King John is an anomaly among William Shakespeare’s history plays. While eight of the ten history plays deal with the dynastic struggles of the fifteenth century, this isolated play is devoted to the troublesome reign of King John in the early thirteenth century. Like the other single history, Henry VIII (pr. 1613, pb. 1623), King John touches on the quarrel of an English sovereign with the Papacy. The play, like the monarch it depicts, seems to struggle to find its focus; now seldom performed, it offers little by way of emotional uplift. The great scenes of royal pageantry no longer inspire audiences, although the play was a popular favorite for the Victorians. It also provides great insight into the parallel worlds of dynastic and domestic disputes, but its cynical view of politics perhaps offers insufficient surprises to a modern audience. The play has much to say about power and self-assertion, but John’s incompetence as a ruler leaves a void at the center of the play.
John’s inconsistency as a ruler and dramatic character are largely offset by a fictional character, the Bastard Faulconbridge, who in the first act is revealed to be the illegitimate son of the late King Richard, Coeur de Lion, whose strong presence he has clearly inherited. The Bastard becomes the moral center of the play, but, while his loyalty to John makes him an exemplary loyal citizen, it also underscores the limitations of his pragmatism, which...
(The entire section is 1079 words.)
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