I’m doing King John this month because it was time to kick off the histories and I needed an organizing system. “The histories,” as no normal person knows, are Shakespeare’s plays about the English monarchy. Don’t get muddled; Antony, Cleopatra, Troilus, Cressida, Caesar, and a man who powerfully resembled Falstaff might have really lived and gotten Shakespeare plays written about them, but only the English histories are “histories.” I decided to go in king order. John was the earliest king who got a play. It would make more sense, maybe, to go in order of publication date, but I didn’t do that with the other plays. Sorting Shakespeare by date written is a game for actual scholars, and the histories were threaded in among the “tragedies” and “comedies” (the tragedies are pretty tragic as a rule, but they usually have jesters or joke-telling nurses. The comedies are not always funny, but they are often deeply disturbing and occasionally tragic) from the very beginning.
On to King John. No one’s ever seen it. There are no popular movies of it. Theater companies can barely sell tickets to it. The two things you might know about the real King John are 1) he signed the Magna Carta and 2) he was the King John in Robin Hood. Neither thing shows up in the play. It’s a dry-ish text and it’s all in verse. No clowns making NSFW jokes in paragraph form here. But the plot is rock-solid, and as everybody who’s ever written a personal essay or a breakup letter knows, telling a true story well is incredibly hard.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “When writing a play about somebody, don’t leave out the most interesting things (Magna Carta) they did.”
What happens in King John
(King of England from 1199-1216)
King John’s nephew Arthur is plotting with the King of France to overthrow the English throne.
The King of France (his name is Philip, but we’re going to refer to him as “the King of France” here because more than one character is named Philip) demands John’s surrender. John responds by invading France.
There is a subplot involving an English Philip, nicknamed “the Bastard” to distinguish him from the other Philip. He’s a wonderful character. But we can’t slow down for subplots on the Shakespeare TLDR, not even subplots from real history.
The English and French armies fight, but neither side is the clear winner. John makes a peace settlement by arranging a marriage between his niece and the heir to the French throne, known hereafter as “the Dolphin.” (If you’re the heir to the French throne in the 1200s, in most histories your title is the super-fancy “Dauphin.” But some Shakespeare editions use “Dolphin” for the purpose of delighting your inner 6-year-old girl.)
John, in the meantime, disobeys the Pope and gets excommunicated. The church is a massive political power in 1200s Europe. Not being on its good side is dangerous.
The Pope’s representative, Pandulph, threatens to excommunicate the French king for making an alliance with England. Pandulph supports the Dolphin and convinces him to break the truce with England. The fighting starts again.
During a battle in France, John captures Arthur (the backstabbing nephew). John orders Arthur to be executed. John’s representative disobeys and hides the boy instead.
John goes back to England and celebrates by throwing himself a second coronation, a confident act of leadership that definitely proves no one is doubting you at all, certainly not the Pope, the Dolphin, or anybody named Philip.
Arthur tries to escape and falls to his death. The English nobles think John murdered him. They defect to the French side.
John, who is now outnumbered and looks like a prat, has no choice but to negotiate with Pandulph. John agrees to reconcile with the Church. Pandulph agrees to convince the Dolphin not to invade England again.
The Dolphin, beefed up by his new English nobles and their troops, totally invades England again.
The nobles hear a rumor that the French king is going to have them all killed when the war is over. They return to John.
Having lost his allies, the French king gets Pandulph to negotiate peace with England. But it’s too late for John, who had gotten sick and gone to an abbey to rest (remember his new bestie, the Pope?), only to have a monk kill him with poison.
John’s son, Prince Henry, succeeds him as King Henry III. Apparently this Henry did not lead the kind of flashy life that merited a Shakespeare play, but assorted later Henries did.
To find out more about the real King John and how he got his embarrassing nickname, read Marc Morris’ post Why Was King John Known as Softsword?