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.
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 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.’
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]