Bell, book, and candle shall not drive me back,
When gold and silver becks me to come on. (3.3.12)
I think it’s no secret to any and all who follow my blogs that I am a medievalist at heart. I get pulled to and fro across the boundless ages of history, but it’s to the Middle Ages, and to the Renaissance it spawned, that I am most drawn. It bugged me for the longest time that I couldn’t appreciate the works of William Shakespeare for just that reason. Fully a third of his magnificent plays are about the very things that interest me most, but with an eye to how the stories he told affected his own world, which we now call the Renaissance… and how his world affected the stories he told. One informs the other. The more I learn, the more I want to learn, and over the course of 20+ years, I feel like I’m finally able to appreciate the Bard on his own terms. And so, this project is born. Because of my personal leanings, I begin not at the beginning, but in the Middle Ages as the Bard portrays the era.
Allow me to just get this one point out of the way up front. There’s a common misconception that because King John is an under-performed work that it’s somehow a lesser work. I couldn’t disagree with that assertion more. This is a neglected masterwork, and I am prepared to fight tooth and nail to defend it as such against any who think they know better. Indeed, during Victoria’s reign, it was performed quite regularly due to popular demand. It’s simply that tastes change, and so do perceptions. Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker wasn’t appreciated in its own time and required Walt Disney to animate it before people discovered it for appreciation. Why, then, should the reverse possibility not hold true for a work overshadowed by names such as Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth? Indeed, that’s what happened in Shakespeare’s own time as well. This play had too much competition from the master’s own pen, and then for a period of 200 years it and all of its companions were lost after a fashion, stripped down and edited for time and content to be but a shadow of themselves. Some plays gained popularity because there were still more to them, but upon rediscovery of the full scripts, they were reinstated, and those who had gained popularity retained it. As the movie says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
People analyze these plays as though to squeeze every drop of magnificence from them, and quite frankly, I think that wrings the life out of them. It defeats the whole point. Shakespeare’s plays aren’t great only because what he wrote is great. That’s only the first step of his path to greatness. These plays were scripts, meant to be performed, and it’s in that performance that they live and breathe, that the Bard’s words have any real meaning at all. How the words are performed can change an audience’s perception of them. How the context of the play is presented can make, change, or even break a person’s understanding or appreciation. This is what I’ve come to learn for myself, which I owe in no small measure to Sir Patrick Stewart.
So now that you understand on some level how I’m approaching this, we can properly dive into this play. King John gives us an insight into a most infamous name of history, that of Plantagenet. It was often said during the reign of the Plantagenet dynasty, whose control of the throne began with John’s father, Henry II, that the family as a whole was the scion of Satan himself, and that one of the early countesses of Anjou that gave rise to this dynasty was a daughter of the devil who fled shrieking from the sight of the heavenly host. John was the youngest son of the equally infamous Henry II and his tough-as-nails queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (spelled “Elinor” in the play itself). He was dead last in the line of succession should say something for his ascension to the throne. He’s best known today as the evil king who usurped the throne of the “just, good, and most noble” King Richard the Lionheart, as the monarch who waged war against the outlaw Robin Hood, who succeeded Richard rightfully upon his death, and who ruled so badly that the knights and nobles banded together and forced his hand in surrender. This rebellion, of course, gave us Magna Charta, arguably the most important document ever written in regards to the path to personal freedom from tyranny. Most of what I’ve just outlined is even true. As is so often the case, the real history is far more fascinating than the fiction. Personally, I find it far more satisfying to know the history over any number of fictional interpretations. Even so, fiction can paint universal truths with a stroke of a master’s pen, and after all, that is what Shakespeare did best. Besides, who doesn’t appreciate a good story?
The first thing to understand with King John is that this play is one of only two that he wrote in true poetic verse, the other being Richard II, which is the next in line for me as I’m working the history plays chronologically by setting. That tends to throw some newcomers off, as there’s something inherently scary about Shakespeare’s language to the modern reader anyway, but heaven forbid we should compound the problem with poetry. Now you see why I called this project “No-Fear Shakespeare.” I take the position that there’s nothing to fear in this at all. If anything, it’s an opportunity to raise my own personal standards, and in doing so to discover that the only thing that’s really changed is that we’ve changed up the spelling and syntax a bit as the years go by. It’s not that we made it easier to speak the language, we just dumbed it down. Ergo, the Bard seems intellectual and challenging by comparison. But is he really? I would argue that he’s certainly smarter than the average bear, but it comes down to presentation and insight. As with any artist in any medium, what he perceived and how he perceived it is what gave rise to his poetic voice. The rest is a skill like any other. Since we know his formal education was limited, he clearly had to learn how to present his ideas somewhere. I’m not one who believes his genius was the result of the same kind of mutation or divine intervention that gave us Mozart or Mendelssohn. Quite the reverse, Shakespeare’s genius to me is the product of a man who worked hard for it, like Beethoven, and that’s part of what makes me appreciate it all the more. Did the Bard’s works not change the landscape of literature and human thought in much the same way Beethoven’s irrevocably changed that of music, for many of the same reasons and with many of the same universal truths presented in the material? So to my mind, if Shakespeare can work hard to become the master he is, that makes his work that much more accessible to us, and more meaningful as a result. He was no wunderkind, but his dramatic insight allows us to believe he was even to this day. Shakespeare understood that most of all, and he played to that, which is why we remember his works. It has nothing to do with the stogy academic autopsy that many teachers present us with. The work of the stage, regardless of what’s being presented, hasn’t changed. It’s still done smoke and mirrors, and the best we can take away from it ultimately resides in our own hearts and minds.
Poetry is first the language of the heart. The emotions matter more than the intellect. That’s not to say the intellect doesn’t matter. It most certainly does if you want to keep up with Shakespeare. But the axiom of design in any field of creation is that form follows function. As a true master of his craft, the Bard knew what he was doing. Why he didn’t do more of this, that’s anyone’s guess. Perhaps for expedience’s sake? Or perhaps he found a way to yoke the emotion and intellect together in blank verse, thus making all of his works poetry without anyone being the wiser? It sounds like prose, therefore it must be prose. And yet, every grade schooler who’s ever been confronted with this learns about iambic pentameter. So this, to my mind, means thatKing John is simply not hiding the fact that it’s supposed to hit you in the feels.
The next thing to understand, I think, is the background context, both in Shakespeare’s world and within the time of the play. Shakespeare wrote this between 1596 and 1597, late in the Elizabethan period. He and the queen were at odds with one another, even if she wasn’t always aware of it. Shakespeare, being a closet Catholic at the height of the Protestant Reformation, to say nothing of being a true believer in the concept of the Divine Right of Kings, believed that Elizabeth was the product of a world gone mad. Her grandfather was merely the latest in a line of usurpers after a bloody civil war, her father a tyrant of epic proportions who infamously broke with the Church, and Elizabeth herself a demagogue and pretender of the worst kind in his eyes. He would laugh if he could see how Elizabeth’s reign is now often painted as a golden age. As far as he was concerned, so long as she sat the throne, England was well and truly screwed. From his pen would flow God’s own truth, and as we know from fellow English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton, “The pen is mightier than the sword.” This antagonism of Elizabeth, I think, is the lens through which all of Shakespeare’s Richard andHenry history plays can be readily understood, with the notable and obvious exception of Henry VIII. We’ll discuss that one when we get there. At any rate, this is how I understand these plays, thus unlocking my own appreciation. Mileage may vary, of course, and if such is the case, I encourage you to write your own blog or talk to me here. Or both.
Let’s now put this in context with this play, because while Shakespeare’s own mindset wouldn’t have been known to the general public (lest he lose his head or be burned at the stake), the history from which he drew his inspiration was generally public knowledge. Shakespeare himself learned from books. The general populace would learn through plays like this one or from songs or tales passed orally. This means that while he can play loose and fast with the details, the overall themes and particulars of everyday life would be well-known. Indeed, many of them would be reflected in the world around them. As such, these things become tools he can use to shape his audience’s reaction. In other words, the perception of John’s history is more important than the history itself, and in Shakespeare’s hands, it becomes propaganda for an unsuspecting public. Ever see a movie that you think will be great fun, only to be left gobsmacked at how powerful it is? It’s pretty much the same thing here.
I’ve already given you some of the basics of the historical King John, but more will be needed for fuller understanding of what Shakespeare is presenting. To this end, I offer a timeline because the play will run the entire length of John’s reign.
1189 – July 6: King Henry II dies at the Chateau Chinon and Richard is crowned King
1189 – King Richard gives John the titles of Count of Mortain and Lord of Ireland and orders John to stay away from England for the next three years.
1189 – Richard names Arthur of Brittany ( the eldest son of his brother Geoffrey) as heir to the English throne
1190-1194 – John attempts to overthrow William Longchamp, the Bishop of Ely and take the throne of England. During this period the legend of Robin Hood is started (according to popular myth)
1190 – July 4: Richard embarks on the Third Crusade
1192 – King Richard on his return from the Holy Land was shipwrecked off the coast of the Adriatic, imprisoned by the duke of Austria and held to ransom
1194 – February 4: The ransom was paid and Richard was finally released
1199 – April 6: King Richard the Lionheart dies and John succeeded him to the throne of England
1199 – May 27: The coronation of King John
1200 – August 24: King John married Isabelle of Angouleme. They have five children: Henry ( who became King Henry III ), Richard, Earl of Cornwall, Joan of England, Isabella of England and Eleanor of England
1202 – The Fourth Crusade begins
1202 – April 28: John was declared a rebel and forfeits the lands of Aquitaine, Poitou and Anjou to King Philippe of France
1203 – April 3: John was involved in the murder of Arthur
1205 – John became involved in a dispute with Pope Innocent III
1209 – John was excommunicated due to his opposition to Stephen Langton who was chosen as Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Innocent III. The excommunication was lifted when John agreed to the wishes of the Pope
1211 – John quashes a Welsh rebellion
1212 – King John imposes taxes on the Barons in his attempts to regain the lost lands of Aquitaine, Poitou and Anjou
1214 – July 27: Defeat at the Battle of Bouvines: King John was forced to accept an unfavorable peace with France
1215 – June 15: Magna Charta: The English barons forced John to sign the Great Charter
1215-1217 – First Barons War: The rebel barons support the son of the king of France, Prince Louis
1216 – May 21: Louis invades England and marches to London where he receives support and is proclaimed and accepted as King of England (although not actually crowned); John escapes to Winchester
1216 – June 14: Louis captures Winchester and then conquers over half the kingdom
1216 – July 25: Siege of Dover Castle; Louis fails to capture the castle
1216 – October 19: King John dies at Newark and is was buried in Worcester Cathedral
1216 – October 28: The barons turn against Louis and give their support to the nine year old son of John who then became King Henry III of England
See what I mean? It’s virtually impossible to discuss the play without a common frame of reference because so much happens in this time, but it makes for a delightfully juicy backdrop to the tale the Bard will spin. And just to add in a pinch of salt, let’s define how John looked to the people of England after following in the footsteps of the Lionheart. Richard I was considered a giant in his time, standing around 6′ 5″. He was the only Crusader king in Britain’s history, and is generally accepted to have been a good military figure, even if his reign was largely absentee. That absence made the heart grow fonder, which is the only reason Richard was respected. John, by contrast, was a foot shorter, perceived as nowhere near as strong or brave, kept a watchful and temperamental eye on the peerage, and was often called “soft-sword.” So if you’re keeping score, John was last in line, should likely have never ruled at all, had something to prove, gained the Plantagenet ferocity and attitude, had none of the fighting skills to back it up, and ran roughshod over his lands and people until they rose up against him. But if there’s one thing England will tolerate less than a bad king, it’s a French king, and this is something Shakespeare’s patriotism will make clear. The reason England prevails by Shakespeare’s account is because the king on the throne is reconciled with the Church by the end of the tale, but because he is not the rightful heir, he is ultimately struck down, his plans gone awry. The lack of legitimacy and rightful standing in God’s Church, he’ll claim in later plays, is why the subsequent kings of England lost the holdings in France, were unable to beat France into submission when they were at their weakest, worst of all lost it to a teenage girl with no military training, and ultimately sent England into civil war. This war would result in the the Tudor dynasty, the Reformation, and Elizabeth. God, it would seem, has a sick sense of humor in the Bard’s eye, but Shakespeare blames the people for allowing it to happen. Those who would be in good standing with God need not follow the tyranny of the excommunicated according to canon law.
To save some time and space, I’ll spare you my summary of the play itself. You can find a great synopsis of it over at Shakespeare Online. I’ll assume from this point you’re either familiar with the play or have read the summary. If not, I hope I’m clear enough in my assertions from here on. My goal is to pick it apart a bit and tell you what I’m seeing.
Think of this as A Game of Thrones, 800 years before George R. R. Martin ever got there. And why not? The aforementioned civil war is where Martin got many of his ideas.
King Philip of France wants King John to abdicate England’s throne in favor of John’s nephew Arthur (son of Geffrey) or face a declaration of war. Why is this important? In simple terms, whomever sits upon the English throne is also a vassal of France through holdings in Aquitaine via Elinor, John’s mother. John has already proven his instability, and through a younger monarch, France might gain greater control of England. To counter, John is looking to wage war on France, aided by Philip, the bastard son of Richard who has disavowed his rightful inheritance, thus ensuring his loyalty. The claim of primogeniture supports Arthur’s claim, and Elinor suggests that John’s claim is questionable but agrees with him that steps must be taken to ensure he keeps the throne.
Philip and his younger half-brother Faulconbridge are brought in to resolve their own disputed claims of succession. Philip is older, but Faulconbridge claims Philip to be not of the blood and unable to inherit due to Lord Faulconbridge’s will. John rules that Lord Faulconbridge’s will does not matter in this case. Philip was raised as the eldest son, ergo he must inherit. Elinor solution is that the high tide will raise all boats. Philip rightfully inherits, raising him to the level of knight, ensuring his loyalty to the throne. Faulconbridge is confirmed as the son of Richard the Lionheart. This will mean that if John is to lose his throne, it will be to Faulconbridge, who is now loyal to his family as opposed to the King of France.
“Shakespeare asserts in this play that history is absurd and random, not guided by any grand plan.”
I’ve heard so many variations on this claim by scholars a number of times, and I have to say… I don’t buy it at all based on what I know of the Bard. If anything, I would say that fate is a harsh mistress, but the seemingly random is anything but. Consider… The French and English stalemate each other in battle, call a temporary truce to gang up on the town of Algiers for their presumption that they’ll wall up against the battle and support the victor, then they spare the town just as abruptly, sealing a deal with marriage. The Bastard pursues his inheritance only to give that up to seek valor in battle. Arthur is allowed to escape but falls to his death anyway. Without looking at Shakespeare’s cemented beliefs in his other history plays, one could certainly see all of this as whimsical. Unlike many of the Bard’s other kings, John seems less concerned with the Divine Right of Kings. He never questions it and protects his crown from the rightful heir. As a result, people suffer. Arthur is blinded and sentenced to die, with only the question of political necessity hanging over the events. France, in support of the rightful king Arthur, sends troops who are shipwrecked. English soldiers die in a flood. Everything here seems to be whim, not the hand of a God with a plan. It seems as random as scholars argue. However…
The king as an ignoble character lives ignobly, and thus even reconciled with the Church still dies an ignoble death. He seeks war with France, and both times he is thwarted by “happenstance.” Shakespeare makes it known that John plundered the Church’s resources time and again, and God’s answer is to bring John back in the grace of the Church (thus ensuring the protection of the English people), and then smiting John for his insolence by having a monk poison him.
All of this surrounds the topic of illegitimacy, which, as I’ve said, is a prime motive of Shakespeare’s storytelling, all of it directed at Elizabeth. As the excommunicated ruler of England, she alone is responsible for the doom of the people, and it is under those terms that any uprising against her is not only just, it is a divinely righteous cause. I wonder if he’d feel that way if the Spanish Armada were successful.
Elinor and Constance, the mothers of John and Arthur respectively, both stand in power and wisdom, and they stand in support of their sons. Ultimately they both catapult their sons to greatness and political power. Their sons are nothing without them. Interesting, no? If not for “forceful women,” none of this would come to pass. Again, the Bard is pointing the blame squarely at the Virgin Queen. That they both die in anticlimactic ways and both lose their heirs is yet another judgment being passed by the Bard. “For all your power, it will not last, and you have left no heirs to inherit your misbegotten throne. Your reign is meaningless.” Consider also that Elinor, aka Eleanor of Aquitaine, is the Mother of Chivalry. Her death also signifies an end to the idea of chivalry. Indeed, the last great herald of chivalry to his eyes is Henry V. It’s after his death that France sends Joan of Arc (oh, how Shakespeare hates her), yet another forceful woman deciding the fate of nations. I can’t be sure, but I do believe Shakespeare is a bit of a misogynist. In Renaissance England? No, that can’t be right…
The people of Angiers represent the popular voice against the illegitimate reigns of the monarchs by closing their gates against their royal but petty squabbles. They are spared joint wrath by alliance through marriage, which is how legitimacy is established.
Where scholars get the idea that any of this is random is beyond me. But this is my interpretation alone, and I don’t have fancy alphabet soup behind my name to declare my expertise. I merely make my attempts to understand the Bard’s motives, and as such I see this play as a gauntlet to Elizabeth’s face. It might also be why the first performance of this play was recorded to be in 1737. Perhaps Shakespeare knew he’d gone too far and wished to keep his head a while longer. Who says history is boring?