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"King John and the Obedience of All Degrees"

by Dr. Kristin Lucas, Nipissing University

(June 2012 Issue / PDF)

This essay sits at the intersection of rhetorical inquiry and literary studies. It responds to a renewed critical interest in the written representation of speech, such as Jonathan Culpeper and Merja Kytö’s recent Early Modern English Dialogues, and contributes to the understanding of language and subjectivity in early modern English drama. It does so by examining catechism, a form of dialogue Shakespeare used in several plays. In Twelfth Night, Feste famously catechises the mourning Olivia; in Measure for Measure the disguised Duke visits the pregnant Juliet in prison and questions her; in King John, the Bastard recounts the knight-traveller catechism. The auditors of these three plays would have an expectation about catechismal dialogue, and would find that expectation overturned. Recovering the genre of catechismal dialogue, a genre with which virtually all early modern persons were familiar, illuminates Shakespeare’s engagement with the form, and the precise ways he altered it.  Catechism is an effective way to introduce students to early modern ideas about obedience and subjectivity, and its dialogue form provides a clear pattern of rhetorical expectation against which the episodes/plays can be read. The essay begins by outlining some primary features of the Tudor catechism and related material, and then turns to Shakespeare’s King John and develops a close reading of that play’s catechismal process.


Shakespeare’s play King John has often been associated with Elizabethan politics, and sometimes explicitly with the politics of Protestantism.  Critics who have written about the contiguity of church and state interests have remarked on the play’s relationship to Armada literature and anti-Catholic rhetoric, and of course to Bale’s play Troublesome Raigne of King John. The interwoven themes of sovereignty and sedition, authority and obedience that lie at the heart of the play have been addressed, with critical emphasis placed on the representation of political controversy.[1] To that end, religious writing such as “A Homily against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion” has been readily invoked, albeit mainly to shape a topical rather than a doctrinal context for the play; despite relative non-attention, the latter merits consideration.  Obedience doctrine held a central place in Reformation thought, and the homily itself belongs to the rich though less studied genre of religious instructional literature. This essay considers the play’s dramatization of obedience by taking into fuller account the nature of religious education.  It demonstrates that catechismal dialogue, used to advance a sense of duty and obedience, is reflected in the structure and themes of King John.

Three questions help organize the play, addressing in turn paternal, civil, and religious authority.  Each question involves a direct confrontation between an authority figure and a subordinate: the Bastard’s appeal to the court allows him to renegotiate his paternity; Angers must simultaneously vow allegiance to and name the king; both King John and King Philip are called upon to affirm their relationship with Rome.[2] With each question, the socio-religious significance escalates and similarly, the respondent occupies an increasingly important position: first individual; then community; then king.  The lessons are compounded and each level informs the next.  This question-and-answer mode of interrogation can be described as catechetic.  In principle, it positions the respondent and orients him toward an existing order based on an identifiable authority, be it family, state, or church. In practice, rather than conferring a sense of duty, the series of questions repeatedly reveals the subject eluding the figure of authority.

“Whether there were limits to the obedience that inferiors owed their social and political superiors,” writes Richard Strier, “was one of the great questions of Renaissance and Reformation political thinking” (104).  An early and important English example of such thinking is found in William Tyndale’s classic 1528 text, The Obedience of a Christian Man. Despite what the title might suggest, Obedience was not concerned only with duty subjects owed to the sovereign; it is also clearly interested in establishing superiors’ obligations to their subjects.  As Tyndale describes it, the subject-sovereign relationship is reciprocal one, and to operate properly each side must uphold their respective obligations.

To chart “the Obedience of all Degrees,” Tyndale began with the duty owed by children to their elders, and his account of this relationship served as the cornerstone of his argument.[3]  By way of support, Tyndale (following Luther) broadened the scope of the fifth commandment --  “honour thy father and thy mother: that the dayes may be long in the Lande which the Lord thy God geveth three” (Exod 20:12) -- and applied it to all levels of secular authority, including the duty of wives to husbands, servants to masters, and subjects to kings.[4]  The originality of the amplification is, as Richard Rex demonstrates, relative.[5]  But the point remains that the newly re-imagined the fifth commandment, where the familial relationship is employed to aver wide-ranging authority, was incorporated into number of later, and widely circulated, religious texts.

During Elizabeth’s reign, religious education was firmly undergirded by the burgeoning print industry, and teaching on obedience found what was probably its most popular expression in catechetical instruction.[6]  Catechizing took place on “Sundays and holy days,” and confirmation was eventually contingent upon supplying the correct answers to specific questions about religious doctrine and obligation.[7]  Emphasizing methodological rigidity, Stanley Fish details the process: “everyone’s cards are out on the table: the roles to be played are well and narrowly defined, and they are fully understood by the participants, each of whom is aware of what will count as a successful performance” (24). The catechist, who is officially in possession of knowledge, occupies a position of superiority over the respondent, who must internalize the lesson  (or at least remember the answers).  It was not was not uncommon for catechisms to include a statement defining this relationship:

What is catechizing?
It is (a) an Instruction, especially of the ignorant, in the
grounds of Religion […]. (sig. Ff3 r)

This exchange from the methodicall short Catechisme, appended to Dod and Cleaver’s A Plaine and familiar Exposition of the Ten Commandements (1604), provides a useful example of the inherent dynamic, where the script includes an acknowledgement of the respondent’s need for instruction. 

While the immediate aim of instruction was to impart a more thorough comprehension of religious obligation, and lead the student to confirmation and communion, more than an understanding of the fundamental principles of the Protestant faith was at stake. Catechisms, Gordon Schochet suggests, sought to promote the integration of the catechumen into the social order.  Schochet’s primary interest is Romans 13: “Let ever soule be subiect unto hyer powers: for there is no power but of God: the powers that be, are ordained of God.  Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist, shall receave to them selves dampnation.”  Commenting on the prevalence of Romans 13 as a gloss on and extension of the fifth commandment, he argues that “whenever the decalogue was discussed, political duty was extracted from the Fifth Commandment” (Schochet 79).[8] The commandment teaches the child obligation to his or her parents, and the father in particular, as head of the household, garnered special respect.  By being taught to situate himself within the pre-existing social order, the child is introduced to the role as dutiful subject by way of filial obligation. 

Although catechisms were printed mainly for the education of children, the emphasis on obedience extended well beyond that owed by a child to his or her parents.  Such obligation was clearly expressed (and widely circulated) in A Catchisme or First Instruction and Learning of Christian Religion, the Church of England’s official form, written by Alexander Nowell and translated into English in 1570.  Divided into five parts, the first section, on law and obedience, is relevant here.  Although it might seem a long way from “Honor they father and thy mother” to “Thou shalt not kill,” Nowell draws a tidy line, one that passes through parricide, treason, and rebellion.  After briefly examining the Scholar on the meaning of honor, the Master asks: “Does the law extend onely to parentes by nature?”  The Scholar replies: “Although the very wordes seem to expresse no more: yet we must understand that all those, to whom authoritie is geven […] are conteined under the name of fathers […]” (Nowell sig. Ei v). The commandment receives twelve questions in all, and the Master inquires about duty owed to magistrates, God’s rule over his children, and the effects of disobedience and murder.  Bringing the examination to a close, he inquires: “But is it much more hainous for a man to offend or kill the parent of his country than his owne parent.”  The long reply begins with an emphatic “Yea surely,” and continues by developing an important distinction between personal and social duty (Nowell sig. Eiii r).  This distinction is crucial to the trajectory of the lesson: although natural parents can never be thought of as unimportant, Nowell seems to cast their primary role as a model for secular authority.  With the underlying message of political obedience brought to the foreground, the exercise is sharply punctuated by the rehearsal of the sixth commandment: “Thou shalt not kill.”

It is not surprising that “A Homily against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion,” also printed in 1570, does not restrict its discussion to obedience owed to the monarch, but, inverting the usual outward trajectory, revisits the obligations of family and household, the lessons of catechism.  By doing so, the homily invokes and affirms a natural order of daily life.  To transgress the order of the household is to transgress the order of the state and vice versa:

...rebels do not only dishonour their prince, the parent of their countrey, but also do dishonour and shame their naturall parentes, if they have any, do shame their kinred and freends, do disherite and undo for ever their chyldren and heyres. (Bond 225)
Family and community are posited as the primary framework within which the individual ought to orient himself.  The threat of “dishonour and shame” provides an immediate and a future incentive to behave obediently; the transgressor not only feels the scorn of his parents, his own children will be outcast.  Ultimately, familial obligation and religious duty are collapsed into an argument for unconditional obedience to the monarch.


Shakespeare’s play begins with familial relations.  The question of legitimacy is introduced, and the ability of the father to provide a unitary source of order within the family structure is eroded in the first act of King John. Illegitimacy exposes the artificiality of an otherwise apparently natural social order built upon paternity.  By threatening the accepted structure of Renaissance society, bastardy “opened [a gap] between the ideal and the real, between what was sanctioned and what was possible” (Findlay 4). In King John this gap becomes apparent, though the play treats it as a very narrow gap indeed.  At least part of the Bastard’s unusual predicament is rooted in the fact that he is not fatherless, but in fact has two fathers.  Moreover, he is able to put himself in a position of choice by invoking the king as yet another source of name and identity. That the Bastard as a son needs to look beyond the father for authority calls into the question the validity of the father’s singular position at the top of the family hierarchy.  This initial paternity suit sets a precedent for the play, whereby the patriarchal figure invoked as a decisive determinant lacks the power to resolve the dispute in question.  Thus, the notion of choice is crucial.  Subsequently, Lady Falconbridge’s “transgression” (1.1.256) is not merely excused; regarding it as the very origin of his mobility, the Bastard turns adultery into a virtue: “If thou hadst said him nay, it had been sin” (1.1.275).[9]  Gone is the role of the mother that Catherine Belsey identifies as a “negotiator between the father and the children,” (193); here she provides an illicit but validated link between her family and the court.

Arriving at court to settle an inheritance dispute with his brother Robert, the Bastard is called upon to assert his social position: King John asks, “What men are you?” (1.1.49). From the very beginning of the play the Bastard monopolizes the conversation, verbally outdistancing his brother.  He endows a potentially straightforward question with thematic significance.  Responding, “Your faithful subject I, a gentleman...” (1.1.50), he presents himself first as subject to the king and only then as his father’s son.  In the presence of and in relation to the King, the Bastard situates himself as the subjected “I.” Of course, his duty to King John is not directly at issue here, but the immediacy and the precision of the monarch-subject relation contrasts with the Bastard’s contentious familial position -- “actual illegitimacy, legal legitimacy” (Braunmuller 66)-- and the absence of both paternal figures from the drama.  The son can no longer rely on the father to establish his own identity, and consequently it must be cultivated at the expense of one paternal figure.  As the very presence of the legal battle indicates, the concept of paternity remains important.  However, as the outcome of that battle illustrates, the order upon which society is founded is far from natural.  It falls prey to legal loopholes, indicating a fictional construct with deep consequences. 

Strewn throughout the Bastard’s suit for his right to inherit Falconbridge’s land, an assertion of his own legal legitimacy, is the contradictory evidence of his physical appearance, a constant reminder that he bears no resemblance to his supposed father.  While never overtly denying that Falconbridge is his father, the Bastard offers cryptic clues and then defers, wisely inviting King John and Queen Eleanor to survey both him and his brother to “Compare our faces and be judge yourself” (1.1.79).  It is Eleanor who first explicitly interprets a break between the Bastard and Falconbridge, “read[ing] some tokens” of her son in the “composition” of the Bastard (1.1.87-8).  It is a reading with which King John agrees.

With the Bastard’s inheritance firmly established, and the legal father’s “will” determined as “of no force” (1.1.130), the Bastard, empowered with negotiating rights, is given the opportunity to alter his paternity.  Eleanor bluntly offers a choice:

Whether hadst thou rather be: a Falconbridge,
And like thy brother to enjoy thy land,
Or the reputed son of Coeur-de-lion,
Lord of thy presence, and no land beside? (1.1.134-7)
The Bastard’s response to her proposition continues in the humorous vein of physical appearance, slighting both his brother and Falconbridge for their legs “such riding-rods,” and their arms, “such eel-skins stuffed” (1.1.140-41).  As a tactic for distancing himself from Sir Nob, the Bastard’s mock-phallic description of his brother and father’s spindly limbs implies not only that he is not one of them, but that Falconbridge lacks the potency even to be his father.  Eventually the Bastard forces the issue, asking Lady Falconbridge, “To whom am I beholden for these limbs?” (1.1.239).  Describing what his face would look like if he bore the family resemblance, the Bastard introduces the image of the coin: face so thin
That in mine ear I durst not stick a rose
Lest men should say 'Look where three-farthings
goes!'  (1.1.141-43)

The Bastard not only captures the thinness of Falconbridge, but alludes at the idea of the counterfeit, combining both the “artificial” and “unreliable” stamp of the father, with the false or bastardized currency which still bears the image of the king as a guarantor of legitimacy yet sabotages economic exchange (Findlay 18). While distancing himself from Falconbridge, the Bastard does not explicitly reject him until Eleanor asks her second question, offering a place in her army and the opportunity to go to France.  Only with this prospect of a more courtly life ahead does the Bastard quit his familial alliance, saying, “Brother, take you my land; I'll take my chance” (1.1.151).

King John joins the conversation and moves towards completing the shift in paternity with the question, “What is thy name?” (1.1.157), and for the second time the Bastard takes a simple question that invites a simple answer, and turns it into a linguistic game.  The second line of the couplet serves as a reminder of Eleanor’s adultery, of the inability of the husband to determine his wife’s sexual behavior and the paternity of his
legal charges:

Philip, my liege, so is my name begun:
Philip, good old Sir Robert’s wife’s eldest son. (1.1.158-59)
A. R. Braunmuller has suggested that “naming or renaming reminds us of baptism, or for an adult, the entry into a religious order, and knighting ceremonies had analogies with both” (67). Through the baptismal vows made by the godparents, lifelong kinship relations are established, and hence catechism, which rehearses those vows, not only tests a comprehension of the sacrament, it is a vehicle through which the child accepts responsibility that heretofore was symbolically undertaken by the extended family.[10]  The ceremonial invocation of names and origins within both catechism and confirmation seeks to reaffirm the position of the child within a cohesive social network, and remind the catechumen of the religious duty others have pledged in his name.  Conversely, the Bastard’s answer focuses slyly on his ambiguous parentage and tenuous social position.  If his name is literally open ended  -- “so is my name begun” -- King John closes the gap, re-creating his identity anew in a blended rite of knighting and renaming:
Kneel thou down Philip, but arise more great:
Arise Sir Richard and Plantagenet. (1.1.161-62)

Officially stripping away one father and installing another, the knighting of the Bastard manipulates both familial relations and religious practice for the aims of social elevation.

In his first soliloquy of the play the Bastard makes an overt reference to catechism, and his example parodies the process detailed in the first section.  The scenario he constructs situates the catechism as a courtly, social entertainment, not far removed from the exchanges Stefano Guazzo described under the heading “civile conversation.” Beginning after his “knightly stomach is sufficed” (1.1.191), and concluding as the afternoon “draws toward supper” (1.1.204), instruction is wedged between the indulgence of physical appetite.  Question and Answer know each other through the roles they play in their “dialogue of compliment” (1.1.201), where responses can be offered “ere Answer knows what Question would” (1.1.200).  Though “dialogue of compliment” is glossed as “formal address” by L.A. Beaurline (71), and Braunmuller (quoting Jonas Barish) offers, “affected... discourse of those who imitate,” the latter notes also that the Folio reading “complement” might refer to the way “Question and Answer ‘complete,’ ...without advancing the conversation” (131). In the Bastard’s catechism it is the questioner, the knight, who is entertained, if not exactly edified, by the traveller’s knowledge of “The Pyrenean and the River Po” (1.1.203).  Here, the responding Answer is not constituted within a discourse of education and obedience, and this overt dismantling of the catechizer-catechumen hierarchy epitomizes the way in which the Bastard manipulates the questions asked of him in the first act.

Peter Womack suggests, “if a man can decide which paternally given identity he wants, then clearly neither identity really determines the being of the chooser” (112). The choice permitted the Bastard not only undoes the father’s ability to confer identity, but also reveals the monarch returning the question (albeit in a slightly different form) to the asker, the Bastard.  Thus, the hierarchy of the catechetical process, based on the assumption that the questioner is in full possession of knowledge, and the answerer is merely learning, is inverted in the actions of the first act, as well as in the Bastard’s first soliloquy.  The early scenes of the play establish a precedent for remaining two segments of the catechismal process, which advance questions of civil and religious authority.


Building upon the lessons of the family, King John moves out into the world at large where the monarch, the guardian and protector of the state, commands respect and duty from his subjects.  Much like the parent-child relationship examined in the Tudor catechism, the sovereign-subject relationship is typically understood to constitute a natural order in which love and duty are to be willingly and automatically yielded.  Bishop John Hooper, in his 1551 pamphlet Godly and most necessary annotations in ye xiiy chapyter too the Romaynes, helped to define that obligation by equating the duty of children to that of political subjects.  The pamphlet’s 1583 reprinting indicates that this lesson of the Edwardian Church was relevant well into Elizabeth’s reign: subjects still needed to be reminded of Romans 13 and told of their basic duty to the monarch.  Hooper advises: “In a kyngdom, and monarchie, where one is appoynted to rule all the subiects of ye same realm are bound to obey the one kyng appointed by god [...]” (sig. Bij v). The singularity assumed by Hooper is part of a rhetoric that seeks to secure loyalty while concurrently invalidating the claims of political dissenters.  It is this assumption of singularity that is at issue in the second segment of the King John’s catechetical process, the question of civil authority.

Again, order comes under fire when King John and King Philip present themselves before the walls of Angers, demanding that subjection be articulated, so as to bestow power on one king while rejecting the other.  For the second time, authority, here relating to the sovereignty of Angers, is divided between two figureheads, and for the second time social and political inferiors are not just asked to participate in the selection process, but are literally commanded to control it.  In the Citizen’s reply the two differing uses of the word “prove” attempt to evade the danger of answering the call for subjection.  In a verbal flourish reminiscent of the Bastard, he states, “he that proves the king / To him we will prove loyal” (2.1.270-71).  The first line uses “prove” as a call for concrete, external verification; the second line, a more abstract idea, implies fulfillment of promised duty.  Essentially, the Citizen refuses to allow Angers to be treated as an external validation of monarchical authority, and his refusal undermines the natural hierarchy Hooper identifies between political subject and divinely ordained sovereign.

Upon King John’s arrival at the gates of Angers he confronts King Philip, who is acting as protector of a child unable to defend himself, the able representative of Arthur’s “powerless hand” (2.1.15).  The heavy reliance on the power of language to ensure subjection is illustrated in the mingled imagery of cannon and mouth, bullets and words:

And now instead of bullets wrapped in fire
To make a shaking fever in your walls,
They shoot but calm words folded up in smoke. (2.1.227-9)

The importance of the image is fully realized only when placed in conjunction with France and England’s personification of Angers as a woman in need of the control offered by both monarch and husband.  According to Peter Stallybrass: “in early modern England, ‘woman’ was articulated as property not only in legal discourse... but also in economic and political discourse.  Economically, she is the fenced-in enclosure of the landlord, her husband” (127). In King John the feminization of material property serves to reinforce the monarch-subject relationship.  The convergence of verbal and physical aggression lends the image of the cannon, poised for the destruction of a feminized city, an unavoidable phallic significance.

In accordance with their perceived sovereign duties -- King John defending his right to rule and King Philip avenging the wronged Arthur -- each king seeks to present himself to Angers in a different light from the other.  King John creates an implicitly chivalric image of himself.  By continually drawing correspondences between the city’s structure and female anatomy, “your city’s eyes, your winking gates” (2.1.215), “those sleeping stones / That as a waist doth girdle you about” (2.1.216-7), he frames Angers as a woman risking “endamagement” (2.1.209) and “compulsion” (2.1.18) at the hands of the French.  He declares that only by conceding to English control, by permitting them to enter and giving them “harbourage within your city walls” (2.1.234), will it be possible to “save unscratched your city’s threatened cheeks” (2.1.225).  While King John portrays the city as a vulnerable maid and England as her protector, King Philip invokes religious provocation, casting the French as relentless but justified agents of God.  This figuration is made explicit by the Bastard in his soliloquy that closes the scene, where he refers to France as “God’s own soldier” (2.1.567).  Only near the end of his speech does King Philip move into a personified assertion, and he too fashions the city as fragile and easily savaged: “‘Tis not the roundure of your old-faced walls / Can hide you from our messengers of war” (2.1.259-60).

Menacing words and the threat of assault force the Citizen to engage in the dialogue of subjection, which is done most literally: he continually restates, in a variety of ways, the obvious if paradoxical position of the French city  -- “we are the King of England’s subjects” (2.1.267).  The Citizen, then, with the protection of his city in mind, takes the questions put to him and constricts them into the narrowest possible meaning; after closing down interpretation, he answers accordingly.  The Citizen’s replies constitute “what might be called the subject’s point of view in the play: equivocation is the answer to the subject’s dilemma of how to negotiate his way between the coercive demands of rival ‘kings.’” (Hobson 105).  As a method of self-preservation, the Citizen’s standard mode of response can be understood as a reversal of the tactic employed by the Bastard, who interprets broadly the questions asked of him, creatively shaping out a verbal and ultimately a physical space for himself.  Angers’ literal yet evasive answers serve a purpose comparable to their enveloping walls and their “rammed up” gates (2.1.272): they render the city linguistically impenetrable.

The final question asked of Angers sets up a question-answer combination that has been gradually approached since the kings first presented themselves at the city walls.  King Philip demands: “Speak, citizens, for England: who’s your king?” (2.1.362). The Citizen replies: “The King of England, when we know the King” (2.1.363), escaping into ontological paradox, the paradox of being.  Typically, ontological paradox involves first-person statements of self-description, as the Bastard’s assertion that “I am I...” (1.1.175), which precludes either paternal figure as an influence on his identity.  Similarly, the Citizen’s rhetorical strategy evolves into a tautological formula of being that minimizes the significance of the subject in establishing the monarch, and requires only a slight condensation to yield ‘the king is the king.’  The Citizen presents Angers as a passive participant in the verbal construction of the king, neutralizing the discourse that holds the inhabitants, as subjects, in place.  The monarch-subject relationship is grammatically transformed from ‘I’ or ‘we’ in relation to ‘you,’ to become a variation of a third-person reference where the thing described is merely called itself.  Restated thus, the description takes on what Rosalie Colie has identified as an element of mirroring, “an endless oscillation between the thing itself and the thing reflected... an infinite regress” (355).

It seems that this tautological reflection, and the actual refraction of kingship into two bodies, is in danger of being sustained except that, as Colie notes, such fragmentation cannot be tolerated for long. Eventually “self-reference forces [the] consideration of relativity” (362). In the play, such a consideration is provoked by the Citizen’s bold refusal to commit the city to an answer:

... we do lock
Our former scruple in our strong-barred gates,
Kinged of our fear, until our fears resolved
Be by some certain king, purged and deposed. (1.1.369-72)

More precisely, it is provoked by the Bastard’s reaction, urging the kings to break the stalemate, the futile mirroring, and turn towards Angers instead.  He convinces them that they should join forces, citing the mutines of Jerusalem as an example of two opposing factions who fought together.  The story he relies upon, however, is of two sides who were embroiled in a civil war, which they ceased in attempt to save their country from a common enemy.  In the situation at hand, the conquering of Angers, the enemy is not external and does not need driving back; Angers is that which is claimed as part of the kingdom by both the competing forces, the feminized city desired but untouchable.

Surrender is clearly not going to decide possession, so at the Bastard’s suggestion England and France unite to cause Angers’ destruction.  Advising, “By east and west let France and England mount / Their battering cannon, chargèd to the mouths” (2.1.381-82), he positions the two contenders in each other’s line of fire.  King John adheres to the Bastard’s plan, stating, “We from the west will send destruction / Into this city’s bosom” (2.1.409-10), though he is spared ridicule (and attack) when France and Austria deviate from the instructions.  With feigned incredulity, the Bastard remarks:

O prudent discipline!  From north to south
Austria and France shoot in each other’s mouth.
I'll stir them to it.  Come, away, away! (2.1.414-16)

As if imitating the division of sovereignty, so neatly expressed in the tautological symmetry, each side, which is in reality the same side, folds into the other in an act of mutual consumption.  The latent homoeroticism found throughout the scene surfaces most explicitly here as the language of sexual violence, formerly used to describe the threat to a feminized city, is focused on two male combatants, and the “equal potents” -France and England -- easily translate into the equally impotent France and Austria.

It is symptomatic of the inability to centralize sovereign authority that military action gives way to an attempt to achieve security through marriage.  The outcome of the conflict at Angers, the joining of Lady Blanche and Louis the Dauphin, and the creation of Arthur as Duke of Brittaine, are in themselves politically and militarily inconclusive; moreover neither are successful in sustaining the peace that they are intended to instill.  The annihilation of France, Austria, and Angers is deferred through the Citizen’s first substantial and desperate speech, which proposes a consolidating marriage between Blanche and Louis.  If Angers’ refusal to admit subjection was expressed in the language of bodily defense and chastity, the resulting peace brings with it the offer of physical union, framed as consummation: “The mouth of passage shall we fling wide ope, / And give you entrance” (2.1.450-51).  But the Citizen is quick to reiterate that “without this match / ... we keep this city” (2.1.451, 456).  The salvation of Angers is a political trade-off made at the expense of Blanche, and notably, the city never answers the one vital question asked of them: they do not name the king.  The possession of Angers, necessary because it would have settled the problem of divided authority, is temporarily displaced by substituting the political marriage.  After the breakdown of the marriage at the behest of Pandolf, the victim is re-figured as the actual woman Blanche.  In Arthur’s feminization and ultimate (self) destruction, it is re-figured once again. 

The assumption of unification through kinship relations, especially marriage and family, is important here in light of the fragmentation of family dramatized in the first scene.  In an apt illustration of Catherine Belsey’s claim that women are “free to choose to the extent that they are free to acquiesce” (193), Blanche complies with her uncle’s wishes, saying, “That anything he sees which moves his liking / I can with ease translate it to my will” (2.1.513-4).  This intervention is akin to the play’s early splitting of the Bastard’s provisional and unstable family structure.  But whereas the ambiguously fathered son is re-identified and enhanced, the divided daughter is torn apart.  So the plight avoided by Angers is suffered by Blanche:

I am with both, each army hath a hand,
And in their rage, I having hold of both,
They whirl asunder and dismember me. (3.1.254-6)

The shift in the question from Who possesses Angers? to Who possesses Blanche? leads to an equally indecisive result.  The original impasse, the competing claims to the monarchy, can, apparently, only be resolved through the death of one of the contestants.

The circumstances surrounding Arthur’s death too can be linked back to decisions made at Angers.  King John’s attempted murder of Arthur, procured through the act of blinding, has been discussed by John Blanpied as a symbolic rape that feminizes its victim (110).15  In that the blinding is intended as a horrible destruction of someone who evades subordination, Arthur’s fate, like that of Blanche, is a recapitulation of the horror narrowly averted by Angers: “the reified images from Angiers - the cannon’s ‘iron indignation’ and the ‘winking eyes’ of the maidenly city’s gates - have become excruciatingly literal” (Blanpied 110). Sexual violation is also suggested in Hubert’s admission to King John that Arthur was not killed.  Conflating his own innocence with Arthur’s, he pleads, “This hand of mine / Is yet a maiden and an innocent hand, / Not painted with the crimson spots of blood” (4.2.252-54), and his words resonate with the initial reason cited by France for taking up Arthur’s cause, that King John had “done a rape / Upon the maiden virtue of the crown” (2.1.97-98).

Thus, it is significant that the staging of Arthur’s accidental self-destruction (4.3) seems to visually parallel the staging of the Citizen’s entrance at Angers (2.1).  The Folio stage direction, “Enter Arthur on the walles” (Hinman TLN 1996), is almost identical to a previous direction, “Enter a Citizen vpon the walles” (TLN 505). Moreover, the first lines of both characters immediately draw the audience’s attention to their physical positions on stage: the Citizen inquires, “Who is it that hath warned us to the walls?” (2.1.201); and Arthur worries, “The wall is high, and yet will I leap down” (4.3.1).  Yet what is defensive to Angers is mortal to Arthur.  His paternity, like the Bastard’s, is a threat to the current order and the dangers of legitimacy correspond to the opportunities afforded by bastardy.  If the wall that encircled and protected Angers from pillage is figuratively the same wall from which Arthur leaps, the salvation of the former is purchased with the destruction of the latter.

The examination of monarchy has immediate parallels with the examination of paternity: a fragmentation at the top of each hierarchy, nation and family, brings complications to those who are asked to express themselves in relation to a divided authority.  Questions of loyalty cannot be deferred indefinitely.  Indeed the stakes are raised as first the issue of paternity is referred to the monarch, and then the question of the monarch’s own legitimacy successively brings Angers, Blanche, and Arthur into view as potential or actual victims.  The middle question concerning the dispute between kings moves toward and introduces the third question in the series, which relates to religious authority.  Two specific points are hinted at during the battle over Angers.  King Philip’s invocation of godly right anticipates the introduction of Pandolf, and the ultimate split of England and Rome.  The feminization of Angers makes literal the idea of subject as property, an important feature once again in the examination of religious authority.


The final question in King John, the question of religious authority, erupts the play into wide-ranging disorder, where political rebellion and religious turmoil reflect the inadequacy of both English and Roman hierarchical order.  It is indicative of the breakdown of authority on each side that neither King John nor Pandolf is able to sustain control over their subjects.  The separation of England from the Roman Church is not expressed as an overt theological debate; instead subjects are called upon to take sides, to support one system of authority, and fight for its domination.  Religious beliefs are validated by military prowess, and once again the question of “right versus possession” is reconstructed not only through subjects’ obedience, but also through their strength.

As Pandolf arrives to question King John about his barring of the papal appointee Stephen Langton from the see of Canterbury, he attempts to procure the subjection of England by symmetrically greeting both King John and King Philip as “anointed deputies of God” (3.1.62), monarchs whose right to rule has been conferred by papal ordinance.  However, when Pandolf and King John begin to debate, the question-and-answer process assumes a radically different form.  Equivocation is hardly King John’s tactic, and when Pandolf “religiously demand[s]” (3.1.66) that King John provide an explanation, he replies full of scorn and derision: “What earthy name to interrogatories / Can task the free breath of a sacred king?” (3.1.73-4).  Trenchantly stating that his authority is divinely bestowed by God and that he will not answer to any “earthy name,” King John topples the question-and-answer structure by refusing to be subject to the Roman Church.  He answers a question with a question, reversing both the catechetical process and the hierarchy, and implicitly calls Pandolf to account for his behaviour.  He goes on to assert his right as head of both church and state:

But as we, under God, are supreme head,
So, under him, that great supremacy
Where we do reign we will alone uphold
Without th’assistance of a mortal hand. (3.1.81-4)

This anti-papal stance is problematized by the fact that all the persons involved in the settlement of the Angers conflict are on stage.  Their presence testifies to the fact that neither king has been able to uphold independent rule, and King John’s assertion that his sovereignty operates without the “assistance of a mortal hand” may be undercut by an implied stage direction indicating that he is holding King Philip’s hand in a show of political solidarity.  So when Pandolf excommunicates King John, he undoes not only the peace of Angers, but also the stability it brought to both nations.  In a harsh parody of the Sermon on the Mount, all English subjects are released from their loyalty to the monarch by Pandolf’s decree, “blessèd shall he be that doth revolt” (3.1.100), and a division based on religious difference is forced.

Once his falling-out with King John is complete, Pandolf turns to King Philip, calling on him for religious and military allegiance:

Let go the hand of that arch-heretic,
And raise the power of France upon his head,
Unless he do submit himself to Rome. (3.1.118-20)
Unlike King John, who subordinated papal authority to his own secular authority, Louis privileges his religious obligation over duty to his new wife.  He cautions that the “light loss of England” (3.1.132) is easier to bear than “a heavy curse from Rome” (3.1.131), trying to persuade his father to remain with the Church of Rome.  When King Philip appeals to Pandolf, his “Good Reverend Father” (3.1.150) for guidance in his decision, the father-son and church-subject relationships converge and briefly clash with political alliances.  The difficulty is that King Philip sees his bond with England in terms of religious faith, “sacred vows” (3.1.155), and to break them would “Make such unconstant children” (3.1.169) of France.  Picking up on the fragmentation of loyalties, Pandolf forcibly fuses them back together, and thrusts King Philip into war:
All form is formless, order orderless,
Save what is opposite to England’s love.
Therefore to arms, be champion of our Church,
Or let the Church, our mother, breathe her curse,
A mother’s curse, on her revolting son. (3.1.179-83)

The first two lines employ a rigid, oppositional method of definition, a binary, to ensure the subjection of King Philip and his army.  Pandolf constructs the Roman Church as the source of all order, with the papal authority bestowing legitimacy on its subjects. 

By refusing to be subject to the pope, King John moves England beyond the pope’s system of signification.  The excommunication of King John amplifies the delegitimization of the paternal authority that began with the Bastard in the opening scene.  While the Bastard’s new identity was obtained by maneuvering between two paternal figures, King John’s autonomy is acquired by the outright rejection of the authority of Rome, beyond which there is only God.  Failure to obey would cast King Philip too as a “revolting son,” an unnatural child whose opposition to the church excludes him from the figurative family order, and implicitly aligns him with the condemned England.  Pandolf’s coercive sophistry elaborates the danger of divided faith and loyalty in a lengthy tautological threat of self-destruction, making “faith an enemy to faith” (3.1.189), “thyself rebellion to thyself” (3.1.215).  In the crafting these absurd self-oppositions, Pandolf’s argument displays similarities to the image of refracted kingship outside the walls of Angers. Seeing no middle ground available, King Philip can only choose from two alternatives, inclusion or exclusion. 

Pandolf’s political investments and his failure to maintain control of the adherents to Rome are illuminated when he rallies Louis, enticing him to take up the French cause.  Pandolf asks Louis “What have you lost by losing of this day?” (3.4.116), and “Are you not grieved that Arthur is his prisoner?” (3.4.123).  These are leading questions, designed to goad Louis into providing the wrong answer.  Indeed his automatic, rote-style responses -- “All days of glory, joy, and happiness” (3.4.117), and “As heartily as he is glad he hath him” (3.4.124) -- invite Pandolf to chide him for his naivety, for being “green... and fresh in this old world!” (3.4.145).  They also provide an opening for Pandolf to expound upon political opportunities, notably that Arthur’s impending death and the ensuing revolution will be beneficial because it will eliminate the existing English monarch, and facilitate Louis’ own claim to the crown staked in his marriage to Blanche.  But when King John submits, Pandolf tries to call off the French invasion.  His perverse manipulation of the process of catechism for political advancement is not lost on Louis, whose previous instruction taught him make subtle distinctions, to shed the simplicity of rote-learning.  Surpassing the teacher and refusing to co-operate, he incisively denies his subjection to Rome, stating, “I am too high-born to be propertied” (5.2.79), and “Am I Rome’s slave?” (5.2.97).  The language of ownership so prominent in King John is overtly rejected here, untying the subject from the Roman Church.  Like King John, when Louis rejects Rome he claims an autonomy that defines itself in opposition to the religious order.  Demanding “Who else but I / ...Sweat in this business” (5.2.100, 102), he asserts that the gain from his military actions belong to him alone.

The revolt of the English lords illustrates, one again, the monarchy’s failed bid to secure subjection.  Sixteenth-century writers resuscitated the reputation of the historical King John, shaping him into a Protestant prototype holding fast against the evils of Rome (Levin 103-61). This heroic image is incorporated into “A Homily against Disobedience and Wylful Rebellion,” which, as I suggested above, collapses familial and religious obligation into an argument for obedience to the monarch.  The play’s portrayal of the nobles’ dissent deviates from the politically charged interpretation found in the homily.  In particular, the homily suggests that the Pope easily lured the nobles away from King John because they were ignorant of their duty to the monarch.  Conversely, Salisbury knowingly points not to disorder at the bottom of the civil hierarchy, but to betrayal by the top: “The King hath dispossessed himself of us” (4.3.23), and King John himself is portrayed as instigating the loss of what he previously termed his “strong possession” (1.1.39). Natural order is denied when the lower level neither confers legitimacy to the higher level nor automatically accepts its actions.  Thus, the most basic lesson of the homily, “let us either deserve to have a good prince, or let us paciently suffer and obey such as we deserve,” is called up for review and abandoned (Bond 215).

With “voluntary zeal and an unurgèd faith” (5.2.10), the English nobles turn to France, but they do so with a solemn awareness that war is tearing apart their country.  Salisbury describes their rebellion in another image of familial disorder, conceding that “the sons and children of this isle” (5.2.25) are revolting against their mother, marching “upon her gentle bosom” (5.2.28).  Later in the scene, the Bastard adopts the same image and intensifies it to reprimand the nobles, admonishing them as “bloody Neros, ripping up the womb / Of your dear mother England” (5.2.152-3).  As a part of the rhetoric of inversion and disruption of order used to characterize rebellion, the Bastard speaks of “pale-visaged maids / ...tripping after drums; / ... Their needles to lances, and their gentle hearts / To fierce and bloody inclination” (5.2.154-5, 157-8), which is not unlike Châtillion’s early description of the English army approaching the walls of Angers as “Rash, inconsiderate, fiery voluntaries, / With ladies’ faces and fierce dragons’ spleens- ” (2.1.67-8).  The image of the broken family is used both by the Roman and the English factions, and such parallel descriptions of unnatural women and feminized men neutralize the differences, and the claims of difference, posited by either side. 

If the fluctuation of allegiance depends as much on personal safety as it does on religious and political integrity, neither Rome nor England acquires subjects on the basis of belief; choice remains individuating and therefore supremacy remains continually unstable, granted only by the support of subjects.  The nobles do not forsake Louis because of the Bastard’s harsh warning, rather, they return to King John because of information offered by a dying traitor.  Melun informs the nobles that they are “bought and sold” (5.4.10), that once England falls under French control Louis intends to execute them; similar to the destruction of Angers, the subjects are placed in the seemingly contradictory position of being both desirable and expendable.  They rescind the oath taken with Louis, and so for a second time cross religious and political boundaries.  The authoritarian notion that subject loyalty is derived through the mere existence of a patriarchal figure is made absurd in the character Melun, who, like Troilus and Cressida’s “blended knight” Ajax (4.6.88), is a physical embodiment of both sides, legitimately laying claim to either.  Because Melun’s “grandsire was an Englishman” (5.4.42), he uses lineage to undo political and religious obligation: neither are able to bind the son-subject indefinitely.

The last level in the process, the question of religious authority, differs from the previous two sections.  The final question encapsulates not only a split at the top of a hierarchy, but a total division into two differing systems of government, one that sees the king’s right to rule as bestowed by God, and the other that sees the papal ordinance legitimizing the king.  The foregrounding of war, and the reliance on military strength to “prove” supremacy is accompanied by a discourse of ownership in which subjects are treated as possessions.  However, the crossing of national and religious boundaries, and the overt self-assertion figured in the denial of the discourse of property endow the French and English subjects with an active individuality previously unseen in King John. Rebellion and dissent reveal that sovereignty is less than absolute, and it does not construct a seamless identity, nor govern loyalty.



Who’s there?  Speak, ho!  Speak quickly, or I shoot.

A friend.  What art thou?

HUBERT           Of the part of England.

. . .
I will upon all hazards well believe
Thou art my friend that know’st my tongue so well.
Who art thou?

Who thou wilt.  An if thou please,
Thou mayst befriend me so much as to think
I come one way of the Plantagenets.  (5.6.1-2; 8-12)

Darkness, uncertainty and fear surround the exchange between the Bastard and Hubert.  Their verbal grappling seeks to establish not only personal identity but, more importantly, political alliance.  Faced with the question “What art thou?” Hubert’s response secures his position as a supporter of England and King John.  The question and the reply it provokes, “Of the part of England,” are usefully paired with King John’s earlier question “What men are you?” (1.1.149), and the Bastard’s response, his opening line of the play, “Your faithful subject I” (1.1.15).  The process of identification has changed very little from the early courtly expressions of duty to these urgent negotiations in an atmosphere of political upheaval.  Whether as a matter of political expediency or to ensure survival, identity remains articulated in relation to the father.  The two alternatives, “What thou wilt” and “I come one way of the Plantagenets,” serve as a strong reminder of illegitimacy, and of the son’s capacity to refigure his identity.

To read King John through the filter of Tudor catechisms is to see the basic structure of the catechism manipulated and subverted.  In the Bastard’s mock catechism between the knight and the traveller, the hierarchy of the catechist-catechumen relationship is turned on its head, and this inversion is realized in the play’s process as a whole.  Patriarchal figures ask questions not for their subjects’ edification, but to establish their own security; the figureheads at the top of each hierarchy are forced to look to the subjects to resolve crisis and settle disputes.  Contrary to the assumptions of order exhibited in the Tudor catechism, the bottom of the hierarchy is invoked in a futile attempt to validate the top. Far from providing rote-style responses, these subjects successfully employ a variety of rhetorical techniques to avoid or defer the question. 

As the questions escalate from paternal to monarchic to religious authority, the geography of the play shifts from the relatively stable and hierarchical court, to the symmetries of the potential battlefield of Angers, ending with the chaos of occupied England.  These relocations bring with them a heightened sense of danger.  Recognition of the increasingly precarious role of subjects is seen in the adaptations of earlier questions.  The self-conscious amusement of the court scene, captured to the point of parody in the knight-traveller catechism, is abandoned.  “Whate’er you think, good words I think were best” (4.3.28) cautions the Bastard, exhibiting what Michael Manhein termed a “political coming-of-age” (127). Illustrating the extent to which subjects are manipulated for personal and political leverage, the catechismal process discloses too much of itself to be successful.  If it instructs, it instructs in its own flaws; it does not produce obedient subjects, it produces wise subjects.


[1] See Donna Hamilton, Shakespeare and the Politics of Protestant England, Douglas Wixon, “‘Calm Worlds Folded Up in Smoke’: Propaganda and Spectator Response in Shakespeare’s King John,” and David Womersley, “The Politics of Shakespeare’s King John.”

[2] Elaborating upon E.A.J. Honigmann’s observation, Wixon has written about these three areas as a series of debates, arguing for the influence of ephemeral pamphlets and debate rhetoric upon the play. See E.A.J Honigmann, Introduction, King John, 1xv, and Douglas C. Wixon, passim.

[3] Seven editions of Obedience were printed between 1528 and 1561, attesting to the popularity of this work.

[4]Luther and Tyndale would have adhered to traditional numbering, and known this as the fourth commandment. The focus of this paper is the Elizabethan period and so for the sake of uniformity I refer to it as the fifth commandment throughout.  For a thorough investigation of early obedience doctrine and the relationship between Luther and Tyndale, see Richard Rex, “The Crisis of Obedience: God’s Word and Henry’s Reformation.” Biblical citations are from The holi bible [Bishop’s version].

[5] Rex contrasts the Lutheran-Tyndalian interpretation with medieval discussions of obedience; see 867-70. It is also useful to compare Tyndale’s treatment with Calvin’s; although Calvin mentions other authority figures in conjunction with the commandment, he does so only briefly and at the end of the examination. In short, the claim I am making is one of emphasis, not exclusive use. See Jean Calvin, The Catechisme or Maner to Teache children the Christen Region (London:1560), esp. sig. Ci v-Ciij.

[6] Ian Green posits that “over three-quarters of a million copies of [alternative catechisms] were in circulation by the early seventeenth century, in addition to perhaps half a million copies of the official forms.” See,  “‘For Children in Yeeres and Children in Understanding’: The Emergence of the English Catechism under Elizabeth and the Early Stuarts,” 425. For a useful table comparing the publication of “nondramatic best-sellers” (religious literature) with that of plays, see Peter W. M. Blayney, “The Publication of Playbooks.” A New History of Early English Drama. Ed. John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

[7] The formulae of the Edwardian Visitation articles was used throughout the Elizabethan period; cited in Ian Green, The Christian’s ABC. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996; 102.  Green also notes that in the early Elizabethan period “confirmation services were probably not very common,” but they grew increasingly popular towards and through the seventeenth century, due in part to the support of prominent defenders such as Alexander Nowell; 33.

[8] For a less ideologically driven account see Green, “Emergence,” passim.

[9] Except where indicated, all Shakespeare quotations are taken from William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, ed., Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, et al. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

[10] The rubric of the confirmation service states: “When children come to the years of discretion, and have learned what their godfathers and godmothers promised for them on Baptism, they may then themselves with their own mouth, and with their own consent, openly before the church, ratify and confirm the same […]” (210). “Confirmation,” Liturgical Service. Ed. William Keating Clay; also see, John Bossy, “Godparenthood: the Fortunes of a Social Institution in Early Modern England.”

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