Monday, May 9, 2011

King John

Philip the Bastard. Ha, majesty! how high thy glory towers,
When the rich blood of kings is set on fire!
O, now doth Death line his dead chaps with steel;
The swords of soldiers are his teeth, his fangs;
And now he feasts, mousing the flesh of men,
In undetermined differences of kings.
Why stand these royal fronts amazed thus?
Cry, 'havoc!' kings; back to the stained field,
You equal potents, fiery kindled spirits!
Then let confusion of one part confirm
The other's peace: till then, blows, blood and death!


King John (1166-1216)

I find King John rather a curious play. John as a monarch has two major identifiers in the 20th/21st century imagination: as the signer of the Magna Carta, which would rein in the power of despotic rulers and lay the groundwork for truth, justice and the American way; and as the Bad King John of the Robin Hood legend, who skulks around with the Sheriff of Nottingham and spends his time conspiring against his brother, the noble Richard, when not plotting ways to grind the poor underfoot.

Neither of these themes appears at all in Shakespeare's play. Instead, we have a labyrinthine plot where John fights with the French; makes up with the French; fights with the Pope; fights with the French; fights with the nobles; makes up with the Pope; fights with the French even though the Pope tells them not to; makes up with the nobles; and then *spoiler alert* dies. Plus John's badness - his claim to the throne is not 100% solid, and he's willing to kill his little nephew to make it so -  seems kind of like a less exciting retread of Richard III. John has one nephew he wants to get rid of? Well, Richard has two!

Despite the (for me) less than compelling plot, there are some interesting themes and characters in the play, and some beautiful passages - though on the whole, the work is not as poetic as Richard II. One of the examples of interesting imagery is in the passage quoted above, where Philip the Bastard, John's nephew, paints a picture of the French and English armies somehow forming a corporeal expression of Death - their individual actions united allow Death to stalk the land, the swords of the soldiers serving as sharp teeth as he chews his way through his victims. The Bastard speaks of the Kings as amazed and potentially confused by all this bloodshed. In a way, this sense of a loss of control, of confusion, of wandering action leading to disaster yet disconnected from careful thought seems to pervade the whole play, leading to the abrupt and ambiguous ending.

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