The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.0204 Sunday, 7 February 1999.
From: David Maier <
Date: Sat, 6 Feb 1999 01:31:28 -0800
Subject: I rise in defense of King John (the play).....
I must momentarily shed my status as lurker on this list, and restore
peace to my sleepless nights: I rise in defense of King John (the play,
not the king), which was recently branded "weaker," "lesser," "a work
from a less developed playwright," and "performatively flat."
King John is none of this.
King John, as are all the histories, is a marvelous study of issues of
leadership and government: what does it take to be a good leader? what
does it take to be a good subject? what are the consequences when
leaders make bad choices? what happens when subjects make bad choices?
I take issue with the statement that King John is "without ...a central
character that really connects to the audience," and that it is
"under-cooked." King John is a banquet of savory dishes.
For example, Shakespeare serves us Philip the Bastard, the son of
Richard the Lionhearted, the paragon of English monarchy. Because of
his lineage, he has all of the qualities for which his father was
admired; because of his illegitimacy, he is ineligible for the throne.
And so, Shakespeare prepares this dish, the one person with the
leadership qualities so desperately needed in the realm. But we can't
partake of him because he is ineligible for the throne. And his presence
through the ensuing decay is an aching reminder of our hunger.
The DC production's choice to play Philip as a bumpkin misses the
central nature of the character. Philip the Bastard is no fool. He is
Mr. Smith goes to Washington, and through his beautiful monologues, he
is the Chorus for all that happens, and we slowly learn as he does of
the vacuum at the top. He is also a hero who meets his enemies face on
(rather than with an axe in the back as in the DC production).
O that I might taste more of such finely prepared meat at my theatrical
Another misplaced comment was posited about the play:
"I couldn't help but feel that King John's character is merely
early draft of Richard II, or that some of the action was
by peculiar plot choices. France and England are almost at war,
which suddenly becomes a wedding, which just as suddenly
becomes a war again instigated by Cardinal Pandulph, who
seems to exist for no better reason than to start a war when the
AAAAAHHHH!!! If you couldn't help but feel that way, then the play was
not well performed: These "peculiar plot choices" ARE the play! This
play is about wrong wars for the wrong reason; peace concluded for
convenience and expediency, and wars continued for lusty greed.
Everyone is out for themselves, and no one is thinking of the Greater
Good. They start to fight over succession, but they give it up for
money and power; they take up arms again for a decadent church; they
later refuse to put them down for the same church; not for Principles or
Right, but, as Philip, our Chorus tells us, for Commodity:
"...Commodity, the bias of the world;
The world, who of itself is peized well,
Made to run even upon even ground,
Till this advantage, this vile-drawing bias,
This sway of motion, this Commodity,
Makes it take head from all indifferency,
>From all direction, purpose, course, intent."
It sounds like Philip agrees with the complainant's gripes about
"peculiar plot choices."
My greatest passion is ignited in response to the following comment in a
"It is true that the play itself
seems a bit like an undercooked or less fully
dramatically developed R2 or H5, without a
moving "St. Crispin's" speech...."
It is not clear whether this is a more general indictment of the quality
of the language used by Shakespeare in the play, or a more specific
desire to have a St. Crispin's Day equivalent. If the complaint is the
latter, the simple answer is that St. Crispin's day has no place in this
If, on the other hand, the complaint is leveled at the overall quality
of the language, then the complaint is sorely misplaced.For example,
after all the decay, the carnage, the loss of the beautiful Arthur,
after "noble" lords turn traitor and then return, after France has
breached England's shores (a horrific concern of the time) and then has
agreed to an uncertain peace, and after the death of King John, Philip,
the model subject, swears allegiance to the new king, and closes the
play with a stirring speech that has never failed to give me goosebumps:
"O, let us pay the time but needful woe,
Since it hath been beforehand with our griefs.
This England never did, nor never shall,
Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,
But when it first did help to wound itself.
Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue
If England to itself do rest but true."
And this is not by any means an isolated example of Shakespeare's
craftsmanship in this play. For example, John's seduction of Hubert for
the purpose of killing Arthur culminates in one of the finest examples
of a shared line, where the pentameter is shared among the characters
and, if done well, has a riveting effect:
"K. John: Death.
Hub: My lord?
K. John: A grave.
Hub: He shall not live.
K. John: Enough."
The dirty deed is proposed, questioned, explained, committed to and
confirmed in one astonishing line.
It amazes me that King John continues to be considered a lesser play,
unworthy of production, when a respectable number of idioms and usages
of speech have their origins in this play:
gild the lilly
bell, book and candle
and I'm sure that there are more that I've overlooked. How could it
happen that these have entered the common parlance if the play is
The language in King John is not sweet and refined. It is Hot. It is
Passionate. It is Raw. It is a play about Power and Greed. It is a
swaggering play that is rough and must move. It must be spoken from the
gut to the gut. And if it didn't reach your gut when you were in the
audience, then it wasn't spoken right.
This brings me to my conclusion, which I hope is not lost in the length
of this. It troubles me to hear people praise a Shakespearean
production and yet come to its rescue because of some "fault" in the
play. I did not become rabid about King John because I'm a scholar or a
Shakespeare geek. My fire was lit because I saw a production of it in
1991 directed by Jan Powell at Tygres Heart Shakespeare Company in
If the DC production did not light your fire over King John, then I
submit that the fault rests not in the play but in the production and
the artistic leadership behind it. I fear that we have become far too
willing to accept boredom and ennui as the natural state of a
Shakespeare audience, and I experience boredom at far, far, far more
Shakespearean productions than I think is justified. If there is even
one production of a Shakespeare play that makes the play work, then
there is no excuse inherent in the play itself for any production to
There are NO problem Shakespeare plays. The problems ARE the plays.
Merchant of Venice is NOT an anti-semitic play. It's a powerful play
about anti-semitism. The Taming of the Shrew is not a sexually
chauvinistic play. It's a play about sexual roles and what we have to
do to get what we want within them.
And there is so much meat in the histories, but there is barely enough
heat applied by most productions to brown, much less undercook them. A
notable exception, in addition to Tygres Heart performances I've seen,
was a wonderful conflated production of Henry VI three or four years ago
at Theatre for a New Audience in New York, which I had the serendipitous
good fortune to see.
Given the resources available to produce these pieces "in a 'big'
theater way" and the number of the theaters dedicated to doing so, why
do we tolerate so many mediocre productions when we all (I hope!) have
experienced the fire and the flame of an excellent one?
It seems that some theatres have become mired in the swamp of
Shakespearean preconceptions. Could it be that they are bored with this
stuff? Is it not possible to open a script as if for the first time,
free of all assumptions and look at each work anew as if it had never
And why do we tolerate so much poorly spoken verse from professional
actors on Shakespearean stages? So much passion, emotion, and fire is
communicated in the meter of the verse. The meter is to Shakespearean
verse as legato is to opera, and a singer without a sense of line and
legato rarely makes it onto an operatic stage. Why do we settle for so
much less with Shakespeare? Shakespeare must speak to us in our gut,
not just our head, and what a sacred treasure of life it is to
experience one that does.
It is plain to me that those who attended the DC performance of King
John did not have that experience. And I know from my own experience
that it wasn't the fault of the play.