Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Outside the gates of Angiers — the capital of the Dukedom of Anjou, “from which the French Prince Alençon took his title” by 1581 (Clark 480) — King Philip introduces Arthur to the Duke of Austria, although historically Leopold of Austria died in 1194, five years before John became King (Asimov 220), and Shakespeare, like The Troublesome Reign, confuses Leopold with Widomar (II.i.12). The Duke supposedly killed King Richard (or is taking credit for it) and now wants to help rectify the situation of John’s usurpation:
to my home I will no more return
Till Angiers, and the right thou hast in France,
Together with that pale, that white-fac’d shore,
Whose foot spurns back the ocean’s roaring tides
And coops from other lands her islanders,
Even till that England, hedg’d in with the main,
The water-walled bulwark, still secure
And confident from foreign purposes,
Even till that utmost corner of the west
Salute thee for her king; till then, fair boy,
Will I not think of home, but follow arms.
Constance is pleased. Chatillion, whom Clark thinks represents ambassador to Elizabeth’s court Mendoza (Clark 480; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 418), interrupts with the news that the English are coming, supported also by Lady Blanch of Spain, one of Elinor’s granddaughters. His grudging description of the ragtag but determined English provides more patriotic material which, in Walter Lippmann’s phrase would have done much towards “‘manufacturing consent’ among the English people” in the 1580s (qtd. in Farina 107).
The key figures arrive, and John demands that France surrender. King Philip supports an England under Arthur, explains his rightful claim, and insists that John has “done a rape / Upon the maiden virtue of the crown” (II.i.97-98). Further words are exchanged, and soon Constance and Elinor are having a bitch-fight too. The cheeky Bastard tries to antagonize the Duke of Austria, and John and Elinor try to entice the trust of Arthur, who thinks, “I am not worth this coil that’s made for me” (II.i.165). Constance and Elinor go at it again. “In dramatic terms the rivalry sets up a series of mother-son pairings unusual in Shakespeare’s history plays, which are so often preoccupied with the relationships between fathers and sons” (Garber 272).
Philip wants Angiers to decide on who is England’s king. A citizen of Angiers, Hubert, after listening to each of their long discourses, wants them to settle their dispute first before Angiers gets involved. As the kings call men to arms, the Bastard insults Austria:
Sirrah, were I at home,
At your den, sirrah, with your lioness,
I would set an ox-head to your lion’s hide,
And make a monster of you.
The “ox” reference is another identity clue (Ogburn and Ogburn 421). After a battle, the French herald proclaims triumph for Arthur, but the English herald then claims victory for John. Hubert, the Angiers guy on the wall, still insists there needs to be a clear winner. The Bastard instigates another plan:
By heaven, these scroyles of Angiers flout you, kings,
And stand securely on their battlements
As in a theatre, whence they gape and point
At your industrious scenes and acts of death.
He convinces the leaders to organize against Angiers and then return to these other questions afterwards. John will attack from the west, Austria from the north, Philip from the south; and the Bastard is delighted that Austria and France will be shooting towards each other.
To forestall a siege, Hubert recommends instead a marriage between Lady Blanch of Spain, relative of Richard Lionheart, and the “Dolphin” Lewis, son of the King of France. Angiers would open its gates under these circumstances instead of waging war. The Bastard grumbles about this deal, but Elinor recommends it to John since it will end Arthur’s claims. “Figuratively hanged, drawn, and quartered by the Bastard’s extended image [II.i.497ff], Louis is subjected to a kind of verbal torture, thus comically imitating the discourse of conventional Petrarchan suffering” (Garber 278). The elder Ogburns consider the passage anti-Alençon (Ogburn and Ogburn 421). John offers lands as dowry and the two young people comply with the matchmaking. John will try to disarm Constance’s expected rage by declaring Arthur Duke of Bretagne and Earl of Richmond.
“Shakespeare has him step outside the framework of the play” (Wells 111) when the Bastard offers a cynical soliloquy about “Mad world, mad kings, mad composition!” (II.i.561ff) and the domination of “tickling commodity” (II.i.573) — i.e., expedient self-interest or “Worldliness, compliance, compromise, policy, diplomacy, casuistry, expediency, opportunism” (Goddard, I 142) — which prompts unnecessary compromises and the selling out of causes. He claims he will serve lord “Gain” henceforth, and many critics apparently believe that he does, but he is being ironic here with a kind of “inverted hypocrisy” (Goddard, I 143); “neither Faulconbridge nor the audience believes this exasperated declaration” (Bloom 53). He also acknowledges his talent for railing (II.i.593) and refers to the spectators of Angiers standing on the battlements “As in a theater, whence they gape and point” (II.i.375).
The Bastard’s anger at the compromise cannot be understood without reference back to the earlier The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England, which served as inspiration for King John. In The Troublesome Reign it seems that Blanche had been promised to the Bastard. Faith had therefore been broken with the Bastard, who had looked forward to a beautiful and highborn bride. To have that snatched away because of the self-interest (commodity) of the kings would naturally infuriate him. Shakespeare, having removed the motivating wrong, neglected to moderate the fury. (Asimov 227)
Goddard points out the parallel attitude and message in Sonnets 123 and 124 (Goddard, I 142). If allegorical, the topical issue may have been the Elizabeth-Alençon match, which some perceived to bode a return of Catholicism to England (Clark 480ff; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 417). The 30,000 marks mentioned parallel the 30,000 pounds provided to Alençon late in 1581 to get him off to Flanders (Clark 486; cf. Ogburn and Ogburn 419).
“Readers are likely to feel that the natural son of Richard the Lion Heart deserves a better play than the one in which he finds himself, and a better king to serve than his wretched uncle, John” (Bloom 51). He “stands for all the popular virtues: loyalty to the monarchy, courage, plainspokenness, honesty, and a refusal to be deceived, whether by foreign princes or domestic churchmen, or by the Pope and his minions” (Bloom 53). “As the clown was the natural gentleman in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, so the bastard is the natural king in King John” (Goddard, I 141).