Archive for the King John Category

I Am a Scribbled Form, Drawn with a Pen, upon a Parchment

Posted in King John with tags , on 2014/03/16 by mattermind


King John, Act V

There’s a patriotic feel to the end of King John, a moralistic flavor suggesting that unity is the best policy for England’s defense. It makes sense historically and thematically, but I didn’t see it coming from within this play.

When we last met King John, he was being besieged on all sided.  Insiders were defecting to the cause of France, the natives were restive and the pope had excommunicated the guy.  Since the beginning, however, he had a wildcard on his side, a “maverick” if you will, the unwavering faith of Richard the Lionheart’s bastard son (known throughout the play as “Bastard.”)  Bastard displays the pedigree of his father both in spirit and body.  I can almost hear the cheers of the audience whenever he struts onstage.

John makes a huge concession, banking it will stem the tide.  He tells the pope’s ambassador that he’s willing to concede.  Rather than assuaging the marauders, however, it only serves to spur them on.  It looks like there’s going to be a bloody fight to the finish when lo and behold, the tide turns against France.

Not before King John is poisoned to death, however, by a monk of all people (go figure).  It becomes pretty clear as he’s dying that King John will be passing his title down to Prince Henry — soon to become the equally disastrous King Henry III.  But his death serves as a rallying cry for the defectors.  Buoyed by the Bastard’s singlehanded ferocity, they unite to defend – you guessed it – good ol’ England.

At play’s end, France is already in retreat.  Their supplies have run aground (happens a lot in Shakespeare), the previously mentioned English barons have regained their patriotic fervor and the Bastard has rallied the troops.  As the curtain closes they are making a beeline back to France.

If we didn’t know any better from history, we might be prone to assume that the reign of Henry III will be all good from here.  That’s not to be the case, unfortunately.  But that, as they say, is the rest of the story.

What we are left with instead is this:

BASTARD: This England never did, nor never shall,

Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror

But when it first did help to wound itself.

Now these her princes are come home again,

Come the three corners of the world in arms,

And we shall shock them.  Naught shall make us rue

If England to itself do rest but true.

Now go win one for the Gipper.



Here’s a Good World! [TWIST]

Posted in King John on 2014/03/16 by mattermind

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.

Uncleanly Scruples!

Posted in King John on 2014/03/16 by mattermind

King John, Act IV

I asked earlier why King John doesn’t get more play (ha ha) but admitted there was still a ways to go.  I’ve now reached the point in the journey where that question might be answered.


Act IV begins with the blinding of Arthur in gory detail.  I’m not exactly sure how/why Shakespeare came to the conclusion to show this on stage – perhaps to evoke the same sort of outrage/heartbreak/disgust that King John himself encountered.

As far as I understand it (and I’m a noob, so there’s that), Arthur disappears off the map upon his capture – all traces vanish into the night.  So it’s not like Shakespeare was driven by the sudden need for historical veracity (like it bothered him before).  I must check his sources.  I will consult Sir Isaac and my other references and update this post as necessary.

But I do know this: it’s always bad to harm children, on screen, on stage, on the page – God forbid in real life.  England tolerated much under King John, but his treatment of Arthur proved a point of no return.

Perhaps in making us feel the same way, Shakespeare went too far and turned us against his play.  That would be an odd irony and Exhibit A in the power of fiction.

Harming a child is bad enough.  We already learned this from Richard III where we are spared the gruesome details.  Here in King John, we see firsthand the innocent lamb brought to slaughter – so forgiving that he begs off the restraints, pleading that he will put up no protest.  Even the hardened Executioner can’t bear to watch that.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t either.  The next bit of reading has become a slog.

With a Passion Would I Shake the World

Posted in King John with tags , on 2014/03/13 by mattermind

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?

Mad World! Mad Kings! Mad Composition!

Posted in King John with tags , on 2014/03/12 by mattermind

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.

My Father Gave Me Honor, Yours Gave Land

Posted in King John with tags on 2014/03/08 by mattermind

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!