Shakespeare's King John

2021-05-26 @Literature

King John, though one of the most unpopular of the plays for reasons not entirely to me convincing, exhibits some of the most sensational dialogue I’ve yet encountered.

It’s largely thanks to Philip the Bastard, though also fortified by Constance (characters whom I’ll shed light on momentarily). In fact, I’ve noticed Shakespeare’s tendency to endow bastards with clever dialogue throughout, for hey, considering their misfortune, may they flourish on stage.

In the words of Thersites (of Troylus and Cressida), ‘I love Bastards’ - and this bastard especially. Some of the Bastard’s monologues filled me with goosebumps. Seriously.

To resume. King John reigned from 1199-1216, sandwiched between his brother Richard I (1189-99) and Henry III (John’s son, 1216-72). The two (John, Richard) along with their brother Geoffrey are of the Plantagenet lineage of British rule.

Richard I is in fact the Richard, aka Richard Coeur-de-lion, aka Richard the Lionheart

I don’t know why I thought that would evoke an emotion in anyone but myself … But he was the Richard involved in those crusades, the Holy Grail, Saladin, etc … A play dedicated to him I would really love to have been penned in the hands of the bard.

After Richard’s death, John arguably usurped the throne from the rightful heir Arthur, Geoffrey’s son (Geoffrey also dead). Lady Constance, one of the principle characters of the play, and Geoffrey’s widow/Arthur’s mother, becomes the principal instigator of memorable soppy dialogues here encountered.

Constance also fueled France’s hostility towards England, France (at least openly) eager for Arthur to reclaim the rightful throne, the strife granting them all the more reason to wage battle.

That more or less opens the stage for the play, the setting shifting between England and France.

Back to the Bastard. Early on it’s made apparent that Philip the Bastard is the illegitimate son of Richard I. Rather than bicker over inheritance with his legitimate brother (of the Faulconbridge line), he chooses to renounce that claim and instead be knighted by John as Sir Richard Plantagenet, warmly welcomed to the court. Though the play effectively refers to his character universally as Bastard.

I forgot to mention that John’s (and Richard’s/Geoffrey’s) mother Eleanor, widow of Henry II, is effectively a British Queen and John’s right hand in all policy making: one of those exceptionally strong and militant female figures encountered in some plays (as Coriolanus’s mother): which makes her slam with Constance [2.1.159-194] a subject of much entertainment.

There are humorous, almost satirical moments encountered: such as when both English and French heralds both (in pompously emphatic verse) proclaim their sides as infallibly victorious when both wage battle at the French, though the British-occupied Angiers/Angers.

There are incredibly dramatic and intense moments which I won’t spoil.

There is John’s Protestant/Anti-Papal agenda evinced throughout, which, actually, fueled by interference of the Cardinal under the Pope, provokes much of the ensuing strife with France (all of this still early on).

But the gold and the glamour lie in the dialogues: of all characters, but particularly the Bastard’s.

Now, Shakespeare based this play off an earlier anonymous drama The Troublesome Reign of King John, compacting some scenes, elaborating others (mainly the characters), but most importantly making it Shakesperean, meaning full of rich and witty dialogue (entirely in verse).

And he did so in a not entirely coherent manner insofar as unifying theme, background clarity and character motivation.

Thus, as we read the work, at least until the end, we remain cloudy as to who to sympathize with and for what reasons. I suspect this has much to do with the play’s loss of popularity. Towards the end, however, this becomes a little more clear.

As for me, I wasn’t the least concerned over the matter. In fact, I enjoyed the shades of grey splashed all over the canvas. And I marvelled in the verse and dramatization.

As far as the Bastard, slowly but surely we come to see that he’s the embodiment (though a crude one) of initiative, chivalry and valour. He effectively carries the British national and battle spirit into every corner, crescent and dimension of the play.

The Bastard is the most constant and resolved character of all, hardships notwithstanding. He’s not afraid to banter and (especially) to taunt. But he backs up every little bit of it with sternness and steel … and a fair portion of hilarity for the reader.

I can sometimes perceive a character’s cockiness as awkward. Yet not in this case. Somehow, as ridiculous as some insults off his tongue may sound, I could envision it in every sense of sincerity.

The Bastard also becomes the ‘play commentator’. Shakespeare often chooses one character through which to project the underlying latent developments and inner meditations … Or simpler stated, to bear the role of a (slightly unreliable) narrator by way of lengthy inner-monologues.

Thersites serves this function in Troylus and Cressida; Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra; Iago in Othello; Hamlet himself; Aaron in Titus Andronicus (if memory serves). Note that the so-called commentators can diametrically vary in virtue or villainy across the scale. But it’s their inner-honesty that carries them outside the scene of action.

Read the play; not the critical commentary, much of which can give a false impression of inferiority, when actually I found it an awesome work.

As a typical history play, for one not used to them, it’s packed with an extensive cast, although much of it you may consider parenthetical unless you really care for the miniscule political intrigue. Just be attentive to the major developments, a large part of which I’ve already introduced.


Questions, comments? Connect.