Continuing my series on Shakespeare’s sources I turn my attention to King John and the mystery of the death of Prince Arthur.
In Shakespeare’s play Arthur’s death is not mysterious at all. In what can be staged as a very dramatic moment the boy throws himself from the battlements with the final cry of ”Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones.” I still remember the thump and ensuing gasp as the ‘body’ hit the floor in the last production I saw. I would love to know how they originally staged this moment given that they performed in day light and the modern solution of a black out and the substitution of an Arthur doll would have been impossible, but I suppose we will never really know.
Anyway I digress. As with most of Shakespeare’s history plays his major source was Holinshed’s chronicles. From here he takes the whole part of the story about Hubert being so moved by the boy’s pleas that he disobeys the king’s suggestion that Arthur be killed. And in dramatizing the piece he contracts the story of the king’s recanting his desire for Arthur’s death because of the people’s displeasure and of the various lies which are told to the public about Arthur’s death.
But where Holinshed is honest about the mystery surrounding Arthur’s actual death Shakespeare makes a choice not only of a specific ending but also to show that dramatic death on the stage.
This is what Holinshed says about Arthur’s death.
“…But now touching the manner … of the end of this Arthur, writers make sundrie reports. Neuerthelesse certeine it is, that in the yeare next insuing, he was removed from Falais vnto the castle or tower of Rouen, out of the which there was not any that would confesses that ever he saw him go alive. Some have written, that as he assaied to have escaped out of prison, and proving to clime over the walls of the castle, he fell into the river of Saine, and so was drowned. Other write, that through very grief and languor he pined away, and died of natural sicknesses. But some affirm, that king Iohn secretly caused him to be murdered and made away, so as it is not thoroughly agreed upon, in what sort he finished his days…” Holinshed
Consider the choices which Shakespeare has an accidental fall to his death, a gradual pining away or a secret murder. The final one offers drama, the middle offers pathos, the first irony, but Shakespeare chooses none of them. Instead he takes the idea of falling to his death but make it deliberate – puts Arthur in control of his own mystery and gives the boy an amazing and dramatic exit.