I Am a Scribbled Form, Drawn with a Pen, upon a Parchment

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King John, Act V

There’s a patriotic feel to the end of King John, a moralistic flavor suggesting that unity is the best policy for England’s defense. It makes sense historically and thematically, but I didn’t see it coming from within this play.

When we last met King John, he was being besieged on all sided.  Insiders were defecting to the cause of France, the natives were restive and the pope had excommunicated the guy.  Since the beginning, however, he had a wildcard on his side, a “maverick” if you will, the unwavering faith of Richard the Lionheart’s bastard son (known throughout the play as “Bastard.”)  Bastard displays the pedigree of his father both in spirit and body.  I can almost hear the cheers of the audience whenever he struts onstage.

John makes a huge concession, banking it will stem the tide.  He tells the pope’s ambassador that he’s willing to concede.  Rather than assuaging the marauders, however, it only serves to spur them on.  It looks like there’s going to be a bloody fight to the finish when lo and behold, the tide turns against France.

Not before King John is poisoned to death, however, by a monk of all people (go figure).  It becomes pretty clear as he’s dying that King John will be passing his title down to Prince Henry — soon to become the equally disastrous King Henry III.  But his death serves as a rallying cry for the defectors.  Buoyed by the Bastard’s singlehanded ferocity, they unite to defend – you guessed it – good ol’ England.

At play’s end, France is already in retreat.  Their supplies have run aground (happens a lot in Shakespeare), the previously mentioned English barons have regained their patriotic fervor and the Bastard has rallied the troops.  As the curtain closes they are making a beeline back to France.

If we didn’t know any better from history, we might be prone to assume that the reign of Henry III will be all good from here.  That’s not to be the case, unfortunately.  But that, as they say, is the rest of the story.

What we are left with instead is this:

BASTARD: 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.  Naught shall make us rue

If England to itself do rest but true.

Now go win one for the Gipper.

 

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