By Dennis Abrams
The Life and Death of King John can be thought of as the chronicle play that got away. Set in an earlier period of medieval history than the two “tetralogies,” it is even less well known than that other “stand alone” history play, Henry VIII. And despite a vivid life on stage during the nineteenth century – mainly because of its potential for awesome stage pomp and pageantry – it has escaped the theatrical revival of interest in the histories during the twentieth century, and until very recently, has rarely figured in scholarly debates about Shakespeare’s political writing. And yet, in King John, even more so than in the earlier plays, politics is depicted in startlingly modern terms – cynical, hard-edged, and ultimately corrosive. The plot ranges across the defining events of John’s reign (although surprisingly, it leaves out the most famous of them all – the Magna Carta), while continually taking risks with its material, representing the chaotic and messy workings of reality in unsparing and frequently unflattering detail. So, while it is located furthest from the present day (late 12th and early 13th centuries), from a twenty-first century perspective, King John seems one of Shakespeare’s most modern works, as well as his boldest experiment in making drama out of history.
Interestingly, though much is made of King John’s isolation from the rest of Shakespeare’s ‘histories,’ it is the links between them, not the differences, that are striking. The Henry VI plays, written a few years before in the early 1590s, are, as we have seen, concerned with the problems of a monarch who is unable to hold together the fragile coalition that keeps him in power, and who is eventually ejected from the throne. Richard II, uncovers the roots of those problems, dramatizing the terrible conundrum of a rightful but inept king removed from his throne by a man who is the polar opposite – effective and convincing, but, undeniably illegitimate. As the Henry VI plays are worked out, we see the corrosive effects of past indiscretions: Henry is first weighted down by worry and constant rebellion, then ultimately killed by it. For its part, Henry V will ask us to look at a king who is both glamorous and morally beyond reproach (or fairly close) – and then square that image with his response to the ugly realities of war.
These themes also surface in King John, probably written soon after Richard II but before its sequels. Like that of Bolingbroke, Richard II’s usurper, King John’s claim to the English throne is disputed – in this case because he inherited the crown from his brother, Richard I (known as Coeur de Lion, “Lion-heart) rather than giving it to Arthur, son of their brother, Geoffrey. (For those of you who are fans of the film The Lion In Winter, yes, this is the same Richard, John and Geoffrey – and Eleanor, John’s mother, is Eleanor of Aquitaine.) This dilemma, and the political machinations that surround it, launch the action. Only seven lines in, the French ambassador Chatillon presents the case that will dominate the rest of the play:
Philip of France, is right and true behalf
Of thy deceased brother Geoffrey’s son,
Arthur Plantagenet, lays most lawful claim
To this fair island and the territories,
To Ireland, Poitou, Anjou, Touraine, Maine;
Desiring thee to lay aside the sword
Which sways unsurpingly these several titles,
And put the same into young Arthur’s hand,
Thy nephew and right royal sovereign.
What follows if we disallow of this?
The proud control of fierce and bloody war,
To enforce these rights so forcibly withheld –
Here have we war for war, and blood for blood,
Controlment for controlment: so answer France.
The language of legitimacy rings out clearly: Philip’s cause is “right” and “true”; Arthur’s claim is “lawful” and, again, “right.” But John is uninterested in words. His curt question demands outcomes. What translates is simple: “war for war,” “blood for blood,” “controlment [restraint] for controlment.” That’s politics.
But if politics was the only point of interest in King John, the play would be of little interest. For Bloom (and other critics) the strongest element of the play is the character of the Bastard Faulconbridge:
“The Life and Death of King John may have been written as early as 1590, or as late as 1595 or even 1596. Since evidence continues to accumulate that Shakespeare was as facile a self-revisionist as he was a playmaker (the Elizabethan term for it), I suspect that Shakespeare first composed King John in 1590 and severely reworked it in 1594-95), saving the play by vitalizing the portrayal of Faulconbridge the Bastard, natural son of King Richard Coeur-de-Lion. [NOTE: Stylistic evidence seems to place it 1595-97, around the same time as Romeo and Juliet and Richard II.] What we think of as ‘Shakespearean character’ does not begin with a Marlovian cartoon like Richard II, but with Faulconbridge in King John, who speaks his own highly individual language, combines heroism with comic intensity, and possesses a psychic interior…Though the Bastard is only a vivid sketch compared with the Hamlet of 1601, he shares Falstaff’s and Hamlet’s quality of being too large for the play he inhabits. Readers are likely to feel that the natural son of Richard the Lion Heart deserves a better play than the one in which he finds himself, and a better king to serve than his wretched uncle. Being a hopeless Romantic (my critical enemies would say, a sentimentalist), I would also like Falstaff at the end of Henry IV, Part Two, to forget the ungrateful Prince Hall and go off cheerfully to the Forest of Alden in As You Like It. And Hamlet clearly deserves a better life and death than the Elsinore of Claudius affords him. The Bastard’s greatness is not of the order of Falstaff’s or Hamlet’s, but it is authentic enough to dwarf everyone else in King John.
There is already a touch of Falstaffian wit and irreverence in Faulconbridge, he is the first character in Shakespeare who fully can charm and arouse us, particularly because no one before in a Shakespearean play is so persuasive a representation of a person. It is not too much to say that the Bastard in King John inaugurates Shakespeare’s invention of the human…What makes Faulconbridge’s startling reality (or, if you prefer, the illusion of such reality) possible? The other characters in King John, including John himself, still have upon them the stigmata of Marlowe’s high, vaunting rhetoric. With Faulconbridge the Bastard, Shakespeare’s own world begins, and that originality, difficult as it is now to isolate, has become our norm for representation of fictive personages.
It is appropriate that the Bastard is not a historical figure but was developed by Shakespeare from a mere hint in the chronicler Holinshed. A few of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, including Ben Jonson (much the greatest among them), ascribed his mode of representation to nature as much as to art. They saw in Shakespeare something of what we still see in him, and by calling it ‘nature’ they prophesied our deepest tribute to Shakespeare, since the common reader continues to regard Shakespeare’s persons as being more natural than those of all other authors. Shakespeare’s language never merely purports accurately to represent nature. Rather, it reinvents ‘nature,’ in ways that, as A.D. Nuttall splendidly remarks, allow us to see much in human character that doubtless was there already but which we never could have seen had we not read Shakespeare, and seen him well performed (increasingly an unlikely happening, since directors, alas, have taken their cues from fashionable critics.)
And finally, from Goddard:
“The plan of King John is simplicity itself. It is centered around a devastating contrast. In the title role is John himself, a bout the unkingliest king Shakespeare ever created. The fact is, John has never grown up. He is mentally dominated by his ambitious mother. [NOTE: Again, think The Lion in Winter. Think Katharine Hepburn.] When he hears that a foreign foe has landed in force on his shores, he cries out:
Where is my mother’s care,
That such an army could be drawn in France,
And she not hear of it?
He is like a bewildered child in the night…
How could a drama be written about such a cipher? It couldn’t. And so, quite re-creating a figure he found in his source, Shakespeare puts over against John as upright, downright, forthright a hero as he ever depicted, Philip Faulconbridge. Faulconbridge is everything John is not: truthful, faithful, courageous, humorous, without personal ambition [NOTE: Hmmm…I’m not sure about this one], utterly loyal to his sovereign and to England. He is direct and picturesque in speech to the point of genius. He lacks, if you will, some of the transcendental virtues, but, within his limits, he is a man. ‘Look at them!’ Shakespeare seems to say as he places them side by side, ‘a man is greater than a king!’ But there is another kind of king, and in that sense Faulconbridge is king of King John. That is the irony of the title. That is the key to the play. And to make the pill the bitterer to the feudally minded, this king is a bastard. He hasn’t even the ordinary title of son. His title is the truth. As the clown was the natural gentleman in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, so the bastard is the natural king in King John. Here, too, if in quite different senses of the terms, master and man have exchanged places. If ever a play brought the mere name of king, the mere institution of royalty, into disrepute, it is this one. But in behalf of no shallow equalitarianism. For, after all, Faulconbridge has royal blood in his veins. Thoreau once remarked that the life of a great man is the severest satire. The Bastard shows exactly what he meant. But how quietly Shakespeare makes his point.”
I’m going to admit that this isn’t a play I don’t know well at all. So along with all of you, this is going to be a learning experience.
Our reading: King John, Act One
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning