With a Passion Would I Shake the World

King John, Act III

Consider me bowled over.

This play has me hooked…and it was the last thing I expected.  Don’t know why.  Probably because – as I previously mentioned – you don’t see it performed often or even mentioned with Shakespeare’s great works.  It just sorta gets lumped in.  “Oh, and then the King John thing.  What’s that about?”

For my money, it’s the best read I’ve had so far.  Maybe because it hit me out of left field.  Maybe because it reads like a tense action flick; Die Hard comes to mind.  Shakespeare relentlessly puts the main characters in the most excruciating circumstances.  They must choose between a rock and a hard place.

In Act III, King John and King Philip have come to a precarious peace by agreeing to a marriage that will tidy up the land dispute that brought them to arms.  But this agreement pisses off Constance, who was counting on Phillip rallying to the cause of her son, Arthur.  She rails at Philip for betraying her, even if the result is peace.  The peace displeases, for it upsets Arthur’s line to the throne.

Enter the pope, err, rather the pope’s spokesman to force a decision upon John that the king detests: accept the pope’s choice for the Archbishop of Canterbury or be excommunicated.

Being excommunicated by the pope is no joke, especially at that time.  But John is steadfast, headstrong, willful, you might say stupid in standing his ground over what could be argued a relatively trivial matter.  Not that the Archbishop of Canterbury was trivial – he was the most important church figure in England.  But rather the risk John took in crossing the leader of the singular head of the Western faith.  Remember, the Protestant Reformation did not exist yet.  Catholicism, for all intents and purposes, was it.

We in the modern age cannot fathom how much power this one man held throughout Europe.  There is simply no like figure in our worldviews.  But for John to dare what it would take Henry VIII to fully accomplish – and then, only with a great deal of bloodshed – ought to put into some kind of perspective the tensions that this play creates.

And yes, this much is certainly historically accurate.  John disastrously played his hand against three powerful forces: 1) the pope 2) King Philip and 3) his own barons, who became outraged at his singular incompetence.

When Pope Innocent excommunicated John, John retaliated by pillaging Catholic holdings in England for a lot of loot.  But it backfired when the pope withheld any forms of worship in England.  This meant no church weddings, funerals or services of any kind unless clandestine. For the people of the Middle Ages, this resounded like a shockwave.

And yes, John disappeared Arthur in a manner that history has not been able to decipher.  But it too caused the English to turn to their king with a growing disdain and abhorrence.

Add to these woes the anger generated from endless rounds of taxation needed to fund armies to attempt to reclaim the lost French holdings and you begin to understand why John’s legacy has not been favorable in the historical memory of England.

The fascination for me is watching Shakespeare turn these historical facts into riveting drama.  Sure, he’s taken a few liberties with characters and condensed time and space where he saw fit.  But the end result certainly approaches the fine mess that John created for himself and does so by holding us on the edge of our seat.

It sounds like exaggeration, but I have read the first three acts of this play as I would a novel by Dan Brown or Stephen King.  I realize that may not be an endorsement to some.  But take from that the metaphor if not the names.  Substitute your own favorite authors and films.

Did I mention I LOVE this play?  No, it’s not Hamlet.  It’s all outward action and suspense.  A great popcorn read, if you will.

But is there anything wrong with that?

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