Thursday, May 7, 2009

King John - Moral Dilemmas

Randall writes:

Coeurs de Lion,

If I ever form another rock band, I'm calling it "Bethumped with Words," my new favorite line from a Shakespeare play.

King John, among other things, is about the tenuous nature of allegiances. I've said before how much I love the way Shakespeare doubles or triples up on things ― how Hamlet, for example, has two sons worrying about avenging murdered fathers, how Twelfth Night has two sisters mourning dead brothers, how King Lear has two fathers who misperceive their children's devotion, etc. In King John, Shakespeare gives us not two but three men who struggle with questions of allegiance and moral obligation.

Act 2 concludes with a pact between King John and King Philip II of France. Philip's son, Louis, will marry John's niece, Blanche; John will be the recognized king of England; and Philip will give up his support of Arthur. In Act 3, scene 1, Pandulph, the papal legate, shows up, excommunicates John and threatens Philip with the same if he doesn't break his recent allegiance. Philip agonizes over the choice:

And shall these hands, so lately purged of blood,
So newly joined in love, so strong in both,
Unyoke this seizure and this kind regret?
Play fast and loose with faith? So jest with heaven? (3.1.249-252)

The dilemma here, pitting a secular agreement that will bring peace to two countries, saving countless lives, against the preservation of a man's eternal soul, is vicious, and Shakespeare's use of synecdoche ― "hands" for the two kings who in turn stand for their respective countries ― makes Philip's difficult decision more intimate. As a fairly secular person, I don't see how Pandulph fails to come off as the villain in this exchange. He blatantly ignores Philip's eloquence and wise questions. Are we not to assume that the audience was rooting for Philip sticking with the Protestant John?

In the end Philip remains a devout Catholic, and the peace is broken. What is the result of this moment? Does it establish an anti-Catholic tone to the play? Does it raise our sympathy for Philip, who has previously been an antagonist? Does it challenge our opinion of John, who's independence from the Pope has forced Pandulph to use his leverage against Philip? In the Henry VI plays we see shifting allegiances result from political opportunism. With Philip it is different; it's a moral dilemma, and we are brought quickly and poignantly into the real difficulties of ruling.

In Act 4, scene 1, after John has used passive/aggressive suggestion to order Hubert to kill young Arthur, the would-be boy king of England, Hubert has Arthur tied up and staring down the business end of a red-hot poker, when he begins to worry about his the consequences of his action:

I will not touch thine eye
For all the treasure that thine uncle owes.
Yet I am sworn, and I did purpose, boy,
With this same very iron to burn them out." (4.1.134-137)

Like Philip, Hubert faces a moral dilemma ― choose between following the wish (if not direct order) of his king or refrain from murdering a child. Watching this scene unfold, it's hard to imagine an audience rooting for John's requirement, fulfilled by Arthur's gruesome death. But we know that Hubert's decision to spare Arthur may come at great personal cost, one reason why Hubert decides to pretend that Arthur is dead. Being forsworn is a big deal in Shakespeare's plays, and Hubert breaks his oath (he has told John: "what you bid me undertake,/ Though that my death were adjunct to my act,/ By heaven, I would do it") by sparing Arthur. That "by heaven," which echoes Philip's "so jest with heaven" concern, ups the ante a bit, too; he's promised both John and God he'll carry out his task, and the audience knows it. Despite the broken oath, our sympathies must fall to Arthur, and for Hubert who decides against his murder. Does this not also take John down a peg in our estimation because he manoeuvred Hubert into the moral dilemma in the first place?

In the fifth act, we get the wandering English nobles ― Salisbury, Pembroke, and Bigot ― alligning themselves with the Dauphin and actually signing a contract with him. The Dauphin points out "that having our fair order written down,/ Both they and we, perusing o'er these notes,/ May know wherefore we took the Sacrament,/ And keep out faiths firm and inviolable" (5.2.4-7). So it's not only a contract with France, it's a contract with God. But it doesn't come without Salisbury's exploring the moral difficulties of the allegiance: "I am not glad …", "it grieves my soul…", and:

And is 't not pity, O my grieved friends,
That we, the sons and children of this isle,
Was born to see so sad an hour as this,
Wherein we step after a stranger, march
Upon her gentle bosom, and fill up
Her enemies' ranks? (5.2.24-29)

The English audience cannot have been happy about this contract with the French (despite historical accuracy), and I find Salisbury's equivocation, even accompanied by tears, a little weak because it's clear he's aware of the moral ramifications of his choice yet turns from John (England) anyway. Unhappy or not, would the audience have found his decision justifiable? Is our opinion of John so low at this point? Would the audience have been anti-Catholic enough to discount the contract confirmed by taking communion? Salisbury's reference to his soul's grief once again elevates the concern beyond the merely political, regardless of our own biases we are brought into contact with the agony of his choice.

When the turn around, the broken allegience, comes, it is primarily political. Salisbury and the others are doomed, so they reneg on their contract, which turns out to be not so inviolable after all. If this political moment were on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Stewart would cue up side-by-side the videos of Salisbury saying "Upon our sides [the contract] shall never be broken" (5.2.8) and:

We will untread the steps of damned flight,
And like a bated and retired flood,
Leaving our rankness and irregular course,
Stoop low within those bounds we have o'erlooked
And calmly run on in obedience
Even to our ocean, to our great King John. (5.4.53-58)

Oops. I find these three depictions of moral dilemma ― Philip's, Hubert's, and Salisbury's ― expose very complex personal views. It's as if Shakespeare is less concerned about getting history down on the page than he is about exploring what difficulties that the forces of history put humans in. Three instances of such situations make it something of a theme for me. The question is not: what does someone do? It's: how did someone feel when he did it and what made the choice remarkable? For this reason, I find King John eminently rich in character, and also explicit about the contradictions and complexities of human politics, a real step forward from the Henry VI plays although perhaps not quite as developed as the Henry IV tetrology.


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