Ill-Tuned Repetitions

I mentioned this early on in the month, but King John is a repetitious play. And the repetition comes in many forms. As the play has no prose (the only play thus far that can make this claim; The Third Part of Henry the Sixth came close, but there were four lines of prose to ruin that play’s spotless poetic count), and less than half the amount end-rhymed couplets (either in total lines or percentage), these repetitions stand out all the more.

Let’s start off with sounds, our smallest possible unit. Check out the sounds Shakespeare puts in the French emissary Chantillion’s mouth:

Desiring thee to lay aside the sword
Which sways usurpingly these several titles,
And put these same into young Arthur's hand,
Thy nephew and right royal sovereign.

— I.i.12-15

All those S sounds: deSiring aSide Sword SwayS uSurpingly theSSeveral titleS theSSame Arthur’S Sovereign… not to get punny or anything, but this is a hissy-fit, and the Frenchman comes off like a snake. And if not a reptile, still an animal with the growling R sounds at the end of the speech: Right Royal.

Moving from sounds to worlds, the repetition really begins to pile up. In the play’s first scene, the Bastard discusses his brother’s claim to the Faulconbridge titles:

Because he hath a half-face, like my father.
With half that face would he have all my land:
A half-faced groat five hundred pound a year!

— I.i.92-94

Of course, all those “half”s come hard after both Eleanor and John see aspects of dead King Richard I in the Bastard’s face… it is he who has half Richard’s face, and it turns out to be the best possible thing for the Bastard.

Not so happy is Constance, especially after she learns of Louis’s marriage to Blanche in the third act:

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

You think she might be afraid? For both her son AND herself? You betcha. When those fears come to pass and Arthur is captured, she longs for

Death, death; O amiable lovely death!
Thou odoriferous stench! sound rottenness!
Arise forth from the couch of lasting night,
Thou hate and terror to prosperity,
And I will kiss thy detestable bones
And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows
And ring these fingers with thy household worms
And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust
And be a carrion monster like thyself:
Come, grin on me, and I will think thou smilest
And buss thee as thy wife. Misery's love,

— III.iv.25-35

From the four uses of “death” in that first line, through the sequence of six out of the last seven lines of the speech beginning with “and”, it’s an unmistakable hammering home of the ideas and concepts. Is it no wonder then that Arthur inherits his mother’s repetitious rhetoric:

And I did never ask it you again;
And with my hand at midnight held your head,
And like the watchful minutes to the hour

— IV.i.44-46

If sounds and words aren’t enough, how about the Bastard’s relentless mocking of Austria:

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

If it only ended there, it would be funny enough, but the Bastard revisits the insult three more time throughout this long scene:

And hang a calf's-skin on his recreant limbs.
Hang nothing but a calf's-skin, most sweet lout.
Will not a calfs-skin stop that mouth of thine?

— III.i.199, 220, and 299

This use is redundant, and redundantly funny.

The repetition doesn’t end there, however. There are a number of symbolic instances as well:

  • the Bastard is a repetition of Richard I (both biologically and possibly in personality)
  • the warring speeches of Constance and Eleanor are repetitious interruptions of the king’s arguments (so much so that Philip describes them as “ill-tuned repetitions” [II.i.197])
  • the heralds repeat claims of title for their kings before Angiers (II.i)
  • the arguments between (again primarily) the mothers over Rome’s demands for French assistance against England are repetitive
  • King John crowns himself a “superfluous” (IV.ii.4) second time
  • King John thinks Arthur is dead (IV.ii), then alive (IV.ii), then dead again (V.i)

Finally, in the last scene, the Bastard declares his “faithful services” (V.vii.104) to the new King Henry III just as he had declared himself a “faithful subject” (I.i.50) to Henry’s father, King John

What’s the old adage?

Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is a motif.

So we get a motif of repetition… was this Shakespeare’s way of hinting that his nation of the moment, with an aging Queen with no direct heirs, was possibly heading toward a similar crisis of succession?

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