King John by William Shakespeare
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
King John (1595-ish) is a rough and vicious kind of play, showing the belligerent and war-like John (1166-1216) ready to fight and assassinate child contenders to gain and keep his crown. “A scepter snatched with an unruly hand Must be as boisterously maintained as gained” (3.4). “There is no sure foundation set on blood” (4.2). An illegitimate son of Richard the Lion-Heart, Richard Plantagenet, becomes his right hand man, equally ready to help him fight. But key nobles defect from him, seeing his flawed character. John dies poisoned by a monk, as France is invading England.
Richard is the most colorful character. He would have fit in with the Bernie Sanders crowd today:
“Whiles I am a begger, I will rail And say there is no sin but to be rich.”
As usual Shakespeare throws in some good, one-liner, life lessons:
“How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds Make deeds ill done!” (4.2). John is tempted to evil both from within and from evil counselors around him, showing him sinful but possible ways to get what he wants.
“Tame the savage spirit of wild war” (5.1). The cardinal tells the French this. But the cardinal had incited the French against John earlier, when John refused to submit to Rome.
Warfare is tamed in the play only with the death of John. Until then, Richard counsels violence: “Let not the world see fear and sad distrust Govern the motion of a kingly eye. Be stirring as the time; be fire with fire” (5.1). The French say the same: “Let the tongue of war Plead for our interest” (5.2). But once John dies Richard relents and follows the more peaceful son of John, who will become Henry III.
John is not an example to follow: “Within me is a hell…. All this thou seest is but a clod… of confounded royalty…. What surety of the world, what hope, what stay,
When this was now a king, and now is clay?” (5.7).
This is the foul end of opportunism and violence.
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