Folger Resident Dramaturg Michele Osherow introduces us to King John—Shakespeare’s play about the troublesome, Magna-Carta-signing English ruler—before this rarely performed play takes the Folger stage later this month.
One of the most exciting aspects of staging King John is the appeal of digging into a story not often told. The rehearsal room for this production has been hypercharged with questions, contests, clashes of interpretation. Under the scrutiny of this creative team, Shakespeare’s text and history appear evermore unstable, and evermore theatrically rich.
The Life and Death of King John, written between 1590 and 1596, offers the earliest chronological setting of Shakespeare’s English histories. The action takes place at the start of the 13th century. We confront treacherous leaders, dubious policy, and “that sly devil…. Commodity, the bias of the world.” Intricacies of plot aside, King John smacks of the familiar.
John was the youngest son of the mighty Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II, England’s first Plantagenet King and founder of the Angevin Empire. Henry II’s territories stretched across England, and included parts of Ireland, Wales, and half of France. John claimed the crown and lands after the death of his elder brother Richard I, or ‘Richard the Lionheart,’ a king described as “comely of person, … courageous and fierce, …courteous, … liberal, … eloquent in speech and wise” (Holinshed, Chronicles of England).
John was not so celebrated. He is “Bad King John” of the Robin Hood tales. Medieval chronicles stress John’s recklessness, his foul exploitations, and perverse temper. In our own century he has been called “an absolute rotter” and, in spite of Magna Carta, “the worst king in English History” (BBC Radio).
In Shakespeare’s play, the mythic figure of Coeur de lion looms large over John’s court, highlighting the disparity between these brothers and kings. John’s grip on the throne is tenuous. His claim is challenged from within the Plantagenet line, and that challenge is weighted with the backing of France and Austria. Shakespeare exaggerates the illegitimacy of John’s kingship so that even Eleanor, the politically savvy Queen Mother, attributes his sovereignty to “strong possession much more than … right.”
Legitimacy is a persistent subject in the play beyond John’s “borrowed majesty.” It is referenced to excess, affecting talk of kin, faith, law, morality, selfhood, reputation, appearance, apparel, and authority. Assumptions of what constitutes legitimacy are turned upside-down. It is no accident that the most promising character to rule over England, the character most invested in national honor and strong governance, is called, simply, “the Bastard.”
Shakespeare’s Philip Faulconbridge, illegitimate son of Richard I, is considered by some to be the play’s hero. He is certainly England’s best patriot, winning us with sharp humor and frank talk. The Bastard is our guide and commentator. His impressions are accessible enough: “Mad world, mad kings, mad composition!” If his skepticism for politicos is suppressed somewhat in the play’s second half, he nonetheless schools us in observation in the first. We can determine for ourselves the virtue of serving rulers whose value, as the saying goes, “for five pence…’tis dear.”
Piercing observations and accusations shoot back and forth among characters, women central among them. King John is remarkable among the histories for offering up a vital feminine force. Eleanor, approaching 80 at the start, announces herself a soldier and heads into battle. Eleanor, Constance, and Blanche participate directly in the play’s conflict and insist on being heard: “Hear me, O, hear me!;” “Hark, a word;” “O husband, hear me!” These women will not be silent, though too often the men they address are indifferent to hard and human truths.
The magnificent speeches for which this play is praised may be a symptom of that indifference. While the mightiest characters understand their own wants they don’t seem to grasp much about the needs of their allies or enemies. The rhetorical cleverness and sheer number of declamations hint at a weakness of relationships in King John, as though human communication is a thing of craft and artifice. When examples of humanity do, at last, occur, their force exceeds that of the constant anachronistic cannon fire.
Those human demonstrations will not come from King John’s authorities, either of church or state. Instead, the push to right the world’s imbalances comes from those stuck in the mire of their leaders’ judgment. The citizen who blocks further “sacrifices for the field” has more majesty than dozens of the play’s kings. These moments, too, are history, though their victories may be bounded in a nutshell, or in the field of a boy’s bright eye.
Stay tuned for more peeks at Folger Theatre’s King John, which begins performances on Tuesday, October 23. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.