Act 1, Scene 1 Setting: The English court
The play begins with a meeting between King John and the Chatillion (ambassador) from France. King Philip of France demands that John should resign his crown to Arthur, the son of John's deceased older brother Geoffrey, who many believe to be the rightful King of England. John refuses to resign and the Chatillion departs to deliver this message to his king. At this point, two brothers (sons of the late Sir Robert Faulconbridge) are introduced to the court: Robert, the younger, claims his father's inheritance rightfully belongs to him because his older brother, Phillip, is illegitimate, the actual son of the previous king, Richard I, John's older brother. Despite Philip's illegitimacy, John sides with him and awards him all his father's lands. Phillip, however, gives the lands to his brother and is knighted by the king, who then departs with his train for France, leaving Phillip alone to give a soliloquy on his new status. Lady Faulconbridge, Phillip's mother, enters and is angry that her sons have spread word that she was unfaithful to her late husband. Ultimately, though, she admits that she had an affair with King Richard I, who is Phillip's biological father. Phillip is happy with this news and departs with his mother.
Act 2, Scene 1 Setting: Angiers
King Philip of France and the Duke of Austria meet with King John's nephew Arthur and his mother Constance to assure them that they will do anything in their power to put Arthur on the throne of England. Chatillion enters bringing news of King John's defiance and informs them that he is close at hand. John and his train then enter to the court with offerings of peace towards France. King Philip agrees to have peace with England, but he says John must give up the throne to Arthur, who he believes to be the rightful heir to the throne of England. An argument ensues with many insults traded on both sides, and John still refuses to give up the throne. Philip says he will appeal to the citizens of Angiers to decide whether John or Arthur should be king. Each of the kings appeal their separate cases to the citizens, each of them claiming that if they side with them, their city shall be spared from destruction; otherwise, they will lay siege to their town. The citizens reply that they are loyal to the King of England, but until it is decided who the rightful king is, their gates are locked to all. After hearing this, Philip and John agree to do battle. After the battle, heralds for both sides present their cases to the citizens of Angiers who, in reply, say that although both armies fought valiantly, there is still no clear winner. The kings arrive from the battlefield, each thinking their army has won the battle yet neither one of them can gain entry into the city. Philip the bastard suggests that the two kings put their armies together and lay siege to Angiers before fighting again with each other. The kings agree to this and prepare to attack the city when Hubert, the spokesman for Angiers, suggests that, as a peace offering, John's niece Blanche should marry the French dauphin (son to King Philip). Eleanor, John's mother, urges him to accept this match for this will strengthen his position as king. The two sides finally agree that Blanche and Lewis the dauphin shall be married and are admitted into the city. John agrees to give King Philip several French towns and a large sum of cash as a dowry for Blanche and says he shall give Arthur several high ranking titles to appease his mother Constance. The two sides enter into the city leaving Philip the bastard alone to delivers a long soliloquy, stating his objections to the peace between England and France.
Act 3, Scene 1 Setting: The French camp
Constance is informed by the Earl of Salisbury of the truce between England and France and how it shall affect Arthur's claim to the throne. She continuously laments until the two royal parties arrive. Constance accuses both Philip and Austria of breaking their oaths to her, and they both attempt to calm her before Cardinal Pandulph arrives. Pandulph inquires as to why John has refused to allow a certain man appointed by the pope to perform his office as Archbishop of Canterbury. John replies that he will not have any man appointed by the pope in his kingdom. This reply causes the cardinal to excommunicate him from the church and says that any who remain his allies will suffer the same fate. An argument then ensues as to whether France should break its allegiance with England. Constance is, of course, in favor of this, but King Philip tells the cardinal that he has already made an oath and sealed it through marriage. Pandolph retorts by saying that all oaths are based on religion, and if one denounces religion, one cannot properly keep an oath. Ultimately, the French break their truce with England, much to the happiness of Constance and much to the chagrin of Blanche, and the two sides prepare to do battle once again.
Act 3, Scene 2 Setting: Near the English camp
Philip the bastard holds up Austria's severed head in triumph when King John enters with Arthur as prisoner. He claims that he must rescue his mother, who has been taken captive by the French, and Philip announces he has already rescued her.
Act 3, Scene 3 Setting: The English camp
After informing his mother that she shall stay behind for safety and sending Philip to England to imprison the abbots, John speaks with Hubert, Arthur's protector. John flatters Hubert and promises him advancement if he kills Arthur. Hubert agrees, and the men set off toward Calais.
Act 3, Scene 4 Setting: The French camp
King Philip, Lewis and Pandulph discuss their loss to the English when Constance enters, grief-stricken over Arthur being taken prisoner by John. The men attempt to comfort her - but to no avail. She storms off, followed by Philip. As Lewis is saddened by the loss of Arthur and of the loss in battle to the English, Pandulph attempts to convince him that their loss in battle was not as bad as he thinks. The cardinal urges Lewis to eliminate Arthur, if John has not already done so, so that he may claim the English throne by right of his wife Blanche. Lewis is skeptical of this plan at first but ultimately agrees to it.
Act 4, Scene 1 Setting: Arthur's prison
Hubert prepares to do the deed that he was assigned to do (burn out Arthur's eyes). Arthur enters and is informed of what Hubert must do. He then pleads with Hubert not to take his eyes. Hubert, who at first stands firm in his duty, is ultimately convinced by Arthur's sad pleadings not to do the bloody deed and agrees to help Arthur escape from King John.
Act 4, Scene 2 Setting: The English court
King John is joined at his re-coronation ceremony by the Earls of Salisbury and Pembroke. The two earls are not happy with the way the king has handled matters during his reign, and they ask they he should be more respondent to their counsel in the future. John agrees, and Pembroke says that John should release Arthur from prison (which should not be an issue to John since his throne is secured). Hubert enters and delivers the (false) news that he has killed Arthur. After Hubert departs, Salisbury and Pembroke, who were already informed of the king's intentions towards his nephew, severely reprimand John for his horrible actions and depart. The king feels sorrowful for his deeds, and a messenger arrives with news that the French, under the command of the dauphin, have arrived in England with a large army. In addition, the king is informed that both Constance and Eleanor, his mother, have passed away. The king feels even more sorrowful when Philip the bastard enters with a prophet, Peter of Pomfret, who claims that John shall lose his crown by the next ascension day. John orders Peter to be imprisoned and hanged on the day the prophet says he will lose his crown. Philip then further informs the king that the lords are in search of Arthur's grave, whom they believe to be dead under John's orders. The king dismisses Philip to remedy the situation with the lords and Hubert arrives again. Hubert tells the king of the many prophesies that are going about over Arthur's death, and John, fear stricken, attempts to blame the entire event on Hubert. Finally, Hubert admits to the king that Arthur is still alive and that he could never commit such a violent act on a child. John is relieved by this news and sends Hubert to inform the enraged nobles of it.
Act 4, Scene 3 Setting: A castle wall
Arthur stands atop the castle walls, knowing he must attempt to escape or die at the hands of his uncle John. He leaps down and falls to his death. The lords (Salisbury, Pembroke and Bigot) enter talking of their strategies with the dauphin against King John. Philip the bastard enters and informs the lords that the king wishes to meet with them. The lords refuse to meet with the king and then notice the corpse of Arthur lying on the ground. All the men present lament the death of Arthur when Hubert, who they all believe to be responsible for the crime, enters. He is immediately accused of murdering Arthur, and a quarrel breaks out between Hubert and the lords which Philip must mediate. Hubert, who at this moment knows not why he is being accused of murder, discovers Arthur's body and is grief-stricken. The lords still do not believe Hubert and depart to meet the dauphin. Hubert explains that it was not he who killed Arthur; Philip tells him to take the body, and they will both go to the king.
Act 5, Scene 1 Setting: The English court
King John is re-crowned King of England by Cardinal Pandulph, and the cardinal agrees to order the French to stop their attack. John realizes that Peter's prophecy (that he would be uncrowned on Ascension Day) came true when Philip enters with news that the lords are still up in arms and have teamed with the French, that Arthur is dead and that he must do battle presently. The king informs Philip that he has made peace with the cardinal. Philip is angry at this news and urges the king to do battle with the French regardless, which he reluctantly agrees to.
Act 5, Scene 2 Setting: The French camp
The lords and the dauphin emotionally discuss the perils of the war they are about to enter into when Pandulph enters and informs them that John has made peace with Rome, and therefore, they need not go to war with him. Lewis tells the cardinal that it was he who urged him on to pursue the throne of England and that he will not now back down simply because John has made his peace with Rome. Philip the bastard enters and is informed that the dauphin will not lay down his arms. This provokes Philip to chastise the English lords for waging war in their own country. The two sides exchange insults and decide to go to war.
Act 5, Scene 3 Setting: The English camp
King John, who is feeling ill, is informed by a messenger that the reinforcements the dauphin was expecting have been shipwrecked and that the French are in the process of retreating. The sick king says he will retire to an abbey in Swinstead.
Act 5, Scene 4 Setting: The French camp
The English lords lament their losses in the field when they are joined by the French lord Melun, who is fatally wounded. Melun tells the lords that, if the dauphin wins the battle with their assistance, King John means to have them executed. In the end, the lords decide they will swear allegiance to John.
Act 5, Scene 5 Setting: The French camp
A messenger informs the confident dauphin that Melun has died, the English lords have defected from the French army and that the French reinforcements have perished at sea. The dauphin is discouraged at first but knows that King John has fled the field and regains his confidence.
Act 5, Scene 6 Setting: The English camp
Hubert and Philip meet in the battlefield and Hubert tells of how King John has supposedly been poisoned by a monk and is very sick. He also explained that the lords have rejoined the king and are pardoned on the advise of John's son, Prince Henry. Philip tells how many of his troops have been killed and departs to visit the king.
Act 5, Scene 7 Setting: The English court
Prince Henry and the lords discuss the king's sickness and ramblings and how he shall not live much longer. King John is brought out and continues to ramble incoherently. Philip enters and tells the king his troops have been wiped out. The king dies after hearing this news, and Philip vows revenge on the French. He is informed, however, that a peace has been procured with the intervention of Cardinal Pandulph. The lords all pay homage to Prince Henry (the new King Henry III), and Philip delivers a patriotic speech to end the play.