“The Life and Death of King John” by William Shakespeare

KingJohnWhile I love Shakespeare, I confess that up till now I have not read many histories. In fact, the only one that I had read before King John was Julius Caesar. That said, I liked this play a lot and I’m now excited to read more histories.

As a character, I despised King John. I found him annoying, selfish, and full of entitlement. But I suppose that tends to happen to people who think that they rule over others by Divine Right. In fact, John refuses to adhere to a Papal decree on the ground that he feels he rules England by Divine Right:

What earthy name to interrogatories
Can task the free breath of a sacred king?
Thou canst not, cardinal, devise a name
So slight, unworthy and ridiculous,
To charge me to an answer, as the pope.
Tell him this tale; and from the mouth of England
Add thus much more, that no Italian priest
Shall tithe or toll in our dominions;
But as we, under heaven, are supreme head,
So under Him that great supremacy,
Where we do reign, we will alone uphold,
Without the assistance of a mortal hand:
So tell the pope, all reverence set apart
To him and his usurp’d authority.
(Act III: scene i)

In the same scene, John continues to rail against the Catholic Church in the one passage where I agree with John. He speaks out against the Pope’s use of indulgences as a way to gather wealth and wield power. This was one of the criticisms that the Protestants had against Catholicism, and John addresses this most eloquently:

Though you and all the kings of Christendom
Are led so grossly by this meddling priest,
Dreading the curse that money may buy out;
And by the merit of vile gold, dross, dust,
Purchase corrupted pardon of a man,
Who in that sale sells pardon from himself,
Though you and all the rest so grossly led
This juggling witchcraft with revenue cherish,
Yet I alone, alone do me oppose
Against the pope and count his friends my foes.

I found the relationship between Arthur and Hubert to be interesting. I got the impression there was a sexual attraction between them. It’s not clear whether that attraction was ever consummated, but just from the verbal exchange between them it is clear that there is a close connection. The exchange is kind of long, so I won’t include it here, but keep it in mind when you read Act IV: scene i.

I think what I like the most about this play are the references to acting, theater, and writing. They are scattered throughout the play and I found them to be brilliant. Here are a few that really stood out for me:

  • This act is an ancient tale new told. (Act IV: scene ii)
  • Be great in act, as you have been in thought. (Act V: scene i)
  • I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen upon a parchment. (Act V: scene vii)

This play has gotten me excited about the histories, especially since it is not supposed to be one of Shakespeare’s better ones. I’m now eager to read them all, which I most certainly will (pun intended).

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