We’ve discussed the role of women before in selected plays: The Comedy of Errors , The Second and Third Parts of Henry the Sixth, Love’s Labor’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and of course The Taming of the Shrew (pretty much the whole damn month).
Well, we get four women in King John. What to make of them?
First, Eleanor the Bad-ass.
believe it or not, history supports this interpretation… check out this past Sunday’s podcast for details…
When the French ambassador taunts John with his greeting, it is she, and not John, who responds. She goes to war with John. Not against him, but with him… she is “a soldier and now bound (for) France” (I.i.150). When the Bastard begins to show his mettle, she comments, “I am thy grandam” (I.i.168); of course, you have to wonder if in her mind that relationship would make her stronger in comparison to being John’s mother. She argues ferociously with Constance before Angiers.
Even her silence speaks volumes. When the Bastard suggests the French and English join forces against Angiers, she says nothing and this silence, this tacit approval, allows John to agree to the deal. Later, though, when Hubert suggests that Blanche and Louis marry as a way to end the strife, she urges John to “make this match” (II.i.468), even over the objections of the Bastard (who up until this point had seemed like the smartest guy in the room).
She disappears from the play just before it hits its midpoint, after John has (non)ordered Hubert to kill Arthur. She leaves, giving her son her “blessing” (III.iii.71). She doesn’t need to be with John anymore; he’s become a killer now.
Second, we have Lady Faulconbridge, the mother to the Bastard. When we meet her, the Bastard has already become part of the royal family, but since she doesn’t know this, she is still blaming his brother for staining her reputation. When the Bastard announces his decision, she is first hurt, but when it is clear that he has “denied” (I.i.251) his Faulconbridge name, she is quick to admit to the Bastard’s father being Richard Lion-Heart. Her admission is not one of guilt, as the act “was so strongly urged past (her) defense” (I.i.258); she tried to defend herself against him, but he forced himself on her. The opening scene is her only scene.
Next, Constance (or as I called her earlier in the month “Constan(ce)tly a pain in the rear”).
From her first appearance, she is all about defending her son, and complaining about the treatment afforded him (and herself).
of course, I’ve got to wonder how much of this interpretation is our being predisposed to it by her first description stated by Eleanor: “ambitious Constance” (I.i.32)
She’s a tad high-strung, over-the-top, and relentless. It is she that begins the argument with Eleanor (granted, the Queen Mother doesn’t let it go, but she didn’t start it). And the last time we see her, at the midpoint of the play, she’s in such a state of despair that when she flees the stage, the French King Philip follows her, “fear(ing) some outrage” (III.iv.106) she might do to herself. He is correct, as we learn later that she “in a frenzy died” (IV.ii.122).
Finally, we have Blanche of Castille, King John’s niece. You know, the pawn. She’s used to ally England with France through a marriage to Louis. Historically, this make her a parallel to Eleanor, who at fifteen married Louis the Young of France (yes, she was Queen of France before she was Queen of England… again, check out the podcast). But this parallel doesn’t hold up when we look at her (whopping total of) nine speeches: John, her “uncle’s will … is (hers)” (II.i.510), that she “is bound in honor still to do” what John wants (II.i.522). Later, when it becomes readily apparent that her marriage has not successfully bridged the gap between France and England, she turns to despair, bemoaning her “wedding day” (III.i.300), sarcastically describing Louis’ “love” (III.i.313), and seeing this day’s “sun’s o’ercast with blood: fair day, adieu!” (III.i.326). Her final line states that with Louis is “where (her) fortune lives, there (her) life dies” (III.i.338). She is a woman caught in the middle, and unhappily so. If the history makes Blanche an Eleanor analog, her speeches lead us to see her as the next Constance (poor Blanche).
So, we have a bad-ass, a rape victim, a crazed (possibly rightfully so) whiner, and a pawn.
I’m not sure what this says about Shakespeare (or maybe more importantly, the concept of HIStory)…