[Warning: you might want to stop reading now, if you voted for Brexit]
Ponytail Shakespeare read-through: King John, Act V
It’s all a bit shabby, isn’t it, at the end of the day?
Act V holds Hamlet‘s ‘mirror up to nature‘ [a]: Shakespeare might be exploring the ‘Commodity’ of the times, but I can’t avoid building synaptic bridges to the realpolitik of the shameful goings on in the UK’s parliament over the past few years. I ought to be far too old for the kind of idealistic rage I feel, but even at a relatively young age, I’m determined to ‘burn and rave at close of day‘ [b] …
John, John, John …
KING JOHN: [Gives the crown to Pandulph]
Thus have I yielded up into your hand
The circle of my glory.
PANDULPH: [Gives back the crown] Take again
From this my hand, as holding of the Pope,
Your sovereign greatness and authority. [c] (V.i.1-4)
Your mileage may vary according to your voting preference – after all, Ivor Brown reminds us that:
Shakespeare has given to every type of person the perfect line wherewith to summarise and to extol the drift of his opinion and the practice of his life. [d]
Which, if I spot it, often leads to a Crimes Against Shakespeare post …
Either way, John doesn’t cover himself in glory as the Act opens. To Brexiters, it’s the antithesis of ‘taking back control’. Even a purely symbolic handover and return of the crown by the Pope’s legate, Pandulph, represents an intolerable surrender of sovereignty to a foreign power. I’m going to suggest that to Remainers, certainly to this one, the act nicely sums up our Government’s willingness to do absolutely anything in order to stay in power. See – there IS some common ground between us! Let’s not forget that the original split with the Pope was because John wanted to appoint his own Archbishop of Canterbury. Shakespeare’s contemporary audience, less well-behaved than we are, might well have responded in a decidedly unfriendly way to this capitulation to the Holy See. I can almost hear the rotten vegetables whizzing through the air …
In return, all Pandulph has to do is call off his French attack dogs.
‘It was my breath that blew this
tempest up […]
My tongue shall hush again this storm of war.’ (V.i.17,20)
The first line is eerily reminiscent of the Armada myth, which again goes to show how right Ivor Brown is.
Simple, right? If you can bully a king, you can bully a Dauphin. So the big bad wolf that is Pandulph trots off to blow the Dauphin’s house down. More about his mission later.
Because Theresa, sorry, John – JOHN has other problems at home in the form of a number of important rebels who have declared no confidence in him whatsoever, as the Bastard reports:
‘Your nobles will not hear you but are gone
To offer service to your enemy’ (V.i.33-34)
His advice to John – in glorious blank verse – is to bluff it out:
‘Away and glister like the god of war
When he intendeth to become the field;
Show boldness and aspiring confidence!’ (V.i.54-56)
Because confidence and looking the part is all, as Mr Rees-Mogg, for example, has shown us recently. What must be avoided, at all costs – is any ‘inglorious league‘ (V.i.65). And our inglorious leader surrenders control of the English effort to this bloodthirsty upstart, effectively remaining only as a figurehead and placeholder.
Elsewhere the ‘honourable’ member for Salisbury cries crocodile tears about his decision to ‘follow unacquainted colours’ (V.ii.32), just in case his constituents are listening. The thing is, none of us are fooled. His gang’s ‘voluntary zeal and unurged faith‘ (V.ii.10) for rebellion will have a shorter shelf-life than a stock-piled medicine once it’s put to the kind of test that might prompt a General Election and loss if his seat. Bloody Commodity, again …
And so to one of my favourite parts of the play. Not for the first time over the past couple of years, I found myself admiring the steadfast resolution of someone from mainland Europe. Pandulph arrives to tell the Dauphin that it’s all been a terrible mistake, we’re all friends now, and can we revoke this little squabble, please? Here, in an impressive speech, the Frenchman channels Julius Caesar‘s resolution. Here’s JC:
I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber’d sparks,
They are all fire and every one doth shine,
But there’s but one in all doth hold his place:
So in the world; ’tis furnish’d well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion (Julius Caesar, III.i)
No, not Jeremy Corbyn, Julius Caesar!
God, I love that play. And I love the Dauphin’s speech, delivering an incredible spanking to the Pope’s legate which must have had the Elizabethan Protestants cheering like madmen, even if it was delivered by a Frenchman. Regular readers will know that I have a real fondness for salvos of rhetorical questions like these:
Your breath first kindled the dead coal of wars
Between this chastised kingdom and myself,
And brought in matter that should feed this fire;
And now ’tis far too huge to be blown out
With that same weak wind which enkindled it.
You taught me how to know the face of right,
Acquainted me with interest to this land,
Yea, thrust this enterprise into my heart;
And come ye now to tell me John hath made
His peace with Rome? What is that peace to me?
I, by the honour of my marriage-bed,
After young Arthur, claim this land for mine;
And, now it is half-conquer’d, must I back
Because that John hath made his peace with Rome?
Am I Rome’s slave? What penny hath Rome borne,
What men provided, what munition sent,
To underprop this action? Is’t not I
That undergo this charge? who else but I,
And such as to my claim are liable,
Sweat in this business and maintain this war? (V.ii.83-102)
And, of course, he’s absolutely correct. He didn’t ask for this. He also realises that half the country want him to win anyway …
‘Have I not heard these islanders shout out
‘Vive Le Roi’?’ (V.ii.103-104)
Erm, yes you did. Some of us have been asking to keep our European Citizenship for a while now. Please hurry … not least because our Brexit Secretary (the Bastard) has decided to that braggadocio and bluster is the way to deal with Johnny Foreigner, when someone ought to have been tackling the country’s problems. Talk about bluffing with no cards – ‘easiest trade deal ever’, right? £350million a week? We haven’t forgotten.
The day is providently saved for the English because of hold-ups in getting fresh food and other vital supplies across the channel (genuinely!), and with that General Election looming, the untrustworthy nobles return to the fold because, ironically, they can’t trust their erstwhile allies. It’s time to:
‘untread the steps of damned flight
[…] and calmly run on in obedience’ (V.iv.52,56)
You couldn’t make it up, right?
What’s left to say? King John’s death – poisoned off-stage by a monk – is strangely flat and therefore fitting for a leader who ran out of authority ages ago. His final words are weak and wobbly, not that he was ever strong and stable, to be honest. RIP King John, who assumed the crown almost by default of anyone else wanting the job at the time, and managed to make England a hostile environment for its entire population. It’s interesting that convention demands that the most important character on stage usually speaks last in tragedies. There might be a new king, but Henry III remains more of a figurehead until he reaches his majority. Who brings the proceedings to a halt but, of course, the Bastard? But in 2019, which Bastard will that be? It needs narrowing down a bit.
Brexit has so often been described – accurately, I believe – as an act of national self-harm. If only people listened to the Bastard a little more closely:
‘England never did, nor never shall
Lie at the proud foot of a conquerer
But when it first did help to wound itself.’ (V.vii.112-114)
Amen to that.
[a] except King John, below, all other quotations from Shakespeare’s works from http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org
[b] Dylan Thomas, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’ (1951), accessed at https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night
[c] William Shakespeare, King John (Arden Third edition, Jesse M. Lander and JJM Tobin (eds.), (Bloomsbury: London, 2018)
[d] Ivor Brown, Shakespeare, (The Reprint Society: London, 1951)