February 1570: in the blue corner, Elizabeth I; in the red corner, Pius V …
Commence au festival, as the Joker might say.
Ponytail Shakespeare read-through – King John, Act III
Even were this your first foray into Shakespeare’s works, you could have predicted that Constance wouldn’t take it lying down: her son bypassed and she herself being kicked out of play before the struggle for England has even really begun. I mean, she’s no Margaret of Anjou, but she still manages to spank the hapless Salisbury with that devastating weapon so beloved of Shakespeare’s formidable women – the run of rhetorical questions (five), following these deliciously oxymoronic lines:
I trust I may not trust thee, for thy word
Is but the vain breath of a common man:
Believe me, I do not believe thee, man;
I have a king’s oath to the contrary. (III.i.7-10) [a]
The ‘straight’ lines prompt the Marxist critic in me to respond with a loud ‘harrumph!’ We all know that our leaders are incapable of lying, right? Or maybe it’s just to do with economies of scale, and I shouldn’t be worried until a leader demonstrably lies an average of 40 times a day … [b]
You can see Shakespeare pushing the boundaries in this speech in a far nobler way than our esteemed leader of the free world. He continues to play with the language – I can’t think of anyone else who would end four consecutive lines with the same word. Does he get away with it? Just about, yes, although this is part of the reason Margaret out-bitches her. I can’t avoid a smirk when she attempts to dismiss Salisbury with:
‘Fellow, be gone. I cannot brook thy sight,
This news have made thee a most ugly man.’ (III.i.36-37)
… and yet, that undermines her a little, too. I never quite fancy her as I do the dominatrix in Margaret. Constance’s rant continues unabated until, finally, remarkably, instead of taking it lying down she stages a (petulant?) sit-in. I think I might have gone out with her, years back. Or maybe she reminds me of Cleopatra. Or both, actually …
But – to someone who hasn’t seen the play performed, and reading it for the first time – this slightly bizarre piece of physical theatre is soon matched by John and Philip holding hands in the face of the Pope’s representative, Pandulph, and pretty much everyone else. This, though, is neither melodramatic or petulant, but a nicely symbolic echo of the betrothal clasp between Blanche and the Dauphin. This scene’s a very clear demonstration of the tension between kings and the Catholic church, as Philip – knowing that his authority derives from God (and hence the Pope) is finally browbeaten into declaring against John and England. My students of Edward II will recognise the parallels. If corporations are more powerful than nation states in the 21st (and I think they are), then it’s clear that the Catholic Church was equally virile then. Never mind ‘the hand that rocks the cradle’ from Act I. The scene is impliedly positive towards Henry VIII, and to Elizabeth I, herself excommunicated by Pius V in 1570. The Bastard would, of course, say that Philip has changed sides ‘on Commodity’. Brexiters would (wrongly) say that the French cannot ever be trusted.
Brexiters are prats.
Poor Blanche: she’s beautifully placed as this lengthy and uneven scene ends: the innocent afloat in a tempest, torn between conflicting duties:
‘Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose:
Assured loss, before the match be played’ (III.i.335-336)
In this she can represent many affected, powerless players on the board – not least that of the EMP woman traded (Gayle Rubin-style) primarily for the benefit of the men involved.
Early indications in scene ii are that Pandulph has backed the wrong horse, with the Bastard immediately making good his belligerent taunts by taking Austria’s head. It’s revenge for his father, let’s not forget. Hamlet take note: this is how you do it. I have a fondness for shared lines, and John (hitherto relatively inoffensive) suddenly delivers a wonderful exchange with Hubert, which I probably won’t be able to do justice in laying out as it is in my Arden, but here goes:
KING JOHN: Death.
HUBERT: My lord.
KING JOHN: A grave.
HUBERT: He shall not live.
KING JOHN: Enough. (III.iii.66)
If I was teaching this exchange – and I might just use it – I would be manically striding round the room (no, really) talking about how the shared line affected the pace and also signified that King John and Hubert were of one mind. Of course, not knowing the outcome, I stand to be corrected and humbled, but still, I absolutely loved the moment – even reading it silently.
Arthur, so brutally sidelined earlier, is suddenly important again. Not least because I get to shoe-horn in another of my completely gratuitous Richard III quotations (it’s MY blog and I like them):
‘He cannot live, I hope; and must not die’ (I.i.152) [c]
Let’s follow that RIII trail a little further. KJ has someone in his power who seems to have better hereditary title to the throne than he does. John puts on his ‘What would RIII do?‘ tee-shirt (I WANT ONE!) and realises the obvious: like those pesky young princes, Arthur’s goose is cooked. Pandulph, on the other hand, comforts the Dauphin with the prospect that if Arthur doesn’t survive his death will provoke a massive backlash against John …
Let’s finish with Constance, owner of my new favourite word, ‘odoriferous‘. It’s possibly unfair to suggest her speeches are emotionally overblown at the end, given she believes she’ll never see her son again. Nevertheless, it does feel a little unseemly, as Pandulph remonstrates:
‘You hold too heinous a respect of grief.’ (III.iv.90)
Closely followed by Philip:
‘You are as fond of grief as of your child.’ (III.iv.92)
Echoes, here, of Hamlet again?
[a] William Shakespeare, King John (Arden Third edition, Jesse M. Lander and JJM Tobin (eds.), (Bloomsbury: London, 2018)
[b] Adam Gabbatt, ‘The ‘exhausting’ work of factcheckers who track Trump’s barrage of lies‘, The Guardian, 21 January 2019
[c] William Shakespeare, Richard III, text at http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org