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Chatillon, ambassador to the King of France, claims the throne of England from John on behalf of Arthur of Brittany, son of John's elder brother, Geoffrey. John defies France and determines to invade the country; the revenues of the Church will pay the charges.
'Our abbeys and our priories shall pay
This expedition's charge.'
Thus the note is struck which sounds throughout the piece, the note of conflict between Church and King which is to end in the King's ruin.
France collects its forces before Angiers, where appear the King, the Duke of Austria, the Dauphin, Arthur, and Constance, his mother. John appears with his forces, recriminations follow between the parties, and Angiers is summoned by both to surrender to its lawful sovereign. Angiers, doubtful on the point, refuses to admit either. Faulconbridge turns the obstinacy of the town to account by suggesting that France and England shall unite to reduce Angiers, and settle their own differences afterwards. Angiers, dismayed at the prospect, suggests terms of accommodation, the Dauphin to marry Blanche, John's niece, and to receive John's French possessions as her dowry. These terms are agreed upon, and the cause of Arthur in England is abandoned by France. Consequent fury and disappointment of Constance.
At this point, Pandulph, Papal legate, summons Philip of France to abjure the cause of John and make war upon him in the interests of the Church. Philip obeys, war breaks out between Philip and John, in which John is successful.
Encouraged by success, John thinks to get rid of Arthur and his claims, and commissions Hubert to serve his purposes. Pathetic scene between Hubert and Arthur. Hubert relents, but Arthur none the less is kept a prisoner, and kills himself in trying to escape. The English lords, roused by John's treatment of Arthur and supposed complicity in his death, revolt, and call in the assistance of the Dauphin. John yields his kingdom
into the hands of the Papal legate, and implores his mediation with the revolted lords and the Dauphin. The Dauphin refuses terms, and a battle ensues; but the revolted lords, learning that the Dauphin intends, if successful, to betray them, return to the King, whom they find dying at Swinstead Abbey. Death of John, accession of Prince Henry, and departure of the Dauphin to France.
The Bastard Faulconbridge.
He is a natural son of Richard, Coeur-de-Lion, with many of his father's qualities. He remains faithful to John's interests throughout, rather by ties of family than affection, and all through the play exercises an important influence upon events. He also serves to afford relief to the general seriousness and gloom of the piece. But for Faulconbridge, the play would be without a hero, as it is without a heroine.
In construction and dramatic interest the drama is deficient, but is marked by (a) elevation of language and sentiment, (b) by the strong pathos of the Arthur and Hubert scene, (c) by the elaboration of the character of Faulconbridge.
Marlowe's Edward II. Analogy in motive to Shakespeare's Richard II. "The reluctant pangs of abdicating royalty.' Marlowe's methods of treatment contrasted and compared with Shakespeare's. Contrast in the character of the respective heroes. Edward the victim of his own dissoluteness and frivolity; Richard of his own misgovernment. Marlowe's skill in securing sympathy for his subject.
Richard II. Shakespeare's sources for the play were Hollinshed's Chronicles. The departures from the history as there recorded are trivial. His plot is the fall of Richard II.
Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Hereford, accuses Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, of treason and peculation. They appeal to the arbitrament of single combat. The lists are prepared at Coventry, but scarcely has the fight begun than the king stops it, banishes Hereford for six years and Norfolk for life. John of Gaunt, Hereford's father, dies. Richard seizes his property (he needs money for his wars in Ireland), thus dispossessing Hereford, John of Gaunt's son.
While the king is absent in Ireland, Hereford (now Duke of Lancaster) returns from banishment to claim his own. He is very generally supported, for Richard's exactions and misgovernment have roused all classes against him. The king, on his return, finds himself abandoned; remits Bolingbroke's sentence of banishment, and finally abdicates the crown in Bolingbroke's
favour. He is conducted to Pomfret castle, where he is murdered.
The human interest of the play centres round Richard. The sympathies of the audience are enlisted solely by his sufferings and his inner struggles against his unhappy fate. There is no external conflict, as in Richard III. He is throughout in the grip of a superior force. He stands upon the indefeasible rights of a king-not upon the support of armies or a loyal people.
'Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king.'
'Revolt our subjects? that we cannot mend;
Richard looks upon himself as the sport of circumstances, the victim of Fate.
'I am sworn brother, sweet,
To grim Necessity.'
But yet there is a sub-consciousness of his own past follythere is not in him a philosophy which can make him indifferent to his lot: cf. Henry VI.
The character of Bolingbroke. He represents success in contrast to Richard's failure. Shakespeare treats Bolingbroke historically, notwithstanding his design of enlisting sympathy for Richard.
Is dramatic effect sacrificed to the exigencies of a chronicle play?
Critical Examination of the Play as a work of Dramatic Art.
It is in Shakespeare's transitional period: it is not the outcome of his highest powers.
There is little attempt at character-distinction (except in case of Bolingbroke and Richard). The language is often inflated, and is uniform, whoever may be speaking, e.g. Act iii. Sc. 4.
It is marked by frequent occurrence of false metres, rhyme, self-contained couplets, and verbal quibbles and conceits, e.g. The Queen.
It is deficient in proportion. [The incidents of Act i. are disproportionate to their influence upon the dénouement.]
But it rises occasionally to great heights, it powerfully presents the main motive, and clearly defines the character of its hero.