King John is often the forgotten Shakespeare play, believed to have been written sometime around the mid 1590’s, and based on true events. At its core, Shakespeare’s King John is a play about identity, loyalty, and power. We see many of the characters throughout the play question their own identity, and how it is tied to the throne, be it English or French. There are a lot of people who believe themselves to be the rightful heir to the throne, but as we’ll see, no one in this play can agree on that. It’s a fascinating and quite underrated play. Let’s have a look.
King John is told by an ambassador from France that he needs to vacate the throne to make way for his nephew Prince Arthur. This nephew is believed by French King, Phillip, to be the rightful heir. King John must agree or France will go to war with England.
Later King John is mediating an inheritance dispute between Richard Faulconbridge and his (half) brother Philip Faulconbridge, also known as, the Bastard. During this John deduces that the Bastard is the illegitimate son of Richard I, the previous King. Queen Eleanor, recognizes this too and suggests the Bastard hand over his lands in exchange for a Knighthood. He agrees, and thus is knighted under the name Richard.
Meanwhile in France, King Philip and his army are set to sack the English ruled town of Angers unless they accept Arthur as their rightful King. English forces arrive, including King John who says ‘No no no don’t listen to them, I’m the real King!’. But the people of Angers are not convinced by either of them, and they tell them that they are loyal to the King of England, they’re just not really sure who it is right now.
So how do the English and French armies decide to resolve this? With sword diplomacy of course! They fight but there is no clear victor and so Angers see no real King yet. The Bastard comes up with an idea, and suggests the two armies combine forces and attack Angers to punish them, but Angers offers a counter argument. They suggest Philip’s son, Louis the Dauphin, and John’s niece, Blanche, marry and make peace between the two Kingdoms. Constance is furious with King Philip for breaking his promise to put Arthur on the throne, but Louis and Blanche are married anyway.
Later Cardinal Pandolf arrives with a message for King John from the Pope claiming he has appointed someone to be the Archbishop of Canterbury that is not approved of by the church. John disagrees and tells him so, refusing to change his mind. So Pandolf excommunicates John from the church and he stakes his allegiances with Philip the King of France. Philips is a bit hesitant, what with everyone just barely not killing each other before but Pandolf convinces him otherwise.
And so war breaks out between them again. The Duke of Austria is beheaded by the Bastard. The English reclaim Angers and capture Prince Arthur. Eleanor is left in charge of English possessions in France and the Bastard is going around England shaking down the churches for tax money. Pandolf suggests to Philip that he now has a stronger right to the throne of England after the marriage and so Philip agrees to invade England.
Meanwhile John has ordered the execution of Arthur, by Hubert. Hubert agrees to do so but when the time comes has a change of heart and lets Arthur go. And while this is happening, John’s nobles are telling the King to let Arthur go, and John agrees to do so but just then in comes Hubert and tells John that Arthur is dead. Believing Arthur murdered the nobles defect to Philip’s side. John then finds out that his mother and lady constance have died as well. John and Hubert argue and finally Hubert admits to John that Arthur is still alive. John tells Hubert to tell the news to the nobles.
But while all of this is happening, Arthur dies falling from the castle walls. (It is unclear whether he commits suicide or makes a dangerous escape attempt and dies accidentally). The nobles find the body and believe once and for all that this is John’s doing, and for obvious reasons don’t listen to Huberts’ claims.
John entreats Pandolf to negotiate with France on his behalf in exchange for him swearing allegiance to the Pope. Shortly after however, John orders the bastard to lead the English army against France.
Pandolf arrives and tries to explain John’s plan to Louis but he refuses to listen. The Bastard arrives and threatens Louis but is unsuccessful. War breaks out and many people die, including a French ship of reinforcements which is lost at sea. The English nobles retreat back to England after they’re told they’ll be killed by the French when the battle is won.
John is ultimately poisoned by a monk and his nobles gather around him as he dies. The Bastard is planning one final assault on France but is stopped when Pandolf arrives with a peace treaty. The Bastard reflects and says that the internal fighting in England could be as dangerous as an outside invasion.
King John – King of England
Eleanor – the Queen Mother, widow of Henry II
Prince Henry – his son, later King Henry III
Blanche of Castile – John’s niece
Earl of Essex – an English nobleman
Earl of Salisbury – an English nobleman
Earl of Pembroke – an English nobleman
Lord Bigot – Earl of Norfolk
Peter of Pomfret – a prophet
Philip Faulconbridge – also known as Philip the Bastard and Richard Plantagenet; natural son of Richard I of England
Robert Faulconbridge – his half brother; legitimate son of Sir Robert Faulconbridge
Lady Faulconbridge – their mother; widow of Sir Robert Falconbridge
James Gurney – her attendant
Lady Constance – widow of Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany
Arthur – her son, King John’s nephew, claimant to the English throne and eventual Duke of Brittany
King Philip – King of France
Louis the Dauphin – his son
Viscount of Melun
Châtillon – French ambassador to England
Hubert – citizen of Angiers and later a follower of King John
Citizen of Angiers
Limoges, Duke of Austria
Cardinal Pandolf – legate from Pope Innocent III
Lords, soldiers, attendants etc.
No matter who you play in King John, it’s important to note how many incredible character journeys there are. As said before, King John is a play about identity, and ultimately the discovery, uncovering, and creation of self identity for many of the characters in this play. Once you’ve managed to wrap your head around the politics of this play (which like in so many of Shakespeare’s histories is no easy feat) you should then begin to identify your characters journey, who are they at the start of the play, who do they become, and how do they become that person?
King John Monologues
Arthur (Act IV, Scene I)
Must you with hot irons burn out both mine eyes?
Bastard (Act V, Scene II)
By all the blood that ever fury breath’d
Constance (Act III, Scene IV)
Grief fills the room up of my absent child
Bastard (Act II, Scene I)
Mad world, mad kings, mad composition