Thursday, 12 March 2015

King John by William Shakespeare.

The Plays of William Shakespeare by Sir John Gilbert (1849).
Because I enjoyed reading John Ford's historical play Perkin Warbeck (1634) so much I decided to revisit William Shakespeare's English Histories over the next few months. In order of action (or indeed King), these are:

  • King John (1596 - 1597).
  • Edward III (1596; this was "probably" written by Shakespeare, possibly with Thomas Kyd)
  • Richard II (1597)
  • Henry IV Part I (1598)
  • Henry IV Part II (1600)
  • Henry V (1600)
  • Henry VI Part I (1594)
  • Henry VI Part II (1594)
  • Henry VI Part III (1623)
  • Richard III (1597)
  • Henry VIII (1623)

King John, by an unknown artist.
I'm starting with King John, also known as The Life and Death of King John. I'll start with some basic facts about King John:

- King John was born John Lackland on 24th December 1166, and from 6th April 1199 to his death on 18th October 1216 he was King of England (he was preceded by Richard I - Richard the Lionheart - and succeeded by Henry III).
- He was the last king of the House of Angevin (the first being Henry II who reigned from 1154 to 1189. Richard I followed, and then John).
- The House of Angevin refers to the kings who were also counts of Anjou (in western France), and descendants of Geoffrey Plantagenet (Duke of the Normans, Count of Anjou, Maine and Mortain) and Matilda, daughter of Henry I (King of England from 1100 to 1135).
- His father was Henry II and his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine.
- King John had several brothers, William (Count of Poitiers, who died at two years old in 1156), Henry (Henry the Young King, who reigned alongside his father between 1170 - 1183, who died in 1183 aged 28), Geoffrey (Duke of Brittany, John's younger brother, who died in 1186), and Richard, who would become Richard I.
- Geoffrey and his wife Constance, Duchess of Brittany had a son, Arthur, who was born after Geoffrey's death in 1187, who died around 1203.
- After Richard, Geoffrey was second in line to the throne, and in 1196 Richard I named Arthur as his heir, however on his deathbed in 1199 he feared Arthur was too young to be a king, so he named John his brother.

Arthur paying homage to Philip II of France, artist unknown, 14th Century.
The heir to Richard I was a controversial issue, and it is this theme that Shakespeare explores in his play King John. Using sources such as Holinshed's Chronicles (published in 1577 and 1587), and, most likely, George Peele's The Troublesome Reign of King John (1589), Shakespeare writes about the period in which King Philip II of France demanded that King John renounced his right to the throne in favour of Arthur (which was in accordance with Angevin law). This period was around 1199 - 1204, the very early part of his reign.

The play begins with the arrival of a French messenger who, referring to King John as "The borrowed majesty", demands on the behalf of King Philip of France that King John renounces the throne:
Philip of France, in right and true behalf
Of thy deceased brother Geffrey's son,
Arthur Plantagenet, lays most lawful claim
To this fair island and the territories,
To Ireland, Poictiers, Anjou, Touraine, Maine,
Desiring thee to lay aside the sword
Which sways usurpingly these several titles,
And put the same into young Arthur's hand,
Thy nephew and right royal sovereign.
If he refuses, "The proud control of fierce and bloody war, / To enforce these rights so forcibly withheld."

Later, in the same scene, Philip, the illegitimate son of Richard I (referred to throughout as "Bastard") and his half-brother Robert Falconbridge (their mother is Lady Falonbridge, and Robert's father Sir Falconbridge) come to court so that King John will sort out an inheritance dispute. Eleanor notices a family resemblance ("He hath a trick of Cœur-de-lion's face"), and so they recommend that Philip renounces his claim to inheritance and King John will knight him, and so he becomes Richard Plantagenet (though, as I say, his name remains "Bastard" in the play).

The coronation of Philippe II Auguste
in the presence of Henry II of England.
The second act begins with King Philip of France, with the support of Austria (believed to be responsible for the death of Richard I), is preparing to attack Angiers, a town in western France held by the English unless they pledge allegiance with him and against King John. King John enters, proclaiming,
Peace be to France, if France in peace permit
Our just and lineal entrance to our own!
If not, bleed France, and peace ascend to heaven,
Whiles we, God's wrathful agent, do correct
Their proud contempt that beats His peace to heaven!
There begins a war of words between the two kings and their mothers, Eleanor and Constance. They resolve to go to Angiers and ask the citizens who they support, but they simply reply that they support the rightful king:
Kɪɴɢ Pʜɪʟɪᴘ: Speak, citizens, for England; who's your king?
Cɪᴛɪᴢᴇɴ: The King of England, when we know the King.
Pope Innocent III.
The Bastard then proses French and English armies unite to punish the citizens of Angiers, but the citizens suggest an alternative - that Philip's son Louis the Dauphin should marry John's cousin Blanche. This would both strengthen John's claim to the throne and go towards gaining English territory for France. The marriage goes ahead (this was in the year 1200), but afterwards a messenger for the Pope (Innocent III), Cardinal Pandulph, arrives and claims that King John has disobeyed the Pope by appointing an Archbishop of Canterbury contrary to the Pope's desire.
Hail, you anointed deputies of heaven! To thee, King John, my holy errand is. I Pandulph, of fair Milan cardinal, And from Pope Innocent the legate here, Do in his name religiously demand Why thou against the Church, our holy mother, So wilfully dost spurn; and force perforce Keep Stephen Langton, chosen Archbishop Of Canterbury, from that holy see? This, in our foresaid holy father's name, Pope Innocent, I do demand of thee.
King John is thus excommunicated (this actually happened in 1209), and Cardinal Pandulph urges Louis to overthrown John. Furious, John says to Philip,
France, I am burn'd up with inflaming wrath,
A rage whose heat hath this condition
That nothing can allay, nothing but blood,
The blood, and dearest-valu'd blood, of France.
To which Philip replies,
Thy rage shall burn thee up, and thou shalt turn
To ashes, ere our blood shall quench that fire.
Look to thyself, thou art in jeopardy.
Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh
by William Frederick Yeames, 1882.
Again, England and France are at war, and at the same time King John is also at war with the Pope. Arthur is captured and John orders his execution, but Hubert (Hubert de Burgh, 1st Earl of Kent and supporter of King John) is unable to obey this order following quite a touching conversation between him and Arthur. He later tells the king,
Young Arthur is alive. This hand of mine
Is yet a maiden and an innocent hand,
Not painted with the crimson spots of blood.
Within this bosom never ent'red yet
The dreadful motion of a murderous thought
And you have slander'd nature in my form,
Which, howsoever rude exteriorly,
Is yet the cover of a fairer mind
Than to be butcher of an innocent child.
However, as Arthur escapes, he leaps from a high wall and dies, and King Philip assumes that King John was responsible (at the time many also believe this; the truth, however, is unknown). John is forced to reconcile with the Pope in order that he dissuades Philip from attacking further, however the Bastard remains committed to the war. Threats from all sides are exchanged until Hubert informs the Bastard that King John has been poisoned by a monk (in reality it is most likely that King John had contracted dysentery). Bastard concludes,
O, let us pay the time but needful woe,
Since it hath been beforehand with our griefs.
This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.
Legitimacy, war, and religious strife are at the heart of King John, themes that Shakespeare's contemporary audience would have identified with, yet today it is one of Shakespeare's most unpopular plays. There are a few inaccuracies or misleading elements, but it is a reasonably entertaining play. Definitely not a favourite, but it's difficult not to be interested in this unstable period of history. There are no real heroes in this play, just a collection of men trying to gain, regain, or hold on to power despite the obstacles in their way. It may not be Shakespeare's finest play, but all the same it's worth reading, even if it does miss out the signing of the Magna Carta!

Finally some illustrations (I could find the name of the illustrator, unfortunately). These were published by American Book Company in Shakespeare's History of the Life and Death of King John with an introduction and notes by William J. Rolfe (1908).


  1. I would tell students this about the inferior _King John_:

    Read it only after you have read most/all of Shakespeare's quality plays.

    Do not think that Shakespeare is going to give you accurate history.

    The purpose of the play is entertainment of people in Shakespeare's era.

    Shakespeare's history plays are political rather than historical.

    Shakespeare was smart enough not to offend anyone in a position of authority.

    The play was written for audiences rather than readers.

    1. Yes, he doesn't get too concerned with historical accuracy, does he?! I remember being amazed by Henry VIII! You're right - it's essential to remember he wrote primarily for entertainment purposes.

  2. I don't think we can attribute much of H8 to WS.

    1. Yes, I read it was in collaboration with John Fletcher. Didn't realise that at the time I read it.


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