Scene by Scene Synopsis
Act I, Scene 1: King John and his mother, Queen Eleanor, receive a French ambassador, Chatillon, who delivers a demand from King Philip of France: John must relinquish the crown of England to his young nephew Arthur. John replies defiantly that he will invade France, and Chatillon departs. Eleanor supports John's decision, implying that, since his rule is illegal, it must be maintained through force. Robert Faulconbridge and his older brother, the Bastard, enter and ask the king to judge a dispute: Robert claims their father's estate, asserting that his brother is illegitimate, having been sired by the late King Richard I. Eleanor and John recognize the strong resemblance of the Bastard to the late king, and they like his bold and saucy manner. They offer him a knighthood if he will leave the Faulconbridge estate to his brother and go to war in France with them. He accepts, and, after the others have left to prepare for the campaign, he soliloquizes humorously on the manners of the courtly world he is about to enter. His mother, Lady Faulconbridge, arrives, having followed her sons to court to defend her honor. However, when the Bastard tells her he has renounced his inheritance in favor of greater glories, she admits that King Richard was indeed his father. He revels in his newly discovered patrimony.
Act II, Scene 1: Outside Angiers, an English-occupied city in France, King Philip, his son Lewis, and Arthur greet the Archduke of Austria, who has agreed to fight in support of Arthur's claim to the English crown. Austria is thanked effusively by Arthur and his mother, Constance. Chatillon appears with news that an English army, led by John, is approaching. John and his entourage enter, and Philip questions John's legitimacy, noting that Arthur is the son of John's older brother and thus the proper heir. John simply denies Philip's right to judge the matter, and the two parties trade insults. A Citizen of Angiers appears on the city walls and states that the city will admit neither ruler until it can be ascertained which one represents the true King of England. The two armies skirmish, but Hubert, speaking for Angiers, reiterates the city's refusal to open its gates. The Bastard suggests that the two parties ally temporarily and conquer the recalcitrant town. As they prepare to do so, Hubert proposes a peaceful settlement: Lewis can marry John's niece Blanche of Spain, uniting the two parties. Lewis and Blanche are agreeable, and a treaty is concluded. John grants many of the English territories in France to Philip, and Philip implicitly recognizes John's legitimacy in return. Arthur is to be given high rank and the rule of Angiers. Everyone enters the town to prepare for the wedding except the Bastard, who muses in a soliloquy on the dishonor that the kings have incurred, John for giving away much of his kingdom to secure the rest, Philip for having abandoned an allegedly sacred cause. He rails against 'commodity', or self-interest, but then confesses that he does so only because he has not yet had the opportunity to pursue it himself.
Act II, Scene 2: The Earl of Salisbury brings word to Constance and Arthur of the settlement between France and England. Constance rants wildly against Salisbury for bringing the news, against Philip for abandoning Arthur's cause, and against fortune for favoring King John.
Act III, Scene 1: The wedding party appears, and Constance resumes her cursing. A papal legate, Cardinal Pandulph, arrives with a demand from Rome that King John surrender to the pope's authority in a dispute over the archbishopric of Canterbury. John flatly refuses. Pandulph excommunicates him and insists that Philip abandon his new alliance with England and make war on John—or face excommunication himself. When Philip hesitates, Pandulph delivers an equivocal argument justifying the breaking of an oath. Philip rejects the alliance with John, and the two parties prepare for war.
Act III, Scene 2: The armies skirmish. Resting from the battle, the Bastard displays the severed head of Austria. John arrives with the captive Arthur, whom the king turns over to Hubert, now allied with the English.
Act III, Scene 2 continued: After further skirmishing, John and the Bastard enter, accompanied by Arthur, Hubert, and Eleanor. John sends the Bastard back to England with orders to loot the monasteries there. Eleanor takes Arthur aside to comfort him, while John speaks with Hubert. After flattering him and speaking of future rewards, the king hints that he has a secret desire. Hubert offers to fulfill it, whatever it may be. John observes that Arthur is a potential problem to him, and he speaks the single word 'death'. Hubert responds that Arthur shall die, and John expresses his satisfaction.
Act III, Scene 3: Philip and Lewis discuss the English victory with Pandulph. Constance appears, mad with grief at her son's capture. When she leaves, Philip follows her, fearing that she may harm herself. Pandulph tells Lewis not to lose heart and suggests a plan: John will surely kill Arthur and thus alienate his own followers, and Lewis, as Blanche's husband—she being Arthur's cousin—may claim the throne. Moreover, Pandulph urges, the Bastard's ransacking of the monasteries will also antagonize the English so that a French invasion will be welcomed by rebels in England. Pandulph and Lewis go to present this plan to King Philip.
Act IV, Scene 1: Hubert prepares hot irons to put out Arthur's eyes. Hubert summons Arthur, who says that the only comfort he has had in his imprisonment has been the affection of Hubert. The older man, in asides, reveals his torment, but he nevertheless tells Arthur that he must put out his eyes. Arthur pleads for mercy. Hubert relents, but he insists that Arthur's death must be feigned to protect himself, Hubert, from the king's anger.
Act IV, Scene 2: Pembroke and Salisbury tell John that many nobles are dismayed that Arthur is kept imprisoned, and they urge him to free his nephew. He agrees, as Hubert arrives to confer with the king. The two noblemen remark that they know Hubert was assigned to kill Arthur. When John announces that Hubert has brought word of Arthur's death, they are not surprised, and they leave angrily. News arrives that the French have invaded and that Queen Eleanor has died. The Bastard appears and reports that the country is inflamed over Arthur's reported murder. John sends him to summon the disaffected nobles; in view of the invasion, he must attempt to win back their allegiance. Hubert returns and tells of superstitious fears among the populace. John blames Hubert for killing Arthur, claiming that he had not ordered him to do so. Hubert confesses that Arthur is not in fact dead, and John, relieved, tells him to carry this news to the rebellious lords.
Act IV, Scene 3: Arthur attempts to escape by leaping off the castle wall, but he dies from the fall. Pembroke, Salisbury, and Lord Bigot pass by, discussing their plan to join the French invaders, who have offered them an alliance. The Bastard accosts the noblemen with the king's request that they join him. They refuse. Discovering Arthur's body, they rage with increased venom, vowing revenge on John. Hubert enters, claiming that Arthur lives; when shown the body, he is shocked, but the lords do not believe him. They depart, intent on joining Lewis' army.
Act V, Scene 1: King John yields his crown to Pandulph and receives it back again, thus acknowledging the pope as the source of his authority. In return, Pandulph promises to persuade the French to leave England. The Bastard arrives with news of French successes and of Arthur's death. He rebukes the king for inaction. John explains that he has Pandulph's promise to rely on, and the Bastard is mortified, first that a papal alliance has been formed and second that no military response to France has been prepared. John tells him to make such arrangements himself.
Act V, Scene 2: In the French camp, the dissident nobles seal their alliance with Lewis. Salisbury weeps, lamenting the necessity to fight against his own countrymen. Pandulph appears and reports John's reconciliation with the pope, but Lewis refuses to halt his onslaught. The Bastard arrives under a flag of truce and is informed of Lewis' intransigence; he responds with a challenge to continued war. The two sides prepare for battle.
Act V, Scene 3: During the battle Hubert reports to King John that his armies are losing. John admits that he is sick, with fever and at heart. A message from the Bastard requests that the king leave the battlefield. John replies that he shall go to Swinstead Abbey. The Messenger adds that French reinforcements have been lost at sea and that their army has retired to defensive positions. John is too ill to respond to this good news, and he departs for Swinstead.
Act V, Scene 4: A French nobleman, Lord Melun, mortally wounded and conscience-stricken, tells the rebellious English lords of Lewis' plan to have them executed once John is defeated. Salisbury replies for the group that they will rejoin King John.
Act V, Scene 5: Lewis receives news of Melun's death, the disaffection of the English lords, and the wreck of his supply ships. He prepares for hard fighting the next day.
Act V, Scene 6: In the middle of the night Hubert encounters the Bastard and informs him that King John has been poisoned and is dying. The Bastard, whose own forces have been badly damaged by the storm, hastens to rejoin the king.
Act V, Scene 7: John, burning with fever and aware that he is near death, is brought to his son Prince Henry. The Bastard arrives with news of the war, but the king dies as he speaks. Salisbury tells the Bastard that Lewis has made offers of peace and has already begun to return his forces to France. The nobles acknowledge Henry as the new king, and the Bastard delivers a patriotic speech, observing that, now that its internal disputes are over, England will once again be invulnerable to invasion.
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