A Summary and Analysis of William Shakespeare’s King John

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

In 1899, the great Victorian theatre director Herbert Beerbohm Tree made a short silent film to promote his forthcoming stage production of William Shakespeare’s history play, The Life and Death of King John. This short piece of silent cinema included footage of King John’s dying moments, along with three other clips from the production.

He didn’t choose the most famous play from the Shakespeare canon – indeed, you’d be hard-pushed to find a less well-known title – but in having King John committed to film, he was making cinema history. His King John film was the first ever time a Shakespeare play had been filmed.

King John has been described by Kenneth McLeish and Stephen Unwin as ‘the runt in the litter of Shakespeare’s plays on English history’, standing outside of his two tetralogies of later Plantagenet plays and the later collaborative work, Henry VIII. It has never been as popular as these other history plays (although the Victorians, with their Tennysonian love of medieval pomp, enjoyed it for its pageantry).

What makes King John a play worth reading? Is it its plot, its characters, the fact that it features a character named ‘Lord Bigot’ (truly), or simply the fact that it was written by Shakespeare? Before we turn to these questions (later in the week), here’s a brief summary of the plot of King John.

King John: plot summary

The play begins with King John speaking with Chatillon, an ambassador from France. On behalf of France, Chatillon maintains that the King’s nephew, Arthur, rather than John, has the lawful claim to the English throne and its territories, and threatens John that if he does not step aside and give Arthur the crown, bloody war between France and England will ensue. Queen Eleanor, John’s mother, tells him that Arthur’s mother, Constance, will not rest until she has all of France supporting her son’s claim.

Two brothers appear, Robert and Philip Faulconbridge. Philip tells King John that it is rumoured he is the illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart, John’s brother and his predecessor on the English throne.

Robert claims that his father left his money and land to him in his will, because he believed Philip to be King Richard’s child. John decides that Philip is legitimate, but Queen Eleanor, seeing that Philip Faulconbridge resembles her son Richard the Lionheart in his appearance, asks Philip – as a Plantagenet with royal blood – to relinquish his claims to the family’s lands and instead follow her to France on her military campaign. Philip agrees, and King John knights him.

The King of France supports Arthur’s claim, and when King John arrives with his mother Eleanor and the Bastard Faulconbridge, John refuses to give up the crown to his nephew. There is a battle, which King John wins, but he agrees to a union between John’s niece, Blanche of Spain and the Dauphin, Lewis of France, to create allies between the two sides and bring an end to the war.

He also makes Arthur Duke of Brittany, one of John’s estates in France. The Bastard, Faulconbridge, tells the audience in a soliloquy that he doesn’t approve of making piece by brokering marriages like this, and that he believes John should have defeated his enemies by force.

Someone else who doesn’t approve of this marriage is Constance, Arthur’s mother, who is angry that her son’s fight for the English throne has been abandoned by her supporters, including the King of France. As she is lamenting this, Cardinal Pandulph, the papal legate, arrives with a message from the Pope, who demands to know why King John refuses to accept the Pope’s nominee, Stephen Langton, to the office of Archbishop of Canterbury.

John refuses to obey the Pope’s command, and is excommunicated. Pandulph tells King Philip of France that he cannot support a king like John, now he’s been excommunicated from the Church; reluctantly, the King of France agrees, and war breaks out again.

Arthur is taken prisoner in the war. Realising that he will never rest until Arthur, his rival claimant to the throne, is out of the way, King John orders Hubert, one of his followers, to kill the boy. Pandulph persuades Lewis to continue the war, pointing out that if John kills Arthur and they defeat John, Lewis will be able to seize the land that Arthur had, because he is married to Blanche who will have a legal claim to it.

However, when Hubert enters Arthur’s prison cell to burn out his eyes with hot irons, he finds he cannot do it once he speaks with the boy and Arthur awakens his sense of mercy.

Shortly after John has a second coronation to confirm his right to the throne, both King John’s mother Eleanor, and Arthur’s mother Constance, die within a short time of each other. John realises he has made a mistake in ordering Arthur’s death, but when Hubert turns up, he pretends he has carried out the King’s orders and that the boy is dead. When John blames Hubert for not convincing him that killing the boy was a bad idea, Hubert comes clean and reassures John that Arthur is still alive.

However, in a grim twist of fate, Arthur has broken out of his prison cell and thrown himself off the wall, killing himself on the stones below.

Pandulph’s forces King John to make peace with Rome; in return, Pandulph says he will dissuade Lewis, the Dauphin, from attacking John and invading England. Lewis, however, refuses, arguing that now Arthur is dead he has the better claim to the land. Although the French forces gain some headway, their reinforcements are wrecked, halting the campaign.

What’s more, when the English lords learn that Lewis intends to kill them all after his victory, they return to John, with Prince Henry, John’s young son (soon to be King Henry III), with them. But King John has been poisoned by a monk, and dies. Salisbury tells Faulconbridge, the Bastard, that the Dauphin has sued for peace, and the play ends with Faulconbridge reflecting on the state of England and vowing that the country will never be conquered.

King John: analysis

King John has never been as popular as Shakespeare’s other history plays. The earliest known performance of the play wasn’t until 1737. Why has King John never engaged or excited audiences and readers as Shakespeare’s other history plays have tended to do?

It’s worth putting down some notes towards an analysis of the play, because, as McLeish and Unwin noted – and as George Orwell himself knew and acknowledged in his 1942 essay ‘The Rediscovery of Europe’ – the play is ripe for misinterpretation, not least because reading the play tends to be a very different experience from seeing it.

As with many of Shakespeare’s plays, The Life and Death of King John was almost certainly a rewrite of an earlier play by another playwright (identity unknown).

This earlier play, The Troublesome Reign of King John, thought to date from around 1589, is what probably provided Shakespeare with his source material, although it’s likely he’d also read the relevant parts of the historical work, Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), on which this 1589 play was based. (Shakespeare drew on Holinshed for a number of his other histories, as well as for tragedies like Macbeth.) However, Shakespeare makes the story and the characters his own.

Why did Shakespeare write King John in the first place? Many of the history plays contain some sort of obvious contemporary significance for the 1590s world Shakespeare was writing: the two tetralogies of history plays about the Wars of the Roses, covering the period from Richard II’s reign in the 1390s until the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485, are a sort of ‘Just-So Story’ (to borrow from William Empson’s analysis of Macbeth) about how dynastic squabbles led to the formation of the house of Tudor, with the victory of Henry VII at Bosworth Field bringing the wars to an end.

The reign of Elizabeth I, the granddaughter of Henry VII, is the culmination of that royal house’s inauguration; and anyone thinking about starting another war over the throne, now Elizabeth is ageing and childless, had better know their history before they think about embarking on such a bloody undertaking.

These plays, and the one outlier, the later play Henry VIII (which actually is a Tudor play, although written once the Tudors had given way to the Stuarts), are clearly about forging a national myth of sorts through staging that bloody history. It’s harder to spot the contemporary parallels with a play like King John.

But such parallels are there. Like King John in Shakespeare’s play (and like the real King John), Elizabeth I had been excommunicated by a Pope; like Elizabeth, John had no legitimate heir to succeed him to the throne, and both monarchs were aware that there were rival claimants to the throne on which they sat (Arthur for John, and Mary, Queen of Scots for Elizabeth).

When analysed with such parallels borne in mind, it’s easier to see how an audience in 1596 may have noted the relevance of this story of a king who had ruled some four centuries earlier to their own time.

And yet, going against this, there’s one rather unpalatable fact: if King John is supposed to remind us of Elizabeth I, it’s not a particularly flattering portrait. John is a buffoon, a man who is prepared to have his young nephew murdered; he is feeble, an ineffectual ruler, and unpopular with his lords and his subjects. This may be why Shakespeare sees fit to leave these historical parallels tacit rather than explicit or woven into the overall fabric of the play.

But should we be reading and interpreting King John as a straight history play at all? Critics have suggested that the play was meant to be played as farce, McLeish and Unwin among them, and it’s true that a vein of irony can be detected running through Shakespeare’s play.

If we view King John as a laughable buffoon who’s somehow managed to win his way onto the throne, and we interpret the pomp and ceremony of the play as a deliberate send-up of the puppet-show that is politics (plus ca change), then the perceived infelicities of King John become more understandable, especially for a play that Shakespeare is thought to have written in 1596, by which time he had already found his voice writing history plays with the two ‘Richards’, Richard III and Richard II, as well as the earlier trilogy of plays about Henry VI.

He may even be drawing attention to a sea-change in dramatic styles, whereby the earlier, Christopher Marlowe-influenced dialogue of rhetoric and bombast gives way to a subtler, more individual mode of both dialogue and, off the back of that, characterisation.

A university lecturer of mine once pointed out that early Shakespeare plays are full of characters giving long speeches in big blocks of iambic pentameter; in the later plays, you notice far more sharing out of the iambic pentameter line, so that one character will begin a line of verse and another character will respond by completing it, leading to a more natural, conversational feel to the dialogue.

Here, it’s possible that what Frank Kermode sees as ‘almost like a joke’ may have actually been just that. He quotes Salisbury’s lines from King John (which gave rise to the one phrase in common use which the play inspired):

Therefore, to be possess’d with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

Such language itself ‘gilds the lily’ (to use the everyday phrase that this speech gave birth to), and is ‘wasteful and ridiculous excess’ where one or two lines would have sufficed to make Salisbury’s very simple point.

When read or performed straight, the lines come across as gauche; if analysed in light of the play’s ironic and perhaps even comic touches, they might be regarded as a forerunner to the lack of self-awareness displayed by a windbag like Polonius in Hamlet, for whom ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ (he says, using about 500 words to say it).

The problem with such moments is that they’re too subtle for their own good – more so even than comic touches in Shakespeare’s later, mature work. Or perhaps they’re so subtle as to be non-existent: maybe such an analysis of King John is far too generous in trying to explain away its problems as a result of misread or undetected irony. Maybe even if we grant that such ironies exist in the play, they cannot explain away some very long-winded and dull speeches, and some flawed characterisation.

The Victorians may have liked King John not only because of its pageantry and pomp, but because of Prince Arthur, whose eyes John orders Hubert to put out. The young prince is depicted as innocent and pure (and perhaps borderline priggish), an unwilling and undeserving victim of the cruel adult world in which he finds himself.

The Victorians, with their famous cult of the child, undoubtedly liked Constance’s tearful lamentation for her doomed son, and according to R. L. Smallwood in his informative introduction to the New Penguin edition of the play, Constance’s ‘histrionic’ grief for her son was a big draw for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century audiences, with actresses as esteemed as Sarah Siddons and Helena Faucit making much of the role. (In more recent times, Smallwood informs us, Constance’s lengthy histrionics have more often been cut down or else played for laughs.)

In 1945, Peter Brook directed a production of King John starring a young Paul Scofield as the Bastard (oh for a time machine), while Leonard Rossiter played the title character in a notable BBC adaptation of 1984. (You can watch a clip from this production here; it’s well worth it, as Rossiter, in being a brilliant comic actor, captures the buffoonish nature of Shakespeare’s King John very successfully.) But it’s true that productions of this play – given that it is a Shakespeare play – have been few and far between.

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