Things to consider while reading King John
Like King Henry VIII, King John stands out the two tetralogies (so-called) of the Shakespeare history plays (Richard II; Henry IV, Part i; Henry IV, Part ii; and Henry V, and Henry VI, Part i; Henry VI, Part ii; Henry VI, Part iii; and Richard III). What does that do for it? Do you feel that it is as integrated into a larger whole, or is it more a free-standing product?
The play also deserves to be considered on its own terms, of course. What is its internal dynamic? What is its point?
King John and what has come before
- In most of Shakespeare’s plays, illegitimate sons, of whatever source, tend to be bad guys. How about Philip here? Is he? What role does he play?
- Like most of Shakespeare’s histories in particular, this weaves in a number of contemporary themes. The aspirations of various characters (John, Arthur, and the Faulconbridge brothers) strive to establish their legitimacy and their power. In that respect, they are not unlike Henry VIII or Elizabeth, in whose reign this play was almost certainly produced.
- This play is roughly contemporary with Titus Andronicus. It shares with that play an interesting preoccupation with the grotesque, especially mutilation — compare the treatment of Titus’s daughter and the boy Arthur.
- The wry and cynical commentary offered by the Bastard throughout the play recalls that of a number of other characters in other plays — certainly Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, but also many of the clowns, and Hamlet’s own reflections in Hamlet. What function does such a character serve? In what roles do you or can you find such a character? (In Hamlet and Richard III, surely, the title characters fulfill the role; in King Lear it’s a clown; in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio is a confidant of sorts. What are the other possibilities?
Two particular sources have been suggested for the play, neither of them really absolutely certain, and one general one:
- The anonymous play (probably 1591) called The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England. Whether this entered into the composition of the current play will at least partly depend on whether Shakespeare’s play was written before or after.
- John Bale’s Kynge Iohan, from the reign of Henry VIII, which allegorizes the whole into a religious debate between Catholic and Protestant.
- In addition, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles seem to be among the standard sources Shakespeare consulted for all his history plays (and a few others, like Macbeth). It’s reasonable to assume that he did so here too.
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
This is a twisty play without a very clearly delineated agenda or (for that matter) a very obvious endpoint. What you choose to make of it, therefore, will depend on which themes you decide to emphasize.
- The emotional vs. the rational. Different characters see the world very differently, ranging from the almost reckless emotionalism of Constance, the mother of Arthur, to the calculating rationalism (something akin to what the Germans came to call Realpolitik) of the Bastard. Does Shakespeare seem to favor one of these over the other, or is he simply exploring the variety of ways of seeing the world?
- As always in the histories, there is an exploration of political power and political reality, both in theory and in practice. The opposition of theory and practice is probably nowhere more acutely marked than in this play and its near contemporary, Richard II.
- Prophecy: Marjorie Garber (Shakespeare After All, p. 274-5) talks about what she calls the “slantwise achievement of a prophetic ‘truth’ against its apparently plain meaning. I would suggest that this is all part and parcel with Shakespearean concern with equivocal language, as you’ve already perhaps seen in Macbeth, Richard III, and even Measure for Measure. What do you make of it? What's at the heart of this concern for Shakespeare?
- The cost of coming between contending powers is noteworthy: by refusing to take sides, Angers comes into danger from both. Is this a kind of pushing-back against the equivocation of contemporary politics.
Symmetries in the play
Much of the thematic backbone of this play (as any other) is made up of thematic symmetries and oppositions.
- More than any other play in the Shakespearean corpus, this play sets up (as Marjorie Garber has pointed out: Shakespeare After All, p. 272) a sequence of mother-son pairings. We more frequently see father-son pairings, but this is special, in that most of them also turn on the question of a son’s legitimacy based on the fidelity of his mother to her husband.
- These mother-son pairings also exploit much of the dramatic power of the familial bond.
- The play is constantly opposing and comparing the high diction and arguments of the various royal contenders with the somewhat coarse pragmatism of the Bastard. What are we as an audience supposed to take away from that opposition?
Problems in the play
This has never been one of Shakespeare’s most beloved plays. There are many reasons for that. It is indirect, its flow is outside the larger architecture of the two great tetralogies, and it has a less than obvious program. The titular character rumbles along without doing much, really, while the people around him do a great deal. Still, there are nuances to be gathered, and questions to be asked.
- Perhaps most basic — what’s the point of this play? Does it lead to a conclusion?
- Some find it interesting that the most significant event of John’s reign from a modern point of view, the signing of Magna Carta, is not even mentioned in this play. What do you make of that? Is it a matter that it was an embarrassment of a sort that the monarchy (Shakespeare’s contemporary monarchy) would rather not hear about it, or might it merely be the case that few if any at the time thought it of any great narrative or dramatic significance?
- What light in particular does this shed on the shape of monarchical rule at the time?
- Certainly it’s not a major literary point, but it does shed some light on the way these plays were composed and conceived of: did you find the anachronisms peculiar? Cannons were fairly commonly used in Tudor and Elizabethan warfare. They were unheard of in 1200, when this play is set. Did Shakespeare just not know any better, or didn't he care?
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