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26.9.11

King John

by William Shakespeare

Okay, I have to take a break from The Kentucky Cycle to write about another play I've read recently, and actually saw live tonight -- Shakespeare's rarely done King John. I'm inspired to blog about this play because a wonderful young company that I worked with last year the New York Shakespeare Exchange is doing a fantastic production of the play RIGHT NOW and you should all rush over to see it!

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, "Lauren, maybe there's a reason that King John isn't done often. I'm gonna need you to convince me a little more." To which I say, Fair enough, dear reader, I will attempt to do just that.

King John may not have a fancy impediment like Richard or a habit of murdering exes like Henry, but he ain't no saint. Most of the conflict of the play revolves around the question of succession -- John is King, but Arthur, son of the late King Geoffrey has a rightful claim to the throne and his mother Constance is PISsed about the turn of events.

The first dispute of the play comes between two brothers over land (what else?) -- here we meet the Bastard, who is to become a loyal servant of King John. The Bastard, curious to know the identity of his real father asks his mother (staged refreshingly by NYSX as a phone conversation, thus eliminating the tiny role of Lady Falc.) The Bastard learns that Richard the Lionhearted was his true father, and he couldn't be happier. He consoles his mother, assuring her that her infidelity was understandable:

He that perforce robs lions of their hearts
May easily win a woman's.


The politics of King John may take place in the 13th century but, it seems, some things never change. John, in a beautiful yet disturbing image, warns a group of citizens:


And now instead of bullets wrapp'd in fire
They shoot but calm words folded up in smoke.


Words are sometimes the deadlier (and stealthier) weapon.

The Bastard provides much of the comic relief throughout the play (although, in general, I laughed a lot in seeing it live -- much more than I expected to) In a moment of direct address he reveals to us a logic that, today, seems to echo the unfortunate issue of polarity among the classes:


Well, whiles I am a beggar I will rail,
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.


So, by this time, King John's not doing so well. He's got issues with the French (momentarily patched up by a hasty marriage) and then he rails on the Pope, causing his legate to lay down the law thus:


Thou shalt stand cursed and excommunicate,
And blessed shall he be that doth revolt
From his allegiance to an heretic,
And meritorious shall that hand be called,
Canonised and worshipped as a saint,
That takes away by any secret course
Thy hateful life.


Wow, thanks a lot Cardinal. You sound real holy declaring that whoever kills a King, no matter how shady the deed, will be dubbed a Saint. Guess they're just giving those things away -- 'hey you! murderer! wanna be a saint? have I got a gig for you...'

Speaking of shady deeds, King John gets a little antsy having Arthur around, since he's a threat to the crown. So, in one of the best examples of a shared line ever, John enlists the help of Arthur's keeper to get rid of him:


King John     Death.
Hubert                     My lord.
King John                             A grave.
Hubert                                                He shall not live.
King John                                                                     Enough.  


Of course, not many things go right for John, and Hubert is won over by Arthur's innocence. He lies to the King, saying he got rid of the boy. Later, John regrets giving the order and realizes:

There is no sure foundation set on blood,
No certain life achieved by others' death.


This line could probably be dropped into any of Shakespeare's plays. If all of his tragic heroes realized this, there would have been a lot more comedies in the canon.

John, accuses Hubert, saying:

                            Hadst not thou been by,
A fellow by the hand of nature marked,
Quoted, and signed to do a deed of shame,
This murder had not come into my mind.


Ah, royalty, so fickle.

I won't ruin the ending for you.... even though the title of the play pretty much does that on its own. But, I will highly recommend you check out the production, playing at the Access Theatre through October 2nd! For more info, go here: http://www.shakespeareexchange.org/

Tomorrow's Play: The Kentucky Cycle - Part 1 - Ties That Bind by Robert Schenkkan

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