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?


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