Shakespearing #12 by David Foley
Poor John. Nobody likes him. In The Lion in Winter, he’s portrayed as a pimply, mouth-breathing lout; he’s the villain to Richard Lionheart’s hero in Ivanhoe; and nobody seems to think much of the play Shakespeare wrote about him. Titus Andronicus gets more love.
This is strange, because it’s actually pretty good. It’s got some wonderful scenes and so many great speeches that in Act V, a hitherto unknown character (Melune) stumbles on stage, delivers one, and dies. For a fun time, skim through the play reading anything the Bastard or Constance says. Or linger over the scene in which the armies of France and England threaten each other over Angiers and then join together to threaten Angiers. Or the scene in which John’s excommunication produces a giddy fracturing of loyalties. Or the one where the boy Arthur persuades Hubert not to plunge a hot iron spike through his eyes.
As the above might suggest, this is history as venomous comedy, and that might be one reason the play gets short shrift. Like the “most venemous Toad” from which, according to a note in Riverside, the monk extracted the poison he murdered John with, who wants to touch it? You might argue that Richard III is much the same, but unlike Richard, John is a villain without the courage of his villainy. When he orders his nephew’s murder, he mutters “Death… A grave” under his breath, as if he’s only composing a Keatsian ode in his head. When the anger of the populace makes him repent, he blames the idea on Hubert’s ugliness: the thought never would have occurred to him if not for Hubert’s “abhorr’d aspect.”
A more interesting character is the Bastard, Richard Lionheart’s illegitimate son. As I say, he’s got some of the best speeches in the play. When “sent to speak” for John to the French, he produces such a magnificently funny and un-John-like invective, that the Dauphin replies drily, “We grant thou canst outscold us.” But he’s an odd character, a kind of fractured map of England’s personality: id-like urging England on to war, then delivering a super-ego diatribe against “commodity,” but ultimately standing for England’s true self. His last line (and the last of the play) is: “Nought shall make us rue,/If England to itself do rest but true.”
What that self is remains unclear. The best you can say is that it’s an island “[w]hose foot spurns back the ocean’s roaring tides,” caught in “Neptune’s arms, who clippeth [it] about.” Water imagery is everywhere. John compares himself to a river which “[s]hall leave his native channel and o’erswell” unless France “let[s] his silver water keep a peaceful progress to the ocean.” After hearing the news of his mother’s death and France’s invasion, John says, “I was amaz’d/Under the tide, but now I breathe again/Aloft the flood.”
Here again you notice Shakespeare’s gift for making mental and emotional states not just tangible, but somehow metaphysical, as if he were George Herbert or Emily Dickinson. “[T]o the state of my great grief/Let kings assemble,” says Constance, and later, “Grief fills the room up of my absent child …Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.” Dying, John cries, “Ay, marry now my soul hath elbow-room.”
These moments allow us not just to feel but to apprehend. To grasp a shape. Perhaps this is one of the things art does. It stops the hectic flood that drives our lives, and turns it into a perceptible object, one to which thought can be applied. In King John, these moves feel like Shakespeare’s pleas for wisdom.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.