Life is just one damned thing after another: The Life and Death of King John

This is one of the Shakespeare plays that I was completely unfamiliar with before beginning this project, never having read it, let alone taught it. Probably written around 1595–6 (although there’s some controversy about the dating of the play, with some people putting it much earlier), it’s a slightly unsual play at this point in Shakespeare’s career in that it’s a one-off history play that doesn’t fit into the sequencing of the four plays about the Wars of the Roses (the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III) or the four plays that would make up the Hollow Crown sequence (Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V). Shakespeare makes no mention of the two things that King John is best known for these days: Magna Carta and Robin Hood. Maybe for that reason, it tends not to get a lot of love, with infrequent productions of it and rarely showing up as a school text, but does it have something to offer readers or audiences today?

Frederick Warde played Robin Hood in this loosely historical drama about how the birth of the rule of law saved the life of the prince of thieves. The Great Charter can be seen draped over the edge of a table in the background. (Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress)

As with a lot of Shakespeare’s history plays (and tragedies), this one hinges on the question of legitimate rule. John is King, and says that his older brother, Richard the Lionheart, decreed that this should be so in his will. The problem, though, is that the rules of succession would seem to indicate that someone else had a stronger claim to the throne than John. You see, John had another older brother, Geoffrey, who died young but had a son, Arthur, and there certainly appears to be a strong argument that he should be king. Furthermore, King Philip of France is willing to back Arthur and his mother, Constance, in their arguments that Arthur is the real deal.

This play is actually pretty notable for the large role taken by women in it. As well as Constance, who forcefully puts the case for her son (Arthur seems rather less interested in the whole business than his advocates), Queen Eleanor, mother to King John, takes a prominent role. John’s neice, Blanche, also makes a reasonable appearance, and Lady Falconbridge takes part in the parade of (alleged) infidelity (okay, it’s not exactly a feminist play, even if there are several strong female characters). Because it turns out that infidelity and illegitimacy play significant roles in the play. Eleanor and Constance fling accusations of infidelity at each other in order to try and shore up the claims of their respective sons, but it turns out that Lady Falconbridge really did do a bit of horizontal dancing with someone other than her husband.

It’s kind of okay, though, because the guy she did it with was none other than King Richard. It’s kind of hard to say no to the king, apparently. And maybe it wasn’t just his heart that had the characteristics of a wild animal… At any rate, the product of this union, Philip Falconbridge, turns up at court and King John and Queen Eleanor are apparently very taken with him, immediately believing his story and far from being outraged at this wanton spreading of kingly seed. They even go so far as to knight him, renaming him Sir Richard Plantagenet, after his dad. But if that seems confusing, it’s okay, because he just gets identified as the Bastard for the rest of the play.

All this questioning of who is the legitimate monarch could have had some resonance for Queen Elizabeth at the time the play was first performed. She was having to deal with a challenger to the throne in Mary Queen of Scots, who, like Arthur in this play, was being backed by the French.

One of the nice scenes early on in the play is when Eleanor, after slandering Constance and Arthur, asks Arthur, who is her grandson after all, to come to her: “Come to thy grandam, child.” He’s obviously reluctant to do this, however, because his grandmother is pretty terrifying. I imagine her sees her something like this:


A large section of the play takes place outside the walls of Angers (or Angiers), where the citizens are supposedly loyal to the King of England. But then the French army and the English army both turn up and both claim to have the legitimate King of England with them. Rather hilariously, the representatives of Angers refuse to accept either case and tell them to go and fight each other and sort it out and then come back with whoever the winner turns out to be. Unfortunately, like a Horn v Pacquiao boxing match, both sides claim to have won the battle and say they have the statistics to back it up.

The citziens of Angers say they’re going to keep their gates locked in this case, to which the Bastard observes they’re like spectators watching a battle in the theatre in a nice bit of self-referentiality on Shakespeare’s part:

By heaven, these scroyles of Angiers flout you, kings,
And stand securely on their battlements,
As in a theatre, whence they gape and point
At your industrious scenes and acts of death.

He suggests that instead of fighting each other, France and England point their cannons instead at Angers and take it out on them. The wily citizens of Angers forestall this possibility, though, by pointing out that Louis, the Dauphin, and King John’s niece, Blanche, look like an uncommonly good match for each other. And before you can say “pre-nuptial agreement” they’ve agreed to be married and parts of England’s territories in France parcelled off to be part of the dowry. Both France and England think it’s a terrific idea: everyone’s a winner!

Well, not quite everyone, because by agreeing to the arrangement, the King of France has sold out Arthur and Constance for his own benefit. He won’t be pushing Arthur’s claim for the throne anymore and Constance is understandably pretty miffed by the whole situation.

The Bastard is also a bit annoyed by the whole deal, exclaiming “Mad world, mad kings, mad composition!” Which is a fair enough assessment of the situation.

Just when it looks like everyone is going to get along with each other, an emissary turns up from the Pope. You can always count on religion to mess everything up. The Pope isn’t happy with John and the way he’s been treating the priests in England and Cardinal Pandulph tells King Philip that he’s going to have to make a choice: alienate England or alienate the Pope. Who is Philip more scared of? Well, the Pope it seems, and before you know it, France and England are back at war with each other.

The next major development is that John captures Arthur and then has to decide what to do with him. People in the audience who have seen Richard III or Richard II will know what happens next. What else do you do with a rival claimant to the throne except for have him killed? John can’t do it himself, of course, so he asks Hubert, his servant, to do it.

Meanwhile, the Dauphin is having an existential crisis over the whole situation, musing, in what are my favourite lines in the play:

Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale
Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man

Sounds like a description of one of my classes…

My teaching hero

Pandulph tells him not to worry, though, that losing the battle actually means he’s going to win and winning the battle will mean John will lose. This is because John will obviously kill Arthur and the people will turn against him and this will allow the Dauphin (now married to John’s niece) to step in and take over the throne himself.

And of course, killing Arthur is exactly what John has instructed Hubert to do. The only thing could could stop Hubert is if he allows Arthur to talk to him and to get his “tender womanish tears” flowing, and he’s determined not to let that happen. Except that he does and lets Arthur go.

Meanwhile, John’s had the great idea to have another coronation and get himself sworn in as King of England once again. This goes over about as well as you would expect, with the nobles observing that announcing yourself as king when you’re already king is somewhat superfluous, as it would be “to gild refined gold, to paint the lily.” Ha! Looks like they got that saying wrong: everyone knows it’s “to gild the lily.” Which never really made much sense, when you think about it. That’s because that line from King John is actually the origin of the phrase, and it’s become garbled over the centuries because people are idiots.

I don’t think I would buy flowers from here

Anyway, the nobles are getting really annoyed with John, and they aren’t exactly renowned for thinking things through calmly. One of them is even called Lord Bigot, which is about the best name for an English Lord that I could think of. He still seems to be lurking around in fact:

Aristocrat faces jail after being menacing and racist about Gina Miller

So the nobles end up siding with the Dauphin against John because he killed Arthur. Except he didn’t get killed at all! Except he died jumping off a wall while trying to escape and they blame John anyway! It all gets a bit messy at the end and then John gets dysentery and dies. But not before the Bastard goes roaming through war-torn Britain and observes:

But as I travell’d hither through the land,
I find the people strangely fantasied;
Possess’d with rumours, full of idle dreams,
Not knowing what they fear, but full of fear

If that isn’t a deadly accurate portrait of post-Brexit Britain today, I don’t know what is.

As he neared the end of the play, Shakespeare suddenly remembered that John had a son, Henry, who would go on to become Henry III, so he gets him to make a rather unconvincing appearance. But it’s the Bastard who gets the last lines of the play in a speech what is often taken to be a patriotic one, but if you look at it more closely is really hedging its bets:

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.

There is a big conditional in that “if” in the last line. And a lot of Shakespeare’s plays show English kings being anything but “true.”

The BBC production was the first programme in Season 7 and aired in 1984. Leonard Rossiter plays John. I remember him fondly as Reginald Perrin:

John is actually not as big a role as you might expect in the play named after him, and Rossiter plays him as quite comically weak, especially towards the end. Claire Bloom does an excellent job as Constance and John Thaw is a good Hubert. George Costigan didn’t entirely grab me as the Bastard. The sets are laughably simplistic for the most part, especially the cardboard walls of Angers.

I don’t have any other film versions to compare this one to, although apparently King John holds the distinction of being the first Shakespeare play ever filmed, back in 1899. It was just a two minute black and white silent film that included three scenes from the play.

As with most Shakespeare plays there are some great take away lines, but it’s not really a play that will live long in the memory and I don’t expect there to be a big budget Branagh film of it in the near future.