We touch on one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays this week via King John. Whilst he’s one of England’s more famous kings for both his role in the Robin Hood mythos and as the king that signed the Magna Carta, I’d argue that because the play is largely forgotten he’s one of the few historical figures Shakespeare wrote about that doesn’t end up having his public image overly effected by the Bard.
In fact, the play covers a small but intensely interesting time in history: we see John as he tries to obtain his one hereditary rival, Arthur of Brittany, in order to get rid of the boy and secure his title. It’s obviously not that simple, since as Arthur’s title suggests he’s over in France and this makes what happens to him the business of the French king Philip.
To this backdrop we are presented a play full of political pawns: everyone serves a purpose and is manoeuvred to serve the ends of someone else – even John. As you might suspect, this makes handling the kingship of England even more problematic than it already would be and we see the various characters splinter into different factions or points of view as they struggle to find their place within an increasingly chaotic political web.
I think the chief problem with King John as a play (and therefore why it isn’t more loved) is that when it comes to the various insights we gain from the play – how not to rule, political survival, what it manes to survive etc – there are many plays where Shakespeare does it better, from Macbeth to both Richard plays. That’s not to say King John isn’t a interesting play (Queen Eleanor in particular cuts a striking figure), but I’ve never read it yearning to go back to the beginning immediately and read it all again.
That being said, King John (this time the figure within the play) is an example of how to display politics on the stage without making it seem like gratuitous drama. I find the role of John never descends into caricature and manages to balance out the two views that he was either an unlucky king or one that was just out of his depth. We are given opportunities to see him both as the villain but also as the man who stops short at being the hero.
This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them: nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.
The play might not be my absolute favourite but this quote is one I love very much. It may not be the St. Crispin’s day speech but I don’t doubt that it would still stir the heart of not just a proud Englishman but anyone who loves their country. So, please give the play King John a try. It might be different, it might be lesser known but you, like me, might come away from it feeling glad you don’t live in the world of politics.
(photo credit: http://www.stratfordfestival.ca)