King John may be viewed as a comparatively minor work, having gone unperformed during Shakespeare’s lifetime and being associated with a few common criticisms. A fractured play, broken in two halves, it lacks most significantly a strong central character to whom we can identify. Perhaps it is appropriate that the only ostensible hero is named “Bastard,” emblematic of the play’s reputation within the canon. Even its villains – in which we can loosely count nearly the whole cast – lack the twisted genius and charisma of Iago or Edmund. And the female characters who in Shakespeare often present certain logic that breaks through the labrythine plots here serve merely as catty queens airing out their family troubles Jerry Springer style. We can see Shakespeare reaching into his stock dramatic devices – royal succession, illegitimacy, the threat of war – before casting them off, even seemingly bringing the play to an early conclusion at the end of Act II. We thus require another trope – the always pernicious influence of religion – to kick the plot back into gear toward a suitably tragic end.
King John is an ineffectual monarch, controlled by his domineering mother and wavering constantly in any matter of moral or political importance. We might skip to one of the most darkly comical scenes for evidence. King John has captured Arthur, his rival and true heir to the throne, and suggests to his loyal friend Hubert that Arthur should perhaps meet some unfortunate accident while incarcerated. He wants Arthur to disappear, or go into “early retirement,” as Tony Soprano might say. But in the jail Arthur convinces compassionate Hubert to relent in a fine scene in which we suspect that Arthur’s heartfelt pleas for freedom and friendship are still rather manipulative. Hubert frees him against even against his better judgment: “Much danger do I undergo for thee.” Meanwhile, the earls are rightly concerned about the safety of Arthur, particularly with respect to public opinion. We can imagine that the “imprisoned Arthur” story was heavy in the news cycle around the countryside, with every peasant commentator having their say. This is enough to convince King John to release him, though when he calls for the prisoner, Hubert is forced to report his death to cover his insubordination. Now King John feigns innocence in the whole matter: “It is the curse of kings to be attended/By slaves that take their humours for a warrant/To break within the bloody house of life.” In other words: “I didn’t say to kill him.” Hubert then admits that he could not bring himself to maim or kill the prisoner, and all breathe a sigh of momentary relief. Of course, in the next scene, Arthur falls to his death in his attempt to escape. D’oh!
All of this makes sense in a strangely comforting way. We don’t like any of these characters, so it seems quite right that their plans are undone. And there are comic undertones that add a certain energy as well – in the next scene, the earls discover the body of Arthur just as loyal Hubert arrives to assure them of his safety. No character is strong enough to be rightly considered a truly comic figure in his own right, but the play allows an impertinent audience the opportunity to laugh at the struggles of these misguided leaders. King John’s own great flaw is not malevolence but indecisiveness, while his adversary King Philip of France is a pragmatist whose blustery threats of war in Act II are quickly assailed when confronted.
The real villain in all of this is Cardinal Pandulph, our representative of Rome. Upon his introduction in Act III, the warring factions of England and France have arrived at something of a truce, even settling on a royal marriage to secure the terms. Then the cardinal appears, making his entrance as if in a Monty Python sketch with cheap smoke bombs and an array of supplicants. Priests are always stirring up the mud in Shakespeare’s dramas; recall the Archbishop of Canterbury inciting the war in Henry V rather than face the indignity of taxation. But King John is not hearing Pandulph’s demands, rebuffing him in a stinging speech:
Though you, and all the kings of Christendom,
Are led so grossly by this meddling priest,
Dreading the curse that money may buy out;
And by the merit of vile gold, dross, dust,
Purchase corrupted pardon of a man,
Who in that sale sells pardon from himself;
Though you and all the rest, so grossly led,
This juggling witchcraft with revenue cherish;
Yet I, alone, alone do me oppose
Against the Pope, and count his friends my foes.
This is King John’s shining moment – he may not have the respect and support of his country or his friends, but he’s not bowing down to the damn church. This is not a moral stance so much as one of cornered rage. His reign has been besieged with troubles and he cannot even stand up to his controlling mother, so it is the cardinal who not unjustly receives the brunt of his frustrations.
Pandulph turns to France, seeking to reignite that war in order to win his own against the king. Later with the war going poorly for England, the ever indecisive King John surrenders to the Pope, and the weasely Pandulph rushes back to Philip of France to inform that the battles can now be ceased. Pandulph employs a completely misguided metaphor in the process: “Therefore thy threatening colours now wind up/That, like a lion foster’d up at hand/It may lie gently at the foot of peace/And be no further harmful than in show.” What lion, once stirred, will then “lie gently” when ordered? Who does Pandulph think he is? He’s a fool, and Philip tells him so: “Your breath kindled the dead coal of wars/Between this chastised kingdom and myself/And brought in matter that should feed this fire/And now ’tis far too huge to be blown out/With that same weak wind which enkindled it.”
The truest soul in the whole drama is Philip Faulconbridge, the “Bastard” who denounces a land inheritance dispute in the first act to take up arms for his country and his real father, King Richard Couer-de-lion. He gets the most memorable soliloquies, particularly his famous speech in which he rails on “Commodity” even as he’s haunted by his own self-doubts. But he is not a wholly satisfying character, nor is his loyalty to misguided King John ever given a proper conclusion. He is a conflicted character, though more in composition than in presentation; that is, one senses early in the play that he could potentially become a true agitator, a precursor perhaps to Hamlet’s mad thrashing of the order. But he remains loyal, frustratingly so, and by the final act his spirit has been nearly defeated along with his king. His final speech of nationalistic valor may have been intended as a rousing moment for its audience, but it feels contrived, and it is this strict nationalism that keeps him from the upper echelon of great Shakespearean heroes.
King John is an odd play that manages to wrench considerable drama from a cast of unlikable characters. There is an atmosphere of chaos, of rule of by incompetence. There are also certain dramatic touches and interactions that feel quite modern, with an air of disrespect for royals and religion alike. Some critics have viewed the Bastard’s character as representative of the faith in the spirit of the people in spite of its national troubles: “This England never did, nor never shall/Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror.” But it is not its conqueror but rather the petty squabbles of its rulers and the meddling influence of the church that wreck England’s fortunes in this play. It is unfortunate that the Bastard, who earlier muses passionately on this (“Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!”), must succomb to vile patriotism at the end.