King John

What a splendid play.  I actually directed King John a few years back when I was in college, using masked live actors and shadow puppets.  It was pretty awesome.

Most things in the world can be improved by puppets.

But it was great reading this play again, simply because I could rediscover a lot of fun things that I cut out of my edit of the script.  For example there is a random prophet, Peter of Pomfret that warns King John “That, ere the next Ascension-day at noon, Your highness should deliver up your crown.”  Of course, the King is a power-hungry wimp, and orders that Peter be executed for such remarks.  In the next Act, John does indeed offer his crown up to Cardinal Pandulph, a legate of the Pope, in order to be crowned legtitimately under the favor of the Catholic Church.  John then casually remarks “I did suppose it should be upon constraint; But, heaven be thankt, it is but voluntary.”  No regret that he sent an innocent man to be executed, no remorse, just casual happiness that the prophecy worked out okay.  This is the sort of selfish dick that Shakespeare portrays on the thronein this play.

It is both incredibly underrated and hilarious.

Opposite King John is the suprising protagonist of this play: The Bastard son of Richard the Lionheart, noted in script simply as The Bastard.  He is exactly as cool as that sounds.  While history rages around him, the Bastard provides some of Shakespeare’s most lucid commentary on humanity.  One of my favorites is: “Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail And say, There is no sin but to be rich: And being rich, my virtue then shall be to say. There is no vice but beggary.”  Over the course of the play, The Bastard develops from an immoral  individualist into a sort of wise patriot who cares deeply and genuinely for his community.

All the while remaining a complete badass.

This play is also a wonderful example of how Shakespeare’s Histories are actually History Flavored, and not reliable interpretations of events.  Two major events in the life of King John are explored in this play, and even though they take place at entirely different points in history they are staged here as intertwined conflicts.  One of them is Arthur’s challenge to the throne.  The other is an expensive war with France, which is actually why John historically is forced to sign the Magna Carta.  Strangely, the Magna Carta is not featured at all in this play.

Neither is King John's mythical conflict with Robin Hood.

Technically, the right of royal succession places Arthur as the rightful heir to the throne of England.  But, like Henry VI, he is a child and unable to function as a king.  John, with the help of his overbearing mother Elinor, is able to seize control of the throne without much resistance.  The war with France is historically a conflict over land, but Shakespeare invents a scenario where Arthur’s epically tragic mother, Constance, enlists their help to put the rightful heir on England’s throne.  The resulting narrative is actually a beautiful series of events that alternates between hilarious and tragic.  There is a fantastic scene where France and England are both vying for the loyalty of the Citizens of Angiers, a town where the two armies meet.  Eventually, King John asks: “France, shall we knit our powers And lay this Angiers even to the ground; then, after, fight who shall be king of it?”  The absurd and morbid humor in that question is characteristic of this play.  Horror that borders on the ridiculous.  Another great scene involves the captured Arthur, who has come to love his captor, Hubert.  Eventually, Hubert is given the strangely specific order to execute the boy.  Arthur reads the command, and pleads “Must you with hot irons burn out both mine eyes?” 

Hilarious.

A lot of crazy stuff happens, and I don’t want to spoil all of it for you because this is a rare opportunity for audiences to be suprised by a great Shakespearean story.  I will say that King John dies in the end, simply because that’s what happens at the end of a play about a king.  But I think it’s a strangely moving moment when the king dies onstage, and his son Henry remarks: “What surety of the world is this, what stay, When this was now a king, and now is clay?”  It is a sort of cynicism that runs through many of Shakespeare’s works, but it is also a sort of peaceful observation.  Even kings must die, but the community lives on.

So that’s king John for the moment.  I could go on for hours about this thing, but I have been neglecting this project for a while now and I want to keep going with the next play.  See you then!

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  1. […] is even wilder than the Fool throughout Shakespeare, as villainous here as he was heroic in King John.  Yet his pleas of injustice are legitimate, and there is one speech of his that I can’t help […]

  2. […] is my artistic opinion and not objective fact.  But just because obscure gems like Cymbeline or King John are awesome plays that deserve productions more often, that doesn’t necessarily put them in […]



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