Mad World! Mad Kings! Mad Composition!

King John, Act II

So far, the biggest question I have about the play is why it ranks so low in popularity.  The complicated background history, maybe?

I was expecting to find it dull and overweighted with long, boring speeches. Instead, I find it brisk and tense, thanks to a few advanced lessons from Sir Isaac Asimov.

I suppose now is as good a place as any to remind people that Shakespeare was a dramatist, not an historian.  He played fast and loose with persnickety facts when the storyline suited him, and wasn’t about to let a minor inaccuracy get in the way of a ripping yarn.

So it’s useful (and necessary) not to accept his plots – particularly the “historical” ones – at face value. This doesn’t just apply to the egregious examples like Richard III.

In fact, Shakespeare’s liberality with what can best be described as dubious sources calls to mind our contemporary critique of made-for-TV movies “based on a true story.”  We yammer about structural and character changes writers make to enhance the dramatic impact of a story.  But the method is as old as caveman tales told around a campfire.  The rule: when in doubt, exaggerate for emotional impact.

The basics of what we need to know for this play are rather simple (he says).  Ever since William the Conqueror invaded England, the English king has held dual possessions in France and at home.  With strategic marriages and heavy-handed statesmanship, those territories have remained in English possession through King John, but things are about to turn ugly.

King Philip of France is using a glitch in the English rule of succession (where have we heard this before) to intercede on young Arthur’s (not that Arthur) behalf.  King John is the youngest son of Henry II and should only rule if his older brothers left no male heirs.  But, in fact, Geoffrey’s wife was pregnant when he died and their son – yep, Arthur – technically should have gotten the nod.

It’s complicated, of course, and involves a gripping subplot about two overambitious stagemothers (Eleanor of Aquitaine and Constance of Brittany) – as well as the aforementioned headstrong kings.

You really need a program to keep up with all this…which brings me back to the idea that it must be part of the reason why the play does not rank among Shakespeare’s more popular.  Then again, I still have three acts to go.

Rather than bore you with my recap, I would just like to point out a scene in Act II that reminds me of Monty Python.  The setting: France.  The place: Angiers (an English possession).  The situation: King John has stormed into France to defend his land against the trumped up (some might say) charges of King Philip.  Each king claims legitimacy before the people; King John as the King of England and King Philip on behalf of Arthur.  The poor, besieged city dwellers do not know how to answer and try to play it safe.  But it’s precarious business, especially when a battle between the rival forces ends in a draw.

Which side should the people choose?  Go with the English king, since they’re technically on English soil (even though in France)?  Or jump sides and back the French, since Philip is hot to get their land back?

The Bastard (we met him in Act I) boldly suggests that both sides put aside their differences to destroy Angiers and then resume their feud to see who may claim the spoils.

I feel for Angiers.  Trying to do the right thing.  Caught between a rock and a hard place.  And yet teetering on the verge of destruction because of the madness inherent in the screwed-up politics of succession.

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