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 causes him to refrain from condemning John for the death of Prince Arthur.
The play is an unrelenting expose of cynical political acts. From the start, even John’s mother, Eleanor, admits that John holds the kingship more by possession than by right (the crown should fall to Arthur, the heir of John’s older brother, Geffrey). However, Arthur and his manipulative mother, Constance, are compromised by their willingness to let France invade England to assert his right to the throne. In the longest scene of the play act 2, scene 1, the city of Angiers is threatened both by English and French troops. Both Philip of France and John are outsmarted by the Citizen of Angiers, who proposes a dynastic marriage between the dauphin and Blanche of Spain as a compromise that spares the city from destruction.
There is further intrigue when the papal legate, Pandulph, berates John for his failure to pay “Peter’s pence” and threatens to excommunicate John and even to call for his assassination. In an exchange that echoes Henry VIII’s quarrel with the Papacy in the 1530’s, John refuses to be bullied by an “Italian priest” or a “meddling priest.” He even...
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