King John, Act I
Having broken out of my Romeo and Juliet-induced enervation, I approached King John with a sense of excitement bolstered by my positive experiences with the Henry VI plays. Unusually, maybe impatiently, I skipped my Arden’s introduction and got stuck in after finding these hopeful signs elsewhere:
“a neglected play about a flawed king” [a]
“King John has all the beauties of language and all the richness of the imagination to relieve the painfulness of the subject.” [b]
So, what did I make of Act I?
As so often, let’s begin with a digression. Some English teachers are aggravated by apostrophes (I know this was a thing for my uni lecturers); others curse capital letter errors (my HoD is one of those).
I need to confess to a horror of homophone howlers. One of my favourite exercises is to ask students to correctly use a dozen or more variations (say ‘there‘, ‘their‘, ‘they’re‘ ‘wear‘, ‘where‘, ‘your‘, ‘you’re‘, ‘witch‘, ‘which‘, ‘whether‘, ‘weather‘, ‘bear‘, ‘bare‘, ‘saw‘ and ‘sore‘ ) in a single paragraph. Partly inspired by the Arden’s gloss that ‘right’ appears more times in King John than any other Shakespeare play [c], and partly by a piece in the Oxford Dictionaries blog [d], I decided to summarise Act I as follows:
Wright writes rite to right a royal wrong …
As The Sun might say.
By the way, I ought to confess that most of my knowledge of the historical King John is indebted to Disney’s Robin Hood (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1973), so I approached the play unencumbered by anything other than a vague idea about the Magna Carta and Roger Miller‘s insanely catchy opening:
The play opens with our ‘phony king of England’ giving admirably short shrift to Chatillon and his embassy in favour of John’s nephew. What most struck me, however, was one of Shakespeare’s apparently ‘absent’ mothers [e]. It is Eleanor who first challenges Chatillon’s cheeky use of ‘borrowed majesty’, and she chides John’s foreign policy choices:
‘This might have been prevented, and made whole
With very easy arguments of love,
Which now the manage of two kingdoms must
With fearful bloody issue arbitrate.’ (I.i.35-38)
It is Eleanor who quickly adopts the Bastard (aka Philip Faulconbridge aka Sir Richard Plantagenet). I wonder if this is because she sees something in him that is lacking in her son? Interestingly, I also saw several instances, once the bickering half-brothers arrived, where ‘mother’ appeared to disrupt the pentameter: as if they spoke of her, or her infidelity, haltingly. Arden confirmed my cognitive leap to Richard III‘s reluctance to explicitly proclaim his own mother’s extra-marital exploits.
And – in an act which echoes Edward II – our king seems overly generous in peremptorily ennobling the Bastard. Here come our homophones, where the playwright writes the rite of ennoblement to right a royal wrong, committed by the insatiably randy Cordelion (Richard the Lionheart). Dull, dutiful Sir Robert (surely a prototype for Lear‘s Edgar) never stood a chance, in fairness – alleging a wrong committed by one of Eleanor’s other sons. What did he expect? Since when were royalty subject (if you pardon the pun) to laws? Physically holding the crown, as Eleanor intimates, is everything:
‘Your strong possession much more than your right’ (I.i.40)
Not least because it appears that Arthur has better title, being the son of John’s older brother. And in this notion of physical ownership of the crown we see not just the extended deposition scene in Richard II but in Edward II too.
Like Marlowe‘s Gaveston, the Bastard has an early opportunity to reflect on his sudden and fortunate patronage. The difference is that this soliloquy satirises the sophistry and flattery which undoubtedly passed as gentlemanly manners at Elizabeth’s court.
As the single-scene act progresses, our strong mother, Eleanor, is replaced on-stage by a ‘weaker’ one, Lady Faulconbridge. Spare a thought for her chaperone (?lover) James Gurney, banished into eternal obscurity after just four words. Does anyone in the canon have less to say – if so, let me know! Still, once he leaves, the ‘lady’ pretty readily confesses her sin. Her son merely shrugs – the cloud of her infidelity is lined not in silver, but in the gold of his preferment. My Marxist critical radar suggests that his observation:
‘Some sins do bear their privilege on earth’ (I.i.261)
Is one I’ll return to before the play’s out, and elsewhere in the read-through.
Let’s see what France makes of John’s challenge in Act II. Or are both boys merely pawns in bigger games played by John and Arthur Plantagenet’s respective mothers?
[a] Leslie Dunton-Downer and Alan Riding, Essential Shakespeare Handbook (Dorling Kindersley: London, 2014)
[b] William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (1817), (Kindle Edition, CH Reynell: London)
[c] William Shakespeare, King John (Arden Third edition, Jesse M. Lander and JJM Tobin (eds.), (Bloomsbury: London, 2018)
[d] Oxford Dictionaries, ‘What is the ‘wright’ in ‘playwright’?, https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2018/11/19/what-is-the-wright-in-playwright/
[e] Hatice Karaman, ‘The Mother, Who Is Not One: Reflections Of Motherhood In Shakespeare’s Romeo And Juliet, The Tempest, And The Taming Of The Shrew’, Gender Studies, Vol. 13, Dec 2014)