King John, Act I
Once again, thanks to the Great Courses for an exhilarating class on Medieval English History. Without it, this play would fly straight over my head and be utter gibberish. Shakespearean gibberish, of course - and me the lesser for my misapprehension. But gibberish nonetheless.
Count it then a measure of the class’s sweep and scope that I started the play on the very edge of my seat. I already knew going in that John is considered one of the least successful kings in English history (to put it mildly) - so much so that only he, along with Stephen, remain the two royal names never to have been used again.
As presented in the lecture devoted to his disastrous reign, there are many reasons for his catastrophic failures. In college I learned about the significance of the signing of the Magna Carta, the first document to reign in the unchecked powers of a king. But until now, I had no idea what forced John into making this
great unprecedented concession.
Now I know that John took on three great opponents…and lost. He lost to Pope Innocent III, who pronounced a papal edict that forced John into accepting the Pope’s choice for the Archbishop of Canterbury; he lost most if not eventually all the English holdings in France to King Phillip, including Normandy and Brittany that had been in English possession since William the Conqueror; he lost absolute rule to the English people, who resisted John’s overtaxation and legal abuses. When John successfully appealed to the Pope to annul this agreement, claiming he had done so under duress, he initiated a civil war against his own people, many of whom had become so fed up they turned to France with an invitation to be invaded. King John came to be loathed that much!
Armed with this background, I eagerly began the play, curious how Shakespeare would dramatize the dysfunction. As usual, I was unprepared for the particular tact that he took. For after a swift, logical opening which centers us amid the ongoing conflict with Philip of France, Shakespeare occupies John with an odd paternity dispute involving two of his subjects.
I’m like, what the what? Why this sudden shift in gears, this introduction of a strange subplot? What does it have to do with the big picture? As the details emerge, it becomes clear that an older brother is being usurped by a younger sibling who claims the elder is a bastard. The “bastard” protests, only to discover that he bears a striking resemblance to the former king, Richard the Lionheart.
So much so, in fact, that Eleanor of Aquitaine is immediately prepared to accept him as her grandson and bring him back with her to France. The bastard is no idiot; he recognizes the opportunity and swears allegiance to Eleanor, forswearing in the process his claim to his inheritance. Not such a bad deal when your dad turns out to have been a well-respected king.
But was he really the father? There seems to be some doubt, even in the bastard’s own mind, when who should happen to drop by but good ol’ mom. She’s furious, and quite rightly so it would seem, that her reputation has been impugned by two sons caring more about their own financial stakes than how this will look for her.
After a bit of protest, she then confesses that Richard the Lionheart indeed begat “the bastard” who has in the meantime been knighted a full Plantagenet by King John! What formerly had been bad news could not have turned out any better for the newly named Richard. He thanks his mother for having the good fortune to have been forcibly seduced by a king.
And thus we end Act I. Maybe – just maybe – with the help of the Great Courses, the history plays that I had feared as virtually impenetrable won’t turn out to be indomitable after all!