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Title: King John
Author: William Shakespeare
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
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.
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.