King John is a puzzlement. It is just not in any stream of awareness, main- or otherwise. Those Shakespeare festivals committed to the entire canon must do it, but my guess is that Ashland, Oregon, has done one King John for every six Midsummer Nights. As I noted, my undergraduate Shakespeare course started with John because the professor was certain no one had ever read or seen it. Maurice Charney gives it ten pages, though if he didn’t he couldn’t call his book All of Shakespeare, while Marjorie Garber writes eleven pages on John but twenty-nine on As You Like It in her Shakespeare After All. Thus, the Will Shakespeare Experience had a tabula rasa, and as we wrote on it, three foci emerged: women, history, and insights from structure, both the penetrating insight into moral dilemmas that Randall outlined (“tracing the link between politics and morals, Shakespeare is less cocksure and doctrinaire,” says Herschel Baker) and speculations on the Bastard, both central to and somehow detached from the play.
Cindy Calder was struck, then smitten with Lady Constance, assertive, passionate and wily, though I [Gilbert] might add one more little adjective, mad. In the cat fight with her mother-in-law, Queen Eleanor, she continues the earlier Faulconbridge argument mocking paternity, as each woman accuses her rival of adultery. Constance at least defends her son with the earlier “parts” argument: “this boy [Arthur] / Liker in feature to his father Geffrey/ Than thou [Eleanor] and John in manners, being as like/ As rain to water, or devil to his dam.” [Mike—here’s another water image to add to your collection.] Constance can ring changes on “plague,” and can reduce Eleanor’s appeal to Arthur to a parody of baby talk:
Do, child, go to it grandame, child,
Give grandame kingdom, and it grandame will
Give it a plum, a cherry, and a fig.
There’s a good grandame. (II.i.160-63)
In all our glances at Shakespeare’s language, have we ever seen him quite so playful, except when he goes a-Dogberrying? Yet when a messenger reports her son has become a pawn in the political manipulation, engaged to marry Blanch of Spain (perhaps especially devastating to a mother, given that Shakespeare has heavily underscored that Arthur is still a boy), she veers toward madness:
Believe me, I do not believe thee, man,
I have king’s oath to the contrary.
Thou shalt be punish’d for thus frighting me,
For I am sick and capable of fears,
Oppress’d with wrongs, and therefore full of fears,
A widow, husbandless, subject to fears,
A woman, naturally born to fears. (III.i.9-15)
Her grief at the loss of her son, long before Arthur’s death (suicide?), swells to a threnody of inconsolable motherhood. Cindy cited the crescendo: “Death, Death, O amiable lovely Death!” Thus, structurally, King John starts with an essentially comic scene of Lady Faulconbridge faced with both her sons insisting on her infidelity, passes through a battle royal version of this between two royals (Constance is wife to a prince), then darkens to the mother-queens losing their sons, until, in what Marjorie Garber calls “acute dramatic irony, the passing of these two enemies and rivals twinned,” both die within days of each other.
Derek was moved to speculate that in order to be a tough woman in a Shakespearean play, you have to be an old, preferably widowed matriarch figure, and certainly the young woman in King John, Blanch of Spain, seems to be only a mousey cipher. But I’d like to make a case for fourteen-year-old Juliet, who in every comparison, is stronger and wiser than Romeo, and at last recognizes “If all else fail, myself have pow’r to die.” And after Rosalind and Viola, let’s relish the chance to be awed by the “sexed” and unmatronly (!) Cleopatra.
As to history, King John seems too muddled to be the accomplished generic practice that makes Richard II possible. It zigzags among John against Phillip; no, John and Philip against Pandulph; no, Salisbury and Phillip against…well, I lose track…all inflated with what Herschel Baker calls “tumid rhetoric.” Most puzzling for me is Hubert, citizen of Angiers, matchmaker, but later John’s assassin-designate, but who gives way to sentiment and conscience when he spares, movingly, young Arthur.
So, King John is not a fine example of the History genre, yet it does create all these triangles. Randall’s posting, “The Flow of Time,” explores how Shakespeare’s revision of history to set up balanced, though questionable, claims to the throne, create dramatic tensions, that will be the heart and muscle of the three great Histories which follow (leaving Henry V aside as political propaganda—masterful-—without this sort of dramatic tension). Yet without the magnetic field of Tudor history, Shakespeare does create the “three depictions of moral dilemmas—Philip’s, Hubert’s, and Salisbury’s—[which] expose very complex personal [not historical] views,” as Randall noted in “Moral Dilemmas,” and, together with the free radical Bastard, put us closer to Shakespeare than we have been in earlier History.
And finally, from this dramatization of the entwining of politics and morality, Shakespeare has left instruction to Barack Obama:“To set a form upon that indigest/Which he [your predecessor] hath left so shapeless and so rude” (V.vii.26-7).
Gil, aka Thumper
Book Note: The Postman
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