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.
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 and defeated. In the most dramatically effective scene of the play, act 4, scene 1, John’s henchman Hubert orders a pair of executioners to murder Arthur. Arthur’s pleading succeeds in winning over Hubert, who relents and even offers to protect Arthur from John. When Arthur dies later in the act, not by royal violence but by his own attempt to jump from a wall to freedom, there is a grotesque scenic contrast between the conversation of a group of nobles, who believe that Arthur has already been murdered by John, and the pathetic claim by Hubert to have spared the boy’s life—all while the body lies in plain view.
John’s incompetence as king and emotional ruin are clearly evident in act 5, when John symbolically gives his crown to Pandulph in obedience to the Papacy (the legate promptly hands it back) and then hands over political authority to the Bastard. Although John has been reconciled to the pope, it is clear that Lewis will not relent in his opposition to John. John, having been poisoned by a monk, dies pathetically in the play’s final scene.
King John is far from a popular play, but Shakespeare’s dramatization of the reign of the unhappy John has a modern edge. John’s England suffers from a moral vacuum in its political life; John is not so much a machiavellian villain as a frightened, desperate man who can barely hold on to a throne that never was properly his. The virtuous characters, such as Arthur, are themselves too weak or immature to deserve power, while the less admirable characters are motivated not so much by evil as by confused attempts to do the right thing. Pandulph owes his allegiance to the pope, while King Philip of France seems as weak-willed as John. The death of his mother, Eleanor, disorients John, while the threat to the life of Arthur sends his mother, Constance, into madness and death.
The moral center of the play, the Bastard Faulconbridge, is admirable in his determination to rise by his own merits, but, although he correctly diagnoses the political disease as “Commodity,” he finally places loyalty to John over morality. For all the anxiety in England about placing a child on the throne, England gains a child king when John dies by poisoning. The new king is Henry III, John’s son, rather than Arthur. King John does not rise to Shakespeare’s highest dramatic or poetic levels, but it clearly deserves greater attention than it has usually received, and it has proven to be effective onstage.