Consider the representation of events within this play. Do things seem to happen for a reason, or do they seem random? What do you think the sequence of events says about the unfolding of history?
Things seem not only to happen without reason, but bad things seem to just keep happening for their own sake. The constant sinking of the various armies is an example of a sequence of events that seems to happen haphazardly. The lives of the nobles seem to be directed by an equally blind and destructive fate, where none can get ahead. John thinks his hold on the throne will be strengthened if he kills Arthur, but when the opposite happens and he finds Arthur is still alive, he tries to reverse his decision--but by that time Arthur is dead, having perished in an accident. Philip tries to make a deal with England through marriage, but Pandolf threatens excommunication for his efforts. The English nobles turn against John but find the other side just as hostile so they return to John. These are just a few examples of the ineffectiveness of actions throughout this play. Kings and their nobles try to definitively influence the outcome of events, but each event comes to just be a small episode in a set of bad circumstances.
Consider questions of legitimacy within this play, including John and the Bastard. What is the difference between law and will, and how does that difference affect each of their claims to legitimacy? What seems to be the play's prevailing suggestion about legitimacy?
John rules in the Bastard's case that the law says he inherits his father's property even if he is not legitimate and even if his father didn't will it. Therefore, the law is primary to the wills of fathers. Yet John holds the throne because Richard the Lionhearted willed it and despite the fact that the law would say Arthur should be king. Therefore, if the law is primary to the wills of fathers, he is not the legitimate ruler. But he holds the throne anyway, because he has domestic supporters. And the Bastard gives up his inheritance, preferring instead to be known as the bastard son of Richard the Lionhearted. The surprising suggestion on both counts seems to be that illegitimacy can give rights and powers.
What is the role of the women in this play?
Constance and Eleanor seem to exist only as the proxies of the struggle between their sons Arthur and John. After Arthur is captured, both die; without their mothers to egg them on, the sons seem to get weaker and more foolish. Blanche appears briefly to marry Louis and bemoan her forced decision between husband and family. These women have a very specific and limited role within the larger issues of the play, namely royal legitimacy and war. But Lady Falconbridge, whose illegitimate son inherits her husband's possessions, serves as a reminder of the role women play within the question of inheritance. Adultery was the greatest threat to questions of inheritance in a patriarchal system. In fact, Constance and Eleanor repeatedly accuse each other of having been adulterous.
Consider legitimacy verses ability in terms of a ruler's desirability, with particular reference to John and Arthur.
What is the role of the church in this play? Consider Pandolf and the monasteries.
Consider the Bastard's conclusion. He speaks of the unconquerable nation--unconquerable unless divided internally. To what do you think he refers? Is this a warning?
Discuss Arthur's fate; cheated out of the throne, browbeaten by his mother, captured, threatened with assassination, he escapes only to fall to his death. What kind of fate seems to be functioning in Arthur's world? Is his life a smaller version of the fate playing elsewhere in the play?
Consider the absence of actual battles in this play. Unlike other historical plays, the battles take place offstage, or not at all, after much buildup. Why do you think this happens this way in this play?
Compare the Bastard with John. Focus on the Bastard's transformation through the play, and any changes John experiences. Does one end up looking better than the other? Why or why not?
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