Here’s a Good World! [TWIST]

King John, Act IV (Update)

I don’t normally write about an act without finishing it, and I almost never write about the same act twice.  But by succumbing to the former I am forced to do the latter, happily reporting that once again I have underestimated Shakespeare.

You’d think I’d have learned by now! In this case, he allowed neither the torture nor the murder of young Arthur on stage. Perhaps indeed he sensed this would have spelled disaster for the play.  Therefore, he only suggested such an action in a hair-raising scene akin to the murder of George, Duke of Clarence in Richard III.

Happily, the henchman has a change of heart this time.  Hubert wilts at Arthur’s innocent pleadings and doe-like submission, finding it impossible to carry through orders to either blind or kill the prince.  This is a deft move for many reasons, only one of which is that it makes me love Shakespeare all the more.

Even better, purely in terms of story, is that this move further complicates the situation all around.  Complicates it for Hubert, who now must lie to the king about failing to follow through on an order.  Complicates it for John, who learns that his kingdom now roars at rumors that he has dispatched with Arthur.

John is forced into an immediate backpeddle.  Two of his barons storm out of his presence, swearing revenge for the prince.

Showing just how deft he is at realistic character portrayal, Shakespeare writes a spot-on dialogue between John and Hubert in which John tries to twist his way out of the guilt for ordering Hubert to “take care of” Arthur.  He lands on the technicality that he only suggested it and didn’t carry out the action himself.  What makes this scene more fun is the irony that we know, while John doesn’t, that Hubert has spared Arthur’s life — and eyes.  Whether for moral or purely pragmatic reasons, John is left to twist in the wind.

Added to his woes, John discovers that the French are on their way – if they haven’t landed on English shores already.  When he wonders why he had not received advance warning, he finds out that his mother is dead.  Has been dead awhile.  A bit preoccupied, that John.

So yes, things are falling apart for John at a rapid clip.  Like Richard, he believes he can still pull it together.  Therefore he takes as good news Hubert’s admission that Arthur is alive.  He neglects the ramifications, choosing to seize upon the lucky break to win his own barons back to the cause in time to halt the French.

Unfortunately, young Arthur chooses to take his own life in the interim.  He throws himself from the high jail walls onto the rocks below.  It’s a sad scene further complicated by a coincidence: the barons, then the Bastard, and finally Hubert all meet at the very place where Arthur’s body has landed.  It’s a bit of a groaner, like one of those implausible movie scenes that jar you from a cozy state of disbelief.

Somehow, Shakespeare manages to pull the whole thing back from the brink.  Perhaps because the scene is full of bluster and accusation.  Did Hubert kill the child?  We know that he didn’t, but the barons don’t. The Bastard defends Hubert…then berates him once they’re alone.  He too wants to know if Hubert could have done such a despicable deed.

Wheels within wheels.  Shakespeare doing what Shakespeare does best: exploiting ironies of information for all their worth.  What you don’t know, or think you know, or ought to know…can kill you.

As we leave Act IV, the situation looks grim for John.  It seems “My kingdom for a horse!” can’t be too far off in his future.

For us – and for me in particular – Shakespeare has saved the day, and put me right back on the edge of my seat for the start of Act V.

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