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October Books 21) King John

21) The Life and Death of King John, by William Shakespeare

I confess I knew nothing at all about this play before last week. It's a somewhat weird meditation on the political process. There is a sort-of viewpoint character, "The Bastard" who is the illegitimate son of John's brother Richard Cœur de Lion; yet at the same time he consistently argues for a more vigorous and vicious engagement by the English against the French and/or the Pope, including at times when this is obviously a bad idea. So although he is definitely the author's creation, it is not at all clear that he is the author's mouthpiece.

King John himself is also an ambiguous figure. His bold words against the Pope in Act 3, which sound terribly impressive in post-Henry VIII England, melt into historical footnotes in Act V. The cosmic karma that descends on him for killing Arthur is unfair because a) his orders weren't actually carried out, b) he changed his mind and c) Arthur dies by accident. John (and by the end of the play Henry III) may be legitimate, but that doesn't make you right. It's not at all obvious that John's agonising death is deserved.

I'm surprised that this play isn't better known. Apart from the title role, the Bastard, Constance, Arthur, Hubert and Salisbury all seem to me to be rather interesting characters who could be brought to life under the right circumstances. Arkangel have a decent cast, none particularly outstanding, but it is good material and they deliver a quality product.

Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love's Labour's Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night's Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All's Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter's Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 29th, 2008 07:53 pm (UTC)
I'm surprised that this play isn't better known

I don't think I've ever seen a performance advertised.

I am impressed that you're reading them all. I do';t think I could wade through one I wasn't studying for an exam. Kydd or Webster, on the other hand....
Oct. 30th, 2008 05:10 pm (UTC)
I think it is little known because of the popular standing of King John really. I love the ambiguity of the figure, like that bit at the start when his legitimacy as King is challenged and he says something like 'our strong possession and our right will carry the day' and his mother Eleanor says 'our strong possession more than our tight' or else we are buggered. It is a wonderful examination on the curate's egg that is monarchy and there are nods to Elizabeth and Henry VIII and Mary too in the themes addressed. The mythic status of Richard Lionheart is also looked sideways at, because the great tragedy of the play is supposed to be that Rupert cannot take the throne and put an end to all this squabbling and scheming but at the same time it is pretty clear where his kingship would lead England if he could lay his claim.

Leonard Rossiter does a fabulous version for the BBC Shakespeare (with John Thaw as de Burgh) although it is not very dynamically directed. It was one of my favourite plays to study at college, because there is so much there.

Did you ever go and see The Reduced Shakespeare Company? At the start of their show they ask the audience is anyone has read Hamlet, loads of hands go up, they then ask if anyone has read King John and my hand and the audience plant put their hands up (and a few others in a college town) and they then proceed to look ritually nervous. They're fun!
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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