I wasn’t sure what to make of this play. I didn’t even know Shakespeare had written a play about King John (Richard the Lionheart’s brother) until I picked up this book and the book Shakespeare’s English Kings. I’d never heard of the play being performed, or anything.
So I was just as surprised to see that–mostly–I liked this play. I think Shakespeare had a lot to touch on, and I think it’s a bit of a shame that this play is rarely if ever performed.
However, I’m not so saddened, because reading the play was amazingly interesting. I think The Life and Death of King John has some of the best monologues so far in Shakespeare’s work.
Though, as usual, I get a bit gripey because the action in act 1 seems to go way too damned fast…but it wasn’t too hard to catch up after that.
Amazingly, King John is not quite the central figure–he’s the instigator, but not the center. The whole play revolves around his contested succession to the throne while other family members may have stronger claims. One is Arthur, son of his deceased eldest brother, who is being pushed forth by his widowed mother, Constance, who has many strings to pull in France to put her boy on the throne. Another is the Falconbridge family. The main one is known as Philip the Bastard, the illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart. Philip ends up giving his contested inheritance of land to his scheming, legitimate younger brother in exchange for renouncing his place in the Falconbridge house. He will become Sir Richard Plantagenet (and anybody who’s read the earlier Shakespeare king plays will know this last name well!).
As usual in these monarchy plays, there are some negotiations, marriages, battles, and death. One very different aspect, however, was the emergence of Cardinal Pandolf, a legate from the Pope who is on the French side of this contested succession because of King John’s refusal to accept a papal pick for the archbishop of Canterbury (which is referred to but not discussed in depth here). In anger, King John allows Philip the Bastard to start plundering the churches for war funds as King Philip of France is set against John to get Arthur on the throne.
But the kings make a deal regarding Prince Louis of France and Lady Blanche of Spain, John’s niece, to marry them and give Arthur some titles to placate all parties. This, however, creates more problems that a war might’ve settled quicker… and then comes the war again.
It’ll take some digging into history to understand the threads that bind the King of France to the crisis, but that’s to be expected when you have a miniscule understanding of British history (like me, and I’d have to do a lot more digging).
What made this play so great to me was the use of language, the command of it really struck me. John doesn’t have all the best lines and asides in this one–Philip the Bastard does, as if he’s the guiding narrator of events, and the most reasonable person in the play. Constance and the Bastard give some of the best lines, though Constance is more about her son’s interests and comes off like an entitled bitch (then again, perhaps she was actually entitled, so there you go). The Bastard has the best monologue in the play, which is about “commodity” (read: self-interest), and how the royals seem obsessed with it while the people are just trying to live their lives. Indeed, the people want to be loyal in these English-held areas of the Continent, but the citizens have no clue which kingly claimant they’re supposed to be loyal to!
That’s why I think it’s a shame it’s not performed today. It would be a treat to see the multiple character interactions, the asides, and watch the ladies bicker and Constance to go absolutely ape-shit on stage. But we still have the written words to enjoy, and there are plenty of interesting bits of word-play to read. I’ll be re-reading this one a few times.
I never expected to like it so much. But I do. It does make me want to go farther back in history to understand the family and territorial ties, though. Time to dig through my historical atlases, I suppose.
And now, some notable quotables (lengthy and tough to trim, but some goodies here):
BASTARD: Mad world, mad kings, mad composition!
John, to stop Arthur’s title in the whole,
Hath willingly departed with a part;
And France, whose armour conscience buckled on,
Whom zeal and charity brought to the field
As God’s own soldier, rounded in the ear
With that same purpose-changer, that sly devil,
That broker that still breaks the pate of faith,
That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,
Of kings, of beggars, old men, young men, maids,–
Who having no external thing to lose
But the word ‘maid’, cheats the poor maid of that–
That smooth-faced gentleman, tickling commodity;
Commodity, the bias of the world,
The world who of itself is piesed well,
Made to run even upon even ground,
Till this advantage, this vile-drawing bias,
This sway of motion, this commodity,
Makes it take head from all indifferency,
From all direction, purpose, course, intent;
And this same bias, this commodity,
This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word,
Clapped on the outward eye of fickle France,
Hath drawn him from his own determined aid,
From a resolved and honourable war,
To a most base and vile-concluded peace.
And why rail I on this commodity?
But not for because he hath not wooed me yet–
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand
When his fair angels would salute my palm,
But for my hand, as unattempted yet,
Like a poor beggar raileth on the rich.
Well, whiles I am a beggar I will rail,
And say there is no sin but to be rich,
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.
–Act 2, Scene 1
KING PHILIP: By heaven, lady, you shall have no cause
To curse the fair proceedings of this day.
Have I not pawned to you my majesty?
CONSTANCE: You have beguiled me with a counterfeit
Resembling majesty, which being touched and tried
Proves valueless. You are forsworn, forsworn.
You came in arms to spill mine enemies’ blood,
But now in arms you strengthen it with yours.
The grappling vigour and rough frown of war
Is cold in amity and painted peace,
And our oppression hath made up this league.
Arm, arm, you heavens, against these perjured Kings!
A widow cries, be husband to me, God!
Let not the hours of this ungodly day
Wear out the day in peace, but ere sun set
Set armed discord ‘twixt these perjured Kings.
Hear me, O hear me!
Limoges, Duke of AUSTRIA: Lady Constance, peace.
CONSTANCE: War, war, no peace! Peace is to me a war.
O Limoges, O Austria, thou dost shame
That bloody spoil. Thou slave, thou wretch, thou coward!
Thou little valiant, great in villiany;
Thou ever strong upon the stronger side;
Thou Fortune’s champion, that dost never fight
But when her humorous ladyship is by
To teach thee safety. Thou art perjured, too,
And sooth’st up greatness. What a fool art thou,
A ramping fool, to brag and stamp, and swear
Upon my party! Thou cold-blooded slave,
Hast thou not spoke like thunder on my side,
Been sworn my soldier, bidding me depend
Upon thy stars, thy fortune, and thy strength?
And does thou now fall over to my foes?
Thou wear a lion’s hide! Doff it, for shame,
And hang a calf’s-skin on those recreant limbs.
–Act 3, Scene 1
BLANCHE: 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 mayst win–
Uncle, I needs must pray that thou mayst 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 played.
LOUIS THE DAUPHIN: Lady, with me, with me thy fortune lies.
BLANCHE: There where my fortune lives, there my life dies.
–Act 3, Scene 1
CARDINAL PANDOLF (to Louis): Your mind is all as youthful as your blood.
Now hear me speak with a prophetic spirit,
For even the breath of what I mean to speak
Shall blow each dust, each straw, each little rub,
Out of the path which shall directly lead
Thy foot to England’s throne. And therefore mark.
John hath seized Arthur, and it cannot be
That whiles warm life plays in that infant’s veins
The misplaced John should entertain an hour,
One minute, nay, one quiet breath of rest.
A sceptre snatched with an unruly hand
Must be as boisterously maintained as gained;
And he that stands upon a slipp’ry place
Makes nice of no vile hold to stay him up.
That John may stand, then Arthur needs must fall;
So be it, for it cannot be but so.
LOUIS THE DAUPHIN: But what shall I gain by young Arthur’s fall?
PANDOLF: You, in the right of Lady Blanche your wife,
May then make all the claim that Arthur did.
LOUIS THE DAUPHIN: And lose it, life and all, as Arthur did.
–Act 3, Scene 4