Today, the reign of John Plantagenet is famous for two things: Robin Hood and the Magna Carta. You will not hear a whisper of either thing in this play. Historically, "the greatest knight" William Marshal, earl of Pembroke, fought on John's behalf and ultimately conquered the rebel barons. You will not see much of him either, and he does not appear in anything that resembles his historical role.
The plot revolves around Arthur Plantagenet, John's nephew via his elder brother Geoffrey. As the son of an older brother, the eight-year-old Arthur is a prior heir to the English crown, and his mother Constance has forged an alliance with the French king to put him on the throne which his uncle has claimed. When John manages to shake Arthur's French support and captures the boy himself, he decides to have the young prince murdered. But rumours of Arthur's death horrify the English nobles into abandoning John and supporting Prince Louis of France's claim on the throne instead.
Like many of Shakespeare's less-known plays, King John has some real shortcomings. Many of these characters are very bad at decision-making. Prince Arthur is not only too stupid to live, but he's also insufferably precious. In hindsight, I realise that everything I know about this play comes from Victorian popular culture, and it's no surprise to learn that the play was incredibly popular in the nineteenth century. The Victorians loved a good medieval pageant, especially one with a touching and angelic mother character, and the scene in which Arthur pleads with his jailer not to put out his eyes was a huge hit for them. Reader, I had trouble keeping a straight face.
ARTHUR. Must you with hot irons burn out both mine eyes?Arthur is only the worst of this play's shortcomings. Granted, I was listening to a cast recording in which he was obviously played by a teenager with a broken voice, and his screams made him sound like Bluebottle from the Goon Show, so that probably had a deleterious effect as well. Let's just say he's a rich vein of unintended black comedy.
HUBERT. Young boy, I must.
ARTHUR. And will you?
HUBERT. And I will.
ARTHUR. Have you the heart? When your head did but ache,
I knit my handkerchief about your brows-
The best I had, a princess wrought it me-
And I did never ask it you again;
And with my hand at midnight held your head;
And, like the watchful minutes to the hour,
Still and anon cheer'd up the heavy time,
Saying 'What lack you?' and 'Where lies your grief?'
Or 'What good love may I perform for you?'
Many a poor man's son would have lyen still,
And ne'er have spoke a loving word to you;
But you at your sick service had a prince.
Nay, you may think my love was crafty love,
And call it cunning. Do, an if you will.
If heaven be pleas'd that you must use me ill,
Why, then you must. Will you put out mine eyes,
These eyes that never did nor never shall
So much as frown on you?
On the other hand, there are some genuinely good things about this play. I'll let no less a person than George Orwell explain it:
Recently I saw Shakespeare's King John acted — the first time I had seen it, because it is a play which isn't acted very often. When I had read it as a boy it seemed to me archaic, something dug out of a history book and not having anything to do with our own time. Well, when I saw it acted, what with its intrigues and doublecrossings, non-aggression pacts, quislings, people changing sides in the middle of a battle, and what-not, it seemed to me extraordinarily up to date.Despite its painfully sentimental take on Arthur, King John is actually a fairly cynical play. In Act One, two brothers come before the king in a dispute over the inheritance. The elder brother has got the property, but the younger brother alleges him to be a bastard son of Richard Coeur-de-Lion. Cheerfully, the elder brother admits that this may be so, but he's still going to keep the property. He only gives it up once the king and his mother offer him a prime place at the English court, a knighthood, and recognition as the late king's bastard. Almost everyone involved in this transaction acts purely based on power and self-interest. As the play continues, it becomes clear that all the political snarls and conundrums are being solved not based on ethical issues like right and wrong, but power and self-interest. The French, for instance, emerge onto the stage vowing left and right to restore justice by supporting Arthur's claim to the throne. However, the instant John puts a politically advantageous marriage on the table, they drop Arthur like a hot scone. Later, Louis the Dauphin abandons his principled stance for peace the minute he realises that his marriage has given him a potential claim on the English throne. Over and again in this play, powerful characters cheerfully betray and exploit the cause of justice, the widow and the orphan, for the sake of gain.
The Bastard has a long, snarky speech pointing this out:
Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!Obviously, the Bastard has no more moral authority than the powerful ones he serves. Indeed, he warns on a couple of occasions that ordinary people will look to the powerful for an example of behaviour. Indeed, at one low point, he uses this to argue John into a more confident and kingly frame of mind.
John, to stop Arthur's tide in the whole,
Hath willingly departed with a part;
And France, whose armour conscience buckled on,
Whom zeal and charity brought to the field
As God's own soldier, rounded in the ear
With that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,
That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,
That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,
Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids,
Who having no external thing to lose
But the word 'maid,' cheats the poor maid of that;
That smooth-fac'd gentleman, tickling commodity,
Commodity, the bias of the world-
The world, who of itself is peised well,
Made to run even upon even ground,
Till this advantage, this vile-drawing bias,
This sway of motion, this commodity,
Makes it take head from all indifferency,
From all direction, purpose, course, intent-
And this same bias, this commodity,
This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word,
Clapp'd on the outward eye of fickle France,
Hath drawn him from his own determin'd aid,
From a resolv'd and honourable war,
To a most base and vile-concluded peace.
And why rail I on this commodity?
But for because he hath not woo'd me yet;
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand
When his fair angels would salute my palm,
But for my hand, as unattempted yet,
Like a poor beggar raileth on the rich.
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.
The Bastard is a fascinating character, perhaps the kind that could only occur in a weak play: in a better play, he would be less dominant because he would appear against a stronger backdrop. As it is, he is almost an entire cast in himself. He is the Greek Chorus who comments on everything that happens at the close of each act. He is the comic relief who keeps the audience laughing. As a man of low status who looks to the powerful for indications how to behave, he's an emblem of everything that is rotten in England. As the son and living image of the dead Coeur-de-Lion, he becomes Richard I's voice from beyond the grave - John's canniest general and his boldest advisor. In a better play, he might not have to wear so many different hats. I'm not sure it works well to give so many meaningful roles to him, but you can't help admiring his character for pulling it off with such flair.
Sadly, although I do think the theme of moral compromise for the sake of gain is the play's major theme, it gets forgotten about by the end of the play, and the Bastard delivers a closing platitude to the effect that England will stand strong against external invasion so long as there's domestic strength and unity. The problem is that that strength and unity is only achieved when John's rebellious barons learn that Louis plans to betray them once he wins the war. In other words, the unity and strength that is gained comes about only when John's barons ignore his usurpation and murder for the sake of their own necks.
I do believe that one of the factors at play here is the Renaissance Tudor and Stuart concept of the divine right of kings. This is apparent in the fact that the Magna Carta is not important to Shakespeare's account of events at all. John's barons, instead of being major players in the story, act simply as supporters to one claimant king or another when historically they were powerbrokers and conquerors with significant authority and agency of their own: William Marshal, for instance, is here just a rather faceless member of the baronage rather than the highly-respected potentate who put down the rebel barons after John's death. Louis' invasion of England is shown as his own unilateral act, something that spurs the barons' rebellion, rather than a result of it. For the Elizabethans, the kings are the ones with agency in history on account of their divine right. Anyone lesser is just a follower.
While the divine right doctrine did have deep roots in the medieval period, in 1215 or so, true feudalism as characterised by powerful autonomous barons had not yet broken down into the centralised monarchy of the later middle ages. Even so, the divine right of kings never really got going until the influence and power of the church was broken in the Reformation and Henry VIII used his headship of the church to destroy any influence it might have had to oppose and balance monarchical power. (It's interesting that Shakespeare has a little Protestant moment showing the momentarily heroic John standing up against papal authority).
Shakespeare always had a complex relationship to the divine right of kings. He seems to have been most critical of it in Richard II, but in King John, I think the concept underlies one of the play's most curious inconsistencies. While alive, Prince Arthur is treated as the vessel of divine right. And in the aftermath of his death, this becomes more obvious:
PEMBROKE. O death, made proud with pure and princely beauty!
The earth had not a hole to hide this deed.
SALISBURY. Murder, as hating what himself hath done,
Doth lay it open to urge on revenge.
BIGOT. Or, when he doom'd this beauty to a grave,
Found it too precious-princely for a grave.
SALISBURY. Sir Richard, what think you? Have you beheld,
Or have you read or heard, or could you think?
Or do you almost think, although you see,
That you do see? Could thought, without this object,
Form such another? This is the very top,
The height, the crest, or crest unto the crest,
Of murder's arms; this is the bloodiest shame,
The wildest savagery, the vilest stroke,
That ever wall-ey'd wrath or staring rage
Presented to the tears of soft remorse.
PEMBROKE. All murders past do stand excus'd in this;
And this, so sole and so unmatchable,
Shall give a holiness, a purity,
To the yet unbegotten sin of times,
And prove a deadly bloodshed but a jest,
Exampled by this heinous spectacle.
Note that the nobles don't remark on Arthur's young age: they do remark on the fact that he is "princely". That is what makes his death so much worse than anyone else's. That is what makes his wicked uncle a villain. And yet, his death also legitimises John's reign. If kingship is based on blood rather than merit, then even the Wickedest of Uncles can gain a true and honest claim to the throne simply by ordering a hit on his nephew. And indeed, following Arthur's death, it's as if John's wickedness disappears. Now, suddenly, he's the legitimate king and the nobles will rally around him and his son against those wicked Frenchmen.
King John is a deeply divided play, therefore, and at least part of this might be because of a cognitive dissonance in Shakespeare himself. On the one hand, he condemns those who debase ethics, merit, and justice for the sake of personal and political gain. But, on the other hand, his treatment of John suggests that the divine right of royal blood can and indeed should overcome those same questions of ethics, merit, and justice: gain does not make right, might does not make right...but blood, somehow, does.
You can find King John on Amazon, the Book Depository, Project Gutenberg, or as a cast recording on Youtube.