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.