“You Better Start Swimming Or You’ll Sink Like A Stone”: Shakespeare’s King John

Robert_Mantell_as_King_John

(Robert Mantell as King John, 1915)

Recently, NPR broadcast their audio production of Shakespeare’s Richard II. I‘d like to discuss a less often performed play of Shakespeare’s about another failed English king, Shakespeare’s King John. It resonates as an absolutely modern play in the sense that Machiavelli is modern: with penetrating insights into the hypocrisies and double-dealings of the ruling elites.

The Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro likes to say that in Shakespeare’s plays, the kings are brought down because they don’t understand that the pressures of the time are going to be far more intense than anything they had previously imagined. They don’t grow into their roles to meet the time; instead they are crushed by their inadequacies. They don’t recognize that the old order has lost all legitimacy and the new world is struggling to be born. It’s always a time of great anxiety for both the elites and the underlings. Feel free to draw comparisons to our own time—as you should.

As King John opens, John, the English King, is readying for war with France, with the French declaring their legitimate right over several disputed territories. But King John will have none of it and vociferously defends England’s claim: “Here have we war for war and blood for blood/ Controlment for controlment: so answer France.”

And John is not just defending the legitimacy of England’s ownership of territory—John is also defending the legitimacy of his personal claim to the throne. It’s not a given that John is the legitimate heir. John’s dead older brother, Geoffrey, still has a living heir, a young boy named Arthur, and though John has declared himself King of England (he of the Magna Carta) with the backing of the newly risen landowner class of nobles, there are those pushing the line of the young Arthur, and they ally themselves with the French to stake their own claim to legitimacy.

And Shakespeare really likes to play with this notion of legitimacy and illegitimacy. One character, a military adventurer named Philip, is literally illegitimate, having been secretly fathered by Richard The Lion-Hearted during an adulterous rendezvous. Phillip would rather be known as an illegitimate son, and give up his ancestral rights to his family property, than to disavow his real father. Rather than run from illegitimacy, he embraces it with the title “The Bastard.”

So it’s off to war. The poor citizens of a disputed walled town have to decide which of the bellowing forces, the French or the English, they would rather surrender to. One citizen of the town agreeably says that they would gladly be ruled by the King of England—if they only knew who that legitimately was. So when you decide, let us know. And in an attempt to forestall what they know will be a coming war, the town’s citizens propose a compromise—why not have the son of the French King and the daughter of the English King marry and form a happy alliance between the two forces and establish legitimacy that way?

But not so fast…

Constance, the mother of young Arthur, the Mother of All Tiger Moms, who has aligned with the French forces, bitterly refuses such a compromise—she wants to see her son Arthur on the throne: “War! War! No peace. Peace to me is a war!” So Constance along with the French get their war.

And how ineptly the English King John handles it! John bumbles from one misstep to another. The English, under the military direction of The Bastard, do manage to capture the young Arthur, and take him prisoner. But King John fumbles the ball. Because even King John’s advisors recognize that young Arthur must be treated well in captivity or the public will turn against the King. In a duplicitous world where no one can be trusted, Arthur’s purity and naivete stand out. He is the one totally sympathetic character in the play. But the narcissistic King John, against the advice of his counselors, secretly orders his henchman, Hubert, to murder the beloved boy. And in an excruciatingly horrific and tender scene, the boy pleads with Hubert to spare his life:

Arthur: Must you with hot irons burn out both mine eyes?
Hubert: Young boy, I must.
Arthur: And will you?
Hubert: And I will.
Arthur: Have you the heart? When your head but did ache,
I knit my handkercher about your brows—-
The best I had, a princess wrought it me—
And I never did ask it you again
And with my hand at midnight held your head,[….]
Saying, “What lack you?” and “Where lies your grief?”
Or “What good love may I perform for you?” […]
If heaven please that you must use me ill,
Why then you must.

This is all too much for Hubert to bear. He relents and lets Arthur escape. Meanwhile, King John realizes he’s made a terrible public relations mistake. He fears the public will turn against him for killing the boy. Hubert comes back to John, ready to lie about Arthur’s execution, but before Hubert can get a word out, the King turns on Hubert, outrageously blaming him for Arthur’s death. When Hubert protests that John had ordered him to kill Arthur, John with audacious bluster, disavows all personal blame and accuses Hubert instead. John says to him:

I faintly broke with thee of Arthur’s death
And thou, to be endeared to a king
Made it no conscience to destroy a prince.

Hubert can’t stand the accusations anymore, so he admits to John that Arthur is actually still alive. John is elated, and with scarcely an apology to Hubert, he’s ready to make war once more. With the beloved Arthur alive but safely imprisoned, John feels he can win the public relations battle and the war.

But in an amazing piece of plotting by Shakespeare, as Arthur escapes from the prison, the boy falls from a high wall and actually dies for real this time. It’s an extraordinary moment. After having been spared—Shakespeare kills him off!

It brings to mind the infamous scene in Hitchcock’s movie, Sabotage. There, a young schoolboy unknowingly boards a bus with a parcel that contains a time bomb. Of course, the audience knows the bomb won’t go off with the boy holding it, because legitimate suspense movies don’t have bombs go off in the arms of little schoolboys. But it does go off, and it’s absolutely shocking. Hitchcock later said that he regretted that scene—it wasn’t a legitimate use of the suspense genre. Well, Shakespeare’s scene is every bit as shocking, but he gets away with it because the whole play is about the fraying of old expectations. Shakespeare is saying that the world is that messed up.

Was Shakespeare grieving about his own little boy Hamnet, who had died sometime around the estimated time of composition of the play? Were the laments of the play’s Constance, Arthur’s mother, the bitter words that Will faced when he came back from London to his wife Anne in Stratford on hearing the earth-shattering news?

The news of Arthur’s death is so awful, even to the English, that two of John’s noble advisors defect to the French side. John is clearly overwhelmed by events: The French seem to be winning battle after battle.

By rights, here we are in Act V, there should be no hope for the English. But we know the history doesn’t end that way; and in one more piece of somersault plotting, the two English advisors who had previously defected to the French side find out the true French policy towards defectors: make nice with them now, but kill them later. So the defectors make a run for it and head back home to join King John. But John meanwhile has been poisoned, which is perhaps a blessing for the English. For now, the new order can take over. The young Prince Henry, son of John, is installed as King, a kind of mirror image of the young dead Arthur; The English under the Bastard’s military direction start winning more battles, and by some miracle, a peace treaty between the French and English has been arranged by the Church. Prince Henry forgives the defector Lords and he prepares to attend his father’s funeral as the play ends.

It’s a decidedly precarious ending. Onstage there is an unspoken pall of anxiety about the future. The new king’s legitimacy is as questionable as his father’s was. The Bastard bravely tries to reassure them that the new time calls for a unity of all English factions including the forgiven wealthy Lords–that’s the only way they can proceed forward safely. But as the play ends, the audience understands that it is not clear whether this new arrangement is really going to work.

Shakespeare himself lived on the cusp of the old and the new, in the transition from a dying feudal order to the rise of the bourgeois capitalist class. The power of kings was being chipped away as rich merchants and landowners bought themselves royal titles with the profits they made from world trade and financial speculation. King John stands at the beginning of that period, and while The Bastard recognizes the inevitability of the capitalist transition, he despises it as well. It’s a system where every person is a commodity, and thus capable of having their honor being bought and corrupted. But even The Bastard doesn’t know whether he can resist the new world’s monetary temptations with its commodities. In an earlier part of the play The Bastard says:

And why rail I on this Commodity?
But for because he hath not woo’d me yet:
Not that I have the power to clutch my hand,
When his fair angels would salute my palm;
But for my hand, as unattempted yet,
Like a poor beggar, raileth on the rich.
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.

Your old road is rapidly aging. You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone. Shakespeare’s King John captures the time when the old legitimate has become illegitimate and no one knows what happens next.