Here’s rather a maligned fellow. The king deserves it but not the play itself. The Friendly Shakespeare says The Life and Death of King John is the most unfamiliar and disliked play in the canon. Now I call that jolly unfair. It has a fabulous part in it for Claire Bloom and some of the most famous phrases in Shakespeare.
When I started reading it I thought my point of reference would be the Magna Carta because while watching a history of Britain over at The Gwen, I realized that this particular King was The John. But Shakespeare didn’t mention the Magna Carta at all. He had other points to make and other reasons to write the play.
Isaac Asimov wrote a several thousand page guide to Shakespeare, which doesn’t attempt to interpret the text, but which gives historical background and elucidation of the odd phrase. His piece about King John is one long comment about how unhistorical the play is. Shakespeare creates Philip Faulconbridge (called unceremoniously Philip the Bastard) for dramatic purposes. He makes a widow of a woman who herself wasn’t even alive in order to enhance the poignancy of her son’s death. Then he drags ten years of history into a heap to form the last two acts of the play.
I love this about Shakespeare. I know it drives the literalistic among us crazy but I love the way he plays fast and loose with facts in order to create something. He has what I consider a proper attitude toward “facts,” which are contestable and can be deconstructed. He goes for emotional truth. He wanted to tell a story about a quarrel over succession rights and how killing a child-king named Arthur set off a chain of events to be explored in further history plays. And he didn’t want to offend the court of Elizabeth I. We all have our constraints.
Amongst watercolorists, there are those who want to deliver a scene that mirrors the one in front of them. And there are those who use what’s in front of them as a staging ground to deliver something that’s in their own imagination. Among musicians there are those whose joy comes from the notion that they are replicating Bach right down to the touch of the viol de gamba and those to whom the spirit of Bach is one of improvising. We all have our preferences.
King John is a creepy character who with full cooperation from the equally creepy bishop from Rome, which seems a prerequisite for being a bishop at all, orders the assassination of Arthur, the boy-heir to the throne. Then he relents and decides to just have the child’s eyes gouged out with a hot iron. After a disturbing scene where Arthur begs to not be mutilated, Hubert, the fellow given the assignment and who also did not exist according to Asimov, cannot bring himself to carry it out.
Hubert hides the child but word has gone out that the King has murdered the boy and his outraged peeps begin to desert him. The King cravenly tells Hubert that Hubert had misunderstood his orders. Hubert pulls out the death warrant and asks which part of it he misunderstood. King John is not so much ashamed as relieved when Hubert confesses that the boy is alive and has full use of his eyes. Meantime, Arthur, in trying to escape from his prison, has fallen to his death. France goes to war with England because no one believes the child’s death was an accident and the succession is now an open question.
Just when I was hoping someone would murder King John, he dies. Philip the Bastard who, you might recall, does not actually exist, as the (illegitimate) son of Richard the Lion-Hearted actually has some claim to the throne. He makes the remarkable gesture of recognizing John’s young son Henry as the new king of England. Though he never became King of England, Ireland and select parts of France, he is the hero of the play. Not bad for someone who didn’t exist.
King John is where we find the phrases “foul play,” “twice-told tale,” “bell, book, and candle,” and the expression “gilding the lily” although the actual line is “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.” (I found these in the text, I didn’t look them up in Bartlett’s.)
The news that King John’s mother has died is delivered with the words, “her ear is stopped with dust.”
Arthur’s mother Constance has a heart-rending speech:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form . . (III, iv)
And finally there is a line that I feel sums up my Shakespeare experience thus far:
“Zounds! I was never so bethumped with words. . .” (II, i)