A Summary of Shakespeare's "King John"

by Kaye Jones

"The Life and Death of King John" was written by William Shakespeare between 1594 and 1596. Set in the early 13th century, the play opens in the aftermath of the death of King Richard I, known as the Lionheart. Although Richard's brother, John, has become king, there are numerous individuals ready to stake their claim to the English throne.

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Act 1

The play opens at the English royal court, where King John receives word that the French King, Philip II, supports the claim of Arthur, John's nephew, to the the throne. He threatens to wage war on England if John does not abdicate, but the king remains defiant. King John and his mother, Eleanor, receive a visitor, Philip the Bastard, an illegitimate son of the late king, come to seek his inheritance. When offered his lands or a knighthood, he accepts the latter and is duly knighted Sir Richard Plantagenet.

Act 2

In France, King Philip meets with Arthur and his mother, Constance, and ensures them he will do everything in his power to remove John and place Arthur on the throne. King Philip appeals to the citizens of Angiers, who refuse to open their gates until the true king is decided. On hearing this, Philip and John agree to do battle. However, when Hubert suggests a match between King John's niece, Blanche, and the French Dauphin, the battle is canceled, and the two sides appear united.

Act 3

Act 3 opens with Constance's angry reaction to the proposed match between King John and King Philip. In England, the Pope's legate, Pandulph, arrives and protests against John's denial of Stephen Langton as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. John's insults toward the legate result in him being excommunicated from the Church. On hearing Pandulph state that any oaths made with England are invalid, King Philip breaks his truce with King John, much to the happiness of Constance, and war is declared. In battle, King John's army capture Arthur. Pandulph convinces Lewis, the French Dauphin, to continue the battle against the English and to eliminate Arthur so that he can claim the throne by his marriage to Blanche, John's niece.

Act 4

In Arthur's prison cell, Hubert is unable to follow King John's order to burn out his eyes and instead helps Arthur to escape. At King John's coronation ceremony in England, Hubert delivers the false news that Arthur is dead, which horrifies John's nobles, who set out in search of his grave. Word also arrives that the French Dauphin has reached England in command of a large army. Although Hubert eventually confesses to King John that he helped his prisoner to escape, Arthur is killed when he falls from the top of a castle wall. His body is discovered by Hubert and a group of John's noblemen.

Act 5

While crowning King John, Pandulph agrees to order the French to stop their attack on England, but Lewis refuses to back down, causing both sides to prepare for war. During battle, King John, who is feeling unwell, receives news that the French are now retreating, and he retires to an abbey in Swinstead to recover. John's nobles decide to break their truce with the French, on the advice of John's son, Henry. John has, in fact, been poisoned by a monk and is dead within a few days. The realm is now left to Prince Arthur, to whom all lords pay homage, and Pandulph intervenes to secure peace between England and France.

About the Author

Kaye Jones has been a freelance writer since 2009, specializing in history, education and mental health. Her undergraduate dissertation was published by the Internet Journal of Criminology. Jones has a first-class honors Bachelor of Arts in history from the University of Manchester.

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