Study Guide

King John Act 1, Scene 1

By William Shakespeare

Act 1, Scene 1

Read the full text of King John Act 1 Scene 1 with a side-by-side translation HERE.

  • At the royal court of England, King John chills out on his big, shiny throne, surrounded by his posse: the noblemen Pembroke, Essex, and Salisbury.
  • King John's posse also includes the adviser he trusts most all… his mom, Queen Eleanor. Yep. King John's kind of a mama's boy—and we don't mean that in a bad way. Eleanor was one powerful lady.
  • But King John and his cronies aren't the only ones there: there's also a visitor, Châtillon, the snooty French ambassador.
  • Châtillon's got a message from King Philip of France: Philip doesn't think John has a legal right to the throne and wants him to step down ASAP. Better yet, King John should just go ahead and fork over the English crown and a bunch of territories to John's young nephew, Arthur, who should have inherited the throne. (For more on this, check out "Background 411," if you haven't already.)
  • Like any self-respecting English monarch would, King John politely tells the French ambassador to take a hike. Oh yeah, and he also says that he's going to invade France himself, just to teach that nasty French king a lesson.
  • Before Châtillon leaves, King John tells him to hurry on home because the English army will be on France's doorstep faster than you can say "cannonball." (Oh, snap!)
  • Once the French ambassador is gone, Queen Eleanor chimes in. She says this is all that "ambitious" Constance's fault. Constance is Arthur's mom, and she really wants her little boy to be king. We'll meet her later.
  • Queen Eleanor's also not crazy about her son going to war over what should be a private family matter, and she's not afraid to tell him about it.
  • At this point, the Earl of Essex (one of the English noblemen) announces that two people have come from the countryside to have the king settle a dispute.
  • "Sure. Why not?" says our King.
  • Then King John makes a side comment about how he's going to let the monasteries pay for his war with France. That's Shakespeare's big shout-out to the historical King John's famous habit of increasing taxes.
  • In come the plaintiff and the defendant: Robert Falconbridge and his older brother Philip.
  • As it turns out, the case totally belongs in front of someone like Judge Judy, but this is a Shakespeare play so it goes before the king. The defendant, a guy named "Philip the Bastard" (not to be confused with King Philip of France) claims to be the firstborn son of a dead guy named Robert Falconbridge Sr.—and therefore the rightful heir to his wealth.
  • The plaintiff, Robert Falconbridge, Jr., claims that Philip had another father and is thus a bastard without any legal right to inherit from Robert Falconbridge, Sr.
  • Brain Snack: This whole showdown between Philip the Bastard and Robert is about something called primogeniture, the system by which the eldest legitimate sons inherits all his father's wealth, titles, lands, power, debt, etc. In other words, younger brothers, "bastards," and daughters usually get shafted. Because Philip is a "bastard," his little brother Robert thinks he shouldn't get all his dead dad's money. If you've read King Lear, then you know that Shakespeare's kind of obsessed with primogeniture and "bastards."
  • While Philip is talking, Queen Eleanor and King John are all, "Gee, that Philip sure does look a lot like King Richard I." Richard I would be John's dead brother and Queen Eleanor's dead son.
  • Then Robert speaks up. He says that, actually, King Richard was Philip's dad: Richard got busy with his mom while his dad was away a business trip.
  • Robert finishes his tale by saying that his father, on his deathbed, disinherited Philip and made him (Robert) his heir.
  • King John believes Robert's story (after all, he already said that he thought Philip looked like Richard).
  • But King John disagrees about the legal consequences. He cites a law that states that once a woman is married, her husband is technically considered the legal baby-daddy of any child she bears, no matter who the biological father actually is.
  • Robert objects, but it doesn't get him anywhere. What's worse, the Bastard now starts bagging on him for not getting to inherit his father's land.
  • At this point, Queen Eleanor is all, "Hey, kid. who would you rather have as a father? That lame Robert Falconbridge guy? Or my awesome dead son, Richard the Lionheart?"
  • Guess who the Bastard picks?
  • Philip agrees to stop claiming Robert Falconbridge, Sr., as his dad. He also gives up the land he inherited.
  • In return, King John makes Philip a knight, and Eleanor tells him to start calling her Grandma.
  • After this episode is over, King John announces that they have to hurry up and get ready to go to war with France.
  • Everybody leaves the stage except for Philip the Bastard.
  • The Bastard goes into a soliloquy (a speech where only one actor is on stage baring his soul to the audience).
  • In his speech, the Bastard imagines how awesome his new life is going to be. Then he announces his plans to use deception to climb further up the social ladder.
  • At the end of this speech, the Bastard sees someone arriving on horseback: it's his mom (Lady Falconbridge), and she's with some guy named James Gurney.
  • The Bastard wants to have a private chat with mom, so he sends away her friend. (Hope you didn't get too attached to James Gurney, because we don't see him again after this.)
  • The Bastard breaks the news to his mom that he just renounced her dead husband (the guy who wasn't really his biological dad, anyway).
  • Lady Falconbridge is cool with that. In fact, she's sort of relieved and fesses up to having had a torrid affair with the Bastard's real bio dad.
  • The Bastard and his mom then leave the stage together, and he promises to introduce her to his "new" relatives.