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King John

by William Shakespeare

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The Oxford Shakespeare offers authoritative texts from leading scholars in editions designed to interpret and illuminate the plays for modern readers Book jacket.

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[King John (Arden Shakespeare)]- William Shakespeare
The life and death of King John - BBC Film
The Arden Shakespeare edited by Jesse M. Lander and J. J. M. Tobin have chosen to call the play King John instead of the usual title The Life and Death of King John. It is unusual in the Shakespeare cannon as it appears to be a rewrite of an earlier play: The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England which was published in 1591, some four years earlier than the probable date of Shakespeare's play. In my opinion Shakespeare could have called his play The Troublesome play of King John, because although he improved the dramatic effect of the earlier play, he lost some continuity in his version. It was a play depicting an historical event and the telling of the story, however accurate or inaccurate it might be, should be intelligible for the punters paying their money at the theatre gate. It is a play that has not enjoyed many revivals in the late 20th and early 21st century and although the poetry is typically Shakespearean the drama suffers from being tied to the earlier Troublesome Reign.

The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England has been accredited to George Peele and it is noted for its coherent story and sustained and developed characterisation. It starts in the court of King John when a messenger from king Philip of France informs John that his brother Geoffrey's son Arthur is entitled to the crown of England and that John has usurped the throne. John tells the messenger that he will take an army to France to enforce his crown. Shortly after the messenger leaves two sons of Lord Faulconbridge arrive disputing a claim to their father's property. John with the aid of Queen Eleanor sorts the dispute by knighting the bastard Philip as Sir Richard and agreeing that his brother Robert be entitled to Sir Robert's property. The newly knighted Sir Richard will join King John in his expedition to France. The armies of England and France face each other outside the town of Angiers, whose citizens will not decide who is the rightful ruler of their town. A compromise is reached when the citizen of Angiers suggests a marriage between the Dauphin and Blanche a ward of John. After the wedding the Pope's legate Cardinal Pandulph arrives to excommunicate King John and orders King Philip to restart his war with John. After the battle we learn that John has captured Arthur and returned to England and instructed Sir Richard to rob the monasteries. The Dauphin and his army land in England to rescue Arthur. King John arranges for Hubert to murder Arthur, but this is too much for his followers who side with the French. Sir Richard remains loyal and leads King John's army against the French; the English Lords who have changed sides learn that the Dauphin is planning to kill them change sides again. Cardinal Pandulph arrives to welcome John back into the christian fold and the Dauphin's invasion is thwarted but King John while residing at an Abbey is poisoned and his son Henry is proclaimed king.

It is a complex story and the plot in (TR) is reeled out in fairly pedestrian fashion. Shakespeare takes the plot by the scruff of the neck in his King John and in the very first scene the french ambassador has arrived and is squaring up to the usurper King John. In the Troublesome Reign (TR) Queen Eleanor starts by explaining the history of King Richard's brother Geoffrey and Arthurs claim to the crown. This is an early example as to how Shakespeare dramatises the action and he continues to do this as he follows and changes the story line to the plays advantage. His characters are more sharply drawn and have better poetry to speak: there is no prose in Shakespeares play. Shakespeare further enhances the drama by introducing more action; for instance he has the two Kings clutching hands while the Pope's legate is excommunicating John and King Philip must decide to let John's hand fall.

I read the two plays side by side and had the impression that Shakespeare grew into the story. The first act with the disputed land rights of the Faulconbridge brothers is confusing and goes on too long, making the play appear top heavy at the start. There follows the dispute in front of the town of Angiers and it feels like the scene has been shaped to allow processions and parades, rather than battles and action. In the second half of the play Shakespeare is able to cut out scenes that hamper the central storyline. for example in TR there is an account largely in prose of Sir Richard's sacking of a monastery: there is a semi humorous conversation between Sir Richard and Friar Lawrence. This scene has disappeared from King John.

Shakespeare's play is built around the politics of the relationship between the two kings and the women who support them. Queen Eleanor mother of John and Constance mother of Arthur are fanatical in support of their progeny and emerge as strong characters exerting some control over the men. Shakespeare emphasises the oath breaking: the changing of sides which all the men are guilty of, while the women stay firm. The action moves forward at a good pace in the second half and while it does not enjoy a particular climax the death scene of King John provides a sombre conclusion to a play where few characters are shown at their best. Commodity rules much of the action as Sir Richard reminds us in one of his soliloquies. TR is very anti catholic and while this is present to some extent in King John Shakespeare has toned it down.

I also watched the 1984 BBC production with Leonard Rossiter as King John, who gave his character a particularly Machiavellian bent; perhaps a bit too much like a pantomime character in some places. The production made excellent sense of the story and moved it along at a pace. Shakespeare indulges in much word play throughout and some of it, not even the best actors are able to deliver meaningfully, for example part of Pandulph's speech in act 3:

It is religion that doth make vows kept,

But thou hast sworn against religion

By what thou swear’st against the thing thou swear’st,

And mak’st an oath the surety for thy truth

Against an oath. The truth thou art unsure

To swear, swears only not to be forsworn,

Else what a mockery should it be to swear?

But thou dost swear only to be forsworn,

And most forsworn, to keep what thou dost swear.

Therefore thy latter vows against thy first

Is in thyself rebellion to thyself;

Of course there is much good poetry, including this much misquoted speech by Lord Salisbury:

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.

All in all I spent an enjoyable few days with King John, but this early play of Shakespeare's is not my favourite. 4.5 stars. ( )
  baswood | Feb 18, 2023 |
Reread 2/19/22 in Bantam Complete Works--
This play was even better on a second read. A scene that I severely underrated last time is the part in Act III Scene I where King Philip and King John are holding hands and everyone is yelling at them to either keep holding hands or let go immediately-- the staging on that could have some great physical comedy.

In addition to all the comic elements (intentional or not, as the case may be) there were also some genuinely moving speeches, scenes, and lines, from Blanche (explaining her split loyalties), Constance (mourning the capture of her son), the Bastard (pretty much every scene), Hubert (sparing Arthur's life), Pandulph (convincing Lewis to start a war), and others.

Also on this read-through, King John's death-by-monk at the end of the play seemed less out of left field, since we paid more notice to his financial and spiritual relationship to the church throughout the earlier parts of the play.

Original review 5/11/20, read in Pelican Complete Works--
It's been so great to read the Shakespeares I know next to nothing about, and King John is no exception. New characters to add to my favorites list: Elinor (for the persona), the Bastard (for the interiority), Citizen 1 (for the comedy)

Really want to read more about what was going on with the Catholicism stuff here.

Overall, a play of long speeches and strange choices. Structured like Shakespeare wrote the scenes that interested him most first and then decided he didn't need the other ones after all. Arthur is a paragon of (presumably) unintentional comedy. Still immense fun. ( )
  misslevel | Sep 22, 2021 |
The biggest surprise from my Shakespeare reading so far. At times a parody of royal politics, a reminder of the arbitrary nature of power and how little is ever under the control of the kings, whoever they may be. This seems like more of a forerunner of Richard II than the first tetralogy does. ( )
  poirotketchup | Mar 18, 2021 |
This review is written with a GPL 4.0 license and the rights contained therein shall supersede all TOS by any and all websites in regards to copying and sharing without proper authorization and permissions. Crossposted at WordPress, Blogspot & Librarything by Bookstooge’s Exalted Permission

Title: King John
Author: William Shakespeare
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
Genre: Play
Pages: 265
Words: 76K


From Wikipedia

King John receives an ambassador from France who demands with a threat of war that he renounce his throne in favour of his nephew, Arthur, whom the French King Philip believes to be the rightful heir to the throne.

John adjudicates an inheritance dispute between Robert Faulconbridge and his older brother Philip the Bastard, during which it becomes apparent that Philip is the illegitimate son of King Richard I. Queen Eleanor, mother to both Richard and John, recognises the family resemblance and suggests that he renounce his claim to the Faulconbridge land in exchange for a knighthood. John knights Philip the Bastard under the name Richard.

In France, King Philip and his forces besiege the English-ruled town of Angers, threatening attack unless its citizens support Arthur. Philip is supported by Austria, who is believed to have killed King Richard. The English contingent arrives; and then Eleanor trades insults with Constance, Arthur's mother. Kings Philip and John stake their claims in front of Angers' citizens, but to no avail: their representative says that they will support the rightful king, whoever that turns out to be.

The French and English armies clash, but no clear victor emerges. Each army dispatches a herald claiming victory, but Angers' citizens continue to refuse to recognize either claimant because neither army has proven victorious.

The Bastard proposes that England and France unite to punish the rebellious citizens of Angers, at which point the citizens propose an alternative: Philip's son, Louis the Dauphin, should marry John's niece Blanche (a scheme that gives John a stronger claim to the throne) while Louis gains territory for France. Though a furious Constance accuses Philip of abandoning Arthur, Louis and Blanche are married.

Cardinal Pandolf arrives from Rome bearing a formal accusation that John has disobeyed the Pope and appointed an archbishop contrary to his desires. John refuses to recant, whereupon he is excommunicated. Pandolf pledges his support for Louis, though Philip is hesitant, having just established family ties with John. Pandolf brings him round by pointing out that his links to the church are older and firmer.

War breaks out; Austria is beheaded by the Bastard in revenge for his father's death; and both Angers and Arthur are captured by the English. Eleanor is left in charge of English possessions in France, while the Bastard is sent to collect funds from English monasteries. John orders Hubert to kill Arthur. Pandolf suggests to Louis that he now has as strong a claim to the English throne as Arthur (and indeed John), and Louis agrees to invade England.

Hubert finds himself unable to kill Arthur. John's nobles urge Arthur's release. John agrees, but is wrong-footed[clarification needed] by Hubert's announcement that Arthur is dead. The nobles, believing he was murdered, defect to Louis' side. Equally upsetting, and more heartbreaking to John, is the news of his mother's death, along with that of Lady Constance. The Bastard reports that the monasteries are unhappy about John's attempt to seize their gold. Hubert has a furious argument with John, during which he reveals that Arthur is still alive. John, delighted, sends him to report the news to the nobles.

Arthur dies jumping from a castle wall. (It is open to interpretation whether he deliberately kills himself or just makes a risky escape attempt.) The nobles believe he was murdered by John, and refuse to believe Hubert's entreaties. John attempts to make a deal with Pandolf, swearing allegiance to the Pope in exchange for Pandolf's negotiating with the French on his behalf. John orders the Bastard, one of his few remaining loyal subjects, to lead the English army against France.

While John's former noblemen swear allegiance to Louis, Pandolf explains John's scheme, but Louis refuses to be taken in by it. The Bastard arrives with the English army and threatens Louis, but to no avail. War breaks out with substantial losses on each side, including Louis' reinforcements, who are drowned during the sea crossing. Many English nobles return to John's side after a dying French nobleman, Melun, warns them that Louis plans to kill them after his victory.

John is poisoned by a disgruntled monk. His nobles gather around him as he dies. The Bastard plans the final assault on Louis' forces, until he is told that Pandolf has arrived with a peace treaty. The English nobles swear allegiance to John's son Prince Henry, and the Bastard reflects that this episode has taught that internal bickering could be as perilous to England's fortunes as foreign invasion.

My Thoughts:

FINALLY! A Shakespeare play that I fully enjoyed and didn't feel like pee'ing on after I was done reading it. I don't know if it was the actual play, the fact that we've moved into “recent” history (as opposed to ancient history of Greece, Rome, etc), or what, but I had zero quibbles while reading this.

Lots of drama and people being jerks and lying and backstabbing, but I still understood the context. I guess that was what was missing for a lot of the other plays I read? I couldn't understand why the characters would do what they did, but here I could completely understand things, even if I thought it was stupid or wrong.

My only hesitation now is that if I liked this so much, perhaps I'm setting the bar too high for the rest of the Histories? Of course, with works like Henry V coming down the pipeline, that shouldn't be a concern of mine. But I'm a worrier, so I'm going to worry about something that doesn't matter one whit.

★★★★☆ ( )
  BookstoogeLT | Nov 22, 2020 |
I decided to work through the least memorable or least beloved plays while I'm working through the more beloved histories, and frankly, I don't think this one was bad at all.

Sure, there's no Magna Carta, even though it would have been signed one year before the King's death, but as it has been said many times before, no one in Shakespeare's time really gave a hoot about the document.

So why did this flop of a play even get written? For it was a flop at its inception and no one really wants to see it on stage, now. Are there any redeeming virtues?

Hell yeah. Philip the Bastard. Many soliloquies, the last line in the play, and my god what a mouth he has. :) He has the righteous Plantagenet fire, the hot breast, the military and manly and steadfast nobility that everyone loves and honors... and yet, despite that, he's a Bastard.

Let me back up. Most bastards in any of the Shakespearian plays are real bastards. This is the only one that is truly noble, through and through. Wow! What a departure! Plus, he was pretty show-stealing every time he popped his head up on the page, with great quips, true heart, and utter loyalty to the king.

Plus we get to see a pretty spry old woman Eleanor of Aquitaine. But that's just for us history buffs. She really doesn't do much except support son the King's decisions and help raise the fortune of Philip the Bastard. :) Which is delightful enough.

The rest of the play, though, does appear to have the right kind of propagandist flavor, turning King John into a Protestant by default because he chooses to snub the Cardinal who then proceeds to excommunicate him, but in my eye, that's just the overt window dressing.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with the story in the play, either. There's wars, reconciliations, humorous dealings at Anjou, bitter sorrow over Arthur, and more war, ending with the declaration that there will never be another successful invasion of England.

Pretty rousing. I was entertained. So why the hate?

*shrug* maybe people are just idiots. :) Great characters, good story. I guess this is just one of those cases that because Shakespeare wrote it, it must be brilliant instead of just fine, and therefore we must, obviously, rate it low. :) ( )
  bradleyhorner | Jun 1, 2020 |
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» Add other authors (129 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
William Shakespeareprimary authorall editionscalculated
Braunmuller, Albert RichardEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Farjeon, HerbertEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Furness, Horace Howard, JrEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gibson, RexEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Harrison, G. B.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Honigmann, E. A. J.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hudson, Henry N.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kittredge, George LymanEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lander, Jesse M.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McEachern, ClaireEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McEachern, Claire ElizabethEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Morgan, AppletonEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mowat, Barbara A.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Orgel, StephenEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ribner, IrbingEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rolfe, William J.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schlegel, August WilhelmTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tobin, J. J. M.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Williams, Stanley T.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Williams, Stanley T.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilson, John DoverEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wilson, RichardEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Now, say, Chatillon, what would France with us?
Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale

Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man.
This England never did, nor never shall,

Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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This work is for the complete King John only. Do not combine this work with abridgements, adaptations or "simplifications" (such as "Shakespeare Made Easy"), Cliffs Notes or similar study guides, or anything else that does not contain the full text. Do not include any video recordings. Additionally, do not combine this with other plays.
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The Oxford Shakespeare offers authoritative texts from leading scholars in editions designed to interpret and illuminate the plays for modern readers Book jacket.

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