Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
John’s reconciliation with the Church according to Pandulph involves a ceremonial fulfilment of what we know to have been Peter’s prophecy. John reasons that kowtowing to Rome is necessary since his own people display ominous signs of unrest: “the present time’s so sick, / That present med’cine must be minist’red” (V.i.14-15). Pandulph will stop the war-machine he set in motion (V.i.17ff), and John realizes that the prophecy concerning his giving up the crown on Ascension Day came true, but he rationalizes that this was voluntary on his part (V.i.29).
The Bastard reports that the French forces are winning support in England. John is baffled — what about Arthur not being murdered? The Bastard explains that his body was found, and he gives John a pep-talk, trying to prompt more forcefulness and resoluteness:
Be great in act, as you have been in thought.
Let not the world see fear and sad distrust
Govern the motion of a kingly eye.
Be stirring as the time, be fire with fire,
Threat’n the threat’ner, and outface the brow
Of bragging horror; so shall inferior eyes,
That borrow their behaviors from the great,
Grow great by your example and put on
The dauntless spirit of resolution.
Away, and glister like the god of war
When he intendeth to become the field.
Upon hearing the latest, the Bastard is disgusted by John’s catering to Pandulph. He advises they attack the French: “Perchance the Cardinal cannot make your peace” (V.i.74). John listlessly gives command to the Bastard in this matter.
Salisbury is in agony, having to fight against his own countrymen, and the Dauphin Lewis commends Salisbury’s sense of honor and his manly tears. Pandulph brings word of John’s buckling to papal authority, and Lewis pitches a fit, insisting that the issue has far outgrown its origins. He is no slave of Rome; he will fight England: “I am too high-born to be propertied” (V.ii.79). The Bastard arrives and is brought up to speed. He vividly depicts John as confident and assured of victory.
A reference to “an earthquake of nobility” (V.ii.43) may have been inspired by the 1580 earthquake (Clark 489).
Hubert tells a feverish John that the English are doing badly, although the Dolphin’s supply ship is wrecked, and the Bastard asks that John leave the field of battle. John is feeling ill and will go to Swinstead Abbey.
The English lords ruminate about the state of affairs: “That misbegotten devil Faulconbridge, / In spite of spite, alone upholds the day” (V.iv.4-5). A fatally wounded Count Melune tells them that they should return to John and beg forgiveness for their rebellion, that Lewis plans eventually to decapitate them after his victory. Melune wouldn’t lie about this; his grandfather was a Brit and he’s dying. He wants to be helped to a nice place to expire. The lords decide to return to John.
Lewis bemoans the death of Melune, the desertion of the English lords, and the sinking of his armada.
The Bastard and Hubert meet somewhat anonymously in the dark and trade news (in this seeming rough draft for Hamlet I.i). John has been poisoned by a monk, Prince Henry (John’s son who has not bee mentioned before and is now a character) has pardoned the returning English lords, and half of the Bastard’s troop have been killed.
In Shakespeare’s time it was thought that John had been poisoned by a monk disgruntled by the ravaging of the abbeys, but Holinshead claims that he was in an “ague” when pursued by his enemies, gorged himself on raw peaches and cider at Swineshead Abbey, and died in agony October 19, 1216 (Riverside 836). Asimov agrees that John probably died of natural causes (Asimov 250).
Prince Henry is realistic about his father’s impending passing:
Death, having prey’d upon the outward parts,
Leaves them invisible, and his siege is now
Against the mind, the which he pricks and wounds
With many legions of strange fantasies,
Which in their throng and press to that last hold,
Salisbury has faith in this future Henry III. John is carried in, obsessed about the heat in his poisoned veins and wanting iciness: “I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen / Upon a parchment, and against this fire / Do I shrink up” (V.vii.32-34); “I beg cold comfort” (V.vii.42); “Within me is a hell” (V.vii.46); “And then all this thou seest is but a clod / And module of confounded royalty” (V.vii.57-58). “John’s account of his own suffering has a strange beauty that suspends moral judgement” (Wells 113). “It is the only time that John moves us, though even here Shakespeare distances us from this pathos” (Bloom 62). “The self-conscious evocation of the act of writing, and the vivid image of parchment shrinking as it burns, returns the play to the question of history, and of the chronicles of kings” (Garber 280). The Bastard reports to John that the French are winning, and John dies. “You breathe these dead news in as dead an ear,” states Salisbury (V.vii.65). “John’s death at the close is, in a way, his most dramatic action” (Garber 280). The Bastard provides this surprisingly devoted eulogy, in which one can perhaps hear Oxford speaking to the dead of Elizabeth (a situation better suited than that of the Bastard with John):
Art thou gone so? I do but stay behind
To do the office for thee of revenge,
And then my soul shall wait on thee to heaven,
As it on earth hath been thy servant still.
Prince Henry is on deck. The Bastard wants revenge against the enemies of England, but Salisbury announces Pandulph’s having come from the Dauphin with peace offers (why, we don’t know). The Bastard is still hot for a fight, but Salisbury says it’s a done deal — it’s just a matter of going through the ceremony now. The Bastard vows loyalty to Henry and delivers the last rousing patriotic lines:
This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.
“It was the Elizabethan custom to give the final lines of a play to the man of highest rank. In breaking that custom … Shakespeare clinches the fact that the Bastard is the king of the play” (Goddard, I 146).
This speech seems to me poetically preferable to such effusions as John of Gaunt’s ‘this sceptred isle’ and Henry V’s ‘we happy few.’ Perhaps I am swayed by liking the Bastard Faulconbridge considerably more than I do Gaunt or the betrayer of Falstaff, but the image of self-wounding is of a higher order than any in the other two speeches. Overtly, the Bastard refers to the rebels returning to royal authority, but the image clearly comprehends John’s hysterical personality and dubious moral character. (Bloom 63)
This last act is generally seen as unsatisfactory, as is the entire play. Instead of an organic culmination of dramatic events, Shakespeare provides a series of declamations. “One interpretation of this ending that can structure unity is that in the end, everyone must capitulate to political reality — the merciless, unyielding “policy” that overrules humanistic, passionate objections” (Carey 147).
“The larger design of the play pursues a pattern that would become familiar in later histories and tragedies. A king with a clouded title to the throne tries desperately to reinforce that title by repressing, appeasing, or extinguishing a popular rival” (Garber 275).
The elder Ogburns see Queen Elizabeth as represented in John and Blanch, Alençon in the Dauphin, Mary Stuart in Constance, her son James in Arthur, the Bishop of Milan in Pandulph (Ogburn and Ogburn 419-420).
When Howard and Arundel made their accusations against Oxford, they included the insistence that “‘The Queen sayd he was a bastard for whiche cause he wold never love hir and wold leve hir in the lurche one daye.’ Among all the charges that were brought against him at this time, this one probably stung him most deeply of all and I believe he answered it by his characterization of the Bastard in King John” (Clark 483) — one which highlights the “utter loyalty” of the man (Ogburn and Ogburn 415). The elder Ogburns figure that Oxford could not have written the play before he has been “purged of rancor, has come to terms with himself” (Ogburn and Ogburn 416).