King John is the most unheroic of Shakespeare’s protagonists. He is not the cruellest, but he is perhaps the most craven, the one lacking in personal depth and, for want of a better word, character. He is more put-upon than anything, which somehow succeeds in making his acts of violence – commanding his follower Hubert to kill John’s nephew, Arthur, being the most famous, or infamous, example – even more detestable, because he cannot even be asked to possess some dramatic grandeur as he does it.
This essence of John’s character was put best by the nineteenth-century critic William Hazlitt:
The crimes he is tempted to commit are such as are thrust upon him rather by circumstances and opportunity than of his own seeking: he is here represented as more cowardly than cruel, and as more contemptible than odious. The play embraces only a part of his history. There are however few characters on the stage that excite more disgust and loathing. He has no intellectual grandeur or strength of character to shield him from the indignation which his immediate conduct provokes: he stands naked and defenceless, in that respect, to the worst we can think of him: and besides, we are impelled to put the very worst construction on his meanness and cruelty by the tender picture of the beauty and helplessness of the object of it, as well as by the frantic and heart-rending pleadings of maternal despair.
When John has an attack of conscience about ordering little Arthur’s death, we do not respond with a swelling sense of relief that a
noble king has remembered himself and has put himself firmly back on the road to redemption. Rather, such an about-face only reminds us of John’s inherent weakness as a king (a better king would never have ordered the boy’s death in the first place; a stronger king would have done the deed himself), and his treatment of Hubert, who has overcome his strong sense of loyalty to the King in order to avoid becoming a child-murderer, is likely to fill us with loathing for him. Indeed, like a weak coward with no moral fibre, he actually blames Hubert’s face for inspiring him to order the deed (in IV.2):
Hadst not thou been by,
A fellow by the hand of nature mark’d,
Quoted and sign’d to do a deed of shame,
This murder had not come into my mind:
But taking note of thy abhorr’d aspect,
Finding thee fit for bloody villainy,
Apt, liable to be employ’d in danger,
I faintly broke with thee of Arthur’s death;
And thou, to be endeared to a king,
Made it no conscience to destroy a prince.
John then goes on to say that it was Hubert’s responsibility to convince John that killing Arthur was a bad idea. In other words, he shows himself to be both a weak king (he needs to be reminded what the right course of action is by his lowly followers) and one who would punish a loyal servant (as Hubert, until the thwarted murder of Arthur, had shown himself to be), to boot.
John’s death by poison is not a heroic death, and although the play ends with his supporters returning to him after they have defected from the Dauphin’s cause, King John dies much as he has lived: feebly and unremarkably. His assessment of himself in his death throes – ‘I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen / Upon a parchment, and against this fire / Do I shrink up’ (V.7) – might well serve as a description of his reign. He is a little king, not a grand one.