Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1079

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.

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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 (anticipating Henry VIII’s claim to that title) calls himself the “supreme head” of the English Church. Shakespeare chooses not to depict John as a proto-Protestant, as sixteenth century writers such as John Bale had done, and the most famous event in John’s reign, John’s submission to the nobles with the signing of the Magna Carta, is not even mentioned.

When Philip is forced by Pandulph to renounce his alliance with John, Blanche recognizes that she has lost the power she sought to gain through her marriage. A greater female victim than Blanche is Constance, who understands immediately when she hears news of Arthur’s capture by the English that her son’s death will be the inevitable consequence. The news of the capture apparently drives her mad, and her mad scene in act 3, scene 4, was an audience favorite in the nineteenth century. Constance is also a shrill manipulator—like John’s mother, who, in the opening scenes of the play, is depicted as the power behind John’s throne. The announcement of Eleanor’s death in act 4 leaves John disoriented, and he goes to his death without ever recovering a sense of direction.

It is the plight of women and children in King John to be bullied...

(The entire section contains 1079 words.)

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