Tuesday, May 19, 2009

RE: King John - Its Place in the Flow of Time

Randall writes:

Ernst, et. al,

One good cheat deserves another. I notice in the excerpt of Herschel Baker's intro to King John, he writes that Shakespeare's play gives us a story of a king "plagued by a rival with a better claim." I like Peter Saccio's expansion and review of this idea in Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle and Drama. Saccio writes:
Shakespeare is unique (at least among sixteenth-century writers dealing with John) in his interpretation of the reign. In the contest with Arthur, Shakespeare's John is flatly a usurper. Eleanor of Aquitaine is made to remark that he holds the crown "by strong possession much more than … right." As we have seen, this notion entails stricter views of royal inheritance than were in fact current in 1199. It implies a firm legitimist rule of dynastic descent that was to develop only in much later times. The notion is also at variance with Tudor accounts of John. Most Tudor historians do not question the legitimacy of John's crown. In Holinshed there is no serious doubt about his right: Richard I wills all his dominions to John, the English lords swear fealty accordingly, and only a few French towns consider that Arthur has a better claim. Only if we go back to Polydore Vergil, a Catholic historian who reflects medieval monastic chroniclers hostile to John because of his defiance of the pope, do we find charges of usurpation. Even The Troublesome Reign, while manifesting the same pattern of events, does not harp on this string. (Saccio 202-203)
So my question is this: does the view of John as usurper take shape in the play because Shakespeare himself is a product of a time concerned with "legitimist rule" or because it is necessary for a more dramatic text? What leads to this particular characterization?

One place we might look is the earlier Richard III (I'm accepting various people's placement of King John between the two tetralogies). When we discussed Richard III, Gil connected us to Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, a detective novel in which the protagonist, Alan Grant, explores the veracity of the Richard character we've come to know from Shakespeare's play. Gil wrote: "Recognizing that the popular 'knowledge' of Richard is a monster, the crunchbacked murderer of the princes in the Tower, Grant sends young Carradine on multiple research missions, and 'solves' the historical truth ('Truth is the daughter of time') about the king. The history that we all know was written by John Morton (Bishop of Ely in our play), transcribed by Saint Sir Thomas More as The History of King Richard the Third, adapted by Hall, then Holinshed, and the latter three were Shakespeare's sources. All were writing under the patronage of the Tudors, Henry VII, Henry VIII, and then Elizabeth. Winners write history. Henry VII had a most marginal claim to the throne, his father Owen Tudor, married the granddaughter of John of Gaunt's illegitimate son. We know from Henry IV through Henry VI how usurpation is the stain from which there is no escape. Henry VII, with such tenuous legitimacy, then disposed of every more legitimate claimant, including ― TA DA! ― the princes in the tower. Then, his historians 'murdered' Richard's reputation post mortem. Richard was not even deformed, though apparently thin and one shoulder was slightly higher than the other. Yeah, it's only a detective novel, but it apparently is built on the more accurate account of Richard who, after the Tudor reign and their creation of the Tudor myth, has been rehabilitated."

So in Richard III, Shakespeare takes his popular history from Tudor sources and Richard is depicted as a Vice. But Saccio suggests that Tudor historians did not see John as a usurper, yet in King John John's legitimacy is seriously at question. What's more this inconsistency is reflected in Holinshed. One conclusion we might draw from this is that Shakespeare stages stories, not political propaganda. Richard III, as politically expedient as it may be in establishing a Tudor myth, is a whopping great tale ― seduction, murder, betrayal, war, absent horses. King John becomes a better tale as Shakespeare increases the dramatic tensions. What happens, after all, to the conflict between John and Rome if Arthur's claim to the throne and more specifically Philip's allegiance with Arthur do not become movable pieces in that chess game? We may think of King John as a lesser play (when comparing it to the Henrys IV and Henry V), but it is a cleverly and powerfully structured play.

I'm still wondering, maybe even more so now, what Elizabeth play-goers would have made of all this? When Oliver Stone directed JFK, the press was full of declaming sputtering about historical accuracy and the irresponsibility of promoting conspiracy theories in a popular medium. We have always allowed Hollywood to run rough-shod over historical accuracy, but we do get our dander up when it comes to important political figures. If the Globe Theatre is the Hollywood of its time, does that audience (aristocrats and groundlings both) ever raise a stink over the portrayal of kings, and if so, what documentation of that controversy survives?


Monday, May 18, 2009

King John and Shakespeare the Bastard

Gil writes:

Long "lost" friends,

Despite the linear mile of shelf-feet in libraries of such titles as Shakespeare’s Ideas, Meaning by Shakespeare, Materialistic Shakespeare, or Shakespeare Right and Left, I am reluctant ever to assert “according to Shakespeare.” Instead, I’m more comfortable with ‘Othello believes, while Iago insists’ or ‘according to King Henry IV, but alien to Falstaff.’ In King John, Cardinal Pandulph denounces King Philip: “So mak’st thou faith an enemy to faith,/ And like a civil war set’st oath to oath,/ Thy tongue against thy tongue” (III.i.262-4) and follows with a perfect example of strict and rigorous ratiocination, an example, I’m told by Garber and EAJ Honigmann, of the doctrine of equivocation. This casuistry, impossible, I imagine, for an audience to follow, proves all form is formless, all order orderless. Yet it does not “prove” Shakespeare is a nihilist; rather it articulates flawlessly a Roman Catholic doctrine, anathema to Elizabethan Protestants. Pandulph, and the Church he represents, is intelligent, powerful, arrogant, and — twisted. This argument creates dramatic tension within the play between the Church and the pusillanimous Kings Philip and John. Shakespeare the playwright speaks in many tongues.

Nevertheless, I am tempted to equate Philip Faulconbridge, the Bastard, to Shakespeare himself allowing his personal perspective and ironic asides into this chronology play. Faulconbridge is a fictional creation, not subject to the template of events, politics, betrayals, or even the history overseen by father Holinshed. From the first, he is an outsider, beyond hereditary class and freed of any excess moral scruple. After witty and bawdy calumniation of his mother’s honesty, thereby gaining an (unhistorical) lineage as the bastard son of Richard I, Coeur-de-lion, he can resign his rights in the English landed gentry and rely on his merit and virility, taking his chances with Queen Elinor when she, remarkably, declares “I am a soldier” (that is, she is man enough for him). His one constant is devotion to English patriotism. He declares independence: “And I am I, howe’er I was begot”― freedom, though still within the limits of time and place.

Is there another such character in Shakespeare? Berowne? Much of Richard III? Later some of King Lear’s Edmund (as a bastard)? Outside Shakespeare, perhaps some of Ernst’s malcontents such as Chapman’s Bussy d’Ambois, or Dryden’s blustery Almanzor (“For I alone am king of me”) though neither has a sense of irony. But preventing him from being a tragic figure, the Bastard maintains a detached, ironic counterpoint to politics, mores, hypocrisy. After John knights him as Sir Richard, Plantagenet, he muses on how he must behave now he is nominally a courtier, ‘a foot of honour better than he was,’ and he wonderfully parodies the artifices of court life, how to ‘make a leg,’ suck his teeth, and memorize pickup lines from an absey-book, and “from the inward motion to deliver/ Sweet, sweet, sweet poison for the age’s tooth.” An outsider’s aside, outside the plot. Where else does Shakespeare just fool around with phony court behavior? Maybe with Bushy, Bagot, and Green in Richard II, but they are historical figures, integral to the plot and elemental to Richard’s character and reputation.

In the military action before the besieged city of Angiers, we return to warrior virility, the Bastard as a man of action, so forceful that Austria calls him a “cracker.” The Bastard dismisses wavering by both kings: “O now doth Death line his dead chaps with steel;/ The swords of soldiers are his teeth, his fangs/ … Cry ‘havoc!’ kings (II.i.352-3, 357), poetry so rhetorically rich as to border on satire if we still remember his send-up of courtly artifice. The next time one hears “Cry havoc!” it will be Henry V, the perfect warrior. But here, the Kings of England and France, after all their threats and bloodshed, compromise into an emasculating truce negotiated by the marriage of Louis the Dolphin to John’s niece, Blanche of Spain, and the Bastard muses on how self-interest and opportunism dilute patriotism, honor, and human character in his analysis of “commodity,” prefaced with “mad world, mad kings, mad composition!”

I find the commodity soliloquy one of the great pieces of commentary in Shakespeare, akin to Henry V on “ceremony” or Ulysses on “degree.” It is personal, illustrated by images from observed life (even noting that self-interest will cheat the poor maid of her only possession, her virginity), yet at the end of the soliloquy the Bastard deflects it with an ‘or not!’

Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail,
And say there’s no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee! (II.i.503-8),

a sing-song pair of couplets deflating the penetrating philosophy. I hear Shakespeare seeing into the mad world, then Philip the Bastard joking his way out of high seriousness.

Yet, in the field before Angiers, Austria has worn a lion’s skin, a trophy from killing Coeur-de-lion, and the ‘cracker’ Bastard again and again baits him by calling it a calf’s skin—four times!—deflating the strutting warrior image as he has earlier been bemused by court artifice. Yet he is not a Dogberry (‘write me down an ass’) or a Thersites, because, despite his seeming levity, he still avenges his ‘father’s’ death, and displays Austria’s head on his pike. Finally, the Bastard is wryly amazed at Hubert’s swollen rhetoric relative to the truce of Angiers: “Here’s a large mouth indeed…zounds, I never was so bethumped with words/ Since I first call’d my father dad” (II.i.457, 466-67). So commenting, the Bastard is a critic of rhetoric (written, remember, by Shakespeare) akin to Hamlet’s famous advice to the players. It is often acknowledged that “Hamlet” is Shakespeare lecturing his acting company. Does it not seem that the Bastard steps outside the chronicle to comment on the rhetoric of chronicle plays?

Shakespeare the Bastard nears the end of his fifth chronicle play: “I am amaz’d, methinks, and lose my way/ Among the thorns and dangers of the world” (IV.iii.140-1). So he steers through the maze [Ernst—I’m placing King John before the Henriad] to four unified plays — that most lyrical exploration of sovereignty and the king’s two bodies, Richard II; the perfectly navigated course between King Henry IV and Falstaff toward sovereignty in 1 Henry IV; the touching display of old age in Northumberland, Falstaff and King Henry in 2 Henry IV; and the perfect portrait of the public political figure of King Henry V, all rising thanks to the objective outsider’s eye from the rather disjointed and sometimes overblown chronicle of King John.


Monday, May 11, 2009

King John - Its Place in the Flow of Time

Ernst writes:

Brethren and sistern,

This is a cheat, but I think it is important that we realize when King John was probably written, and that is sometime between Richard III and Richard II―i.e. around 1594 or so. Knowing that, one can consider Shakespeare's themes and characterization in relation to the appropriate plays. It also seems to be a play that may have been started quite early in Shakespeare's writing career and fiddled with over a period of several years―all of which makes its dating increasingly difficult, although I think, by and large, that around 1594 will work well.

The arguments for seeing the play in these terms I take from Hershel Baker's introduction to the play in The Riverside Shakespeare. I append the excerpt below.


(Herschel Baker, from The Riverside Shakespeare)

"The date of King John, a play noted by Francis Meres in 1598 and, so far as we know, first printed in the Folio of 1623, is difficult to fix. Although 1594-95 would seem to be the safest guess, external evidence is altogether lacking and internal evidence is, as usual, oblique and inconclusive."'Basilisco-like" (I.i.244) no doubt derives from the name of a character in Soliman and Perseda, a play written between 1589 and 1592 and perhaps subsequently revived. The action of King John, about an English monarch who is plagued by a rival with a better claim, by the enmity of Rome, and by a strong invading power, suggests the tangled relationships between Elizabeth, her cousin Mary Stuart, and the King of Spain; but to construe the play as an allegory of the Armada years is to press the case too hard, Moreover, attempts to fix a (date from alleged topical allusions to the defeat of the Armada (1588) in the loss of the French fleet, to Henry IV's apostasy (1593) in the vacillation of King Philip and the Dauphin Lewis, and to the death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet (1596) in Constance's laments for Arthur do not impart conviction.

"The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England
—an anonymous play published in two parts in 1591, ascribed to "W. Sh." on the title-page of the second quarto in 1611, to "W. Shakespeare" in the third quarto in 1622, and subsequently to almost everyone who was writing for the stage in the early 1590's—poses special problems about the source and date of Shakespeare's play and has therefore prompted much conjecture. That The Troublesome Reign and King John are somehow intimately related is not open to dispute; indeed, the close parallelism of their plots, which, although Shakespeare's play is some three hundred lines shorter than its companion piece, exhibit virtually the same episodes in the same order, makes it clear that one play is based upon the other, unless a common source, now lost, is postulated. This kinship is confirmed by smaller details as well, as when both confusingly identify Viscount of Limoges, with Leopold, Archduke of Austria (II.i.5), or deprive Constance of her third husband in order to present her as a strident widow (II.i.32) or show scores of verbal similarities, though only two that extend to as much as a whole line of verse (II.i.528, V.iv.42). The Troublesome Reign has long been held a source—in Dover Wilson's opinion, indeed, the only source—of King John; but Peter Alexander and E. A. J. Honigmann have separately advanced the theory that King John was written first (about 1590-91) and that The Troublesome Reign should be regarded as a reported text, or "bad" quarto, of Shakespeare's play. However, the data cited to support this view are at best tangential, and in the absence of more compelling evidence most scholars still prefer to think that Shakespeare wrote King John, as E. K. Chambers said, with a copy of The Troublesome Reign at hand.

"It is most unlikely that Shakespeare knew of John Bale's King John, a virulently anti-Catholic play of the 1530's, but he certainly used Holinshed's Chronicles and probably Fox's Acts and Monuments [a series of tales about Protestant “martyrs” at the hands of Catholics such as Queen Mary] for details not included in The Troublesome Reign, and he may also have looked at Matthew Paris' Chronica Majora. Mr. Honigmann thinks that he got the date of Queen Elinor's death (IV.11.1.20)—which was apparently unavailable in any printed source—from the Latin manuscript Wakesfield Chronicle and that for the great scene (IV.i) between Hubert and Arthur he followed the Latin chronicle of Ralph Coggeshall.

"Stylistically, King John is marked by tumid rhetoric. It is filled with violent action, but the action often serves as the occasion for debate or disputation, and consequently the play is very verbal. For example, in a wryly comic scene almost at the beginning Faulkenbridge and his puny brother contest their patrimony; and the second act presents a sequence of debates—or at any rate of declamations—with John opposed to Philip, Elinore to Constance, the French and English heralds before the city of Angiers, Faulkenbridge and Hubert, each advancing his proposal. Elsewhere the action hovers on such forensic exhibitions as Pandulph’s equivocating defense of oath-breaking (III.i.253-97), Arthur’s moving plea to Hubert for his life (IV.i.253 ff.), and the Dauphin’s explanation of his plan to conquer England (V.ii.78-108). Most conspicuous of all are Constance’s lamentations, in Acts II and III, for the injuries to her son. “I deny counsel all redress,” she says when he is captured,

But that which ends all counsel, true redress:
Death, death. O amiable lovely death!
Thou odiferous stench! Sound rottenness! . . .

"Philip’s comment on the appalling woman’s rhetoric (which has endeared the role to many actresses) is one that every reader will endorse: “You are as fond of grief as of your child.” On the other hand, scenes such as John’s exchange with Hubert (III.iii.64-66) about getting rid of Arthur are so tight and so alive with drama that they mark a new advance in Shakespeare’s style:

K. John: Thou are his keeper.
Hubert: And I’ll keep him so,
That he shall not offend your majesty.
K. John: Death.
Hubert: My lord?
K. John: A grave.
Hubert: He shall not live.
K. John: Enough.

"A puzzling and uneven play, King John is a daring exploration into the murky details of Realpolitik. In Shakespeare’s earlier history plays—the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III, politics is treated as a branch of morals. The course of events, apparently so jagged and complex, is shown to have a pattern and a direction that reveal a moral purpose coextensive with the will of God. Even if evil seems to triumph over good, as when the tyrant Richard wades through blood to reach the throne, we know that God directs events—the convulsions of dynastic struggle no less than the fall of a sparrow—and that His intentions are benign. This doctrine of providential history, which St. Augustine devised and which most Tudor chroniclers thriftily converted into a tool of party politics, begins to yield to something darker and more subtle in King John. Shakespeare is still concerned with politics, of course, but in tracing the link between politics and morals he is less cocksure and doctrinaire. Slogans no longer serve his purpose, nor do inert, reassuring commonplaces of Hall and Holinshed supply the need for explanation. Instead, the ambiguities of character assert themselves, and history is presented not as a paradigm of moral purpose but as a tangled skein of good and evil, where mixed motives are revealed in indecisive actions, and where even a good man fears to lose his way.

"This being a history play, the dynastic situation itself (which Shakespeare, as usual,distorts for his own purpose) exemplifies equivocation. In John, Arthur, and Faulconbridge we are presented, as it were, with three aspects of kingship: a sovereign whose very title is suspect, his youthful rival whose better claim is made the pawn of scheming politicians, and a bastard son of royalty who, finding his identity, is compelled to exercise the awful functions wherein the other two have failed. In other words, the bad, weak man in possession of the throne flouts the helpless rightful heir, brings his kingdom to distraction, and dies as the very "module of confounded royalty" while the Bastard rises to assume the kingly burden that the King himself could not sustain. By juxtaposing these contrapuntal ambiguities Shakespeare does great violence to the notion that might and right are always intertwined, but he makes us look anew at what Edmund Burke called the solemn plausibilities whereby we order our existence."

Excerpt copyright 1974, Houghton Mifflin Company.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

King John - Moral Dilemmas

Randall writes:

Coeurs de Lion,

If I ever form another rock band, I'm calling it "Bethumped with Words," my new favorite line from a Shakespeare play.

King John, among other things, is about the tenuous nature of allegiances. I've said before how much I love the way Shakespeare doubles or triples up on things ― how Hamlet, for example, has two sons worrying about avenging murdered fathers, how Twelfth Night has two sisters mourning dead brothers, how King Lear has two fathers who misperceive their children's devotion, etc. In King John, Shakespeare gives us not two but three men who struggle with questions of allegiance and moral obligation.

Act 2 concludes with a pact between King John and King Philip II of France. Philip's son, Louis, will marry John's niece, Blanche; John will be the recognized king of England; and Philip will give up his support of Arthur. In Act 3, scene 1, Pandulph, the papal legate, shows up, excommunicates John and threatens Philip with the same if he doesn't break his recent allegiance. Philip agonizes over the choice:

And shall these hands, so lately purged of blood,
So newly joined in love, so strong in both,
Unyoke this seizure and this kind regret?
Play fast and loose with faith? So jest with heaven? (3.1.249-252)

The dilemma here, pitting a secular agreement that will bring peace to two countries, saving countless lives, against the preservation of a man's eternal soul, is vicious, and Shakespeare's use of synecdoche ― "hands" for the two kings who in turn stand for their respective countries ― makes Philip's difficult decision more intimate. As a fairly secular person, I don't see how Pandulph fails to come off as the villain in this exchange. He blatantly ignores Philip's eloquence and wise questions. Are we not to assume that the audience was rooting for Philip sticking with the Protestant John?

In the end Philip remains a devout Catholic, and the peace is broken. What is the result of this moment? Does it establish an anti-Catholic tone to the play? Does it raise our sympathy for Philip, who has previously been an antagonist? Does it challenge our opinion of John, who's independence from the Pope has forced Pandulph to use his leverage against Philip? In the Henry VI plays we see shifting allegiances result from political opportunism. With Philip it is different; it's a moral dilemma, and we are brought quickly and poignantly into the real difficulties of ruling.

In Act 4, scene 1, after John has used passive/aggressive suggestion to order Hubert to kill young Arthur, the would-be boy king of England, Hubert has Arthur tied up and staring down the business end of a red-hot poker, when he begins to worry about his the consequences of his action:

I will not touch thine eye
For all the treasure that thine uncle owes.
Yet I am sworn, and I did purpose, boy,
With this same very iron to burn them out." (4.1.134-137)

Like Philip, Hubert faces a moral dilemma ― choose between following the wish (if not direct order) of his king or refrain from murdering a child. Watching this scene unfold, it's hard to imagine an audience rooting for John's requirement, fulfilled by Arthur's gruesome death. But we know that Hubert's decision to spare Arthur may come at great personal cost, one reason why Hubert decides to pretend that Arthur is dead. Being forsworn is a big deal in Shakespeare's plays, and Hubert breaks his oath (he has told John: "what you bid me undertake,/ Though that my death were adjunct to my act,/ By heaven, I would do it") by sparing Arthur. That "by heaven," which echoes Philip's "so jest with heaven" concern, ups the ante a bit, too; he's promised both John and God he'll carry out his task, and the audience knows it. Despite the broken oath, our sympathies must fall to Arthur, and for Hubert who decides against his murder. Does this not also take John down a peg in our estimation because he manoeuvred Hubert into the moral dilemma in the first place?

In the fifth act, we get the wandering English nobles ― Salisbury, Pembroke, and Bigot ― alligning themselves with the Dauphin and actually signing a contract with him. The Dauphin points out "that having our fair order written down,/ Both they and we, perusing o'er these notes,/ May know wherefore we took the Sacrament,/ And keep out faiths firm and inviolable" (5.2.4-7). So it's not only a contract with France, it's a contract with God. But it doesn't come without Salisbury's exploring the moral difficulties of the allegiance: "I am not glad …", "it grieves my soul…", and:

And is 't not pity, O my grieved friends,
That we, the sons and children of this isle,
Was born to see so sad an hour as this,
Wherein we step after a stranger, march
Upon her gentle bosom, and fill up
Her enemies' ranks? (5.2.24-29)

The English audience cannot have been happy about this contract with the French (despite historical accuracy), and I find Salisbury's equivocation, even accompanied by tears, a little weak because it's clear he's aware of the moral ramifications of his choice yet turns from John (England) anyway. Unhappy or not, would the audience have found his decision justifiable? Is our opinion of John so low at this point? Would the audience have been anti-Catholic enough to discount the contract confirmed by taking communion? Salisbury's reference to his soul's grief once again elevates the concern beyond the merely political, regardless of our own biases we are brought into contact with the agony of his choice.

When the turn around, the broken allegience, comes, it is primarily political. Salisbury and the others are doomed, so they reneg on their contract, which turns out to be not so inviolable after all. If this political moment were on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Stewart would cue up side-by-side the videos of Salisbury saying "Upon our sides [the contract] shall never be broken" (5.2.8) and:

We will untread the steps of damned flight,
And like a bated and retired flood,
Leaving our rankness and irregular course,
Stoop low within those bounds we have o'erlooked
And calmly run on in obedience
Even to our ocean, to our great King John. (5.4.53-58)

Oops. I find these three depictions of moral dilemma ― Philip's, Hubert's, and Salisbury's ― expose very complex personal views. It's as if Shakespeare is less concerned about getting history down on the page than he is about exploring what difficulties that the forces of history put humans in. Three instances of such situations make it something of a theme for me. The question is not: what does someone do? It's: how did someone feel when he did it and what made the choice remarkable? For this reason, I find King John eminently rich in character, and also explicit about the contradictions and complexities of human politics, a real step forward from the Henry VI plays although perhaps not quite as developed as the Henry IV tetrology.


Wednesday, May 6, 2009

King John - Aural Experience

Gilbert writes:

I assume all nine of us find The Life and Death of King John as unfamiliar as any Shakespeare. I have never seen a production, nor have I read the play until last week. However, once upon a time, King John was read to me. In 1961, not long out of the army, just switching my major from mathematics to English, I enrolled in an undergraduate "Shakespeare's Histories and Comedies" course at the University of Washington, taught by Prof. William H. Matchett. From the first day of class we were forbidden to read King John, while Prof. Matchett read it aloud to us, interrupting himself to ask questions.

"King John: Now, say Chatillion, what would France with us?" Who is talking? What is his relationship?

"Chatillion: Thus, after greeting, speaks the King of France in my behavior to the majesty, the borrowed majesty of England here." What do you make of 'borrowed majesty'?

"Eleanor: A strange beginning: 'borrowed majesty'! King John: Silence, good mother; hear the embassy." If you were staging this play, how would you direct this exchange? Later, two men approach the king to adjudicate "the strangest controversy."

"King John: Let them approach. Our abbeys and our priories shall pay this expedition's charge." Who is John talking to in these lines? What might be his relationship with the church?

And so forth ― what foreshadowed this? What must happen next? What can you now say about this character? Over more than a week, the structure, the characters, and the theatricality unfolded. In that naive time, the stage direction "enter the Bastard" got laughter. The characters of Faulkonbridge, Queen Eleanor, and Constance, mad with grief, have stayed with me, while nothing at all of King John is now familiar. No lines except "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily" provoked an 'ah, ha!' from me, though as with "let's kill all the lawyers," I know the line without remembering which play it is from. But, in retrospect, it was brilliant teaching. It gathered 30-35 undergraduates ― from English to maths, from 'I've always loved Shakespeare' to 'I don't know why I'm required to take the Humanities' (pronounced eumenides) ― and constructed the architecture of the drama. Scenes took shape, images appeared, character ― especially ― was revealed and, for me, the discovery that in life, as well as in literature, I am able to form informed impressions from only 100 to 200 words.

I've tried to read aloud to my own students, but I've modified the technique to, say, a one-act, "Miss in Her Teens" by Garrick before "Restoration/Eighteenth Century Drama." Back then, our class thought the exercise was about observing, about processing detail into pattern, about how a play 'worked.' Best of all was Bill Matchett reading. The rhythm (2,570 lines, almost all blank verse) and poetry, oh, the poetry, are still embedded in my head (and in my teaching). The 'obscure' vocabulary disappeared for the most part in context and in Matchett's articulation. Aural experience.

At last, we were assigned to go home and read The Taming of the Shrew, and next class Prof. Matchett asked how it went; an undergraduate wise guy complained "As I read I kept hearing your damned voice." The class after that, Matchett brought him a neatly wrapped gift box: ear muffs to wear while reading Shakespeare. Now, all these years later, I realize that it was Bill Matchett's voice, the poetry, the rhythms, the tension between characters, the contexts for meaning, was the point of it all. And since, I've had a glorious life in Shakespeare ― without ear muffs.


Tuesday, May 5, 2009

RE: King John - Constance

Derek writes:

Cindy ― this will be a brief paragraph, I promise. Especially because I only just finished Act I. But I want to follow up on what you noted about the GREAT female characters in the play. What’s striking to me is how, in order to be a tough woman in a Shakespearean play, you have to be an old, preferably widowed, matriarch figure. Leslie Fiedler opens The Stranger in Shakespeare with a long exploration of Shakespeare’s apparent views on sexuality and romantic love – Fiedler ends up saying, essentially, that the only kind of female character Shakespeare seems to trust is the one who operates within the virginal confines of Desdemona-like purity (though obviously, even such angelic purity is not proof against evil or slander). When femininity – or woman-hood, anyway – steps outside those boundaries, female characters become monstrous.

Examples are numerous. The weird sisters, who should be women but their beards forbid [people] to interpret that they are; Lady Macbeth, who wishes to be “unsexed”; Fielder points to Joan of Arc and Queen Margaret in Henry VI; there’s always Regan and Goneril, whose evil seems inseparable from their lustful trysts with Edmund; and in this play we have Constance and Eleanor, whose competition for official dowager status certainly undermines their more typically feminine qualities. Especially ironic, then, that Constance is clearly named for a feminine virtue.

I’m curious to see what happens in the next four acts – Constance and Eleanor seem to really direct the action of the play. In that, they remind me of Rosalind and Viola from two of the great comedies, only it feels like there’s something really sinister in the King John women that expresses itself as pure foolery or benevolence in the comedies. For obvious reasons, I guess.

My two cents, anyway,

Monday, May 4, 2009

RE: King John - The Sounds of Silence

Ernst writes:

We saw King John (of which, did he not, Bill Matchett edited a version) about ten years ago at Stratford-on-Avon. What I most remember about it was how important the vivacious, energetic,
practically-bubbling-over character of the Bastard was to making it most enjoyable. A post-root-canal memory.


Sunday, May 3, 2009

King John - The Sounds of Silence

Randall writes:

His highness yet doth speak, and holds belief
That being brought into the open air
It would allay the burning quality
Of that fell poison which assaileth him. (King John 5.7.6-9)

Ten years ago, dad and I attended the Shakespeare-on-Film Centenary Conference in Benalmadena, Spain. The 100th anniversary of the first Shakespeare film was a big deal for the small cadre of critics who focus their academic life and writing on this particular medium, and the conference featured, appropriately, a screening of the 1899 Ur-Film. Wanna guess? Hamlet? Macbeth? Twelfth Night? Nope. It was King John. All 90 seconds of it. As the story goes, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree was directing and starring in a production of King John at Her Majesty's Theatre in London and was curious about this new medium, film. So he took the opportunity to shoot four scenes (three were lost) from the play, and the Shakespeare film was born. If we leave it at that, it's fairly simple, but if you think for a bit the question of just what qualifies as a "Shakespeare film" will begin to nag at you.

First of all, in 1899 the medium doesn't include sound; Tree's King John is silent. Watch as Pembroke, Prince Henry, and Bigot stand around while John, supine in a chair, writhes, tries to rise from the chair, falls back, writhes some more, reaches out to Henry, tries to rise once again, clutches his chest, milks it for a bit, and finally dies, all in silence with nary an intertitle in sight. "His highness yet doth speak"? I think not. Can we truly call it Shakespeare if the language isn't present? After all the stories are not the uniquely Shakespearean aspect of his plays.

Second, the film doesn't tell much of a story; it's just a death scene, and to be honest if you didn't know the play, you might not even realize that's what's happening. John could be reenacting Linda Blair's role in The Exorcist.

Third, it's so brief it can't really tell a story, Shakespeare's, Tree's, Holinshed's or whomever's. Less than a minute and a half might be acceptable if we knew we were looking at some fragment, but Tree shot the scenes not as part of a whole, but deliberately as pieces, intended more as advertisements for his stage show than as Shakespeare in a new medium. Wouldn't that be like academics in some post-apocalyptic future, when nearly all human records have been destroyed, finding a cache of movie trailers (each one beginning, in the deep tones of Don LaFontaine, "In a world, one man...") and assuming the trailer is part of the actual movie? And not only did Tree show the scenes in film theaters as advertisements but he released them as Mutoscope peepshows. (Maybe that's why both John and Prince Henry are wearing dresses?) Even Tree thought it more curio than art form.

Interesting; despite Tree's film's lack of Shakespeare's language, its lack of plot, and its lack of Shakespearean purpose, King John tells us a lot about the power of Shakespeare as cultural icon. If we were to remove Shakespeare's name from this film clip ― say it were some unknown and unattributed fragment discovered in the Netherlands ― we might think it some version of Walewein. Because we know the clip comes from Tree's adaptation of his production of a Shakespeare play, we grant it Shakespearean status, just as we grant She's the Man Shakespearean status because it adapts, as a modern-English language farce, the bare bones plot of Twelfth Night. I think this says a lot about our idea of Shakespeare as source of art, as original genius, as literary patriarch; we ignore his own adaptative approach to story just as we fail to see modern adaptation of Shakespeare both to this new medium as well as into more tangential purposes (the Romeo and Juliet Nextel ad, anyone?) as anything more than inspired co-option.

Read King John. Watch Tree's scene from Act 5. Are they really related? And if so, what does that relationship say about Shakespeare? What does it say about film? And does it, in the end, actually take any steps toward defining the thing we think of as Shakespearean film?


Saturday, May 2, 2009

King John - Constance

Cindy writes:

Happy spring, Shakespeare lovers,

Despite having only seven days of school left with my antsy seniors and a mountain of grading the size of Mt. Rainier, I guilted myself over to the Erie Public Library to check out King John. Yes, guilted. They didn't have it in a single-play format. Surprise, surprise. So, I'm flexing a few back muscles by toting home the Oxford Shakespeare Complete Works, straining my eye muscles with its tiny print, and massaging my delight muscles with a play I didn't think I would like…much. I'm admittedly not the biggest history play fan, with the exception of Richard III. I get confused by the plethora of characters ― male characters ― and disheartened by the lack of female characters. But this play has GREAT females. I want to play Constance. Constance is assertive, passionate and wily, from her catfight with Queen Eleanor: "My boy a bastard? By my soul I think / His father never was so true begot. / It cannot be, if if thou wert his mother" (II.i.129-131) to her despair over King Phillip's change of heart: "O, if thou teach me to believe this sorrow, / Teach thou this sorrow how to make me die;" (II.ii.29-30), and to her ultimate grief:

Death, Death, O amiable, lovely Death!
Thou odoriferous stench, sound rottenness!
Arise forth from the couch of lasting night,
Thou hate and terror to prosperity,
And I will kiss thy detestable bones,
And put my eyeballs in thy vaulty brows,
And ring these fingers with thy household worms,
And stop this gap of breath with fulsome dust,
And be a carrion monster like myself.
Come grin on me, and I will think thou smil'st,
And buss thee as thy wife. Misery's love,
O, come to me! (III.iv.23-36)

Constance gets to play a spectrum of emotion and gnash her teeth on some potent imagery. Now, I have about as much of a chance of playing Constance onstage as I do birthing sextuplets, but I could read her in my classroom. I could salivate over uttering lines like that in class. Definitely. But beyond my flair for the mini-drama of my classroom, one focus of my teaching of this play would center on the mother-son connections. What is Arthur without Constance? What is King John without his mother, the Queen Eleanor? And what of the curious relationship between the intriguing Phillip the Bastard and his mother, the Lady Falconbridge? Why does he let her off the hook so easily? Woo! Am I the first post. Who would have thunk it?

Infusing the estrogen,