Saturday, December 28, 2019

King John by William Shakespeare

King John by William Shakespeare

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror ~ the Bastard

(repost of an accidentally deleted review from may 2019)

The Life and Death of King John is a historical play, written in the late 16th Century, but not published until the early 17th Century.

I am slowly working my way through the entire works of Shakespeare and have finally gotten to his historical plays. I’ve read all the Sonnets and other poetry, quite a few comedies, and several tragedies. This is the first of the historical plays that I’ve read. I decided to read the historical plays in chronological order, so King John is first. The historical King John of England reigned from 1199 until his death in 1216. He was the son of King Henry II and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine, succeeded his older brother Richard I to the throne, and was succeeded by his own son Henry who necessarily became King Henry III.

The play centers around the legitimacy of King John’s right to the throne. John is the oldest surviving son of King Henry II, but his older brother, Geffrey had a son, Arthur (no, not THAT Arthur). I am uncertain of 13th Century British rules of succession, but I think Arthur had a strong case. Other advocates for Arthur included King Philip of France, Cardinal Pandolf legate of the Holy See, and of course Arthur’s mother, Lady Constance. John’s advocates include Queen Eleanor, and the Bastard, the illegitimate son of John’s brother King Richard I.

The play is about confusing genealogies, shifting loyalties, and family feuds. I am tempted to call them petty feuds, but they do decide the King of England, so petty is probably unfair.

At one point, the matter is settled by the marriage of John’s niece Blanch, to King Philip’s son Louis (no, not THAT Louis). But moments after the marriage, older, more sacred alliances are recalled and the debate is renewed. Poor Blanch, caught in the middle of the muddled affair, faces war between her new husband and her uncle. She expresses her dismay – which is I think fairly representative of the entire matter:

          The sun’s o’ercast with blood. Fair day, adieu!
          Which is the side that I must go withal?
          I am with both:  each army hath a hand;
          And in their rage, I having hold of both,
          They whirl asunder and dismember me.
          Husband, I cannot pray that thou mayest win;
          Uncle, I needs must pray that thou mayest lose;
          Father, I may not wish the fortune thine;
          Grandam, I will not wish thy wishes thrive.  
          Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose:
          Assured loss before the match be play’d

SPOILER ALERT: In the end, it is all settled rather neatly, though tragically. Arthur dead, John dead, leaving Henry the undisputed heir to the throne. (Shakespeare did not write a play for Henry III. In fact, he skipped the next three monarchs: Henry III, Edward I, and Edward II. Next up is Edward III.)

It is easy to get caught up in the dozen or so august personalities named in the play, their divine mandates, and noble destinies, and forget the thousands of unnamed lives that were spent in settling such disputes. I am not criticizing the play – it is quite worthy of its author. I am simply reasserting something that may have been a subtle point of the Bard’s: the political, economic, familial, ecclesiastical, and egotistical plays for power in this period of Western Europe were indeed often – petty feuds with dreadful consequence.

And thou, to be endeared to a king,
Made it no conscience to destroy a prince. ~ King John to Hubert

Heaven keep my soul, and England keep my bones! ~ dying Arthur

And as usual, a couple phrases original to Shakespeare that have become part of English vernacular:

To gild refined gold, to paint the lily (which is clearer than the vernacular to gild the lily – to praise something that does not need further praise)

Play fast and loose

I read this for the 2019 Year of Shakespeare Challenge.


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