Shakespeare’s play about King John sticks out like a sore thumb. Nobody knows when it was written. To me it seems like an early and very clumsily-written play, almost as bad as Two Gentlemen of Verona. There are so many false starts in the plot that Shakespeare either didn’t know what he was doing — or else he knew exactly what he was doing.
Emma Smith, in her video introduction to the play for the Shakespeare 2020 project, takes the latter position. She argues that Shakespeare knew what he was doing: the lack of connection between cause and effect, she says, is intentional and is part of the pleasure to be had from the play.
I’ve tried to put myself in that frame of mind, but I can’t get myself to go there. It would make this a one-off experiment for Shakespeare. None of his other plays work that way. I’m not aware of many plays that work that way prior to the 20th century, except for a handful designed to mimic dreams. King John is emphatically not a dream: it’s a history play; it dramatizes what are supposed to be real events. I just can’t escape the feeling that it does it badly.
So what is it about the action of the play that I find so goofy?
Basically it’s because nothing in the story ever stays nailed down. The action winds and unwinds with no particular point or momentum: often a great deal of energy is expended backing and forthing only to end up in the same place.
A prime example: in the central sequence, France and England meet on a battlefield near the city of Angiers. John has claimed the throne of England, but King Philip of France has championed John’s nephew Arthur. Angiers is key. Both sides demand the support of the city, but the civic leaders are in no rush to choose between them. You decide who’s the rightful king of England, they say, and we’ll bend the knee to him. The armies come together in a mighty but inconclusive battle. Both sides claim victory and both demand the city accede to them. But the city elders still refuse to pick sides. So the two armies decide to join together and attack the city. Once it’s been reduced to ashes, they say, they’ll meet back on the field and settle their own quarrel.
But wait: the city leaders, desperate to prevent bloodshed and destruction, propose a peace settlement: what if King John’s daughter Blanche were to marry the French dauphin Lewis? Of course that would mean setting aside Arthur’s claim and make the King of France a liar, but he decides he’s OK with that. He agrees to the match, in witness whereof he takes King John by the hand. Peace is breaking out all over. The marriage preparations move forward with alacrity.
But wait: just as the happy couple is leaving the church, Pandulph, a papal legate, enters and demands that the French King abandon his alliance with John, because John — held up, anachronistically, as a kind of Protestant hero — refuses to accept the Pope’s choice for Archbishop of Canterbury. Since John not only continues to refuse but engages in a righteous rant about the evil Italian Priest (ie the Pope), he is excommunicated. If King Philip, who is still holding John’s hand, doesn’t let go, he’ll be excommunicated too.
Reluctantly he lets go. And so France and England are back at war again, and the battle is joined. Nothing has changed, despite the intervening hurly-burly of city/king/marriage/pope. From the standpoint of dramatic tension, it’s all been wasted energy.
The winding and unwinding doesn’t stop there. In the battle that follows, King John takes Prince Arthur prisoner. (Arthur is his nephew and another claimant to the throne.) John wants to eliminate Arthur and wishes he could communicate his intentions mentally to the jailer, Hubert, rather than speaking them out loud. But Hubert plays dumb and forces John to say flat out that he wants Arthur dead. Hubert agrees to do it.
But wait: when we next meet Hubert and Arthur, the irons are in the fire — literally — and Hubert has a signed warrant to put out Arthur’s eyes. What happened to the plans to kill him — without writing anything down? Arthur pleads for mercy, and Hubert backs off.
But wait: knowing his own life is on the line, he goes to tell John that Arthur is, in fact, dead. He hopes to secrete Arthur somewhere safe and get him out of the country. John, aware now that killing Arthur was a mistake, turns on Hubert and berates him for taking his “order” literally. But, says Hubert, “here is your hand and seal” for the deed. Clearly he shows a warrant to John; but which one? The one he showed to Arthur — the one that says Arthur is to be blinded? Or the one that says Arthur is to be killed — a warrant that John explicitly refused in the earlier scene to provide?
In any case, don’t worry, says Hubert, I didn’t really do it after all. Arthur is still alive and safe.
But wait: in the meantime, unbeknownst to Hubert, Arthur tries to escape by leaping from a window and dies on the rocks below. His body is found by a group of nobles who blame John for his death and turn against him. So once again, after all the hurly burly, we’re right back where the story was headed anyway, and most of the intervening action has been for nought.
It’s almost as if two playwrights were working on the play but not exchanging notes while they worked — or worse, that Philip Henslowe decided to have a laff by giving them conflicting plots, to see how long it would take them to find out.
You definitely need a dance card for this one.
One of the things that complicates the history of the text is the presence of another play about King John, The Troublesome Reign of King John. It follows the structure of Shakespeare’s play closely and is widely thought to be one of his sources. I hope to have more to say about The Troublesome Reign in a later post: I downloaded the text from WikiMedia and plan to read it and comment on it. Meanwhile…. Shakespeare’s play.
There’s enough humor in the play that makes me wonder if it’s a satire. If so, that would explain a lot about the on-again off-again structure. The label “satire” sits comfortably with the first scene, where Philip and Robert Faulconbridge argue over who is the legitimate heir of their father’s estate. But it sits less comfortably with the grief of Constance after her son has been captured by John, and she knows he’s as good as dead.
O Lord, my boy, my Arthur, my fair son! My life, my joy, my food, my all the world! My widow-comfort, and my sorrows’ cure!
or with the agony John expresses as he dies of poisoning:
Poison’d—ill fare! Dead, forsook, cast off, And none of you will bid the winter come To thrust his icy fingers in my maw, Nor let my kingdom’s rivers take their course Through my burn’d bosom, nor entreat the north To make his bleak winds kiss my parched lips And comfort me with cold.
So…. I’m puzzled. I don’t really know what to make of it. I’ve seen one televised production and heard a couple of audio productions and none of them brought me any closer to an understanding of the play. Until I come across something better, I’m taking refuge in the notion that it’s an early play, maybe even earlier than any of the Henry VI plays, and represents a first, unsuccessful effort on Shakespeare’s part to bend the chronicle materials to his dramatic purposes.
One of the things he’s experimenting with here is a subplot that centers around a fictional character, someone made up out of whole cloth and shoe-horned into the historical narrative. He didn’t do this much in the Henry VI plays and not at all in Richard II, but he made extensive and brilliant use of it in Henry IV and Henry V. With the Bastard, he has someone he can employ to expand and comment on the narrative wherever needed. And boy, does he comment! (Commodity means expediency: something akin to realpolitik.)
And this same bias, this commodity, This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word, Clapp’d on the outward eye of fickle France, Hath drawn him from his own determin’d aid, From a resolv’d and honorable war To a most base and vile-concluded peace. And why rail I on this commodity? But for because he hath not woo’d me yet: .... Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail, And say there is no sin but to be rich; And being rich, my virtue then shall be To say there is no vice but beggary. Since kings break faith upon commodity, Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.
Of course, one of the ironies is that the Bastard turns out to be one of the most honorable and loyal characters in the play. Once he declares himself for John, he stays with him to the end: curses the nobles for leaving him, rouses his side to battle when they seem ready to give up, and delivers the heroic couplet that closes the play:
Now these her princes are come home again, Come the three corners of the world in arms, And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue, If England to itself do rest but true.
Pandulph, the Papal legate, is another piece of work, the polar opposite of the Bastard. I’ve read that Shakespeare tones down the anti-Catholic bias of The Troublesome Reign: it doesn’t seem as though he could have toned it down much, because if there’s a true Machiavel in the play, it’s Pandulph, and the whole edifice of Catholicism behind him. In the Arkangel recording, he’s played with delightful cynicism by Bill Nighy.
When everyone else is mourning the capture of Arthur, Pandulph thinks it’s a great thing. As he tells Lewis, the Dauphin (as always in Shakespeare, spelled Dolphin in the original):
PANDULPH John hath seiz’d Arthur, and it cannot be That whiles warm life plays in that infant’s veins, The misplac’d John should entertain an hour, One minute, nay, one quiet breath of rest. A sceptre snatch’d with an unruly hand Must be as boisterously maintain’d as gain’d; And he that stands upon a slipp’ry place Makes nice of no vild hold to stay him up. That John may stand, then Arthur needs must fall: So be it, for it cannot be but so. LEWIS But what shall I gain by young Arthur’s fall? PANDULPH You, in the right of Lady Blanch your wife, May then make all the claim that Arthur did.
In other words: off with his head: so much for Arthur. A small price to pay for your accession to power, don’t you think, your Grace? The only thing missing from the play (apart from narrative logic in general) is a scene where the Bastard skewers Pandulph.
Sidebar: the character of Pandulph is not the only trace of anti-Catholic bias in the play. John refers to the Pope as an “Italian priest” with no particular authority over England, a common Protestant argument. And he sends the Bastard back to England to loot the churches and monasteries, some 300 years before Henry VIII. While it’s nearly always a mistake to argue from the Works back to the Life, I’m going to make that mistake on purpose. This bias in the play is not an unconscious attitude that has somehow crept into the play. Even if it’s an inherent part of the earlier play, Shakespeare chose to carry it forward. Why is this significant? Because a case has been made by Stephen Greenblatt and others — wrongly, I think — that John Shakespeare was a closet Catholic and that his son William grew up with this “dark secret” at the heart of his identity. My own opinion is that Shakespeare was an outwardly conforming member of the Church of England, and that his private religious feelings, while unknowable, were unlikely to be Catholic. End of sidebar.
The scene where Arthur dies trying to escape is worth mentioning. It shows the multiple levels of the stage being put to good use. Arthur is clearly on the upper level, the “gallery.” When he throws himself to the ground, as if from a tower, he jumps to the main stage. I’m not sure what the distance would have been, but the landing would have been a hard one, and making the jump safely would have required skill and practice. (Speaking of the Arkangel recording, this scene contains one miscalculation: Arthur’s jump should be followed by the sound of breaking bones and a scream of anguish, but…. nothing. The series is so explicit about violence elsewhere that its absence here seems odd.)
Having jumped and “died,” Arthur lies there cold and still for quite a while as others enter and find his body. It makes for a series of striking tableaux — and it gives the Bastard his one moment of hesitation about following John, which makes him seem a bit more believable.
All in all, some points of interest, but not one of my favorites. In that respect, it joins Two Gentlemen, Love’s Labours Lost, Troilus and Cressida, and Timon of Athens as plays that have just never worked for me.