I mentioned the other day that I was coming into King John blind, apart from the Disney film and a vague notion of the Magna Carta. The little I am beginning to accumulate through secondary reading and the play itself is startling.
No one disputes that King John, the last of the sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, was a bad king. John was dishonest, cowardly, sadistic, sexually aggressive, excommunicated from the church, and greedy. [a]
Practically the only thing that’s missing is the hunchback!
And yet, Elizabeth I was at least all of the latter half of those unattractive qualities …
All the classroom effort I put into discerning the qualities an effective leader needs, makes me rail at the epithet ‘bad’ king. It’s not just about Malcolm’s ‘king becoming graces‘:
As justice, verity, temperance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude [c]
Sure, many of our intrinsically bad characters are great at achieving kingship, but dreadful as rulers. I’m pointing at YOU, Macbeth and Richard III. On the other hand you CAN be a bad man, or at least a far from nice one, and be a successful king: Edward I, and perhaps more controversially, Henry V, anyone? Of course, you can be a nice man and a shitty king: Henry VI must surely fit into this category.
But the key must be success as a monarch, surely, not benevolence?
As to John, well, at least his mother loves him (sort of) – which is more than can be said for Richard III …
Perhaps when I hit the end of the plays I’ll rank Shakespeare’s kings and queens, in a Top-Trumps sort of way.
[a] Henry Freeman, The Middle Ages: A History from Beginning to End (Hourly History, 2016) e-book
[b] ’10 Reasons Why Donald Trump Is Actually King John From Robin Hood’, Mashable.com, https://mashable.com/2016/12/01/trump-king-john/?europe=true
[c] William Shakespeare, Macbeth, sourced at http://www.opensourceshakespeare.org