David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING JOHN: A Retelling in Prose — Cast of Characters and Act 1, Scene 1


Male Characters

King John of England.

Prince Henry, son to the King; after King John’s death, he becomes King Henry III of England.

Arthur, Duke of Bretagne, nephew to the King; his father was King John’s older brother Geoffrey.

Earl of Pembroke.

Earl of Essex.

Earl of Salisbury.

Lord Bigot.

Hubert de Burgh.

Robert Faulconbridge, son to Sir Robert Faulconbridge.

Philip, aka the Bastard, Robert Faulconbridge’s half-brother; Philip’s father is King Richard I of England, aka Richard the Lionheart. Philip’s reputed father was Sir Robert Faulconbridge, and so early in life he was known as Philip Faulconbridge.

James Gurney, servant to Lady Faulconbridge.

Peter of Pomfret, a prophet.

Philip II, King of France.

Louis the Dauphin; after King Philip II’s death (not in this book), he becomes King Louis VIII of France.

Lymoges, Duke of Austria.

Cardinal Pandulph, the Pope’s legate.

Melun, a French Lord.

Chatillion, ambassador from France to King John.

Female Characters

Queen Eleanor, mother to King John; widow of King Henry II; she is also known as Eleanor of Aquitaine; her children include King Richard I, King John, and Geoffrey; one of her grandchildren is Blanche of Spain.

Constance, mother to Arthur; widow of Geoffrey, one of King John’s older brothers.

Blanche of Spain, niece to King John; her grandfather is King Henry II of England and her grandmother is Queen Eleanor of England. One of Queen Eleanor’s children is Eleanor of Castile; Blanche of Spain is her daughter. Blanche is also known as Blanche of Castile as well as Blanche of Spain. She marries Louis the Dauphin and later becomes Queen of France.

Lady Faulconbridge.

Minor Characters

Lords, Citizens of Angiers, Sheriff, Heralds, Officers, Soldiers, Messengers, and other Attendants.

Scene: England and France.

Nota Bene:

Between 1349 and 1830, “Dauphin” was the title given to the oldest living son of the King of France.

King John of England: 24 December 1166 to 19 October 1216. He reigned 6 April 1199 to 19 October 1216.

The King of England before King John was Richard I, known as Richard the Lionheart. He died without leaving behind legitimate children. Before dying, he wrote a will leaving the Kingship to his nephew Arthur, but on his deathbed Eleanor persuaded him to change his will and leave the Kingship to John, her son.

One conflict in this play is a disagreement about who is the legitimate King of England. Normally, the Kingship would pass to a legitimate son, but Richard the Lionheart had no legitimate son. Is the legitimate successor John, whom Richard the Lionheart named as his successor in his final will? Or is it Arthur, the son of a deceased older brother of John?

King Philip II of France: 21 August 1165 to 14 July 1223. He was Junior King from 1 November 1179 to 18 September 1180. He was Senior King from 18 September 1180 to 14 July 1223.



— 1.1 —

King John of England, Queen Eleanor, the Earl of Pembroke, the Earl of Essex, and the Earl of Salisbury were in a room of King John’s palace. With them were attendants and Chatillion, the ambassador from France to King John.

King John asked, “Now, tell us, Chatillion, what does the King of France want with us?”

“Thus, after greeting you, speaks the King of France in my person to the majesty, the borrowed majesty, of England here,” Chatillion replied.

By referring to “borrowed majesty,” he was saying that King John was not the true King of England.

Queen Eleanor said, “This is a strange beginning: ‘borrowed majesty’!”

“Silence, good mother,” King John said. “Listen to the message from the ambassador.”

Chatillion continued, “King Philip II of France, in right and true behalf of your deceased older brother Geoffrey’s son, Arthur Plantagenet, lays most lawful claim to this fair island and the territories, to Ireland, Poictiers, Anjou, Touraine, Maine. He commands you to lay aside the sword of state that rules usurpingly over these several lands, and put these lands into the hand of young Arthur, your nephew and the true royal sovereign of England.”

“What happens if we don’t do this?” King John asked, using the royal plural.

“The forceful compulsion of fierce and bloody war will enforce these rights so forcibly withheld,” Chatillion replied. “If you won’t willingly give these lands to Arthur, we will make war against you and force you to do so.”

“Here we have war for war and blood for blood,” King John said. “Compulsion will answer compulsion. This is my answer to the King of France.”

“Then take my King’s defiance from my mouth,” Chatillion said. “This is the most extreme response permitted by my charge as ambassador.”

“Bear my defiance back to him, and so depart in peace,” King John said. “Be like lightning and appear before the eyes of the King of France, for before you can report your news I will be there, and the thunder of my cannon shall be heard. So leave! Be the trumpet of our wrath and be the sullen presentiment of your own destruction.

“Let him have an honorable escort. Pembroke, look to it.

“Farewell, Chatillion.”

Chatillion and the Earl of Pembroke exited.

Queen Eleanor said, “What now, my son! Haven’t I always said that ambitious Constance, the mother of Arthur, would not stop until she had kindled France and all the world to work toward the rights and on the side of her son? This might have been prevented and put right with very easy expressions of friendship, but now the rulers of two Kingdoms must arbitrate the matter with fearsome bloody consequences.”

“On our side we have our strong possession of England and our right to be King,” John said, using the royal plural.

Queen Eleanor whispered quietly to him, “Your strong possession of England is of much more worth than your right to be King. People will respect more your possession of the throne of England, or else it must go wrong with you and me. So much my conscience whispers in your ear, which none but Heaven and you and I shall hear.”

A Sheriff entered the room.

Seeing him and knowing why he had come, the Earl of Essex said, “My liege, here is the strangest controversy that ever I heard come from country to be judged by you. Shall I produce the men?”

“Let them approach,” King John said. “Our abbeys and our priories shall pay this expedition’s expeditious charge — this sudden expense and speedy attack. They will pay for the war that I must fight.”

Robert Faulconbridge and Philip Faulconbridge entered the room.

King John asked, “What men are you? Who are you?”

Philip Faulconbridge, who would quickly become informally known as the Bastard, said, “I am your faithful subject, a gentleman who was born in Northamptonshire and I am the eldest son, as I suppose, to Robert Faulconbridge, a soldier who was knighted in the field of combat by the honor-giving hand of Coeur-de-lion — Richard the Lionheart.”

King John asked the other man, “Who are you?”

Robert Faulconbridge replied, “I am the son and heir to that same Faulconbridge.”

“Is that man the elder son, and you are the heir?” King John said. “You came not of one mother then, it seems. You two men must have had different mothers.”

Philip Faulconbridge said, “Most certainly one mother gave birth to both of us, mighty King. That is well known and completely certain, and, as I think, we had one and the same father. But for the certain knowledge of that truth, I direct you to Heaven and to my mother. I don’t have certain knowledge of who is my father; all men’s children lack that certain knowledge.”

It is proverbial that men may know definitely who their mother is but not know definitely who their father is — at least in the days before DNA testing.

“Get out, rude man!” Queen Eleanor said. “You shame your mother and wound her honor with this distrust.”

“I, madam?” Philip Faulconbridge said. “No, I have no reason for that distrust. That is my brother’s plea and none of mine; my brother claims that I am illegitimate. And if he can prove that, he pops me out of my father’s estate and takes away from me at least five hundred pounds a year. May Heaven guard my mother’s honor and my land!”

“You are a good blunt fellow,” King John said. “Why, being younger born, does he lay claim to your inheritance?”

“I don’t know why, except to get the land,” Philip Faulconbridge said. “But once he slandered me with bastardy. But whether I am as truly begotten as he or not, that still I lay upon my mother’s head. But that I am as well begotten as he, my liege — may fair things befall the bones that took the pains for me! — compare my brother’s and my faces and judge for yourself.”

The two brothers did not look alike. Robert Faulconbridge was thin-faced and resembled his father: Sir Robert Faulconbridge. Philip Faulconbridge was a strongly built man and resembled the late King Richard I of England, aka Richard the Lionheart.

Philip Faulconbridge continued, “If old Sir Robert did beget us both and were our father and this son definitely resembles him, then oh, old Sir Robert, father, on my knee I give Heaven thanks I do not resemble you!”

King John said, “Why, what a madcap Heaven has lent us here! This man is a mad-brained fellow!”

“He has a trick of Coeur-de-lion’s face and resembles him,” Queen Eleanor said. “The accent of his tongue copies the accent of Richard the Lionheart’s tongue. Don’t you read some tokens of my son Richard the Lionheart in the large and powerful body of this man?”

Richard the Lionheart was one of King John’s late brothers, and so King John knew well what he looked like.

“My eye has well examined this man’s bodily parts and finds them to perfectly resemble Richard,” King John said.

He then said to Robert Faulconbridge, “Sirrah, speak. What moves you to claim your brother’s land?”

“Sirrah” was a term of address used when a person of high social status spoke to a male of lower social status.

Philip Faulconbridge interrupted and answered the question, “Because he has a half-face, like my father. With half that face he would have all my land: a half-faced groat worth five hundred pounds a year!”

A half-face is a thin face or a face shown in profile. A half-faced groat is a coin of little value.

Robert Faulconbridge said, “My gracious liege, when my father was still alive, your brother Richard the Lionheart much employed my father —”

Philip Faulconbridge interrupted, “Well, sir, by this you cannot get my land: Your tale must be how he employed my mother.”

“Employed” meant “used the services of”; in this case, the term included the meaning “used the sexual services of.”

Robert Faulconbridge continued, “And your brother once dispatched my father in an embassy to Germany so that he and the emperor there could treat of high affairs affecting that time.

“Your brother the King — Richard the Lionheart — took advantage of his absence and in the meantime sojourned at my father’s home. How he prevailed there with my mother I am ashamed to say, but truth is truth. Large lengths of seas and shores between my father and my mother lay, as I have heard my father himself say, when this same robust gentleman — Philip Faulconbridge — was begotten. My father on his deathbed bequeathed in his will his lands to me, and he swore that this Philip Faulconbridge, my mother’s son, was no son of his. And if he were, he came into the world fully fourteen weeks prematurely. So then, my good liege, let me have what is mine — my father’s land, as was stated in my father’s will.”

In this society, a wife’s child would be legally declared illegitimate if the husband was absent overseas for more than the entire nine months of the pregnancy; this had not happened in this case.

“Sirrah, your brother is legitimate,” King John said. “Your father’s wife bore him after wedlock, and if she played false, the fault was hers; this fault lies on the hazardous fortunes of all husbands who marry wives. This is a risk that all husbands take.”

The word “fault” meant “sin”; it was also slang for “vagina.”

King John continued, “Let us assume that it is true that my brother, as you say, took pains to get this son. What if he had from your father claimed this son for his? Truly, good friend, your father might have kept this calf bred from his cow from all the world. When a bull fathers a calf on a cow, the owner of the cow keeps the calf. Truly your father might; so then, if Philip Faulconbridge were my brother’s son, my brother might not claim him, and your father, although Philip Faulconbridge is no child of his, could not refuse him. This concludes the matter. If the assumption we made is true, then my mother’s son did beget your father’s heir, and your father’s heir must have your father’s land.”

King John was saying that the father’s will did not count; what counted was legitimacy. King Philip II of France would have agreed. King Richard I’s will was not enough to make King John the true King of England. Since King Richard I had not left behind a legitimate son, what counted was being a legitimate son of the man who would have been next in line to be King if he were alive. Arthur was the legitimate son of Geoffrey, the man who if he had been alive would have been next in line to be King after Richard I.

Robert Faulconbridge said, “Shall then my father’s will be of no force to dispossess that child who is not his? Doesn’t my father’s will count?”

Philip Faulconbridge interrupted, “Your father’s will has no more force to dispossess me, sir, than was his will to beget me, as I think.”

He was punning. “Will” meant three things: 1) intention, 2) sexual desire, and 3) penis.

Queen Eleanor asked Philip Faulconbridge, “Which would you rather be? Would you choose to be a Faulconbridge and be like your brother so you can enjoy your land? Or would you choose to be the reputed son of Coeur-de-lion, Richard the Lionheart? If you choose to be known as his bastard son, you would be the lord of your presence and the lord of no land.”

Philip Faulconbridge replied, “Madam, suppose my brother had my shape, and I had his shape, which is the shape of old Sir Robert, and suppose my legs were two such slender riding whips, my arms such stuffed eel-skins, and my face so thin that I would not dare stick a rose in my ear lest men should say ‘Look, three-farthings is going there!’”

Three-farthing coins bore a profile of Queen Elizabeth I. Behind her ear was depicted a rose.

He continued, “And suppose his shape were heir to all this land, then I wish I might never stir from off this place. I would give away every foot of the land in order to have this face that I have. I would not be Sir Nob in any case.”

“Nob” was a diminutive of “Robert.” “Nob” also meant “knob” and “head.”

Queen Eleanor said, “I like you well. Will you forsake your fortune, bequeath your land to your half-brother, Robert Faulconbridge, and follow me? I am a soldier and am now going to France to make war.”

Philip Faulconbridge said, “Brother, you take my land, and I’ll take my chances. Your face has gotten you five hundred pounds a year, yet if you were to sell your face for five pence, the price would be expensive because your face is not worth five pence.

“Madam, I’ll follow you to the death.”

Queen Eleanor joked, “No, I would have you go before me there.”

Philip Faulconbridge joked, “Our rural manners give our betters way. Where I come from, the person with the higher rank goes first.”

King John asked, “What is your name?”

Philip Faulconbridge, who had not yet stated his name, said now, “Philip, my liege, so is my name begun — Philip, good old Sir Robert Faulconbridge’s wife’s eldest son.”

“From henceforth you will bear the name of the man whose form you bear,” King John said. “You will change your name to Richard. Kneel down, Philip, but you will rise up a greater man.”

Philip Faulconbridge knelt.

King John knighted him and said, “Arise, Sir Richard Plantagenet.”

Plantagenet was the family name of Richard the Lionheart and of King John.

From now on, Philip Faulconbridge would be known as Sir Richard Plantagenet formally and as the Bastard informally. Sometimes he would be referred to as Philip or as Faulconbridge. Most often, as in this book henceforward, he would be called the Bastard.

The Bastard said to Robert Faulconbridge, “Brother by the mother’s side, give me your hand. My father gave me honor, yours gave you land. Now blessed be the hour, by night or day, when I was begotten, while Sir Robert was away!”

In this society, “hour” and “whore” were pronounced alike.

Queen Eleanor said, “This is the very spirit of Plantagenet! I am your grandmother, Richard; call me your grandmother.”

“Madam, you are my grandmother by chance but not by truth,” the Bastard said, “because my mother was not true and faithful to her husband. I am not your legitimate grandson. What of it, though?”

The Bastard now made several references to bastardy: “Something irregularly, a little from the right, in at the window, or else over the hatch.”

Some doors were made of two half-doors: one above the other. The hatch is the lower half-door.

The Bastard continued, “Who dares not stir by day must walk by night, and have is have, however men catch and get hold of it. Near or far off, well won is still well shot.”

Whether the archer is close to the target or far from it, a bull’s-eye deserves praise. “Well-shot” also meant “well-ejaculated.”

The Bastard continued, “And I am I, however I was begot.”

King John said, “Go, Robert Faulconbridge. Now you have what you desired. A landless knight — the new Sir Richard Plantagenet — makes you a landed squire.

“Come, madam, and come, Richard, we must speedily go to France, for it is more than necessary that we go to France. Our need to go there is urgent.”

The Bastard said to Robert Faulconbridge, “Brother, adieu. May good fortune come to you, for you were begotten in the way of honesty.”

Everyone except the Bastard exited.

The Bastard spoke to himself about his new honors: “I am a foot of honor better than I was, but I am many and many foot of land the worse. Well, now can I make any common Joan a Lady.

“Someone will say to me, ‘Good evening, Sir Richard!’

“I will reply, ‘May God give you mercy, fellow!’

“And if his name is George, I’ll call him Peter. For new-made men of honor forget men’s names. People converted to a higher social rank find it too respectful and too sociable to remember the names of people of a lower social rank.

“Now I will be called ‘your worship,’ and I will invite a traveller — he and his toothpick — to dine with me.”

Travellers sometimes used toothpicks — not then well known in England — as a way to show that they had travelled and were familiar with some of the ways that other cultures did things. A person such as the Bastard was not affected and chose to suck his teeth to remove food rather than use a toothpick. Despite being recently knighted, the Bastard had no intention of becoming affected; instead, he was mocking affectation.

The Bastard continued, “And when my knightly stomach is full, why then I will suck my teeth and catechize — question — my picked man of countries.”

The traveller was picked because 1) he was refined and 2) he had picked his teeth with a toothpick.

The Bastard mocked polite conversation: “I will say, ‘My dear sir.’ Like this” — he demonstrated — “leaning on my elbow, I begin, ‘I shall beseech you’ — that is Question now, and then comes Answer like an Absey book.”

An Absey book is an ABC book, or a primer, or a catechism book for children. Many such books were written in the form of questions and answers.

The Bastard continued, “‘Oh, sir,’ says Answer, ‘at your best command. At your employment; at your service, sir.’ ‘No, sir,’ says Question. ‘I, sweet sir, am at yours.’

“And so, before Answer knows what Question wants to ask, except in dialogue of compliment, and talking about the Alps and the Apennines, the Pyrenees and the Po River, the end of suppertime draws near.

“But this is worshipful society and befits the mounting and ambitious spirit of a person such as myself. A person is but a bastard to the time — not a true child of the time — who does not smack — savor the taste — of the observation of polite courtesies. An ambitious person should be able to engage in polite conversation and formal dining.

“And I am a bastard, both a bastard in heritage and a bastard to the time — whether I smack or not. I will be a bastard to the time whether or not I savor the taste of the observation of polite courtesies. Even if I choose to engage in polite social behavior, I will still be on the outside and not fully a member of that culture.

“I will be a bastard and not a true child of the time not only in clothing and device — my coat of arms would have a bar sinister to indicate my bastardy — and not only in exterior form and outward special trappings, but also I will be a bastard and not a true child of the time when it comes to the inward motion to deliver sweet, sweet, sweet poisonous flattery for the age’s tooth.

“Although I will not practice flattery to deceive others, yet to avoid being deceived myself by flattery, I mean to learn about flattery because flattery shall strew the footsteps of my rising. I am ambitious and intend to rise higher. I know that others will flatter me in order to deceive me, but I have no intention of being deceived in that way.”

The Bastard looked up and saw a woman in riding clothes.

He said to himself, “But who comes in such haste in riding robes? What woman-post is this? Has she no husband who will take pains to blow a horn before her?”

Normally, men rode post horses, so seeing a woman-post was unusual.

People who rode post-horses rode quickly and so blew horns to warn people to get out of their way. A horn also sounded to announce the post-rider’s arrival.

The Bastard made a joke when he said, “Has she no husband who will take pains to blow a horn before her?” In stories about cuckolds, a husband who blew his horn was publicly announcing that he was a cuckold. Cuckolds were men with unfaithful wives; cuckolds were said to have invisible horns growing on their heads.

Having dismounted, Lady Faulconbridge walked over to the Bastard. Following her was James Gurney, her servant. Respectable women in this culture would not travel without a male accompanying them.

The Bastard said to himself, “Oh, me! It is my mother.”

He greeted her out loud, “How are you now, good lady! What brings you here to court so hastily?”

“Where is that slave, your brother?” Lady Faulconbridge demanded. “Where is he, that man who pursues and hunts my honor up and down and everywhere?”

“Robert, my brother?” the Bastard asked. “Old Sir Robert’s son? Colbrand the Giant, that same mighty man?”

Colbrand the Giant was the Bastard’s mocking name for Robert Faulconbridge. In the fourteenth-century romance Guy of Warwick, the title character defeated Colbrand the Giant of Denmark.

The Bastard continued, “Is it Sir Robert’s son that you seek so?”

“Sir Robert’s son!” Lady Faulconbridge said. “Yes, you irreverent boy, Sir Robert’s son. Why do you mock Sir Robert like that? He is Sir Robert’s son, and so are you.”

The Bastard said, “James Gurney, will you give us leave awhile?”

This was a polite request to be left alone with his mother. The Bastard’s use of the servant’s full and correct name showed that he was on familiar terms with the servants of his mother; it was also evidence that he would not allow his new knighthood to make him proud and affected.

“Good leave, good Philip,” James Gurney replied.

The phrase “good leave” meant that yes, he would leave them alone.

“Philip!” the Bastard said. “Sparrow!”

Philip was his old name; it was a name commonly given to pet sparrows.

The Bastard said, “James, there’s toys abroad. Soon I’ll tell you more.”

“Toys” are trifles. In this case, the toys were the Bastard’s knighthood and new name. As you can see, the Bastard was not taking his new honors overlyseriously.

The Bastard said to his mother, Lady Faulconbridge, “Madam, I was not old Sir Robert’s son. Sir Robert might have eaten his part in me on Good Friday and never broken his fast: He had no part in making me. Sir Robert could do well — I confess it — if he could beget me.”

One meaning of the phrase “to do” is “to have sex.”

The Bastard continued, “Sir Robert could not do it: He could not have begotten me. We know his handiwork: Look at his legitimate son Robert. Therefore, good mother, to whom am I beholden for these limbs? Sir Robert never helped to make this leg.”

That Bastard’s legs were muscular; Robert Faulconbridge’s legs were scrawny.

Lady Faulconbridge asked, “Have you conspired with your brother, too? You should for your own gain defend my honor; that way, you will inherit the estate. What do you mean by this scorn, you most unmannerly knave?”

“Not knave — I am a knight, a knight, good mother, just like Basilisco,” the Bastard replied.

Basilisco was a fictional character in Thomas Kyd’s play Soliman and Persedawho insisted on being called a knight, not a knave.

The Bastard continued, “I have been dubbed a knight! I have it on my shoulder.”

Part of the ceremony of making someone a knight involved tapping the man’s shoulder with a sword.

The Bastard continued, “But, mother, I am not Sir Robert’s son. I have disclaimed Sir Robert and my land. Legitimacy, name, and all are gone. So then, my good mother, let me know who is my father. Some proper man, I hope. Who was he, mother?”

“Have you denied that you are a Faulconbridge?” his mother asked.

“As faithfully as I deny the Devil,” the Bastard replied.

“King Richard Coeur-de-lion was your father,” Lady Faulconbridge admitted. “By a long and vehement suit, I was seduced into making room for him in my husband’s bed. May Heaven not lay my transgression to my charge! You are the issue of — the child resulting from — my dear offence, which was so strongly urged past my defenses.”

“Now, by this light, if I were to be begotten again, Madam, I would not wish for a better father,” the Bastard said. “Some sins bear their privilege on Earth, and so does yours; your fault was not your folly.”

Sins that bear their privilege on Earth are those that have immunity and advantages.

The Bastard continued, “You necessarily lay your heart at King Richard I’s disposal; your heart was subjected tribute to commanding love, against whose fury and unmatched force the fearless lion could not wage the fight, nor keep his Princely heart from Richard’s hand. He who by force robs lions of their hearts may easily win a woman’s.”

A legend about King Richard I stated that while he was being held prisoner, a lion was released in his cell to kill him. But when the lion roared, Richard thrust his naked hand and arm into the lion’s throat and pulled out the lion’s heart. This is how he came to be known as “Lionheart.”

The Bastard continued, “Yes, my mother, with all my heart I thank you for my father! Anyone who lives and dares to say that you did not well when I was begotten, I’ll send his soul to Hell. Come, lady, I will show you to my kin, and they shall say that when Richard begot me, if you had said no to him, it would have been a sin. Whoever says it was a sin, he lies; I say it was not.”

The Bastard was cleverly punning on “not” and “naught.” “Naught” has two meanings: 1) nothing, and 2) evil. In this culture, the word “naughty” had a much darker and more serious meaning than it does in our culture.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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