Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009


The more things change, the more they stay the same. Recently the President of Honduras was removed by the Honduran army and expatriated to Costa Rica. This was done in accordance with a ruling by the Honduran Supreme Court and agreement by the national Legislature. The head of Congress has formally succeeded the President but many countries refuse to acknowledge the change in office. Question: Who’s in charge here? Who should be in charge?

That’s precisely the question raised in Shakespeare’s play King John. At the beginning of the play an emissary from France has come to proclaim the rightful heir to the English throne. The French, with some justification, believe the throne actually belongs to young Arthur. Arthur is the son of the late Geoffrey. Geoffrey was John’s older brother and in direct line of succession to be king of England. Upon Geoffrey’s death, his eldest son, not his younger brother, should be crowned king. So the French emissary refers to King John’s authority as borrowed majesty. This idea doesn’t sit well with John. He believes he’s the true king of England. So does his mother, Elinor. To make matters worse, Elinor is Arthur’s grandmother. But even Elinor must admit to John that the throne is Your strong possession much more than your right.

What makes this situation even more complicated is this fact: John is mature and tough, capable of being a king who can keep England free and sovereign. Arthur is really just a boy. If Arthur comes to the throne it won’t be long until France reduces England to a mere French province. So if you’re a soft-hearted legalist and believe Arthur should be awarded the throne then you may be throwing away England. That’s the whole point of having a king in the first place: to protect the country from foreign takeover. But if you’re a hard-headed realist and believe John should stay on as king in order to save England, then you’re left with this question: can a nation that doesn’t follow its own laws survive for very long? Arthur and his mother Constance think Arthur should be king; John and his mother Elinor think John should be king. Everyone else is expected to take sides.

Consider the poor town-folk of Angiers. Angiers belongs to England and the army of France has marched outside its gates. If Angiers doesn’t quickly acknowledge Arthur as king of England then the French will start shelling the town. However, the army of England has also come. And if the citizens of Angiers don’t immediately proclaim John as king then the English will start shelling the town. This is a thorny situation that calls for skilled diplomacy. The folks of Angiers prove themselves up to the task. When the French king says Speak, citizens, for England; who’s your king? The diplomatic answer from Angiers is The king of England, when we know the king. Brilliant strategy: when in doubt, sit this one out. They’re going to wait and see which side wins before committing themselves.

But this isn’t just a play about how private ambition creates public calamity and war. It’s also about how a country like England can survive in spite of its internal divisions. Not only Angiers but also the English lords have to choose sides. England might very well fall to the French. It’s a close call. But by the end of the play we come to learn that This England never did, nor never shall, Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror, But when it first did help to wound itself. Now these her princes are come home again, Come the three corners of the world in arms, And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue, If England to itself do rest but true. England will always survive as long as she stays true to herself. Not bad advice from a mere playwright.


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