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Shakespeare’s King John and the Constitution of Rights and Justice

Written by Vanessa Pupavac.

The peace of heaven is theirs that lift their swords
In such a just and charitable war.

The cause is young Prince Arthur’s claim to the Plantagenet throne. Arthur’s mother Constance has pressed the right of her ‘oppressed boy’ around Europe, and found listeners at the French court to supports international military action against Arthur’s uncle King John.

If you turned to Shakespeare’s 1596 The Life and Death of King John during the 800th anniversary of the 1215 Magna Carta, you might have been surprised to discover that the play never once alludes to the Magna Carta, a document so significant in subsequent British and American constitutional history. Instead John’s relation to Rome, questions of national sovereignty and the politics of just war are Shakespeare’s focus. The history play has resonated at times of European conflict. For Shakespeare’s audience, the play chimed with fears of Spanish invasion, and England’s loss of its Protestant ally France,     with the French king’s return to Catholicism in 1593 (Smallwood, 1974).

Nevertheless the constitution of rights and justice is critical to Shakespeare’s King John, even if the Magna Carta is absent. The themes of legitimate rule and resistance to tyranny have appealed to eighteenth century English radicals and twentieth century Russian dissidents (Braunmuller, 1989, pp. 87-89). King John speaks to renewed questions in the twenty-first century over how to guarantee our rights and secure justice. Ultimately the play affirms the people as the moral foundation of the social order, checking the tyranny of sovereign monarch and church.

What remedy when sovereignty has been usurped?

Shakespeare’s play begins with the French ambassador denouncing King John’s ‘borrow’d majesty’. France will go to war unless John cedes the Plantagenet territories to Arthur. Arthur’s claim is based on primogeniture as the son of Geoffrey, John’s elder brother. Conversely John asserts a right of possession and is ready to answer France’s war ultimatum with war. Discussion of Queen Elizabeth I’s succession was outlawed in Elizabethan England, so Shakespeare’s dramatization of an earlier succession crisis is dangerous stuff.

Constance’s predicament is that she has no resource to law as the law embodies the will of the king, whose right to rule she is disputing:

when law can do no right,
Let it be lawful that law bar no wrong.
Law cannot give my child his kingdom here,
For he that holds his kingdom holds the law.
Therefore, since law itself is perfect wrong,
How can the law forbid my tongue to curse?

Opposing Constance is Queen Eleanor, John’s mother and Arthur’s grandmother, who blames the outbreak of war on maternal ambitions for Arthur. To insist on Arthur’s title to the crown means war, where John enjoys the right of possession (Campbell, 1964, [1949], pp. 150-151). The claim of primogeniture was not conclusively established until the next century (Braunmuller, 1989, pp. 55-61; Kenny, 1878, pp. 25-26). Constance’s assertion of her son’s claim is dangerous in stirring up conflict when Arthur is powerless to defend himself. She refuses to listen to her son’s plea for peace ‘I am not worth this coil that’s made for me’. Her insistence is tragically blinkered ‘War, war, no peace! Peace is to me a war.’  She disregards the consequences of war for either England or France.

Each party claims to be acting on God’s authority against a usurper.


Alack, thou dost usurp authority.


Excuse it is to beat usurping down.


Who is it thou dost call usurper, France?


Let me make answer: thy usurping son.

John is ‘God’s wrathful agent’, while France is ‘God’s own soldier’, ‘whose armour conscience buckled on, / Whom zeal and charity brought to the field’. The opposing armies are evenly matched. God has not given victory to either side (McEachern, 2000, p. xxxii). In this stalemate, France agrees to abandon Constance’s cause and opt for peace with England, sealed with a marriage union between the French Dauphin and King John’s niece Blanche, whose dowry is a chunk of John’s French lands. But there is not to be peace in their time.

Religious dominium and the politics of just war

Just when war appears averted, England and France find themselves confronting demands from the pope’s representative. Here Shakespeare’s play compresses historical events, and overlaps John’s disputed succession with John’s dispute with Rome. Spiritual and temporal power vied for authority in the middle ages, pitting the principle institutions and values of the feudal order against each other. Eventually this contestation facilitated the emergence of the Renaissance, and demands for political and individual freedom.

Shakespeare presents us with a degenerate feudal nobility and church. Papal authority is shown as no ethical counter to temporal greed, but complicit in ‘Commodity, the bias of the world’. The church invokes its spiritual authority to assert its own worldly power, dividing and ruling the European nations. The pope’s representative warns the parties ‘All form is formless, order orderless’ unless under the church’s dominium. Cardinal Pandulph has excommunicated John for defying the pope and seeking to appoint his own archbishop. Defiant John claims higher authority in his kingship:

What earthy name to interrogatories
Can task the free breath of a sacred king?
Thou canst not, cardinal, devise a name
So slight, unworthy, and ridiculous,
To charge me to an answer, as the Pope.
Tell him this tale, and from the mouth of England
Add thus much more: that no Italian priest
Shall tithe or toll in our dominions,
But as we, under heaven, are supreme head,
So under Him that great supremacy
Where we do reign, we will alone uphold,
Without the assistance of a mortal hand.
So tell the pope, all reverence set apart
To him and his usurped authority.

To us, King John is the historical villain in the story of the Magna Carta or Robin Hood tales. Conversely to Protestant Elizabethan England, John’s defiance of the Pope made him a martyr figure despite his failings (Campbell, 1964, [1949], p. 133; McEachern, 2000; Wilder, 1988, p. 73). A heroic King John is presented in Holinshed’s Chronicle and other Elizabethan works. Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John does not give us the martyr king of his contemporaries, although  somewhat romanticising John’s ignoble end by retaining a story of his poisoning by a monk (Wilders, 1988, p. 73). Instead the play presents a more compromised character, whose rule degenerates as he succumbs to flatterers (Braunmuller, 1989; Tillyard, pp. 220-221)

The Cardinal wants France to attack heretical England and make her submit to Rome. King Philip pleads against the Cardinal’s demand for war and asks him to endorse ‘some gentle order’. However the Cardinal is implacable – the basis of all vows are in religious faith, and therefore religious duties are paramount. Revolt against the church cannot be allowed. So caught between ‘a heavy curse from Rome/ Or the light loss of England for a friend’, France choses Rome.

Yet the motives and sentiments of Arthur’s champions are ambivalent. The Cardinal’s demand ignores the human costs of war. Its first victim is the newly married Blanche, whose union to the Dauphin is torn apart ‘They swirl asunder and dismember me’. The Cardinal is even indifferent to Arthur’s fate in whose name this war is being fought:


You hold too heinous a respect of grief.


He talks to me that never had a son.


You are as fond of grief as of your child.

Pandulph proves a Machiavellian figure in suggesting the Dauphin should not grieve Arthur’s imprisonment by John. ‘So be it’. Now the Dauphin can claim the throne of England for himself. English outrage over Arthur’s death will spur civil unrest and aid military conquest of the country:

This act so evilly born shall cool the hearts
Of all his people and freeze up their zeal
That none so small advantage shall step forth
To cheque his reign, but they will cherish it

Arthur is the innocent sacrificial lamb of others’ ambitions legitimising a humanitarian foreign invasion.

Individual conscience

Yet Arthur’s voice also influences the course of action even if he cannot preserve his own life (McEachern, 2000, p. xxxviii). Here we come to the play’s pivotal scene with Arthur and Hubert who has been ordered to torture and kill the prince – ‘Must you with hot irons burn out both mine eyes?’ Arthur appeals to Hubert’s conscience:

And if you do, you will but make it blush
And glow with shame of your proceedings, Hubert

Neither Hubert nor John’s executioner are willing executioners of a child. The executioner readily relinquishes responsibility to Hubert ‘I am best pleased to be from such a deed’. Failing to kill Arthur immediately, Hubert cannot withstand Arthur’s pleas:

If I talk to him, with his innocent prate
He will awake my mercy which lies dead;
Therefore I will be sudden and dispatch.

In Hubert’s quiet refusal to carry out John’s order, we witness no sophisticated ethics, but the kindling of ordinary conscience securing right action.

Arthur’s capture of Hubert’s conscience has caught the imagination of political prisoners and victims of torture. Nadezda Mandelstam, widow of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who was killed in Stalin’s purges, writes of how Arthur’s fate spoke to her experience of state repression:

I found it astonishing that the English, after reading about young Arthur and the way he softened the hearts of his executioners, had not given up killing their fellowmen forever… At nights I wept at the thought that executioners never read what might soften their hearts. (Mandelstam, 1974, p. 611)

Arthur and Hubert’s exchange resonates with the political theorist Hannah Arendt’s exploration of moral action within totalitarian societies set out in her study Responsibility and Judgment (2003) and other works. Arendt concludes that acting morally in repressive times depends finally, not on learned scholarship or rule-following, but individuals who do not want to live with themselves as executioners (Arendt, 2003, pp. 185-187).

Political sovereignty and the people

Shakespeare’s King John projects back the political awakening of his own day onto the thirteenth century. In this projection we see the emergence of ideas which inform the modern British constitution, notably the importance of the people constitutionally. The constitutional lawyer A.V. Dicey’s Study of the Law of the Constitution outlines how the nation is politically sovereign and parliament is legally sovereign, as established during the Civil War (1642-1651), confirmed in the not so glorious Glorious Revolution (1688), and developed in the following centuries (Dicey, 1915, pp. 3-35). Dicey emphasises that sovereign authority ultimately derives from the nation, and that the nation therefore externally conditions the legislature’s exercise of its legal sovereignty. The British constitution’s unwritten conventions recognise the role of political morality in defining constitutional and unconstitutional acts, as distinct from legal or illegal acts (Dicey, 1915, pp. 303-304). Accordingly Dicey believes any government or parliament departing too far from the wishes of the people risks popular resistance, although he condemns violent rebellion (Dicey, 1915, pp. 31-34). Where a legislature is seen as acting unconstitutionally against the will of the people, the possibility of popular resistance is a political reality, although neither Dicey nor the laws endorse revolt. Even in authoritarian regimes, an absolute ruler, Dicey argues, has to be mindful how far sovereign powers may be pushed and always faces the possibility of revolt. Dicey describes the habit of modern monarchs to follow and express ‘the moral feelings’ of the people as relatively new (Dicey, 1915, p. lxviii). Nevertheless Shakespeare shows us the developing political expectation that sovereign rule should conform to the wishes of the nation, or the nation may resist – a political lesson that King John learnt too late.

Shakespeare’s drama, nowhere mentioning the Magna Carta, gives us citizens opposing tyranny, and defending rights and justice. We see good rule depending on citizens’ influence on the institutions of church or state which govern them. Already this history play anticipates the secular understanding of political rule affirmed by Dicey, quoting the philosopher J.S. Mill’s 1861 Considerations on Representative Government:

Political institutions (however the proposition may be at times ignored) are the work of men, owe their origin and their whole existence to human will. … In every stage of their existence they are made what they are by human voluntary agency. (Mill in Dicey, 1915, p. 116)

First the citizens of Angiers are the peacemakers and voices of reason against the warmongering feudal kings and church. They resist being drawn into the conflict and refuse to open their gates to either the French or English army, declaring themselves loyal subjects to the king of England whoever proves to be king:

Till you compound whose right is worthiest,

We for the worthiest hold the right from both.

 Their resistance is challenged by the Bastard, illegitimate son of the deceased King Richard I, a character invented by Shakespeare, who portrays their efforts at self-preservation as defiance of their feudal lords. He denounces the citizens as treating the nobility contemptuously as mere play-actors for their entertainment:

By heaven, these scroyles of Angiers flout you, kings,
And stand securely on their battlements
As in a theatre, whence they gape and point
At your industrious scenes and acts of death.

Instead the Bastard calls on the two kings to combine their forces, and do ‘like the mutines of Jerusalem’, turn their artillery onto the town, and reduce the citizens to nothing. At this threat, the citizens reason again with the two ‘mighty kings’, and propose a marriage between England and France to resolve the conflict peacefully ‘This union shall do more than battery can/ To our fast-closed gates’.

Second the citizens of England are voices of moral conscience, who turn against King John over Arthur’s death. The blacksmith, the tailor and the ballad singer are all animated by the news, and shaken from their work:

Old men and beldams in the streets
Do prophesy upon it dangerously.
Young Arthur’s death is common in their mouths,
And when they talk of him, they shake their heads,
And whisper one another in the ear.
And he that speaks doth gripe the hearer’s wrist,
Whilst he that hears makes fearful action
With wrinkled brows, with nods, with rolling eyes.
I saw a smith stand with his hammer, thus,
The whilst his iron did on the anvil cool,
With open mouth swallowing a tailor’s news,
Who, with his shears and measure in his hand,
Standing on slippers, which his nimble haste
Had falsely thrust upon contrary feet,
Told of a many thousand warlike French
That were embattailed and ranked in Kent.
Another lean unwashed artificer
Cuts off his tale and talks of Arthur’s death.

The fate of Arthur has prompted ‘murmuring lips of discontent’ demanding John’s overthrow. John’s denial of responsibility for Arthur’s death is in vain. John now faces open revolt. Ceremonies to re-crown himself have simply cast doubt on John’s original coronation, reducing his crowning to putting on a new fashion or patching up a fault (McEachern, 2000, p. xxxiv). John’s subjects are not prepared to lay down their lives to defend a tyrant who treats them as expendable means to verify his title.

Regretting Arthur’s death, John complains that Hubert should have challenged his monarch’s injurious order:

It is the curse of kings to be attended
By slaves that take their humours for a warrant
To break within the bloody house of life

John’s belated complaints acknowledge the dangers of unchecked power, and the importance of listening to his subjects in ruling wisely and justly.

Taking their lead from the right thinking populace, the nobility defect from John, declaring ‘The king hath dispossessed himself of us’. John’s tyrannical actions have broken their vows to him. Matters of conscience, rather than feudal status or customary obedience, now dictate resistance to his rule ‘Our griefs, and not our manners, reason now’. But untempered moral outrage could lead to hasty wrongful actions, creating new injustices in the quest to avenge injustices (Beaurline, 1990, pp. 50-51; Tillyard, pp. 224-226). Armed rebellion supported by foreign forces only heals ‘the inveterate canker of one wound / By making many’. We see the nobles questioning the feudal institution of war, and their objections joining those of the citizens of Angiers.

I am I, howe’er I was begot

The play presents the stirrings of individualism in the character of the Bastard who defies his illegitimate birth, declaring ‘I am I, howe’er I was begot’ (McEachern, 2000, p. xxxix). Initially the Bastard represents the degeneration of the nobility, acting as ‘Sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age’s tooth’ (Braunmuller, 1989, pp. 65-73). Since honour has lost its meaning and ‘kings break faith upon commodity’, he too will follow the dictates of ‘That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling Commodity’. The Bastard is John’s willing executioner, demanding the brutal suppression of Angiers, and zealously despoiling church property. But later the Bastard becomes a king’s adviser, ready to speak truth to power, and not hide bad news:

But if you be afeard to hear the worst,

Then let the worse unheard fall on your head. 

The Bastard remains loyal to John, and willing to arrest a man for his ‘rude harsh-sounding rhymes’ against the king.  But Arthur’s death and the sight of Arthur’s body awakens him to broader questions of injustice in the country (Wilders, 1988, pp. 79-80).

The life, the right and truth of all this realm

Is fled to heaven.

Simply being loyal to the king is not enough. The wider health and interests of the country have to be considered.

John’s estrangement from the country has led him to seek the Pope’s protection against France. The Bastard mistrusts any papal deal, and believes it is better to rely on the country’s military resources and capacity to defend itself. Moreover if there is to be negotiation, better to negotiate with the French Dauphin directly than with the church, because a French leader has to consider the national and human costs of any military enterprise, just as an English leader does.

Both the Bastard and the Dauphin want national independence from Rome – ‘Am I Rome’s slave?’ asks the Dauphin, blaming Rome for kindling war, and rupturing his marriage. Yet England, as France, is still too politically immature to confidently and consistently pursue national self-determination, independent of Rome (McEachern, 2000, pp. xxxv-xxxvi). Their failure to act in the mutual interests of their nations and prevent conflict has caused considerable loss and suffering. England is like a ‘sick-fallen beast’ in which armies fight like dogs over the ‘bear-picked bone of majesty’. The humiliation of a foreign army would not have happened had Arthur not been harmed:

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.

The new sovereign will have to heal and restore the country that John’s unethical rule has debased.

Indicatively the authority of the final lines of Shakespeare’s King John is given to the Bastard who has become the collective voice of England (Kiernan, 1993, pp. 49-52). His patriotic speech defies the threat of future foreign invasion. Its brash tone feels jingoistic to our ears. But amid its bellicose language, claims are being made for the nation, for the people, rather than narrow titled interests. Through the figure of the Bastard, the people legitimise Prince Henry as the successor to the crown. While the nation offers its faithful service to the prince, its princes in turn are to serve the nation. The king cannot dispose of his subjects at will. He must remain true and not wrong the country.

Seeing John’s corrupted body, Prince Henry cries out ‘What surety of the world..?’ The new sovereign feels his own sovereignty to be frail. Surety in human institutions is precarious. Claims to divine authority in King John are contested, and do not guarantee wise or just rule. Surety is better founded in people, acting individually and together in accordance with their conscience and reason (Beaurline, 1990, pp. 50-51; Wilders, 1988, p. 80). John could have found moral orientation for his rule by listening to the people. Had the people been heeded, Arthur would not have come to harm. So while Shakespeare does not address the constitutional significance of the Magna Carta, the play locates the true constitution of rights and justice in the people, and protection against a ‘Mad world, mad kings, mad composition!’


Arendt, Hannah (2003) Responsibility and Judgment. New York: Schocken.

Beaurline, L.A. (1990) ‘Introduction’, in William Shakespeare [1596] The Life and Death of King John. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1-57.

Braunmuller, A.R. (1989) ‘Introduction’, in William Shakespeare [1596] The Life and Death of King John. Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp. 1-93.

Campbell, Lily (1964) [1949] Shakespeare’s Histories. London: Methuen.

Candido, Joseph (1996) Shakespeare: The Critical Condition: King John. London: Athlone.

Dicey, A.V. (1915) [1885] Study of the Law of the Constitution. London: Macmillan. Eighth edition.

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Kenny, Courtney Stanhope (1878) The History of the Law of Primogeniture in England. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.

Kiernan, Victor (1993) Shakespeare: Poet and Citizen. London: Verso.

Mandelstam, Nadezhda (1974) Hope Abandoned: A Memoir. Translated by Max Hayward. London: Collins.

McEachern, Claire (2000) ‘Introduction’, in William Shakespeare [1596] The Life and Death of King John. London: Penguin, pp. xxxi-xlii.

Smallwood, R.L. (1974) ‘Introduction’, in William Shakespeare [1596] The Life and Death of King John. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Tillyard, E.M.W. (1962) [1944] Shakespeare’s History Plays. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Wilders, John (1988) ‘King John.’ New Prefaces to Shakespeare. Oxford and Cambridge. Blackwell, pp. 72-80.


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