Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis: Princess Constance in Shakespeare’s King John: From Distress to Despair

by Yves Thore

August 25, 2005


This essay shows how Shakespeare’s King John represents with great psychological accuracy the stages of loss, distress, madness, despair and mourning. In the character of Constance, extreme pain gives way to the foreclosure of the symbolic order in distress and madness. Constance’s despair is a response to the “hole in the real” created by extreme loss. The idea of “dead loss” is invoked to account for the irreversibility of mourning in the absence of ritual enactment of meaning. Shakespeare’s Constance gives us a way to understand the progressive steps of depression.


One of the most impressive characters in Shakespeare’s plays is Princess Constance in King John. She is also very interesting for a clinician in psychiatry. She plays an important part in this play and her depression deepens itself till the ultimate disaster of her death "in a frenzy ".

The plot

The play begins after the death of King Richard-Coeur-de-Lion "at war. According to the succession rule of primogeniture, the young Arthur, son of Richard’s eldest brother, Geoffrey and of Princess Constance, should succeed to Richard. His mother, princess Constance requests the help of the French King, a capetian named Philippe-Auguste to protect her son’s right to become king of England.

Another Richard’s brother, John, already king of England, expresses his ambition and right to inherit his brother’s crown. He pretends, with his mother Alienor, that Richard established a will in his favour to become king of England after him. King John, because he is already king, levies an army and they land early in the morning on the coasts of France and arrive near the town of Angiers.

The army of the French king and his allies faces the forces of King John and prepare to fight.

Constance trusts the King of France who promised to protect and defend her son’s right. She suggests to avoid war by negociation.

When John and his mother meet them, there is a very tense dialogue between John’s mother, Alienor and her. Alienor accuses Constance to serve her own narcissistic ambition to become a queen and to check the world when her "bastard son"will be crowned.

Constance reproaches her mother-in-law to have been unfaithful to her first husband and maybe as well to the second one. She affirms that her son Arthur is "liker in feature to his father Geoffrey than Alienor and John in manners, "being as like, as rain to water or devil to his dam".

Constance evokes a legend referring the origins of the Plantagenet family to the intervention of a fairy, called Mélusine, who was closer to the devil than to God, and vanished in the air when she was forced by her husband to attend mass.

Constance accuses Alienor to plan to usurp her son’s rights to the crown.

In fact, the friendship between Geoffrey and the French king Philip was so strong that, when Geoffrey was buried, Philip tried to jump into his friend’s grave, to be buried with him (3).

This is why Constance is quite sure to be supported very strongly by her champion, King Philip, observing the chivalry code prescribing to protect widow and orphan.

This orphan has a quite extraordinary destiny. He was born after his father’s death, the day of Easter. Named Arthur, like the legendary ancestor of the Celts, he was expected as a Messiah by the Brittons. It is quite difficult for a young boy to assume such an investment from his people and from his ambitious mother. When Arthur observes the quarrel between his mother and his grand-mother, he expresses a very strong tendency to depression already :

Good my mother, Peace !
I would that I were low laid in my grave:
I am not worth this coil that’s made for me."


A proud knight, protector of widow and orphan, against John the usurpator. He feels ready to attack the town of Angiers and "wade to the market-place in Frenchmen’s blood "(l. 42).
On the other side, King John, "Jean-sans-Terre ", offers to young Arthur to join him because he can expect nothing from the coward hand of France".

Both kings ask the inhabitants of Angiers to choose their side but their herald answers that the kings must decide between themselves who is the legitimate successor of Richard.
The battle begins and the herald of the town proposes a new compromise: instead of war, the kings might marry Philip’s son with John’s niece and conclude peace by this matrimonial union.

Surprise, the Prince Arthur’s champions all accept this project without hesitation, as well as John and Alienor. It will be commented by the Bastard Faulconbridge as "a vile concluded peace".

The dramatic situation is set up. Beyond the conflictual expressions of Constance till now, we shall discover one of the most impressive characters of "vailing women " and the progression of her psychic depressive disintegration in three stages, distress, madness and despair.

I/ Constance’s distress

The fist level of her depression is distress, defined as "an extreme pain or suffering "
When the messenger informs her about the project of wedding between the royal families, she cannot believe it and refers herself to the promised and warranted help of Philip:

Believe me, I do not believe thee, man.
I have a king’s oath to the contrary.

(II. 2. 9-10).

She copes with adversity, she splits very sharply on one hand, the qualities of her son, (who is fair, of great birth, made great by Nature) and on the other hand, the fact that he was just abandoned by Fortune, defined with scornful sexual metaphors : corrupted, adulterous, bawd, strumpet and forsworn.

This stiff splitting gives her the strength to reverse the relationship with these kings, in a pattern which will be the same for Richard II, she can lean herself only on earth, in a proud loneliness:

To me and to the state of my great grief
Let kings assemble: for my grief’s so great
That no supporter but the huge firm earth
Can hold it up: here I and sorrows sit;
Here is my throne, bid kings come bow to it.

(II. 2. 70-74).

In 1939, Mark Van Doren commented this character so : " she is the last and most terrible of Shakespeare’s vailing women … Here it comes like the wind, directly, and all but blows the play to pieces."(4, p. 106-115).

When Constance is informed about Lewis’s betrophal to Blanch, there is in herself a frontal conflict between life and death:

O, if thou teach me to believe this sorrow,
Teach thou this sorrow how to make me die,
And let belief and life encounter so
As doth the fury of two desperate men
Which in the very meeting fall, and die

(II. 2. 29-33).

Distress is a conflict, remaining in the field of life. Constance tries to convince Philip and his allies to resist to John and to declare war again. Later, when the Papal Legate, cardinal Pandulph excommunicates and condemns King John as heretic, she joins herself to his firm attitude, she copes strongly with adversity and resists to everything and to everyone. She fights for her life and her son’s destiny. Distress is a difficult experience in the field of life.
War begins again, more and more wild and cruel. John wins the battle, young prince Arthur is his prisoner and French boats are victims of a wreck.

For Constance, distress leaves room to another level of depression, hopelessness, or rather despair. Her suffering is deeper than the second step of depression, the step of madness, or delirium.

2/ Madness and delirium

This psychotic pattern is conceived by Jacques Lacan, after the Freud analysis of President Schreber, as based upon the mechanism of Verwerfung, or forclusion ; when exists a failure in the symbolic, when the signifier of the " name-of-the-father" is missing, there is a movement by which the real comes back to stand instead of the symbolic, in the very place where a symbolic signifier is missing. This pattern may explain symptoms like delirium or hallucination: the voices addressing themselves to the patient are perceived by him as real voices, instead of a missing symbolic reference.

When Pandulph observes the Constance’s despair, he says:

Lady, you utter madness, and not sorrow.

       (III. 3. 43).

And Constance is right to answer:

I am not mad: this hair I tear is mine;
I am not mad: I would to heaven I were!
If I were mad, I should forget my son,
And madly think a babe of clouts were he.
I am not mad, too well, too well I feel
The different plague of each calamity.

     (III.3. 45, 48, 57-60)

This pattern is well-known by psychiatry and it is not at work in the case of Princess Constance.

3/ Despair

Her depression has reached the deeper level, the worst experience, worst than distress or even madness, the stage of hopelessness or better despair, de-sperare where absolutely no hope is left:

My name is Constance; I was Geoffrey’s wife;
Young Arthur is my son, and he is lost!
For being not mad but sensible of grief,
My reasonable part produces reason
How I may be deliver’d of these woes,
And teaches me to kill or hang myself….

     (III. 3. 46-47, 53-56)

When Constance appears, as an image of absolute despair, Philip says:
"Look, who comes here! a grave onto a soul . "

Her main investment is death:

Death ! death , O amiable lovely death !
Thou odoriferous stench! Sound rottenness !
Come, grin on me, and I will think thou smil’st
And buss thee as thy wife. Misery’s love,
O, come to me!

     (III. 3. 25-26,34-36).

We are no longer in the field of distress (like Princess Margaret, gloating "at the murder of an innocent child "(9), we are not either in the range of madness with delirium (like Lady Macbeth in the sleepwalking scene), we are in the realm of despair, where no hope, no light and no life is left. There is no hope left on earth and no hope left either beyond death. It is impossible for her to redeem or save her son and, once John will have ordered his death, Constance will not know her son when she will meet him again in heaven, because the sorrow will make him as hollow as a ghost, and Constance concludes:

Therefore, never , never
Must I behold my pretty Arthur more.

     (III.2.88-89 )

We may observe that this identification to a dead corpse has been described by a French psychiatrist of the nineteenth century, Jules Cotard, in the " Délire des négations ", ( the negation delirium ), an extreme form of melancholy with ideas of immortality, damnation and negation of the existence of the patients organs of his body.

From a psychoanalytical point of view, when Lacan analysed Hamlet, in the seminar called "The desire and its interpretation", he described a pattern of despair, as a reverse model of the one he called Verwerfung, ( forclusion ) for psychotic states.

" The hole in the real made by a loss, a real loss, this kind of unbearable loss for a human being, inducing the process of mourning, this hole in the real, is the loss of something which is the experience absolutely unbearable for a human being ( which is not one’s own death , impossible to experiment , but the death of an other who is for us an essential being ) ; this hole in the real is the place where is projected precisely this missing signifier, essential for the structure of the great Other, this signifier whose absence makes the other unable to answer to you, this signifier that can be paid unless with your flesh and blood, the phallus under its veil. In this hole in the real, comes all the symbolic game with images like in Hamlet, the Ghost."
(3, p. 22-24 , meeting of April 22nd, 1959 ).

This pattern is very difficult to conceive and to analyse. The best comment I found was written by a French Lacanian analyst , Jean Allouch in his book entitled " Erotique du deuil au temps de la mort sèche " (" Erotics of mourning at the time of the dead loss " ) ( 5 ).
I shall not develop here this analysis but I wanted to demonstrate with you the narrow correspondence between Princess Constance and this pattern of despair, with a hole in the real and the return in the same place of the symbolic most fundamental signifier, the signifier of the phallus.

We can observe that this experience of extreme loss, " la mort sèche", called by Jean Allouch " dead loss " ,( 5 , p. 240 ), is described by Lacan about the scene when Ophelia is buried and when Hamlet jumps into her grave, following Laertes. Jean Allouch explains that doing so, Hamlet suffers extremely to discover Ophelia’s death and that his reference to this rejected love manifests the signifier of the phallus, as expression of the turgescence of life. Hamlet, in this situation of despair, sacrifices a part of him and this leads him to dismiss his attitude of procrastination and accomplish his destiny of avenger.

I wanted to evoke with you the Character of Princess Constance as a very refined portrait of extreme depression and disintegration of all links.

4/ The dead loss, la mort sèche

Jean Allouch critics sharply the Freud article " mourning and melancholy"; he esteems that the most cruel experience of loss is centered on the lost object itself, and not on the way to restore the subject of mourning himself. There is a necessity to elaborate a subjectivation of such unique and unbearable, inacceptable loss.

This work of subjectivation cannot be reduced to the "mourning work "Freud mentioned. The problem is not to find a substitutive object.

The problem is to "serve "the lost object in a signifying-enough attitude. This, on Jean Allouch opinion, requires to fulfill the following conditions:

  • when the object is lost without any funeral ritual, an act, a symbolic act must be done

to symbolize that the dead object is free to lay in peace with the dead, and leave the dead to the death.

  • this act must have the meaning of a sacrifice, with charm and grace," a gracious sacrificial act",
  • doing so, the mourner accepts the loss and gives a little supplement to it, a little part of his self, symbolizing the phallic signifier, the principle of life itself.
  • These conditions are necessary to accept that the death of the object is for ever sealed,

  • Irreversible.

As said Mallarmé when his son Antoine was dying:

In this combat between life and death,
Which our small beloved child assumes…
The most horrible,
Is the misfortune in itself that this little being should not be any longer ,
If such fate is his!
I confess here that I fail and cannot face this idea.

Dans ce combat entre la vie et la mort,
Que soutient notre pauvre petit adoré …
C’est le malheur en soi que ce petit être ne soit
Si pareil sort est le sien ! [« est », non pas : doit
être ]
J’avoue là que je faillis
Et ne puis affronter cette idée.

     (7, cited in 5, pp. 123-124 )

I propose to interpret, with this pattern, the second part of the play, King John. The problem in mourning process is not to guess whether John or Hubert will find a substitutive object after Constance death "in frenzy" and Arthur’s execution.

     When Arthur, in prison, separated from his mother, accepts tenderly the sacrifice of his eyes by Hubert’s executioners, Hubert refuses to commit such a crime and sacrifices his own security, taking the risk to be punished to death by the King.

     Prince Arthur is between life and death during act IV : John believes he was killed, Hubert knows he is still alive but ignores that Arthur jumped down from the walls of Rouen castle and doing so, died by accident, just in the same castle as, later on, Joan of Arch, will try to escape in the same way. This equivocal status of Arthur between death and life may represent the difficulty of the phallic signifier to find its place or to lose it.

     This "dead loss "("la mort sêche "), this impossible mourning occurs often when the funeral rituals have not been fully celebrated. This reinforce the " hole in the real " , just as if this human being had been treated without respect like a dead animal, and this loss appeals strongly the whole symbolic register for compensation of this scandalous situation. This was the case for Polonius funeral, "greenly "celebrated, for Ophelia as well, guilty of suicide, and for Prince Arthur, prisoner and victim of a most cynical king.

     When one of the English knights, Pembroke, discovers Arthur’s body on the land, he says:

O death, made proud with pure and princely beauty!
The earth had not a hole to hide this deed.

     (IV.3. 35-36).

The Knights of England esteem that this crime is unique, is one of the worst criminal actions ever done and that the idea of a substitutive object is unthinkable:

Could thought , without this object,
Form such another? This is the very top, or crest unto the crest,
Of murther’s arms….

     (IV. 3. 44-47.)

     It seemed to me important to question the riddle of despair with the aid of Princess Constance, and I think this character may help us to understand better the progressive steps of depression.



Works Cited

1. Shakespeare W. King John. London, New-York: The Arden Edition of the works of William Shakespeare. Edited by E.A.J. Honigmann ; 1994.

2. Shakespeare W. Vie et mort du roi Jean. Tr. fr. de Jean-Michel Déprats. Paris : éd. Théâtre de Genevilliers-Théâtre public ; 1992.

3. Aurell M. L’empire des Plantagenêt 1154-1224. Paris : éd. Perrin, «  Pour l’histoire » ; 2003.

4. Van Doren M. Shakespeare. New-York: Henry Holt and company; 1939 (pp. 106-115).

5. Allouch J. Erotique du deuil au temps de la mort sèche. Paris : éditions EPEL, Ecole lacanienne de psychanalyse ; 1997.

6. Lacan J. Séminaire VI, «  Le désir et son interprétation » ( 1958-59). Stenotyped edition. Also published in the review « Ornicar ». 2001 ; issues n° 24,25,26,27.

7. Richard J.P., Pour un tombeau d’Anatole. Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé. Paris : Seuil ; 1961.

8. Wangh M. A psychoanalytical commentary on Shakespeare’s "The Tragedie of King Richard the second ". Psychoanalytical Quarterly. 1968; vol. 37 (2): 212- 237.

9. Ruckin P. Anti-Historians: women’s roles in Shakespeare’s Histories. Theatre Journal. October 1985; vol. 37 ( 3 ) : 329-344.

10. Holland N. Psychoanalysis and Shakespeare. New-York, Toronto, London: McGraw-Hill Book Company ; 1966.

11. Schwartz M., Kahn C. Representing Shakespeare, New Psychoanalytic Essays, ed. Murray Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press; 1980 (pp. xi – xxi ).

12. Willbern D., Poetic Will, Shakespeare and the play of language. Philadelphia : University of Pennsylvania Press ( PENN ) ; 1997.

13. Thoret Y. La théâtralité, étude freudienne. Paris : Dunod , « Psychismes » ; I993.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Yves Thore "Shakespeare and Psychoanalysis: Princess Constance in Shakespeare’s King John: From Distress to Despair". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available August 25, 2005 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2005, Published: August 25, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Yves Thore