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]