When picking a Shakespeare play to teach or produce, the Histories seem to sink to the bottom of the raffle box. “The Comedies are funnier, the Tragedies more powerful,” goes the general feeling. They are as a rule, stodgier, more bound to the demands of a historical account, but in “The Life and Death of King John,” the Bastard Faulconbridge gets to deliver some knee-slapping digs, and the death of cowardly King John is unexpectedly mournful:
“What surety of the world, what hope, what stay/ When this was now a King, and now is clay?”
“King John,” one of two Shakespeare plays entirely in verse, was written sometime between 1587 and 1596, and is chronologically the first in Shakespeare’s unofficial, majestic saga of the British monarchy. It covers the unloved reign of Richard Coeur-de-Lion’s less liony brother, which concluded in 1216. King John matters to history as the ruler so distrusted that feudal barons forced the Magna Carta on him; he is perhaps best known in pop culture as Robin Hood’s thumb-sucking antagonist in the Disney movie, which as far as petty usurpers go, is not a bad ending.
The plot concerns the struggle between England and France over succession in the form of John’s nephew, Arthur (not the Holy Grail dude.) Arthur’s mother Constance allies herself with France; proud, petty John tells off the French (and the Pope, whom he calls a meddling Italian priest.) Then John captures young Arthur, and coldly orders a conflicted chamberlain, Hubert, to poke the kid’s innocent eyes out with a hot stick. In one of Shakespeare’s moments of right-for-the-tear-ducts sentimentalism, Hubert breaks down crying before being able to complete the grim gouging task.
Historians knows nothing of the fate of the real Arthur. Did he die in prison? Shakespeare happily fills in the gaps with too many odd plot twists (cursed be history!) But the final two acts are incongruous with what came before, and ask from us an undue sympathy for a King who’s into kid-killing. Not many would argue that “King John” makes the Top 20 in the Shakespeare catalogue. It’s still Shakespeare; the Bastard Faulconbridge is a lively character; the whole thing is bejeweled with moments of wit and beauty. Even the common phrase “to gild the lily” is “King John” botched:
“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.“
My favorite casual description here is:
“The day shall not be up so soon as I/To try the fair adventure of tomorrow.”
“The Fair Adventure of Tomorrow”! How awesome is THAT?