Shakespeare Report: King John

Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

Shakespeare’s King John (1596) is a marvel, like stepping through a fun house mirror into a play where the villain of Robin Hood is shown in his own self-interested light. Its morose politics and lack of a clear hero or antagonist makes it a difficult, post-modern piece in many ways, and indeed, it fell out of favor since 1800, being rarely put on for almost two hundred years. But every perspective has its day, and King John is enjoying a bit of an uptick as people living in the twenty-first century find much in its verses that resonates with their current circumstances.

It was a challenge to find a production of King John to follow with the text, so I returned to the 2020 recording of The Show Must Go Online, which has proven a lovely resource for interpreting and aiding in my understanding in mid-list and backlist Shakespeare plays. (Ever since The Comedy of Errors debacle, I am resolved to never again attempt a play without a visual to attend the audio, and to never simply read it, unless I tell myself it is for the sheer grace of the poetry, and making no attempt to track characters or plot in any way.) Amusingly, the king’s very long death scene that finishes the play survives in fragment as the first evidence of Shakespeare in cinema. (In the clip, the young King Henry III is played by a young actress, famous in her day, Dora Senior, and the set looks like Hearst Castle. Watch it here for some real drama in the style of the Lumière Brothers. But I digress.)

Much of the action centers on battles in France and royal succession. I learned a lot about how much of France was possessed by England in the thirteenth century, not just from the play but from my side research. No wonder the French and the English have had a two-thousand-year sibling rivalry. It is said that the play offers a rather modern allegory for relations between the UK and Europe, what with King John pugnaciously arguing with the Austrian Duke, the Papal Legate, and his French counterpart.

Shakespeare wrote King John in the same year that his son, Hamnet, died of an indeterminate illness, and the thin blade of parental grief slices through the scenes of Constance, mother of Prince Arthur, King John’s nephew and claimant to the throne. If you’re guessing that the English king wants his annoying young nephews dead, preferably murdered, and quickly, by a loyal subject under cover of night – well, you’d be right. That’s not quite how it happened in the play, but the run-up that makes us think it will end this way is a nice bit of plot, or complot, if you will.

Death, death, O amiable, lovely death,
Thou odoriferous stench, sound rottenness,
Arise forth from the couch of lasting night,
Thou hate and terror to prosperity,
And I will kiss thy detestable bones
And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows,
And ring these fingers with thy household worms,
And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust,
And be a carrion monster like thyself.
Come, grin on me, and I will think thou smil’st,
And buss thee as thy wife. Misery’s love,
O, come to me!
– Constance, Act 3, Scene 4

I hear it also in The Merchant of Venice and the lamentations of Shylock for having lost his daughter, and his daughter’s sober assessment of the situation from the other side – her side:

Farewell, and if my fortune be not crossed,
I have a father, you a daughter, lost.
– Jessica , Act 2, Scene 5

Her father echoes her desperation shortly after in his exchange with Tubal:

And I know not what’s spent in the search! Why, thou
loss upon loss! The thief gone with so much, and so
much to find the thief, and no satisfaction, no
revenge, nor no ill luck stirring but what lights a’ my
shoulders, no sighs but a’ my breathing, no tears but
a’ my shedding.
– Shylock, Act 3, Scene 1

By coincidence I am now reading Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, two years late after having special-ordered it in Italy and giving it to Jason to read first. You want to read this? he asked me incredulously. This is the saddest book of all time. Do you know what this book is about? (In fact, in 2020 I was in no mood to pile on sadness, frustration and loss, so I left it on the shelf for the right moment to return to it.) The author imagines Hamnet’s death in Stratford while his father is away working in London. It’s a poetic imagining of how things might have happened, pinned on just a few historic facts. The rest left to a colorful imagination and filling in blanks – Hamnet dies of the Plague, but his twin sister Judith survives it, and their elder sister Susanna is spared. The writing is pleasant, but no more sparkling than the better pieces I’ve critiqued in writing groups. More props to Maggie for having an idea and sticking to it until she sold the book.

It has become a Shakespearean parlor game (one I endorse) to identify traces of the Bard’s life in his art, and the death of Hamnet, his only son and bright star, gets frequent mention, starting in 1596 with King John, and also with Hamlet (1599). There exists no nobler cause of art than to sublimate grief. I think Shakespeare pretty clearly used his own experiences to inform his writing.

O, if thou teach me to believe this sorrow,
Teach thou this sorrow how to make me die,
And let belief and life encounter so
As doth the fury of two desperate men
Which in the very meeting fall and die
. – Constance, Act 3, Scene 1

Ironically the play is titled King John when the character who steals every scene is “The Bastard,” aka Phillip of Faulconbridge, who claims the throne as the natural son of Richard the Lionhearted (King John’s crusading brother). His role in the play is something between instigator/agent provocateur and jester/truth teller, and when all those courtiers and various pala legates start arguing, it is a true balm to see him needle people relentlessly with “And hang a calfskin on those recreant limbs.”

King John also gets good marks from some for strong female characters in the form of Eleanor (King John’s mother), Blanche (King John’s niece, getting engaged to the dauphin), and Constance (Arthur’s mother, and John’s sister-in-law). They also speak truth to power, and the characters listen, even as the papal legate urges Constance to calm, and Eleanor dies before the play is ended. Even so, it woefully fails the Bechdel test. The women are never talking to each other about anything other than the power that their menfolk hold. Ah, late 16th century politics …. The Merchant of Venice gives more gender equality in Jessica and Nerissa than any of the history plays do …. well. History plays gonna history play. I’ll stick with Constance talking about her lost son Arthur:

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?
Fare you well. Had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.

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!
– Constance, Act 3, Scene 4

I can recommend King John if you’re looking for ageless wisdom about infuriating politics with no clear hero and plenty of jockeying among the players, and plenty of commentary on motherhood, lost sons, and mothers and sons. It’s also packed with sparkling turns of phrase – it’s one of two of Shakespeare’s plays written entirely in verse (the other one being the earlier Richard II.)

Next: The Merry Wives of Windsor (The Lord of Misrule – Falstaff – ignites!), which I’ve never seen or read, and Henry IV, Part 2, after that, about which I am likewise ignorant. Followed by a spate of plays that should ring many school bells: Much Ado About Nothing, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet.

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