13. King John
King John is very frustrating play. It is a play with a number of good scenes, good characters and good speeches but which never really comes together to create a satisfying or exciting whole.
The characters that are most interesting in the play are the women. There are three generations of women all vying for position, either for themselves or for their offspring: Elinor, the mother of King John; Constance, Elinor’s daughter in law and the mother of Arthur; and Blanche, John’s niece. These women are the most dynamic of all the characters in the piece, really fighting for their position in society. They speak powerfully and eloquently and yet are reliant on the support of the men around them. This immediately creates a fascinating conflict between power and vulnerability. Constance and Blanche, in particular, have fantastic speeches, as both are used as political pawns by the men around them, who are happy to use and discard them as needed. Sadly, all three women only feature in the first half of the play and the second half definitely suffers as a result.
Whilst the women are finely drawn and interesting characters, all of the men in this play feel quite underwhelming. Unlike Richard II, there is little to no internal conflict within these characters – the stakes never feel sufficiently high. Where Richard and Henry are competing not just for the throne of England but for ideals of justice and honour, John and Philip (King of the France) are just trying to defend or extend their realms. King John tries to bring in an overarching theme of legitimacy and inheritance, but it fails to be sufficiently interwoven into the narrative to really hit home. Like Richard II, the play opens with a dispute – this time over the Falconbridge inheritance, which hinges on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of the first-born son. This seems to be an attempt to foreshadow the questions around John’s own legitimacy as king, with the challenge of Arthur (the son of John’s elder brother) that is backed by Constance and the French, that forms the basis of the main plot. It just never quite ties together and as a reader it feels slightly disconnected.
As a source of speeches and scene studies, however, this is a fantastic piece. Constance, Blanche, the Bastard and Louis all have brilliant speeches – excellent for auditions or general Shakespeare work. Similarly, Act 3 Scene 1 would make a brilliant scene study. In this (quite lengthy scene), John and Philip have just negotiated a peace, confirmed through the marriage of the Dauphin to Blanche. Yet, as soon as the marriage is complete, the Pope excommunicates John, leading to renewed debate over the relative merits of peace and war. It is a brilliantly constructed scene with incredibly high stakes and all the characters struggling with conflicting aims and fears.
It would be remiss of me to write a blog on King John and not mention the biggest challenge in staging the play – a boy Prince Arthur jumping from the castle walls in a pitiful (and frankly stupid) attempt to escape imprisonment. For a boy who speaks so eloquently and maturely throughout the play, who convinces his would-be executioner (Hubert) to leave him unharmed, his attempt to escape by literally jumping off the castle walls seems completely absurd. To stage this in such a way that is tragic rather than farcical is a challenge enough, without the task of practically staging the act of jumping from battlements! I’m sure there is a way to do it effectively, but it is certainly a problem-point for any would-be director of the play.
So, although King John is a play that undoubtedly has its moments of brilliance, it is not a play that I’d be leaping (pun genuinely not intended!) to direct any time soon. Though it is definitely one that I will be mining for useful speeches and scene studies.