Tuesday, June 7, 2016

King John - Shakespeare

King John is sole king of England but he faces a claim from a French prince, named Arthur.  In the face of this challenge, he goes to war.  The English and French forces face off outside of a city called Angiers.  Both sides demand that the city open their gates to them, and only them.  The conversation goes something like this (paraphrased):

Angiers: We're only going to open up for the king.
Eng & Fra: Yes, but which king?
Angiers: (pause) The rightful king.
Eng & Fra: Ok, but which one of us is the rightful king?
Angiers: (longer pause) Um, you figure it out and then we'll open our gates.

So they fight and scheme and fight until it is pointed out that they could join forces to punish Angiers for their indecision.  They agree but then quickly decide that maybe the could stop all of the fighting if the kings married their children together and hammered out a lasting peace.  They do so.
This absolutely horrifies the women behind the kings, Eleanor of Aquitane, King John's mother and Lady Constance on the French.  Both think that their side had given up too much and should have pressed harder.  (Both are very good roles, especially Lady Constance.)  They condemn the action but the marriage has taken place.
Before anything is resolved, an ambassador from the Pope, Pandolf, shows up and ex-communicates King John over a disputed archbishop.  John won't give in and Pandolf leans on the French to attack him if they want to stay in good with the church.  The war resumes and ruins the wedding glow.
Arthur is captured in battle and King John's party returns to England, leaving Eleanor to fight on in France.  The King asks one of his trusty men, Hubert, to kill Arthur and remove the threat.  Hubert agrees heartily but when it comes time to blind(!) and kill him, he cannot do so.  Word gets out that the king has killed innocent Arthur and King John faces a revolt of his nobles.  He repents of his actions and yells at Hubert for agreeing to kill Arthur.  Hubert tells him that he has not done so and the king is overjoyed.
Meanwhile, Arthur has tried to escape and fallen off of a wall and killed himself.  The nobles find his body and blame King John.  They go off to join a French expedition against the king.  King John decides to give sway to the Pope and asks Pandolf to bring about peace.  France decides to press their advantage and fight on.  The nobles go back to the English side and England wins.
As this has happened, King John has retired to a monastery and been poisoned by a monk.  The remaining cast gather around him and wish him godspeed to the afterlife.  The nobles then swear allegiance to Prince Henry, now Henry III.

King John is a big step down from Richard III.  The play, in style is more like Richard II or III in that it describes a long character arc of the king itself, rather than focusing on events of the time.  Even with that though, it falls short in quality of either one.  For one, the character of the king is much less remarkable.
From what we know of the play, it is fairly early Shakespeare.  There is dispute whether or not the story is reworked from someone else or whether a different play was copied from Shakespeare.  One of the most interesting things about reading so much of the man in one shot is finding out just how much we really know about when things were written.
There are some elements that I liked here, especially Lady Constance, but overall this isn't a great play.  It's not unreadable, but I can see why it isn't done in any kind of heavy rotation.

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