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king john

31 october 2015

I'd read King John only once before, about 35 years ago, when I was on an earlier Shakespeare-completist binge. I had forgotten everything about the play except

  1. It was about King John
  2. The main character was called The Bastard (not King John, though, a different and only literal bastard)
  3. One of the characters blinds another onstage
The first two panned out, but I was wrong about the third. One of the characters (Hubert) threatens to blind another (the boy prince Arthur), but he doesn't go through with it. The scene is intensely cruel, however. Shakespeare seems to have invented the torture-porn-tease genre, if there is such a thing and I don't want to find out if there is, just for King John. And it somehow marks King John as a nastier play than the great King Lear, where Gloucester is indeed blinded onstage, or even the noted gorefest Titus Andronicus.

It's a brisk play, all the same, bristling with energy and conflict. The aforementioned Bastard provides most of the play's good lines and 90% of its panache. He also never existed. King John is a History play, of course, but John's era was remote from Shakespeare's by 400 years, and the play is about as good a guide to medieval history as Game of Thrones. It's the kind of historical drama where the leading princes conduct warfare and diplomacy by wandering in and out of one another's drawing rooms. The siege of Angiers, a pretty good and very major scene in the play (it takes up the whole of Act Two), consists of the rival kings standing around underneath the walls of the city changing sides on the advice of a guy talking to them from the city walls.

Ahistorical, even impossible, as this all may be, Shakespeare strongly subordinates realism to drama, and you get a vivid sense of an embattled king, a shifting set of global political players, a young Bastard on the make, and how the contingencies of life overtake our efforts to make epic sense of them. John eventually fails when much of his Bastard lieutenant's army is washed away by a flood, and he himself gets sick and just sort of dies.

In that respect, King John is distinctly not a tragedy, and we can see why Shakespeare's first editors drew such a clear distinction between it and the equally medieval but portentously structured Lear and Macbeth. History, King John seems to tell us, is what happens while you're making other plans.

The play lacks the comic counterpoint that would make the Henry V plays such masterpieces, but it uses the Bastard as a running sardonic commentary on the proceedings. He's consistently snarky. He gives a famous cynical soliloquy at the end of that long Act Two on the power of "Commodity," as fresh now as in 1590 or 1199 for that matter. Later, when he thinks Hubert has murdered Arthur, he flays him verbally. "If thou didst kill this child," the Bastard says, "if thou didst but consent":

a rush will be a beam
To hang thee on. Or wouldst thou drown thyself,
Put but a little water in a spoon,
And it shall be as all the ocean,
Enough to stifle such a villain up. (Act 4, Scene 3)
The language is at once extravagant and simple. I like the Bastard because he never forgets that even though kingdoms are at stake, kingdoms come and go. We'll be remembered for how we treat children in the short run, and how inventively we talked about the passing scene in the long.

Shakespeare, William. King John. 1623. Edited by L.A. Beaurline. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. PR 2818 .A2B4

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