of Hotspur. I’m really beginning to believe that the Bastard is a dry-run for the hot-blooded warrior.

remember, Shakespeare’s England was Anglican, not Catholic… while historical, was this a case of Shakespeare playing to his audience?

What was once a national skirmish has now turned into a familial squabble, and into this argument arrives Cardinal Pandulph, a papal emissary, who delivers a message to King John: Pope Innocent is angry with John because the English King has appointed Archbishop of Canterbury a man who was not the Pope’s choice. John remains defiant, calling the Pope a mere “Italian priest” (III.i.153).

Even John’s new ally Philip is offended by this, and Pandulph goes so far as to threaten excommunication if John doesn’t relent. While Pandulph goes after John, Constance sees an opportunity to further curse the English king, and she doesn’t pass it up. Pandulph calls on France to raise an army and attack England if John doesn’t relent. Austria takes Pandulph’s side, saying, “King Philip, listen to the cardinal” (III.i.198), spurring another nice bit of comedy from our boy the Bastard:

And hang a calf's-skin on his recreant limbs.

Well, ruffian, I must pocket up these wrongs,

          Your breeches best may carry them.

— III.i.199-201

man, I love this guy… and in a play in which I’m not finding a whole lot to love, this is a good thing


Constance, Pandulph, and Austria all try to convince Philip to side with the Pope and war against England. The only one who tries to convince him otherwise is Blanche, who has just married Philip’s son, who in turn is the perfect vision of ambiguity during the argument. And after argument after argument

Philip finally sides with the Church. Through all of this–all 130 lines from Pandulph’s order to France to Philip’s decision to turn against England–King John remains all but silent, uttering only one line, and that one is response to Constance. Quiet, too, has been Eleanor, who upon Philip’s decision raises the usual insult against the French: “O foul revolt of French inconstancy!” (III.i.322).

inconstancy… Constance… funny

The scene ends with poor Blanche in the middle of all this, as the two kings ready for war.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *