King John is one of Shakespeare’s earliest histories (if not his first,) but is not among his better-known plays. That said, it mixes comedy and tragedy in a way that is engaging and interesting. There were points at which it felt Monty Python-esque and other points at which it was heartbreakingly tragic. In short, one shouldn’t conclude because this play isn’t so well-known that it isn’t an intriguing read.
King John turns heavily on the theme of legitimacy, and the nature of rights to rule and hold title. For the bulk of the play the question of right to rule focuses on the titular character, John, who faces competition in the form of a young boy, Arthur, who many believe has a stronger claim to the crown. But when the play opens, the question of legitimacy is about Philip Faulconbridge, who is an elder son but is being cut out of the family lands as a bastard. But, apparently, Philip’s baby-daddy was King Richard I, and so King John convinces the Philip to give up his claim to Faulconbridge lands and instead be knighted under the name of Richard. Richard [Plantagenet] is a major character in the play and an important supporter of King John.
[Warning: The plot will be discussed in some detail, so those wishing to avoid spoilers should look away now.] The real excitement begins when both King John and King Philip of France show up for a parley at the town of Angers — a fort city in present-day north-west France that was an English-controlled land at the time. The citizens of Angers won’t let either King’s party come inside because there is a dispute about who the actual king is [King John or the boy, Arthur.] As loyal subjects of the King of England, the Angerians will gladly admit the King (and whomever he deems fit) as soon as it’s determined who, exactly, is the king. [This is where the aforementioned Monty Python-like exchanges begin.] The two stupefied Kings eventually agree that their armies will fight and, in that way, determine who the true king is. The armies form up in an open field not far from the city walls. After a series of scuffles, no clear winner is established. However, [Monty Python, round 2] heralds from each side show up within minutes of each other — both heralds claiming that their King won [and, thus, should be granted access.] To which the citizens of Angers essentially say, ‘We can see you.’ [I paraphrase.]
Showing his worth and cleverness, Richard the Bastard, comes up with a new strategy. He convinces both Kings to put aside their differences for a just a few moments to jointly defeat Angers. Once they’ve destroyed the obstinate town, the Kings can go back to being hostiles and can conduct their parley. Both Kings are agreeable to this, but – of course – the citizenry of Angers are not so keen about it. The people of Angers, also being clever, come up with their own alternative plan. They tell the two kings that they can’t help but notice that King Philip has a son and King John has a niece who would seem to make a lovely couple. If the two were to wed, then it would solidify the relationship between the two kings and the town would then gladly host them (because they could do so with no fear of a ruckus breaking out.)
The marriage takes place and everybody, except Arthur’s mother [who feels badly betrayed,] is elated, but only for about two minutes until the Pope’s emissary shows up. The Pope’s man, Cardinal Pandolf, claims that King John is out of favor with the Holy See and insists the King yield to the Pope’s wishes. King John refused to be emasculated by the Pope, and this creates an awkward rift in the newly bonded families. Pandolf tells King Philip that he’d better defeat King John or he, too, will be on the Pope’s shit-list. France decides that going to war with the new in-laws is better than being on the Pope’s bad side.
In the ensuing battle, the most crucial outcome is that little Arthur is captured by King John’s forces, and control of Angers is solidified by John’s men. John orders one of his followers, a citizen of Angers, to kill Arthur – to firm up his position, especially since the bonding by marriage had such an ephemeral effect. Hubert can’t bring himself to kill the precocious boy, and, instead, hides him.
King John comes to regret the killing of Arthur (which he continues to believe took place) in part because some English noblemen are clamoring for the boy’s release, and (probably) in part because he’s ashamed of the morally reprehensible act. After King John sternly rebukes Hubert for actually following his orders, Hubert tells him that it’s no problem, for the regicidal murder did not actually take place. Again, it momentarily looks like all will be well (to King John and Hubert at least. Readers learn that Arthur, having narrowly talked his way out of being murdered, decides to make a jump from the castle either to safety or death, but it does not go well for the boy – i.e. he dies on impact. FYI – This tactic of revealing information to the audience that characters are kept in the dark about is considered by some to be one of Shakespeare’s great contributions to the art of story. It might seem like it’s “giving things away,” but it actually creates a visceral effect in which the audience member knows that the bottom is about to drop out on a temporarily pleased character.)
When the truth shakes out, King John contacts Pandolf and makes up with the Pope in exchange for having the French attack-dog called off (especially since a number of the King’s nobles have switched sides.) At first this doesn’t go well. Philip, having already once been treated as the Pope’s lapdog, refuses to make peace because to do so would make him look like nothing more than the Pope’s personal hand-puppet. King John is poisoned by a monk, and, after a touch-and-go period, eventually succumbs. Philip’s son, Louis, does ultimately agree to make peace – not that it does John any good.
I enjoyed this play tremendously. The swift changes of fortune keep one guessing about whether the story will ultimately play out as tragedy or comedy. It’s definitely worth reading.