I last looked at King John in 2004 when we had a group reading of the play during regular Club meetings. I was lucky enough to be given the part of Constance, and I well remember her powerful support of her son’s claim to the throne, her denunciations of the faithless French and Austrian rulers, and most of all her heart-breaking demented grief over the loss of her son. Her lament: Grief fills the room up of my absent child… epitomises all bereaved mothers.
The rest of the play, however, had become something of a blur and I enjoyed reading it again recently and re-discovering particularly the character of Philip Faulconbridge, the Bastard. What a lively and convincingly human portrayal!
Cheery and unabashed, he acknowledges his half-brother Robert’s claim to the family inheritance, with an amusing acceptance that he is a bastard drawing attention to the extreme differences between himself and his father and brother:
Compare our faces and be judge yourself,
If old Sir Robert did beget us both.
Philip is tall, fair and sturdy, while he describes the Roberts, elder and younger, as small, dark and sharp-featured:
O old Sir Robert, father, on my knee
I give heaven thanks I was not like to thee!
Queen Elinor perceives his likeness to her late son Richard Lionheart, and greets him as her grandson, while King John accepts him as nephew. They pose the question:
Whether hadst thou rather be a Faulconbridge….
……Or the reputed son of Coeur-de-Lion.
(by implication, with a name, but no property.)
King John dubs him knight and re-names him Richard Plantagenet, at which the Bastard shows his adventurous and generous spirit, turning to his half-brother:
Brother by the mother’s side, give me your hand:
My father gave me honour, yours gave land.
Now blessed be the hour, by night or day,
When I was got, Sir Robert was away!
He accepts what fate gives, with a sure sense of self and neither shame nor blame for his mother’s marital misdemeanour. In fact he has a delightfully warm and frank relationship with her:
With all my heart I thank thee for my father!
Who lives and dares but say thou didst not well
When I was got, I’ll send his soul to hell.
His irreverent sense of humour allows him to stand back at times to observe and comment on the action, most notably in his anger at “Commodity”, or what we might call self-interest for personal gain; but when his scorn is spent, his basic honesty forces him to admit that he too is guilty of similar faults:
And why rail I on this Commodity?
Since kings break faith upon commodity
Gain be my lord, for I will worship thee.
In attendance on King John in France he shows a natural understanding of the strategies of war combined with skilful political manipulation as he manoeuvres France and Austria against each other to England’s advantage; he is just as ready to assume a tax-collector’s role back at home when he duns the rich churchmen in their Abbeys, for gold to finance John’s wars:
Bell, book and candle shall not drive me back
When gold and silver becks me to come on.
While he can be kind and loving in his treatment of family or those in need, the Bastard doesn’t hesitate to show dislike or contempt, as in his colourful insults to the Emperor of Austria. Later though, he learns to suspend judgement and to avoid hasty conclusions, when he questions Hubert over Prince Arthur’s death.
The Bastard’s character develops during the course of the play; his young, perky self-confidence matures to serious patriotism as he speaks for England in the face of treachery and threats of civil war. He berates the traitorous English barons who ally themselves with France:
And you degenerate, you ingrate revolts,
You bloody Neroes, ripping up the womb
Of your dear mother, England, blush for shame.
and is constantly loyal and encouraging to King John, sounding almost a fore-runner of Hotspur:
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.
Indeed he seems to bear the full weight of the hard-fought battles alone; even the rebel Salisbury says of him:
That misbegotten devil, Faulconbridge,
In spite of spite, alone upholds the day.
After King John has died, the Bastard remains constant in his loyalty to the new king, Henry:
…..with all submission, on my knee
I do bequeath my faithful services
And true subjection everlastingly.
and to his country. He is allowed the final lines of the play as he expounds in ringing tones the power of strong alliance between the barons; if they all stay loyal to the English crown, the country can resist all outside threats:
Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.