Sunday, July 11, 2010

Discussion: King John

The play: The Life and Death of King John

The plot tweet: Young Arthur seeks John's usurped throne; brief war; brief peace; cardinal stirs up war again; Arthur dies (oops); nobles revolt; John dies.

My favorite line:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then have I reason to be fond of grief. (Constance)


A few weeks ago, I attended a performance of The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged) at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company. Seeking to establish the mock superiority of their Shakespeare knowledge, the presenters said, "Oh, these people don't know anything about Shakespeare. For example, who here has read King John? Go ahead, raise your hand." Not a single hand went up, not even mine.

"Well, that's no surprise," they said. "King John is considered part of Shakespeare's apocrypha ... also known to critics as total crap."

As you can imagine, I picked up this week's reading assignment with very low expectations.

I am willing to concede that King John lacks the magic and artistry of Shakespeare's later plays, but still I was pleasantly surprised by this play -- a quick read with engaging action, some memorable moments of beautiful language, and of course the out-sized character of the Bastard. The scene in which Hubert threatens to blind young Arthur is painfully touching, and the verbal catfights between Elinor and Constance are delightful.

From a critical perspective, however, I can't quite sink my teeth into this play. Apparently, neither can professional critics. The essays I read praised the character of the Bastard and then reverted to plot summary. Marjorie Garber, in Shakespeare After All, also managed one paragraph each about eye imagery and mother-son dynamics. Maurice Charney, in All of Shakespeare, got a few pages out of the historical inaccuracies of the play.

Critics do seem universally annoyed with Shakespeare for leaving out the signing of the Magna Carta, which we see as a pivotal document in the march toward democracy. This criticism puzzles me, as the histories are never particularly accurate, anyway. In any case, England was still a monarchy in Shakespeare's time, and perhaps the Magna Carta didn't seem as important to him as it now seems to us.

I think Charney does the best job of explaining our disquiet with this play:
The Bastard provides an outspoken, witty and heroic model for such later figures as Henry V, and his bluffness and honestly stand as a bulwark against the political chicanery of the rest of the play. But the Bastard is suddenly at the end deprived of the kingship he so richly deserves. The conclusion is strikingly indeterminate, as if there must be some other play or plays to wind up the historical action. We expect a mini-series that never comes.


  1. Charney's quote sums it up well, I think. I liked quite a few of the characters, especially the Bastard, Elinor and Constance. But it almost seems incomplete, as though some key scenes were cut. (For example, both the women die off-stage, and their ends hardly merit a mention.

    Jennifer Crow

  2. See, I wasn't that impressed with the Bastard. I thought he kind of half-assed him. Especially when you consider the way some of the other history play heros are portrayed.

  3. This is one I have never read. Shakespeare wrote to please the monarchy of the time; could that help explain any of "King John"?

  4. One thing I'm that I'm sure pleased the monarchy of the time was the defiance against the Pope. In general, John is hardly a hero, but his excommunication "foreshadows" Elizabeth I's father's (Henry VIII) split from Rome.
    I'm not quite done with my KJ reread. As I recall, there is a strong anti-Catholic sentiment expressed. Elizabeth of course was Protestant.

  5. I enjoyed the Bastard.He and the Nobles seemed to not be able to make up their minds which side to fight for. Bas. seemed to always say the opposite of anyone, just to stire up discontent. The nobles seemed to try to pick the winning side.
    And is it me, or was most of the cast related by marriage or adultery?