David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s KING JOHN: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scene 1

— 3.1 —

Constance, Arthur, and the Earl of Salisbury spoke together in the French King’s pavilion. The Earl of Salisbury had brought Constance news about the marriage of Louis the Dauphin and Blanche, niece of King John.

Constance said to the Earl of Salisbury, “Gone to be married! Gone to swear a peace! False, faithless blood joined to false, faithless blood! Gone to be friends! Shall Louis have Blanche, and Blanche have those provinces?

“It is not so: You have misspoken; you have misheard. Be well advised and sensible; tell your tale again. It cannot be; you only say it is so.

“I trust I may not trust you, for your word is only the vain breath of a common man. Believe me: I do not believe you, man. I have a King’s oath to the contrary. You shall be punished for thus frightening me, for I am sick and susceptible to fears, oppressed with wrongs and therefore full of fears. I am a widow, husbandless, subject to fears. I am a woman, by nature heir to fears.

“And even if you now confess you only jested, I cannot make peace with my vexed spirits, and they will quake and tremble all this day.

“What do you mean by shaking your head? Why do you look so sorrowfully at my son? What means that hand upon that breast of yours? Why does your eye hold that lamentable tear, like a proud river peering over its banks?

“Are these sad signs confirmers of your words? Then speak again; don’t tell all your former tale, but say this one word: whether your tale is true.”

The one word she wanted to hear was that his news was nottrue.

The Earl of Salisbury said, “My words are as true as I believe you think them — King Philip II and his son the Dauphin — false who give you reason to know that what I say is true.”

Constance said, “Oh, if you teach me to believe this sorrow, then teach this sorrow how to make me die, and let belief and life encounter in the same way as does the fury of two desperate men who in their very meeting fall and die.

“Louis marry Blanche!”

She said to Arthur, “Oh, boy, then what will become of you and your claim on the throne of England?”

She continued, “With the King of France friends with the King of England, what becomes of me?

“Fellow, be gone: I cannot endure your sight. This news has made you a very ugly man.”

Constance was so upset that she was speaking contemptuously to the Earl of Salisbury, including calling him “fellow.”

The Earl of Salisbury replied, “What other harm have I, good lady, done, except speak the harm that is by others done?”

“Which harm within itself is so heinous that it makes harmful all who speak of it,” Constance said.

“I beg you, madam, be calm,” Arthur said.

“If you, who bid me to be calm, were grim, ugly, and slanderous to your mother’s womb, full of unpleasing blots and sightless stains, lame, foolish, crooked, swarthy, monstrous, patched with foul moles and eye-offending marks, I would not care, I then would be calm, for then I should not love you, no, nor would you become and suit your great birth nor would you deserve a crown.

“But you are good-looking, and at your birth, dear boy, Nature and Fortune joined to make you great. Of Nature’s gifts you may with lilies boast, and with the partially blossomed rose.”

The lily is a symbol of France, and the rose is a symbol of England.

Constance continued, “But Fortune, oh, she is corrupted, changed, and won from you. She commits adultery hourly with your uncle John, and with her golden hand has plucked on the King of France to tread down fair respect of sovereignty, and made his majesty the bawd to theirs. The King of France is a bawd to Fortune and to King John — that strumpet Fortune, that usurping John!”

She said to the Earl of Salisbury, “Tell me, fellow, isn’t the King of France forsworn? Hasn’t he broken his word? Poison him with words, or get you gone and leave those woes alone that I alone am bound to bear and endure and suffer.”

“Pardon me, madam,” the Earl of Salisbury said. “I may not go without you to the Kings.”

“You may, you shall,” Constance said. “I will not go with you. I will instruct my sorrows to be proud, for grief is proud and makes its owner stoop. To me and to the state of my great grief let Kings assemble, for my grief’s so great that no supporter but the huge firm earth can hold it up. Here I and my sorrows sit. Here is my throne. Tell Kings to come bow to it.”

She sat on the ground.

King John, King Philip II, Louis the Dauphin, Blanche, Queen Eleanor, the Bastard, the Duke of Austria, and some attendants walked over to her.

King Philip II said to Blanche, “It is true, fair daughter-in-law, and this blessed day always in France shall be kept a festival day. To solemnize this day, the glorious Sun stays in his course and plays the alchemist, turning with the splendor of his precious eye the meager cloddy Earth to glittering gold. The yearly course that brings this day about shall never see it except as a holiday.”

Constance said, “It is a wicked day, and not a holy day!”

She stood up and said, “What has this day deserved? What has it done that it in golden letters to make it stand out should be set among the great festivals in the calendar? Instead, turn this day out of the week and delete this day of shame, oppression, and perjury.

“Or, if it must stand in the calendar, let pregnant wives pray that their children may not be born on this day, lest their hopes be disappointed with the birth of a monster. Let seamen fear shipwreck on no day except on this day. Let no agreements break except those that are on this day made. On this day, let all things begun come to an ill end. Yes, let faith itself change to hollow falsehood!”

“By Heaven, lady, you shall have no cause to curse the fair proceedings of this day,” King Philip II said. “Haven’t I pledged to you my majesty?”

Constance replied, “You have beguiled me with a counterfeit that merely resembles majesty, which, being tested and tried, proves to be valueless. You are forsworn, forsworn; you have broken your word. You came in arms to spill my enemies’ blood, but now in arms — arm in arm with King John — you strengthen it with your blood. The grappling vigor and rough frown of war is cold in amity and feigned peace, and the oppression of Arthur and me has created the formation of this league.

“Arm, arm, you Heavens, against these perjured Kings! A widow cries; protect me as a husband would protect a wife, Heavens! Let not the hours of this ungodly day wear out the day in peace, but before sunset set armed discord between these perjured Kings! Hear me, oh, hear me!”

“Lady Constance, peace! Be calm!” the Duke of Austria said.

“War! War! No peace!” Constance shouted. “Peace is to me a war. Oh, Lymoges! Oh, Austria! You shame that bloody spoil — that lion skin taken from Richard the Lionheart. You slave, you wretch, you coward!

“You are little in bravery, but great in villainy. You are always strong upon the stronger side! You always choose to side with the stronger side! You are Lady Fortune’s champion who never fights except when her temperamental ladyship is nearby to teach you how to keep yourself safe! You have perjured yourself, too, and you flatter great and powerful people. What a fool you are, a ramping, boasting fool, to brag and stamp and swear in my cause and on my side! You cold-blooded slave, haven’t you spoken like thunder on my side, sworn that you are my soldier, told me that I can depend upon your stars, your fortune, and your strength, and do you now fall over to my foes?

“You wear a lion’s hide! Take it off for shame, and hang a calfskin on those recreant limbs.”

Lions are known for courageousness; calves are known for meekness.

“I wish that a man would speak those words to me!” the Duke of Austria said.

Immediately, the Bastard said, “And hang a calfskin on those recreant limbs.”

“You dare not say so, villain, on your life,” the Duke of Austria said.

Immediately, the Bastard repeated, “And hang a calfskin on those recreant limbs.”

Using the royal plural, King John said, “We do not like this; you forget your place.”

Cardinal Pandulph arrived.

Seeing him, King John said, “Here comes the holy legate of the Pope.”

“Hail, you anointed deputies of Heaven!” Cardinal Pandulph said. “To you, King John, my holy errand is. I, Pandulph, Cardinal of fair Milan, and from Pope Innocent III the legate here, do in his name religiously demand why you against the church, our holy mother, so willfully spurn, and with violent compulsion keep Stephen Langton, whom the Pope has chosen to be Archbishop of Canterbury, from that holy see? This, in our aforesaid holy father’s name, Pope Innocent III, I demand of you.”

King John replied, “What worldly name to interrogatories can task the free breath of a sacred King? What worldly man can force a sacred King to answer questions? You cannot, Cardinal, invent a name as slight, unworthy, and ridiculous as the name of the Pope to order me to make an answer to a question.

“Tell him what I have said, and from the mouth of the King of England add this much more, that no Italian priest — no Pope — shall tithe or toll, aka collect church revenues — in our dominions.

“As we, under Heaven, are supreme head, so under Him we will alone uphold, without the assistance of a mortal hand such as that belonging to the Pope, that great supremacy, with which we do reign.

“So tell the Pope, with all reverence to him and his usurped and stolen authority cast aside.”

King Philip II said, “Brother of England, you blaspheme in doing and saying this.”

King John replied, “Although you and all the Kings of Christendom are led so grossly by this meddling priest, the Pope, dreading the curse that money may buy out, and by the merit of vile gold, dross, and dust, you and the other Kings purchase the corrupted pardon of a man, who in that sale sells pardon from himself and not from God, and moreover damns himself, and although you and all the rest of the Kings so grossly led cherish this cheating witchcraft and superstition with revenue, yet I alone, alone oppose the Pope and count his friends my foes.”

King John was criticizing the church’s practice of selling indulgences, in which sinners paid money for the forgiveness of sins.

Cardinal Pandulph said to King John, “Then, by the lawful power that I have, you shall stand cursed and excommunicated. And blessed shall any man be who revolts from his allegiance to a heretic — you. And that hand that takes away by any secret course — such as poison — your hateful life shall be called meritorious, canonized, and worshipped as a saint.”

Constance said, “Oh, let it be lawful that I can join with Rome to curse awhile! Good father Cardinal, cry amen to my keen curses, for without my wrong there is no tongue that has power to curse him right. He cannot be cursed correctly unless the wrong he has done to me is acknowledged.”

“My curse is justified,” Cardinal Pandulph replied. “There’s law and warrant, lady, for my curse.”

“And for mine, too,” Constance said. “When law can do no right, then let it be lawful that law bar no wrong. Law cannot give my child his Kingdom here, for the man — King John — who holds his Kingdom upholds the law. Therefore, since law itself is perfectly wrong, how can the law forbid my tongue to curse?”

King Philip II of France and King John of England were holding hands because of the alliance that they had just arranged through marriage.

Cardinal Pandulph said, “King Philip II of France, on peril of a curse, let go of the hand of that arch-heretic, and raise up the power of France against King John’s head and army, unless he submits himself to Rome.”

“Why do you look pale, King of France?” Queen Eleanor asked. “Do not let go of King John’s hand.”

“Take action, Devil,” Constance said to Queen Eleanor. “If you don’t, the King of France will repent and let go of King John’s hand, and Hell will lose a soul.”

“King Philip II, listen to the Cardinal,” the Duke of Austria advised.

“And hang a calfskin on his recreant limbs,” the Bastard said.

The Duke of Austria replied, “Well, ruffian, I must pocket up and endure these wrongs, because —”

The Bastard interrupted, “— your breeches best may carry them.”

King John asked, “Philip, what do you say to the Cardinal?”

“What should he say but that he agrees with the Cardinal?” Constance asked.

Louis the Dauphin said, “Think, father, about this decision. The difference is a heavy curse from Rome, or the light loss of the King of England for a friend. Forego the easier.”

Blanche said, “The easier one to forego is the curse of Rome.”

“Oh, Louis, stand fast!” Constance advised. “The Devil tempts you here in the likeness of a new and virgin bride.”

Blanche said, “The Lady Constance speaks not from her faith, but from her need. She says not what she believes, but what she thinks will get her what she wants.”

Constance said to King Philip II, “Oh, if you grant me what I need, which lives only by the death of faithfulness, that need must necessarily imply this principle: Faithfulness would live again by the death of what I need. Oh, then, trample down my need, and faithfulness mounts up. Keep my need up, and faithfulness is trodden down!”

Constance’s need was for Arthur to become King of England. For that to happen, King Philip II would have to break his faithfulness — that is, he would have to break the alliance he had just faithfully sworn to King John.

King John said, “The King of France is moved — emotionally shaken — and he does not make an answer to this.”

“Oh, for him to be removed from King John, and for him to answer well!” Constance said.

“Do so, King Philip,” the Duke of Austria advised. “Remove yourself from King John, and hang no more in doubt.”

“Hang nothing but a calfskin, most sweet lout,” the Bastard said to the Duke of Austria.

“I am perplexed, and I don’t know what to say,” King Philip II said.

“What can you say but what will perplex you more, if you stand excommunicated and cursed?” Cardinal Pandulph said.

“Good reverend father, put yourself in my place,” King Philip II said, “and tell me how you would bestow yourself. What would you do if you were me? King John’s royal hand and my royal hand are newly joined, and our inward souls are conjoined and newly married in league, coupled and linked together with all the religious strength of sacred vows. The most recent breath that gave the sound of words was deeply sworn faithfulness, peace, amity, and true love between our Kingdoms and our royal selves, and just before this truce, just a little while before, no longer than we well could wash our hands to seal and settle this royal bargain of peace, Heaven knows, our hands were besmeared and stained all over with the broad paintbrush of slaughter, where revenge did paint the fearsome difference of incensed Kings.

“Shall these hands, so lately purged of blood, so newly joined in love, so strong in both, unyoke this seizure and this kind return of salutation? Play fast and loose with faith? So jest with Heaven, make such changeable and fickle children of ourselves, as now again to snatch our palm from palm, unswear and take back the faith we have sworn, and on the marriage bed of smiling peace to march a bloody army, and make a riot on the gentle brow of true sincerity?

“Oh, holy sir, my reverend father, let it not be so! Out of your grace and with the power of your office, devise, ordain, impose some gentle order and compromise and solution; and then we shall be blest to do your pleasure and continue to be friends.”

“All form is formless and all order is orderless, save what is opposed and hostile to the love and friendship of the King of England,” Cardinal Pandulph said. “Therefore to arms! Make war against England. Be champion of our church, or let the church, our mother, breathe her curse, a mother’s curse, on her rebelling son.

“King of France, you may safer hold a serpent by the tongue, an angry lion by the deadly paw, a fasting tiger by the tooth, than keep in peace that hand which you now hold.”

“I may disjoin my hand, but not my faith,” King Philip II said. “I can stop holding the hand of King John, but I cannot break the faithful vow I made that I will be in alliance with him.”

“And so you are making faithfulness an enemy to faith,” Cardinal Pandulph said, “and like a civil war you set oath against oath, and your tongue against your tongue. Oh, let the vow you made first — the vow you made to Heaven — be the first performed to Heaven. That is, you vowed to be the champion of our church!

“The vow that you have sworn since — the vow that you swore to King John — is a vow that you have sworn against yourself and it may not be performed by yourself because that which you have sworn to do amiss is not amiss when it is truly done, and being not done, where doing tends to ill, the truth is then most done in not doing it.”

Cardinal Pandulph wanted King Philip II to not keep the vow he had made to King John. The Cardinal was arguing that although it is usually unethical not to keep a vow you have sworn to keep, it is ethical not to keep an unethical vow.

Cardinal Pandulph continued, “The better act of purposes mistook is to mistake again; although deceitful, yet deceit thereby grows undeceitful, and falsehood cures falsehood, as fire cools fire within the scorched veins of one newly burned.”

According to Cardinal Pandulph, it is morally right to commit a wrong if it leads one to the right path. It is morally right for King Philip II to not keep a vow if it leads to his obeying and being loyal to the church. King Philip II had committed a wrong when he made an alliance with King John. Now he needed to commit the wrong of breaking that vow because this second wrong would put him on the right path — it would make him loyal again to the church.

This society believed that exposing a burn to heat would help cure the burn. In this analogy, the burn was King Philip II’s vow to be allied with England, and the heat was the breaking of that vow.

Cardinal Pandulph continued, “It is religion that makes vows be kept, but you have sworn a vow to King John that is against religion. You have sworn by your faith a vow that is against your faith. What you have sworn is against the thing you have sworn by. You have sworn an oath to God and made that oath the guarantee that you will keep that vow which goes against the will of God.

“You ought not to swear to the truth of something you are uncertain about. When you are hesitant to swear to the truth of something, you should swear only that you will not forswear and perjure yourself.

“The truth you are hesitant to swear swears only not to be forsworn. Otherwise, it would be a mockery to swear!

“But you have sworn only to be not forsworn, and you will be most forsworn if you do what you have sworn to do.”

King Philip II’s vow contained two parts: 1) I swear by God, Whom I serve, that 2) I will form an alliance with England. King Philip II definitely wanted to keep the second part of the vow, but Cardinal Pandulph felt that King Philip II was hesitant about keeping the first part of the vow.

According to the Cardinal, the first part was the part of the vow that needed to be kept. That was the part that included the vow that the vow-maker will not be forsworn. Since that was the only part of the vow that absolutely needed to be kept, the other part of the vow — forming an alliance with England — need not be kept because it contradicted the first part.

He also meant that King Philip II had made a vow that he now needed to break, although he desperately wanted to keep that vow. King Philip II had sworn a vow to King John; that vow made him forsworn to the church. If he kept his vow to King John, he would be forsworn to the church.

Cardinal Pandulph continued, “Therefore your later vow, which is against your first vow, is in yourself rebellion to yourself.”

The vow made to King John was against the first vow that King Philip II had made, which was to support the church, and this conflict of vows led to a conflict within King Philip II. In fact, according to Cardinal Pandulph, the later vow, which conflicted with his vow to the church, made him a rebel to himself and his better nature as well as to the church.

Cardinal Pandulph continued, “And better conquest never can you make than to arm your constant and your nobler parts against these giddy loose suggestions.”

The best thing for King Philip II to do, according to Cardinal Pandulph, was to reject the “giddy loose suggestions” of staying loyal to King John; instead, he should stay loyal to the church.

Cardinal Pandulph continued, “Upon which better part our prayers come in, if you allow our prayers to come in. But if you don’t allow our prayers to come in, then know that the peril of our curses will light on you so heavy that you shall not shake them off, but in despair you will die under their black weight.”

Religious people believe that in the case of conflicting vows, if one of the vows is made to the church and the other vow is made to an Earthly King, the vow to the church is the one that must be kept.

The Duke of Austria said, “Rebellion, flat rebellion!”

He was referring to Cardinal Pandulph’s statement to King Philip II, “Therefore your later vow against your first vow is in yourself rebellion to yourself.”

“Will you never be quiet?” the Bastard said. “Wouldn’t a calfskin stop that mouth of yours?”

“Father, to arms!” Louis the Dauphin advised.

“On your wedding day?” Blanche protested. “Against the blood relatives of the woman whom you have married? Shall our feast be kept with slaughtered men? Shall braying trumpets and loud churlish drums, the clamors of Hell, be the music to our wedding celebration?

“Oh, husband, listen to me! How new is the word ‘husband’ in my mouth! Even for that word, that name, which until this time my tongue has never pronounced, upon my knee I beg you to not go to arms against King John, my uncle.”

Like Blanche, Constance now knelt and said, “Oh, upon my knee, made hard with kneeling, I pray to you, you virtuous Dauphin, don’t alter the doom and judgment aforethought by Heaven!”

“Now I shall see your love,” Blanche said to her husband. “What motive may be stronger with you than the name of ‘wife’?”

Constance answered for Louis the Dauphin, “That which upholds him that you uphold: his honor. Oh, your honor, Louis, your honor!”

Louis the Dauphin said to his father the King, “I wonder because your majesty seems so cold and indifferent when such weighty and important considerations pull you on.”

“I will proclaim a curse upon his head,” Cardinal Pandulph said.

“You shall not need to,” King Philip II said, making up his mind.

He said to King John, “King of England, I will fall away from you. I am your enemy now, not your ally.”

Constance said, “Oh, fair return of banished majesty!”

Queen Eleanor said, “Oh, foul revolt of French inconstancy!”

King John said, “King of France, you shall rue this hour within this hour.”

The Bastard said, “Old Time the clock-setter, that bald sexton Time, is it as he will? Well, then, France shall rue.”

The sexton of a church both wound the clocks and dug the graves. Old Time makes a good metaphorical sexton because as time passes, all living people grow closer to the grave. With a battle fast approaching, many Frenchmen — and Englishmen — would die.

“The sun’s overcast with blood,” Blanche said. “Fair day, adieu! Which is the side that I must go with? I am with both sides. Each army has a hand, and in the armies’ rage, I have hold of a hand of both sides. Both sides swirl asunder and dismember me.

“Louis, husband, I cannot pray that you may win.

“King John, uncle, I necessarily must pray that you may lose.

“King Philip II, father-in-law, I may not wish good fortune to be yours.

“Eleanor, grandmother, I will not wish your fortunes to thrive.

“Whoever wins, on that side I shall lose. I am assured a loss before the match is played.”

Louis the Dauphin said to her, “Lady, come with me; your fortune lies with me.”

“There where my fortune lives, there my life dies,” Blanche replied.

“Kinsman, go draw our soldiers together,” King John ordered.

The Bastard exited to carry out the order.

King John then said, “King of France, I am burned up with inflaming wrath — a rage whose heat has this condition, that nothing can allay it, nothing but blood, the blood, and the dearest-valued blood, of the King of France.”

King Philip II replied, “Your rage shall burn you up, and you shall turn to ashes before our blood shall quench that fire. Look after yourself, for your life is in jeopardy.”

“No more than the life of him who threatens me,” King John said. “To arms! Let’s hurry!”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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