Saturday, July 12

King John

Next up on my Shakespeare regimen is King John, the earliest chronologically of his histories. Never heard of it? Yeah, neither had I. Apparently it's not very good.

(I'll let you decide what "not very good" means in the context of a play by Shakespeare.)


Usually in these posts I put in a reading schedule and links to online editions, in the vain idea that someone might actually read along and join in the discussion. I'm not doing that this time because 1. who are we kidding? and 2. I've already read the first Act and oh boy is it boring.

As usual, however, I'll be posting notes in this thread as I read the play. Here's the permanent address of this post:

http://babyruthless.blogspot.com/2008/07/king-john.html

As before, you can either bookmark it or subscribe to the post's RSS feed. Good luck with that.

7 comments:

m_thyme said...

You should have picked one of the Richards.

Johnny said...

Unfortunately, King John is the chronologically earliest of the histories, so I sorta need to start with this one. Sucks.

Johnny said...

ACT ONE
Okay, I already know this play is gonna be pretty boring and minor, but one thing, right off the bat, is pretty fucking awesome: there's a character who--like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter--discovers that he's secretly the son of a great father, in this case Richard The Lion-Hearted. BUT he's referred to throughout (like in the stage directions!) as just THE BASTARD.

Lucky!

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Wow, Shakespeare was really obsessed with infidelity. All three plays I've read so far have had that as a theme.

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There's a funny double entendre here that involves one's mother and the double meaning of the word "employ" but it's too exhausting to get into.

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This act also features a jarringly Family Guy-like reference to a piece of Elizabethan pop culture, a play by Thomas Kyd.

Johnny said...

ACT II

So THE BASTARD is actually the main character of King John, and it's sorta funny because though this is a historical play, his character is an invented illegitimate son of Richard I. Which makes this play sort of like fan fiction in a way...like the adventures of James Bond Jr. or something.

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Even though this is the first of the histories chronologically, it wasn't the first that Shakespeare wrote. In fact, he seems to have taken a break from writing the Richards to knock this one out. So in a way this play is a bit like the Star Wars prequels.

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King John, threatening France: "The cannons have their bowels full of wrath."

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Pretty stunning description of a battle's aftermath:

"This day hath made
much work for tears in many a mother,
whose sons lie scatter'd on the bleeding ground;
Many a widow's husband grovelling lies,
coldly embracing the discolour'd earth;"

Johnny said...

ACT III
This act begins in a pretty interesting place: in the middle of the action. At the end of Act II, a character goes off to tell Constance that there's no way Arthur will be the King of England. This act begins with her already having been told and reacting (badly) to it. I know it sounds like a minor thing, but it's a bit more cinematic than these plays tend to be.

For example, later in the play, a character says "Here comes the holy legate of Rome!" followed by the stage direction "Enter the holy legate of Rome."

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For the record, this play is so obscure that my Barnes & Noble didn't have a copy of it. Luckily, the library stepped up...but their copy was from The New Temple Shakespeare, which has really nice heavy pages, but NO NOTES AT ALL. Like, if you don't know what a 500-year-old word is, sucks to be you.

There ARE notes on the text, but they exclusively and hilariously concern themselves with slagging off other editors and their choices. It's like reading the Charles Kinbote edition.

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In this act, the Vatican is pissed that King John won't agree to let Stephen Langton be the Archbishop of Canterbury. Interesting note about Langton: he was the first person to divide the books of the Old Testament into the chapters we still use today.

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The holy legate attempts to break up the new alliance between France and England by repeatedly telling the two kings to "let go that hand." I assume he's speaking metaphorically, but he says it so often it's easy to imagine that King John and King Phillip are actually holding hands.

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Winter's Tale has the most famous Shakespearean stage direction: "Exit, pursued by a bear." But for my money, I prefer this one: "Alarums. Excursions. Enter THE BASTARD with THE ARCHDUKE OF AUSTRIA'S head."

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Remember in Midsummer's when I talked about Shakespeare describing a clock striking twelve as "the iron tongue of midnight" and how awesome that was? Well, the Bard must have agreed with me: he uses it in THIS play as well.


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I love this chilling exchange between King John and his right-hand man Hubert, over what to do with the teenage boy who threatens his claim to the throne:

KING JOHN.
Good Hubert, Hubert, Hubert, throw thine eye
On yon young boy: I'll tell thee what, my friend,
He is a very serpent in my way;
And wheresoe'er this foot of mine doth tread,
He lies before me: dost thou understand me?
Thou art his keeper.

HUBERT.
And I'll keep him so
That he shall not offend your majesty.

KING JOHN.
Death.

HUBERT.
My lord?

KING JOHN.
A grave.

HUBERT.
He shall not live.

Johnny said...

ACT IV

Hey, look at that! This play is where the phrase "gilding the lily" comes from. The weird part is that it's a nonsensical misquote of the play. Complaining about John's unnecessary second coronation, Salisbury says:

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.

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So John's dumb actions in this play led to him being forced to signing the Magna Carta, which you think would be a big deal...yet Shakespeare doesn't mention it all. Asimov's explanation is that the Magna Carta is important to us because of the Constitution, etc., but it probably wasn't that much of thing in Shakespeare's time.

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Joining THE BASTARD is a character named LORD BIGOT! Weren't those two original members of The Electric Six?

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This act features a kid "escaping" a castle by jumping off the roof. Um...good one! Francine Latil: "It is a mystery why Arthur decides to jump off the walls of the castle rather than finding a less deadly method of escape, an awkward detail that contributes to King John's low reputation among Shakespeare's works."

Anyway, so Arthur has a few lines, jumps, then has a few more lines. Then dies. My question is: how do they show that jump on stage? Any ideas I can come up with seem ludicrous.

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A character draws his sword in anger. When asked to put it away, he replies: "Not till I sheathe it in a murderer's skin." Awesome.

Johnny said...

ACT V
Prince Henry, a nine-year-old, shows up in this act and has a sizable amount of lines. I have to wonder: how did The Globe portray a nine-year-old on stage? Hell, how do they do it NOW?

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This play is almost entirely taken up with the problems of succession: John is fighting to stay king despite claims to the throne by Arthur. What's interesting is that THE BASTARD--as the son of Richard I--would clearly be king if not for being, well, a bastard.

Here's the one part of the play that really resonated with me: by the end of the play, we've seen what a great price England has paid for the contested succession. After John dies, THE BASTARD could very well claim the throne; though illegitimate, he has about as good of a claim as John's kid, Arthur, Louis, or anyone else in the play.

But he never even contemplates making the claim. He kneels at little Prince Henry's feet and immediately pledges allegiance. In refusing to continue the bloody in-fighting, even though it meant giving up the crown, THE BASTARD performs the only true act of heroism in the play.

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The play ends with THE BASTARD expounding on how awesome England is, and how a war of succession would never again tear them apart as long as England remains true to itself. Keep in mind that this play was being performed while an elderly and childless Elizabeth sat on the throne, and no one was quite sure what was going to happen when she died. These final lines must have been incredibly rousing for the audience:

This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them: nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.

And the crowd goes wild! Seriously, though, there's something kind of endearing about how goofy and over-the-top this last bit is. I guess this is really random, but it reminded me of that bit in the first Spiderman movie, released less than six months after 9/11, where the Green Goblin is about to kill our hero but is thwarted by a gang of citizens fighting him off:

"Yeah, I got something for your ass! You mess with Spidey, you mess with New York!"
"You mess with one of us, you mess with all of us!"