King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616, and the relevance of ‘King John’ to us in 2016

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616 – thoughts on the relevance of Shakespeare’s King John, in 2016

Current political conflicts, and acts of violence, characterise the world in 2016:  Shakespeare’s plays about British history hold up a mirror to it

The relatively obscure and seldom performed early play, King John, resembles the much better known Richard III (written, perhaps, a little earlier)I value John, and I wish to make some comments in its favour, and to compare it with Richard.

It must be acknowledged that the play is only loosely based on historical events, from the reign of John (1199-1216).  Someone coming to it for the first time may be surprised to learn that there is no mention of Magna Carta.

Plot summary

Possession of the English crown is contested.  John has might rather than right on his side.  He maintains his power against the claim of Arthur, his nephew, supported by France and the Pope.  (Arthur dies, in suspicious circumstances: John is blamed.)  John nearly loses his crown, when the Dauphin (the French king’s son’s invades England and the English lords join sides with him.  John’s cause is rescued by Faulconbridge (a fictional bastard son of King Richard I) and Hubert (a commoner).  John dies, not in battle (as Richard III does) but as the result of poisoning by a monk.  He is succeeded by his own son, Henry III.

THEME 1 – KINGS

Both John and Richard portray the rise and fall of a king who is regarded by many commentators as a bad king.  Richard is single-minded, strong and tyrannous; but John is impetuous but fundamentally weak and indecisive; he is over-dependent, firstly on his mother, and secondly, on his loyal supporters, Hubert and Faulconbridge; he is easily outwitted by Pandulph, the papal legate.

There are in theory alternative kings for England.  Arthur is young and weak and over-dependent on his mother.  A victim of John’s machinations, he strikes a very pathetic figure.  Faulconbridge, the (fictional) son of Richard I, has the qualities of wit, strength of character and loyalty, but he is disqualified by his illegitimacy.

On the French side, the king and his son act in their own interest, against that of England; and Pandulph, the papal legate, does likewise.

THEME 2 – ACTIONS

Both plays feature dynastic marriages: in John, between John’s Niece, Blanche, and the future Louis VIII of France.

Both plays have English lords who have shifting loyalties as between rival claimants to the throne.

Both include battles and an invasion of England: in Richard, the future Henry VII makes good his claim to the crown; in John, the future Louis VIII of France returns home empty-handed.

The tragic fate of Arthur, John’s nephew, parallels that of Richard’s victims, especially that of his own nephews (the “Princes in the Tower”).

Women characters lose whatever power and influence they have, as the plays progress – they disappear from the stage and leave it to the military men.  In King John, major female characters exit early:

  • Blanche, at the end of Act 3 Scene 1
  • Eleanor (John’s mother), at the end of Act 3 Scene 3
  • Constance (Arthur’s mother), in Act 3 Scene 4.

(This feature was dealt with, in the RSC 2012 production, by combining two male roles and giving them to a woman.)

THEME 3 – REACTIONS, MALE

The nature of ambition, and its effects, are exposed, plainly and devastatingly, by King John’s (fictional) nephew, the “Bastard” Faulconbridge.  See his soliloquy (Act 2 Scene 1) about “commodity” (meaning: expediency, coupled with self-seeking and hypocrisy), described as:

 

                  ….that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids….

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity….

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…

 

Pandulph, in particular, is a skilled practitioner of the misuse of rhetoric and specious arguments for his own ends.

 

Surprisingly, perhaps, Prince Louis of France does strike a note of regret about how events have turned out, in a few remarkable lines (Act 3 Scene 4):

     There’s nothing in this world can make me joy.

Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale,

Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man,

And bitter shame hath spoiled the sweet world’s taste,

That it yields naught but shame and bitterness.

 

THEME 4 – REACTIONS, FEMALE

 

As in Richard III, it is the women who find the words to give expression to grief.  (Arthur finds the words for fear.)  Blanche talks about her divided loyalties, when her father and her husband are at war with each other.  Constance vents her grief, and her anger, over the capture of Arthur and his betrayal by his French allies.

Those who mourn, in the body of John are the victims of ambitious men (kings, earls and the papal legate) and their single-minded pursuit of power.  (Compare Richard III and his allies.)

 

THE ENDING

 

The final scene is characterised by the quiet fading away of King John himself and the perfunctory mourning of his passing, followed by Faulconbridge’s putting in a few words acceptance of the present and optimism about the future.  To paraphrase: ‘the King is dead, long live the king!’ and ‘England is strong if we stick together.’

 

Conclusion

 

A problem is that John commences somewhat as a comedy but develops into a tragedy.  Well, it would be a tragedy (rather than a history, perhaps), if John himself was a stronger, albeit flawed, character – a hero, or at least a clear anti-hero – and if his death formed a climax to the play rather than an anti-climax.  John lacks Richard III’s wicked humour, cleverness and depth of deceitfulness, which simultaneously attracts and repels the reader or the member of the audience.  (The wit and wisdom are left to Faulconbridge.)

 

But do not many 21st century leaders resemble King John?  Vacillating at times, impetuous at others, lacking in understanding of issues, deceitful?

 

In accordance with many of Shakespeare’s early history plays, King John I contains many long rhetorical speeches (as does Richard III).  These require skilled acting on the stage.  In my opinion, several are over-long and repetitive and will benefit from cuts in performance.

 

On balance, then, King John is worth a look.

[the long version]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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King John died 1216, Shakespeare died 1616 – the relevance of ‘King John’ to us in 2016

King John, died 1216, Shakespeare, died 1616 – thoughts on the relevance of Shakespeare’s King John, in 2016

Current political conflicts, and acts of violence, characterise the world in 2016:  Shakespeare’s plays about British history hold up a mirror to it.

It must be acknowledged that King John is only loosely based on historical events, from the reign of John (1199-1216).  (Someone coming to it for the first time may be surprised to learn that there is no mention of Magna Carta.)  It portrays the rise and fall of King John, who is regarded by many commentators as a bad king.  (Compare and contrast Richard III.)  He is impetuous but fundamentally weak and indecisive; he is over-dependent, firstly on his mother, and secondly, on his loyal supporters, Hubert and Faulconbridge.

It is the women who find the words to give expression to grief.  But the women characters lose whatever power and influence they have, as the plays progress – they disappear from the stage and leave it to the military men.

(This aspect was dealt with, in the RSC 2012 production, by combining two male roles and giving them to a woman.)

The nature of ambition, and its effects, are exposed, plainly and devastatingly, by King John’s (fictional) nephew, the “Bastard” Faulconbridge.  See his soliloquy (Act 2 Scene 1) about “commodity” (meaning: expediency, coupled with self-seeking and hypocrisy), described as:

 

                  ….that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,

That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,

That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,

Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids….

That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity….

This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word…

 

Other characters display their pursuit of “commodity”, to the detriment of others.

 

Do not many 21st century leaders resemble King John?  Vacillating at times, impetuous at others, lacking in understanding of issues, deceitful?  And dangerous!

[the short version]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes on Franz Kafka’s ‘Der Prozess’/’The Trial’

Introduction

I have found it a pleasure to study Kafka’s Trial again.

The Trial is a good read.  It is well written. Kafka covers the absurd in a dispassionate way.  The prose reflects, at times, legalistic language (appropriate to the nature of the story), very cleverly.

At first sight, The Trial may appear to foreshadow the oppressive tyrannies that have disfigured the history of the 20th century and later.  (It was written in 1914 but first published, after Kafka’s death, in 1935.)

But I think we should study it carefully and retain an awareness of its ambiguities.

The Content

As at the beginning of Amerika, The Trial story opens with a dramatic, informative and emphatic sentence:

Jemand muẞte Josef K. verleumdet haben, denn ohne daẞ er etwas Böses getan hätte, wurde er eines Morgens verhaftet.

Somebody must have told lies about Josef K, for although he had nothing wrong, he was arrested one morning.

His being taken by surprise, early in the morning, is reminiscent of the rude awakening of Gregor Samsa, in Die Verwandlung [The Metamorphosis].

Josef K’s fate follows this sequence: arrest, but no charge, no release of court papers to K or his advocate, no cross-examination, no verdict, no sentence, but a violent disposal.

The court proves to be opaque, impenetrable, highly bureaucratic, hierarchical and secretive.

From the start, it is downhill all the way, for K.

Selected themes

INNOCENCE V GUILT

The officers who arrest K observe that he claims to be innocent, while not knowing the law (whatever that is): “er gibt zu, er kenne das Gesetz nicht, und behauptet gleichzeitig, schuldlos zu sein.”

Leni, the woman who looks after the lawyer, and who seduces K, advises K to admit his guilt.  The lawyer himself gives K the same piece of advice: ‘Das einzige Richtige sei, sich mit den vorhandenen Verhältnissen abzufinden’ [‘The only correct course was to come to terms with things as they stood’].  (Chapters 6 and 7)

The court chaplain informs K that his case is going badly and that he is already considered to be guilty.  K denies that he, or indeed anyone, can be guilty.  The chaplain replies that this is exactly what guilty people say.  (Chapter 9)

EXHAUSTION AND HUMILIATION

K meets other defendants.  Involvement with the court takes up more and more of their time and it wears them out.  K has a similar experience.  He tries to carry on as normal and continues working at the bank; but he perceives the extent to which he is distracted by the court case, and tired out by it.

At his lawyer’s house, K meets a defendant who has been involved with the court for five years (Chapter 8).  The relationship between this defendant and the lawyer has been inverted: the man is extremely humble in front of the lawyer, as if his self-respect has been completely undermined: ‘Das war kein Klient mehr, das war der Hund des Advokaten.’ [‘This was no longer a client but the advocate’s dog.’]

Finally, at the point of death, K compares himself his treatment to the way a dog might be treated: ‘“Wie ein Hund!” sagte er, es war, als sollte die Scham ihn überleben” [‘“Like a dog!” he said, it was as if the shame was meant to outlive him.”].  (Chapter 10)

HELPERS

Josef K seeks help with his case from both men and women.  With his contacts with women, there is a sexual aspect.

K seeks out Fräulein Bürstner, his neighbour, to talk about his arrest: he ends up kissing her repeatedly without her permission (a case of sexual assault).  (Chapter 1)  Unsurprisingly, she terminates all contact with him.

K shares a fleeting mutual attraction with the wife of the court usher.  The usher – let alone K himself – feels obliged to tolerate court officers taking her for themselves.  (Chapter 3)

K is seduced by Leni, his lawyer’s carer, as the same time as she offers to help him.  At this point, K reveals some insight: ‘“Ich werbe Helferinnen,” dachte er fast verwundert’ [‘“I recruit women helpers,” he thought, rather to his surprise”].

The court chaplain expresses disapproval of K’s approach.  He tells K that he seeks too much help from strangers, especially women, but that they cannot help him: “Du suchst zuviel fremde Hilfe, und besonders bei Frauen.  Merkst du denn nicht, daẞ es nicht die wahre Hilfe ist?”

Philosophical questions raised by The Trial

1 What is guilt?

2 Who is fit to judge the guilty?

3 What if the judges are themselves corrupt?

4 How should men relate to women, and women to men?

Hypotheses re interpretation

Some of these may overlap.

1 K is innocent and it is the court that is guilty.

2 K changes.  The corrupt nature of the court infects him.  At the start, he is innocent; but under the influence of the arrest, he becomes guilty.  The arrest precedes the commission of the crime.  K’s guilt arises from the lustful aspect of his character, which comes to the surface.

3(A) The court represents dark aspects of the human psyche (especially K’s), or human society, or both, normally hidden from view.

3(B) K should face up to his faults, without relying on advisors and advocates.

4 What is the meaning of life?  Well, life has no meaning, other than the meaning we give to it.  Many things do not make sense.

5 Some aspects of our world are benign, others are not.  We suffer cruel, unjust events, inflicted by arbitrary, unaccountable forces.  As individuals or as a society, we do not have full control.

6 The world that Kafka portrays is ambiguous and the reader has to live with the ambiguity.  No single interpretation of his work is adequate.

7 It is also possible to read Kafka’s novels as reflecting his own anxiety about sex and relationships with women, as reflected in events in his personal life.

Conclusion

This remains a very modern novel.  The protagonist is not an old-fashioned hero – he has faults and makes mistakes.  He arouses sympathy in the reader, as he finds himself in a maze, with no way out other than the one that is imposed on him.