William Shakespeare’s King John isn’t considered one of his better histories, but I’m reading Ivanhoe right now and am currently in the late Middle Ages in The English and Their History, so I thought reading Shakespeare’s histories in chronological order was jus the ticket.
King John details the drama and upheaval of King John’s (known as the much less lionhearted brother of Richard) reign. Both the French and the English loathe King John. They want him to abdicate in favor of his nephew, who is John’s nephew and the son of John’s older brother (and Richard’s younger) and the rightful heir to the kingship. In fact, primogeniture says that in lieu of legitimate offspring from Richard the Lionheart, the crown goes to the next brother or his children, which happens to be Geoffrey II’s son, Arthur. While the French and the English (or at least those English loyal to King John) clash, the innocent get caught up in the turmoil, leading to tragedy and the dissolution of King John’s reign.
While Shakespeare wrote King John fairly early on in his career, it was definitely after some of those early greats such as The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, The Comedy of Errors, Romeo and Juliet, and a Midsummer Night’s Dream, making me think that there’s no excuse for the ho-hum writing.
If there’s a main character in this play, I’m not sure who it is. My favorite is Philip Faulconbridge, also known as Richard Plantagenet, also know as just “The Bastard” because he’s King Richard’s illegitimate son. He’s funny, but wily. All the others are boring and one-dimensional. Sorry to say it because I adore Shakespeare.
The story starts with France demanding King John step down, and King John dismissing them. The English and French armies meet at an English village in France and briefly set aside hatred to see Louis, the Dauphin of France, and King John’s niece, Blanche, get married. This supposedly ties the French to King John’s rule. However, on the heels of this comes a messenger from Rome excommunicating King John from the Catholic church for daring to appoint a church official without sanction from the pope. The French have strong ties to the Catholic church, so they support it over England…and the two are at odds again.
In the midst of this, King John abducts Arthur, his nephew and the French-backed claimant to the throne, in order to clear a path for his continual reign. While in the play Shakespeare writes Arthur as falling to his death when escaping from imprisonment (or escaping from life entirely), history doesn’t know what happened to him. Historians suspect he was murdered by King John; I believe it. King John eventually dies from a mysterious illness (or poison, according to the Bard—that’s more fitting).
Just as the Bastard is my favorite character, he also has the best lines: cynical, biting prose that first sounds foolish and then sounds sinister and meaningful…pretty much what you’d expect from one of the greatest writers of all times. While you don’t often have people quoting from this play, there are a few good lines to remember:
“For courage mounteth with occasion.”
“To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”
This wouldn’t be my first, second (or 30th) choice for a Shakespearean work, but it does give life to a history that occurred nearly 1,000 years ago, and there’s (a little) value in that.