Why This Play?
I’ve got to plow through some more histories! I was really excited to dip into this play. It’s an unknown for me. The most I know about King John is 1) he was pushed to sign the Magna Carta and 2) this version:
True story – my kids adore Disney’s Robin Hood. They like to play their own warped version of it, in which I always have to play the part of King John. They basically run around the park and squeal about how they refuse to pay their taxes while I pretend to throw a fit and suck my thumb (while giving the world’s worst Peter Ustinov impression). Most parents probably think I’m raising my kids to be some version of Libertarian. Anyway, some of my online Shakespeare buddies really enjoy this show, so it was time to check it out. And turns out, I really did as well. But not for the sniveling king as much as the illegitimate nephew who keeps trying to advise him. In this modern world, we should all take a page from the Bastard's book.
So What Happens?:
A messenger from France by the name of Chatillon arrives to the English court. He’s there to visit newly crowned King John, who took over the throne when his brother Richard I (also known as Coeur de lion, or the Lionheart) died. John’s the next oldest brother so he assumed the crown…but it’s being contested that the crown should rightfully go to the next generation, to the oldest son out of all of Richard’s brothers. Teenaged Prince Arthur is both Richard I and John’s nephew, and his mama Constance has gone to France to enlist their help in pushing her son to become king of England instead of John. Hence Chatillon’s visit – he has a message from King Philip of France that King John should step down from power. The French are willing to fight over the matter, and John boldly instructs Chatillon to tell King Philip that he’ll gladly go to war to maintain power. John’s mama, Queen Elinor, witnesses the whole exchange and she insists her daughter-in-law Constance is just power-hungry and stirring up trouble. The French? They’re just doing this to try to have some sway with a potential young king.
Next order of kingly business: John is called upon to resolve an inheritance dispute among lords. Robert (younger bro) and Philip (elder bro) Faulconbridge enter. Robert insists that his father, on his deathbed, revealed that big bro Philip wasn’t actually his son at all; he was conceived while Daddy was away at war. Daddy Faulconbridge wrote Philip out of the will and wanted to grant all his lands to Robert. Philip (now the Bastard) isn’t sure about this whole deal; he just wants what’s his. Queen Elinor and King John remember that Faulconbridge Sr. served under Richard the Lionheart. And wouldn’t you know it? Philip the Bastard is the spit and image of the Lionheart. Two and two are (shockingly) quickly put together, and the Queen proclaims that Philip must be the illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart. She offers him a spot in the army fighting on her behalf. The Bastard takes a few nanoseconds to think it over, and he agrees. King John knights him on the spot, granting him the new name of Richard Plantagenet after his father. [The play refers to him continually as the Bastard; that’s what I’ll call him here as well.]
So just like that, the Bastard has renounced his old life as a Faulconbridge, has been knighted, has received a new grandma and uncle, and is set to forge a new path as a royal soldier. The mild hilarity over these rapid changes is not lost on the Bastard. His mother, Lady Faulconbridge, interrupts his monologue. She’s arrived at court to hunt down her sons, livid that they would publically challenge her honor. The Bastard calls her out and reveals that he now knows he’s not really Faulconbridge’s son. She finally cracks and admits that while her husband was away at war, she succumbed to Richard the Lionheart – he’s the Bastard’s father. The Bastard surprises her by thanking him for his royal lineage. It’s given him a whole new future!
The action shifts to France, near the town of Angiers. King Philip of France, his son Lewis the Dauphin, and Limoges (Duke of Austria) are joined together to fight for the throne of England to go to young Arthur (John’s nephew, who’s just a kid). They fawn on him, much to his mother Constance’s delight. This is all political posing; reading between the lines tells the audience that France is probably just doing this so they can have a nice hold over England if they work to help put a young, impressionable monarch in charge. The messenger, Chatillon, arrives back from his mission in England with the news that John’s willing to go to the mattresses to keep his crown. Oh, and John’s ship to France was right behind his.
And wouldn’t you know it? King John storms in, demanding audience, with Queen Elinor, the Bastard, and his niece (from yet another random sibling we don’t see in this play) Blanche tailing him. King Philip says they can all have peace if John just gives the crown over to Arthur. John refuses. There’s some arguing over how royal lineage should be determined, and Constance and Elinor get extra snippy with each other – each plays the “good mother” card while accusing the other of being power-hungry (with adultery insinuations thrown in for good measure).
The Duke of Austria tries to break them up, but the Bastard rails at him for killing Richard the Lionheart. Sick of the whole argument, King Philip calls to the people of Angiers that they have to decide which King of England they recognize, John or Arthur (I guess Angiers was a territory under English rule within the confines of France?). John reminds them of a time when his army stopped the French from attacking, and King Philip claims that France is willing to fight for Arthur’s claim to the crown. The people are understandably freaked out at being put in the middle of a royal argument, so they try to placate the nobles by saying they’ll open the city gates to either man who can be proven to be the rightful king (basically, it’s not exactly their decision; they’re just peasants). So the English and French fight, and the French send a messenger to the walls of Angiers. He claims the French are ahead and they might as well acknowledge Arthur as king. An English messenger arrives from the battlefield proclaiming the English are totally kicking ass, so John’s the rightful king. Angiers folks are confused, and they hold out behind their walled city.
The Bastard gets impatient and spurs King John and King Philip into joining forces to storm Angiers to teach them a thing or two for their insolence. They can figure out who should be king later, and deal with these uppity peasants first. The Kings are on board, and read to attack. The spokesman for Angiers (sometimes shown as Hubert de Burgh) stalls them, quickly suggesting that the English and French broker truce by marrying Lewis the Dauphin to John’s niece Blanche. Well, no one ever considered that before! The Dauphin likes the idea, and King John seals the deal (at Elinor’s insistence) by throwing in some territories and money as a sweet dowry. Huzzah! The Dauphin and Blanche are quickly betrothed and everyone’s at peace. No more fighting – Angiers can open its doors to both kingdoms to make way for the wedding. King John keeps his crown, and King Philip remembers that Constance probably isn’t going to like France abandoning her son’s cause. King John says he’ll placate her by making giving Arthur two lesser titles, and she’ll just have to make do. Alone, the Bastard is amazed at this inner glimpse of politics. Both sides were so willing to give up their causes and territories for the sake of “commodity” – abandoning principles to take the easier route. Well, he’ll go along with it as long as he’s in a good place too.
The Duke of Salisbury delivers the news to Constance. She is livid and grief-stricken that France has abandoned their pledge to help crown Arthur. Arthur tries to calm her by saying this fuss shouldn’t be made over him, but she tells him who worthy and special he is by birth. She’ll sit right here on the ground in her grief and not stir – if King John wants to talk, he’ll have to come to her. Coincidentally, all the English and French royals arrive straight from the wedding. And Constance lays into them. When the Duke of Austria tries to calm her, she attacks him for breaking her trust in not supporting Arthur and chides him for wearing a lion-skin when he’s obviously not so tough. When he says he’d strike a man for saying those same words, the Bastard cheekily steps right up to parrot them [and continues to do so throughout the scene; it’s oddly delightful]. He’s looking for a fight.
As if this wasn’t enough crazy, Cardinal Pandulph, an envoy direct from the Pope, arrives. The Pope wants to know why King John hasn’t named the Pope’s handpicked buddy as the Archbishop of Canterbury. King John is dismissive, blowing off Pandulph and saying Italian priests have no business telling him what to do. Oh yeah? Boom, Pandulph excommunicates King John from the Catholic church right on the spot. He then tells King Philip to break his truce with England or face the same punishment. Everyone starts chiming in now – the Dauphin and Constance want him to break with England to stay with the church, and Blanche pleads that her new father-in-law not sever her old family from her new. But the threat of papal fury is too great, and King Philip turns his back on his new English ally. Blanche gives a moving speech about how completely torn she is over this breech.
Back to the war! The Bastard chases the Duke of Austria down and cuts off his head, avenging his true father’s death. The English storm Angiers and seize Arthur. King John appeases the scared kid, sending him off with Queen Elinor and telling him that Hubert de Burgh will be his kindly ward. However, he pulls Hubert aside separately and confesses that Arthur is a massive thorn in his side. Death is the best option to persue, no? Hubert catches his drift, and agrees to do the deed.
Back on the French side, Constance is an absolute wreck. Her hair is a mess, everyone accuses her of being crazy, and she is consumed with worry and grief for her son. King Philip and Pandulph try to assure her that the French will rescue Arthur, but she doesn’t buy it. She’s convinced she’ll never see him again, and that he’ll be so changed upon his death that she won’t even recognize him in the afterlife. [It’s one of Shakespeare’s more heartbreaking speeches]. She leaves, and Pandulph convinces the Dauphin that although Arthur will most likely be killed, this could be a good thing for France. With Blanche as his English bride and no other English princes in the wings, this could clear the way for the Dauphin and Blanche to rule England. All they have to do is make sure John is ousted.
In England, Hubert’s been acting as Arthur’s ward. But he’s received written orders straight from King John to do away with the kid after a bout of torture. He orders his men to put an iron in the fire!
Arthur shows up and goes on and on about how much he cares for his guardian. Hubert, deep down, also really cares for this kid so he’s really bummed about his orders to harm him. In a last attempt to shakes off the prince’s innocence and to brace himself for the deeds he’s got to commit, he shows the boy the written order to burn Arthur’s eyes out. Arthur pleads for mercy, sincerely claiming his love for Hubert as henchmen arrive to hold the boy down. Hubert isn’t heartless, though – he relents, orders the guards away, and he arranges for a grateful Arthur to go into hiding.
John has just been crowned a second time (I think mostly for show, since he’s really and truly seized the throne now?). Various lords (Salisbury, Pembroke, et al) advise the king that the public isn’t taking kindly to his close watch on Prince Arthur. They suggest that he free Arthur. King John agrees and orders the newly arrived Hubert to free the boy…but Hubert proclaims that he’s dead. Oops. The nobles go off in search of the kid’s grave, and the king privately rails at Hubert. Hubert, aghast, just claims he’s following orders (and does John want to see the papers confirming it??). The king starts to blame him for the crime, and Hubert reveals that the boy is actually alive! Meanwhile, Arthur is trying to escape the castle, per Hubert’s suggestion. He stands upon a high wall. There isn’t any proper way out – he’ll be caught and surely killed otherwise. He reasons that a jump from the wall is better than sure death by staying behind. He leaps…and dies in the process.
The English lords find the poor kid’s body and view it as proof of John’s perfidy. Despite the Bastard’s pleas, they decide to back the Dauphin, which means war with France is back on!
King John hands his crown over to Cardinal Pandulph so that the dude can immediately re-crown him in the name of the pope. Guess the church really prefers everyone to be united, after all. And to prove everything’s all forgiven, Pandulph even says he’ll go smooth things over with France – now that they’re all Team Catholic again, there’s no need for any war. King John’s now confused about the lords backing France…until he hears that Arthur truly is dead. But he’s convinced Pandulph will set things right, even when the Bastard tries to urge him into battle to put the Dauphin in his place.
The lords are with the Dauphin (on English land, readying for battle), and Salisbury is no longer so sure about supporting a war between the two nations. The Dauphin promises him piles of money for supporting France, when Pandulph arrives. He announces that England and the church are reconciled and the pope has forgiven King John…but the Dauphin doesn’t care. He claims he’s not Rome’s tool and he’s going ahead with battle anyway since the English don’t even like their own king. He’ll be much better for everyone! The Bastard has shown up in time to hear this, and he steps up to proclaim that John and England have no problem with fighting to what’s rightfully theirs – the war’s still on!
Meanwhile, John’s not feeling so hot, so he goes to recover in Swinstead Abbey.
One of the French nobles has been injured in battle, and he struggles to tell the English nobles that they really should defect their French support and make peace with John. Since the Dauphin doesn’t actually trust them and will end up having them beheaded and whatnot. As the battle rages, the Dauphin learns that his much-needed backup troops won’t be arriving, since their ship wrecked on the way to England.
Back at the Abbey, it turns out that King John was poisoned by a monk and actually really might be dying.
His son, Prince Henry, is there to tend to him, and the Bastard is there to offer his support as well. Salisbury and Pembroke and Bigot arrive to beg for the king’s forgiveness, which he grants at Henry’s urging. King John then dies. The Bastard is ready to rage revenge on the French, but Salisbury gives the news that the Dauphin has given up and is returning to France. The war is over, and the new king is now John’s son, Henry III. The Bastard closes out the play with a speech that England cannot be conquered as long as the nation remains truly united.
Check This Out:
Here’s a small, silent snippet of film that caught King John’s death scene performed on stage by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the renowned Victorian actor (and the guy who founded RADA). This is also the first known filmed version of a Shakespearean work (circa 1899)!:
Canada’s Stratford Festival did a great, quick-moving, very funny yet moving 2 hour version that you can watch on YouTube. As it’s not easy to track down a decent film of this play, I was beyond thrilled with this find. It also ends with the typical Elizabethan practice of song and dance rather than a curtain call, which is always fun to see. Check it out here.
Donmar Warehouse’s AD Josie Rourke recently called King John “the perfect Brexit play”. Man, are those thoughts in the linked article damned prescient. “This England never did, nor never shall, lie at the proud foot of a conqueror but when it first did help to wound itself” (Act V, scene vii).
Thoughts and Themes:
I don’t really understand why this show isn’t performed more often in the States. Of all the Shakespearean histories, it’s the one truly stand-alone endeavor (no need for sequels or prequels to make full sense of it), and an audience really doesn’t need to know any historical background to pick up on the story or characters. Not to mention that this play is entirely wary of power, loyalty, and the politics of negotiation. What’s more thoroughly modern American than that? Alliances are made and broken at the drop of a hat. People in power judge and make decisions without knowing the facts, or ignoring them entirely. Personal squabbles and pride play into moves that affect an entire nation. That is to say, politics and power dynamics are the same in the years 1210 (about when the story takes place), 1596 (roughly when it was written), and 2016 (ahem, now). King John remains all kinds of relevant.
I think most people who enjoy this play like to think of themselves as the Bastard. I mean, not as the illegitimate son of royalty with all the privileges and/or negative connotations that goes with it, but as the straight-shooting voice of reason in a crazy world. With the current political climate in both the US and the UK (and EU in general), we observe all the crazy and think we have better solutions than the ones in charge. At our jobs we view the superfluous meetings, the over-programmed schedules for production, and the unhappy masses of workers, and we have ideas on what upper management should do to fix things. We cluck our tongues at the long cashier lines of an inefficiently run grocery store. Hell, we even judge how awkward celebrity romances play out, debating how staged or sincere they are. We, like the Bastard, know better. And like him, most of us love to make our opinions known. I just think we need to do it in the best possible way.
In King John, the Bastard monitors the situations that unfold, comments (to himself and others) on how nonsensical everything is, and then proceeds to jump into the most clear-cut course of action he can see. The guy is no bullshit all the way. He’s honest with everyone, and he doesn’t play games. And he may not understand or agree with most of King John’s moves, but he’s pledged his service and he sees it through. Loyal, honest, a total smart ass, rolls his eyes at small talk and politesse…what’s not to love? He’s basically the Jim Halpert of Shakespeare.
The Bastard points to one of the more important truisms of the world: the people at the top (of any organization, nation, whatever) are horribly out of touch with the desires of the public. And it is up to those of us who work on the ground to speak up as he did, whether that’s to our federal and local governments, or our managers, or our teachers. Let’s face it – as of right now (July 2016), the world continues produce nutso, unsafe, scary circumstances all the time. There are many beautiful things in the world, but there’s plenty that frightens me. Right now, we’re looking at the beginning of the Brexit, two more (in a long, long line) police shootings of black men that appear to be unjustified, two major American presidential candidates who are known liars, a convicted rapist who received a staggeringly light sentence due to his race and privileged background, bombings and killings that continue to happen at the hands of an insane terrorist organization. The Bastard, in his own snarky way, serves as an example to us all. Be the squeaky wheel. Urge your leaders to another course of action, even if they don’t at first listen or agree with you. We are the laymen who see the reality of our world, and those leaders oftentimes get a filtered version (or a biased one that favors their own wishes). It’s on us to continue to callout bullshit when we see it.
I had all kinds of thoughts that I wanted to touch on before I got on an angry tangent brought on by just about every news event of the past two weeks. I loved Hubert de Burgh’s transition from scary yes-man to caring guardian. I find Constance’s Act III speeches to be some of the most heartbreaking and honest in all of Shakespeare. I cried just over reading them. There are beautiful bits of language and some fun bits of characterization in this play. But let’s face it – the Bastard takes the prize for most interesting and best overall monologues in this one.
So follow his example, in a modern-day context. Contact your local government leaders. Go to town meetings. Write those comment cards at work and participate in those corporate surveys. Tweet out your displeasure or enthusiasm over the news or business matters. BUT THERE'S A CAVEAT. PLEASE do me a huge personal favor and make sure you’ve read up on the matter you’re concerned about. Outrage and/or concern only truly gets us anywhere if we're informed and know what we're talking about. Do a little research, and then roar away.