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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: May ::
King John: Regicide as Pesticide
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1279  Wednesday, 30 May 2001

From:           Jack Heller <
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Date:           Tuesday, 29 May 2001 13:58:44 -0400
Subject:        King John: Regicide as Pesticide

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival is staging King John, certainly one of
the least performed of Shakespeare's plays and thought by some critics
to be his worst. The play text holds my interest, but it seems
incomplete. Where has Prince Henry been until the last scene of the
play, and who is his mother? Yet, were the role of Henry more fully
developed, it would be to the diminishment of Philip the Bastard, the
crucial character for considering the play's themes of legitimacy
(political and familial) and constancy. King John reads like the
highlights of other play texts--the siege of Angiers trumped by the
siege of Harfleur, the religious business with Pandulph echoing Richard
III's posturing, Queen Elinor foreshadowing Volumnia.

If King John seems a rough draft of other plays, it is also an
ideological revision of the popular Tudor Protestant hagiography of
John. John Foxe's Acts and Monuments presents King John as a precursor
of Protestant martyrs, and it was followed by two dramas presenting him
as a most Christian king.  For Shakespeare's John, any recourse to
Christianity is purely a pragmatic political gesture; otherwise, he may
be the character most directly opposed to religion in Shakespeare's
canon. However one judges the play, it is not a balanced, even-handed
treatment of its subject. It is set against the Protestant
martyrologies.

On stage in Alabama, John is a failed Machiavel--a persistent annoyance
more than a villainous threat. His own mother, Queen Elinor, pshaws his
claim of right to the throne, though his "strong possession" certainly
suits her purposes. John is a weak king, not because he whiles his time
frivolously or lacks decision, but because almost no one but himself
takes his reign seriously.

Almost no one--because it's hard for me to determine the Bastard's
motives.  Only that word "bastard" keeps him from being the logical
king: he's Richard the Lion-hearted's son and in act 5, even John asks
him, "Have thou the ordering of this present time." The Bastard has his
own criticisms of the king's actions, but he remains loyal, perhaps in
hopes for English political stability?

The most regal presence in the play is Queen Elinor, who struts as if
she knows what being king is about. Indeed what this staging made alive
for me is the conflict among the play's female characters, Elinor versus
Constance, Blanche having her wedding day utterly ruined.

Pertinent to an ongoing thread on the list is the casting of an African
American in the role of Hubert. I found him to be the most sympathetic
character, especially when he was subjected to these lines from John:
"It is the curse of kings to be attended/ By slaves that take their
humors for a warrant/ To break within the bloody houre of life." Or from
the Bastard:

"Thou'rt damn'd as black--nay, nothing is so black;/ Thou art more deep
damn'd than Prince Lucifer./ There is not yet so ugly a fiend of hell/
As thou shalt be, if thou didst kill this child."

Not quite so successful was the casting of Arthur. I don't fault the
performance, but the actor must be twice or more the age of twelve.

The play was performed in World War I costuming, and in the final
battle, stage smoke was used to suggest the use of gas. John appears in
a gas mask, looking quite like an insect to me. In this performance, his
poisoning is not the death of a Christian martyr; it made me think of
pesticide.

I enjoyed the play, and it makes me think of trying to see something in
Montgomery annually. I would welcome hearing from others their opinions
of the performance.

Jack Heller

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