Since I didn’t have King John read early enough for a podcast this week (and I really didn’t have anything else to talk about), I didn’t record one. Next week, I promise.
But I feel bad about not having anything for you today (and possibly tomorrow, since it IS Labor Day, and I just may want to take the day off … or labor on something else), so let’s continue our plot discussion with Act Two, Scene One, shall we?
The scene starts with a louder beginning: we’re in front of the city of Angiers, a French city controlled by the English. King Philip of France is there with his son, Louis (or as Shakespeare spells it, “Lewis”… he’s played by Kareem… sorry, Bruin reference there). Also with them is the Duke of Austria, Arthur (remember, he’s the one France believes should be King of England), and Arthur’s mom, Constance.
or as I’m beginning to think of her: Constantly a Pain in the Ass…
King Philip greets the Austrian Duke, and we immediately learn that it was Austria who “robbed the lion of his heart” (II.i.3); in other words, he killed Richard I in battle. France has called Austria to join them in the assault on the town to “rebuke the usurpation” (II.i.9) of the crown by John, and place Arthur in power there. Arthur accepts him, though it is with (as he puts it) “a powerless hand” (II.i.15).
The gathered royals discuss the upcoming assault until Chantillion returns with his report from the English court, including the news that John and his army are approaching to renew their control fo the town.
John and his army arrive, including Eleanor, the Bastard, and Blanche of Castille, who is the niece of John and granddaughter to Eleanor. John greets France with peace, if they allow him, the “just and lineal” (II.i.85) ruler to enter his town; otherwise, he threatens to become “God’s wrathful agent (to) correct // (France’s) proud contempt that beats (John’s) peace to heaven” (II.i.87-88). Philip rebukes this, discussing the lines of succession, finally stating that Arthur should rule.
The two monarchs continue to argue back and forth, joined by Eleanor and Constance, the mothers of the two rivals to the English throne. When these two women go at it, civility goes out the window, as when Eleanor says, “Thy bastard shall be king // That thou mayst be a queen and check the world” (II.i.122-123). That doesn’t sound too bad, until you realize that “queen” here can also be a reference to “quean” or whore. Constance responds, “My bed was ever to thy son as true // As thine was to thy husband” (II.i.124-125), stating that she (Constance) has never slept with John, just as Eleanor never slept with her husband, Henry II. Given that Eleanor produced seven children in the marriage, the implication by Constance is straightforward enough: who’s the real whore?
When the two women are halted in their argument by Austria, it is the Bastard’s turn to attack Austria (remember Austria supposed killed Richard, the Bastard’s father). The Bastard threatens to kill Austria and take back the lion’s robe that was his fathers.
Then the mothers go at it again.
Despite the attempts of both John and Philip, the women go at it yet again.
They stop only when Hubert (the Citizen of Angiers) appears on the town’s wall and demands to know what the Kings want. John responds with a threat if he is not allowed entrance to his own town:
The cannons have their bowels full of wrath,
And ready mounted are they to spit forth
Their iron indignation 'gainst your walls.
All preparation for a bloody siege...
Having read and seen Henry V in the past, I’m hearing a little foreshadowing of that king’s speech to the citizens of Harfleur. Philip responds with his speech to Hubert, first explaining his logic in Arthur’s claim, and then making threats of his own.
Hubert’s response: “In brief, we are the King of England’s subjects” (II.i.267), the only problem is they can’t decide who’s the real king. It seems Angiers will recognize the king as the military winner between the two, and Austria and the Bastard are ready to fight. The Bastard tells Austria, “O tremble, for you hear the lion roar” (II.i.294), a neat little bit of like father-like son bravado.
The kings leave, their heralds come in, and one at a time they state their king’s claims.
But Hubert says they’ve made no decision.
The two kings reenter and deliver speeches to their armies, neither of which is all that stirring. Then the Bastard speaks:
Ha, majesty! how high thy glory towers,
When the rich blood of kings is set on fire!
O, now doth Death line his dead chaps with steel;
The swords of soldiers are his teeth, his fangs;
And now he feasts, mousing the flesh of men,
In undetermined differences of kings.
Why stand these royal fronts amazed thus?
Cry, 'havoc!' kings; back to the stained field,
You equal potents, fiery kindled spirits!
Then let confusion of one part confirm
The other's peace: till then, blows, blood and death!
Now, THAT’s stirring. There’s a little Henry V there, and not a little Hotspur.
The Bastard is a bad-ass, stronger than either king or the pretender to the throne, Arthur.