Literature

A Short Analysis of Constance’s ‘Grief Fills the Room up of My Absent Child’ Speech from King John

‘Grief fills the room up of my absent child’: so begins perhaps the most celebrated and moving speech in all of King John, which is not exactly a Shakespeare play that’s replete with celebrated speeches. The play lurks somewhere in the attic of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, out of sight, gathering cobwebs, as if best forgotten.

But Constance’s speech, beginning with those heartfelt words ‘Grief fills the room up of my absent child’, is one of the finest moments in a play that has, in some ways, been unfairly neglected. Before we proceed to a summary and analysis of Constance’s speech, here’s a reminder of the text, which comes in Act 3 Scene 4 of King John:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows’ cure!

King John: background

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The play begins with King John speaking with Chatillon, an ambassador from France. On behalf of France, Chatillon maintains that the King’s nephew, Arthur, rather than John, has the lawful claim to the English throne and its territories, and threatens John that if he does not step aside and give Arthur the crown, bloody war between France and England will ensue. Queen Eleanor, John’s mother, tells him that Arthur’s mother, Constance, will not rest until she has all of France supporting her son’s claim.

The King of France also supports Arthur’s claim, but King John refuses to give up the crown to his nephew. There is a battle, which John wins, but he agrees to a union between John’s niece, Blanche of Spain and the Dauphin, Lewis of France, to create allies between the two sides and bring an end to the war. He also makes Arthur Duke of Brittany, one of John’s estates in France.

Constance, Arthur’s mother, is angry that her son’s fight for the English throne has been abandoned by her supporters, including the King of France.

Arthur is taken prisoner in the ensuing war that breaks out after John defies the Pope. Realising that he will never rest until Arthur, his rival claimant to the throne, is out of the way, King John orders Hubert, one of his followers, to kill the boy.

Analysis of Constance’s speech

Constance’s ‘Grief fills the room up of my absent child’ speech comes shortly after John has agreed this plan with Hubert, and Constance, fearing her son lost and as good as dead already, gives full vent to her grief in Act 3 Scene 4.

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,

The word ‘grief’ is central to this scene of the play. Earlier, Constance had described herself as ‘sensible of grief’: that is, she is aware of her grief and can rationally analyse it. She’s disordered and distraught, true, but she still has her senses. If she were mad with grief, and not thinking straight, things would be different. Constance’s speech at this point is prompted by King Philip of France observing to her that she appears to be as fond of grief as she is of her own child.

And true enough, by this point in the scene, grief over her lost son, Arthur, has become something bigger than a mere feeling: it’s almost as if it has stopped being an abstract emotion and has become a physical thing, there in the room with her. It fills the room up ‘of my absent child’. Note the clever use of the preposition, ‘of’: grief does not fill the room up with her absent child, because the very point is that Arthur is not present. The room is absent of Arthur, and grief rushes to fill the void his absence has created.

Grief is like someone who has stolen his place, lying in his bed like Goldilocks sleeping in Baby Bear’s bed. As Constance paces up and down the room, fretting over the fate of her beloved son, grief mimics her actions and walks up and down with her.

Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;

Grief is like an impersonator who takes on the clothes and appearance of Arthur, reminding Constance (‘Remembers me’) of what he looked like, how he moved graciously in everything he did. There is something mocking about grief, reminding us constantly of the person who is not there, the one whose very absence we grieve over.

Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?

Constance’s question shows the clever but also poignant basis of Shakespeare’s witty but moving conceit. Constance’s grief is so powerful that everywhere she looks, she sees her son as if he were there. If grief has taken on the appearance of the absent child, looking and acting just like him, and making Constance feel as though her missing son is actually in the room with her, then shouldn’t she look fondly on grief, for keeping her son in the room with her, even as a mirage, a memory?

Curiously, many editors take Constance’s question here to be an exclamation, and so end the line with an exclamation mark rather than a question mark. But it seems to be a rhetorical question: is it not strange, she asks, not needing an answer, that when we grieve, we are at least given comfort by remembering the thing we have lost? (Yes, but it’s a false comfort and also a taunting one, since it stands in for the thing we wish with all our hearts wasn’t lost.)

Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.

Constance addresses King Philip directly and says that if he had experienced the loss of his child, she would do a better job of comforting him than he is currently doing of comforting her. She then dishevels her hair, arguing that she should not have neat hair when the head beneath is so disordered by grief.

O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows’ cure!

Constance concludes her speech by addressing Jesus, and then her own son, Arthur, who means everything to her. Constance reminds us that she is a widow, and so Arthur is not only her ‘fair son’, but a reminder of her marriage to her dead husband, whom she loved.

About the play

In 1899, the great Victorian theatre director Herbert Beerbohm Tree made a short silent film to promote his forthcoming stage production of William Shakespeare’s history play, The Life and Death of King John. This short piece of silent cinema included footage of King John’s dying moments, along with three other clips from the production. He didn’t choose the most famous play from the Shakespeare canon – indeed, you’d be hard-pushed to find a less well-known title – but in having King John committed to film, he was making cinema history. His King John film was the first ever time a Shakespeare play had been filmed.

King John has been described by Kenneth McLeish and Stephen Unwin as ‘the runt in the litter of Shakespeare’s plays on English history’, standing outside of his two tetralogies of later Plantagenet plays and the later collaborative work, Henry VIII. It has never been as popular as these other history plays (although the Victorians, with their Tennysonian love of medieval pomp, enjoyed it for its pageantry).

But the play has some moments of real emotive power, and Constance’s ‘Grief fills the room up of my absent child’ is perhaps the finest of these. We have analysed the play in more detail here.

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