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)

This entry was posted in Uncategorised. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to October Books 21) King John

  1. ninebelow says:

    I wonder if Sullivan and his editor haven’t made an additional error and what he wants to say (in contempory English) is: “Measures, you see, are but trifles.” Clearly wrong either way.

    The defence is remarkable though and I’d like to see it applied to other areas. “The dialogue in this fantasy novel is terrible.” “How dare you, that dialogue is in a made up language which is completely naturalistic, it just coincidently very closely resembles bad English.”

Comments are closed.