Let’s Get Literal: King John

List Item: Read the complete works of Shakespeare
Progress: 9/37

Time for my first look at one of Shakespeare’s histories. I figured that it would make sense for me to read them in ‘chronological’ order rather than by when they were written. As such I start off with King John,  which I was curious about since it is one of the lesser known ones and about a figure who is generally vilified.


As I was reading this play, the main thing that struck me was the role of religion in this play. I have read things outside of the play talking about the depiction of John and whether he is headstrong or ineffectual, but far more interesting to me is how Shakespeare depicted the rift between King John and Pope Innocent.

It is a historical fact that this rift occurred when an archbishop of Canterbury that was picked by the English was disavowed and replaced by the Pope. The aftermath of this, including the ex-communication of King John, leading to the catalyst to the rest of the play and his eventual downfall seems crazy to me. Now, I know that it would be bad form for Shakespeare to have written in support of the Catholics (seeing how this was written in the reign of an Anglican queen) but the fact that a lot of what could be interpreted as bias is close to the truth is rather disturbing.

On the whole, I can see how this play would be beautiful to watch with all the military flourishes and a fair few costume changes (not to mention that, if done well, this play will have to try and age John during the long period of time this covers), but it was hard to warm to John. It  is just that on a purely character level there really is not much to him.

Philip the Bastard and Queen Eleanor are far more interesting and they feel as if they have a lot more depth to them, with the latter being the funniest character in the play as she goes about insulting the French enemies.

My favourite scene is, as illustrated above, between the king’s loyal follower Hubert and the captured prince Arthur. All through the scene the spectre of the fate of Arthur (who was historically 18, but reads more like a 12 year old) hangs above you. Hubert has orders to gauge out the eyes of the young prince and then kill him. It’s gruesome and the way that Arthur begs for his life, and actually succeeds must be brilliant to watch, since it was good to read.

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