Using Professor Rodes’ midpoint theory midpoint theory, let’s take a look at King John.
There are 2570 lines in the play (less than average, and yet it feels so long…), so the midpoint takes place at line 1285, which occurs in Act Three, Scene Four. In this scene, French King Philip and Louis the Dauphin try to comfort Constance, whose son Arthur has been captured by the English.
Constance, up to this point, has been a nuisance, calling for Arthur to be named King of England, and repeatedly arguing anyone who would say differently. She’s relentless, like a harpy. In this scene, though, her rantings take on a different tone. The Frenchmen find her mad, but she denies this:
I am not mad; this hair I tear is mine.
My name is Constance; I was Geoffrey's wife;
Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost!
I am not mad: I would to heaven I were,
For then, 'tis like I should forget myself.
O, if I could, what grief should I forget!
Preach some philosophy to make me mad,
And thou shalt be canonized, cardinal.
For being not mad but sensible of grief,
My reasonable part produces reason
How I may be deliver'd of these woes,
And teaches me to kill or hang myself.
If I were mad, I should forget my son,
Or madly think a babe of clouts were he.
I am not mad; too well, too well I feel
The different plague of each calamity.
It’s a measured speech. Despite its two exclamations, it’s a fairly calm speech. It does not ramble, as its longest sentence is a mere four lines. She begins by denying his claim, saying is isn’t mad, but then immediately, still in the same sentence, admits to tearing her hair out. And while this might be an admission of madness, for Constance it isn’t: she’s displaying her sanity by stating a fact. She goes on to state an entire series of facts: her name, her husband, her son, and the news that this son has been lost.
She repeats (not a surprise) that she is not mad, but she wishes that she was, because in that case she could “forget (her)self.” Given her woes, it’s understandable that she’d want to forget it all. Taking the concept to its logical next step, she asks them to give her “some philosophy to make (her) mad.”
And here is where both that longest sentence of the speech and the exact midpoint of the play take place: she says that because she is not mad, she is “sensible of grief” and thus the “reasonable part” of her gives her only one escape from these woes, and that is suicide.
If she was insane, she says, she could forget Arthur or regard him as no more than a rag doll (“a babe of clouts” [or cloths]). No, she is not mad, she proclaims, because she can feel all “too well” her state.
For the first time in the play, her over-the-top rhetoric seems well-reasoned. It is a calm, eerily sane, refutation of their accusations of madness. Of course, it’s ironic, as we learn later that she “in a frenzy died” (IV.ii.122), with “frenzy” having the contemporary definition of “Mental derangement; delirium, or temporary insanity” (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]).
Because of this rational tone, we can see now that she may have been right all along. If that’s the case, then the English law denying her son the throne would be void, and Arthur could be King. Of course, at this point Arthur is as good as dead, so the implication goes even further: the Bastard might possibly be seen as a legitimate heir as well. The Bastard is our best hope for the English throne in the play, but because of the law–and the lack of a “sane” Constance to argue against it–we are without a chance at his true leadership. A tragedy, if you think about it.
Sounds great, right? Only there’s a hitch. While this punctuation comes from the Pelican Shakespeare, the Arden Shakespeare has a much differently punctuated speech. Instead of eight sentences over the course of the 16 lines, the Arden has it as only three sentences, the final one a rambling ten-line affair. With this punctuation, her speech’s tone would match its content and its speaker’s mental state.
I’d rather see it, though, with that wonderful irony, that as she is readying herself for her final descent into madness, she has this singular moment of clarity, dead center in our play, that shows us what we’ve REALLY missed in this rule (and play) of King John.